If you insult Ravana, you are insulting me," declared M. Karunanidhi at a recent book-release function in Chennai. For the state organiser of the Hindu Munnani, Ramagopalan, who is always wide awake to find an anti-Hindu in Karunanidhi, this remark simply meant that Karunanidhi had not changed over the years. What irked Ramagopalan equally was the attempt by the cadres of the Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, not many days ago, to set aflame effigies of Rama in protest against Ram Lila celebrations in the north.
Karunanidhi has, of course, changed, perhaps not enough. Despite placating devotees of Rama both local ones like Ramagopalan and those holding power in Indraprastha like Advaniji so as to save his government from Article 356, his romance with Ravana is enduring. In 1954, when the Congress government prohibited an inimitable M.R. Radha from staging Ramayana, which celebrated Ravana and decried Rama, Karunanidhi called the ban a black spot on Kamarajs rule and penned a fiery defence of Radha in Murasoli. Two years later, C. Rajagopalacharis expositions on the virtues of Rama serialised in the Tamil magazine Kalki drew its rebuttal from Karunanidhi, writing under the name Mukaji, week after week, in Murasoli. In 1971, Karunanidhi, as CM, demonstrated his passion for Ravana once again. He lifted the ban imposed by the Congress government in 1948 on Pulavar Kulanthais Ravana Kaaviyam, a brilliantly crafted panegyric on Ravana.
Karunanidhi is not alone in courting Ravana. Needi Thevan Mayakkam (1947), a propagandist play scripted by C.N. Annadurai, the founder of the DMK, reopened the trial of Ravana who had already been declared guilty. In the play unable to meet the barrage of embarrassing questions posed by Ravana, Kamban, much-celebrated author of Kamba Ramayanam, scurries around for evidence to save the compassionate image of Rama and, of course, fails. The wailing mother of Shambuka, the Sudra who is slayed by Rama for trying to transcend his caste location through penance, and the fury of Sita at being questioned by Rama about her chastity in a post-Lanka session, does the job for Ravana only too well.
Undoubtedly, the most consistent and unflinching defender of Ravana was the iconoclastic rebel of all times Periyar E.V. Ramaswamy. The campaign against Rama which he began in the 1920s continued till his death in 1973. He declared in 1942, "The first act of any future Tamilian government would be to ban the reading of Kamba Ramayanam and set fire to that revolting book which has destroyed the honour of the Tamils." His re-readings of the Ramayana which resulted in a series of little books Ramayana Paathirangal (Characters in Ramayana, 1944), Ramayana: A True Reading (1959), Ramayana Kurippugal (Notes on Ramayana, 1964) rendered it an allegory of northern imperialism over the south and brahminical oppression of the Sudras. The English and Hindi versions of Ramayana: A True Reading were banned in UP in 1970; that was lifted only in 1976 after a Supreme Court judgement. His cadres burnt pictures of Rama in 1956 and slippered and set aflame a 10-feet effigy of Rama at Salem in 1971.
Devotees of Rama, who in the pre-Hindutva days were mainly Congressmen, did not let go this celebration of Ravana uncontested. If Rajagopalachari used All India Radio to ask his followers to form Ramayana protection squads, K.Kamaraj got a new Dramatic Performance Act with stringent punishments passed in the Madras Legislative Assembly so that M.R. Radhas plays could be banned. And the burning of Ramas effigy at Salem was the mainstay of the Congress campaign against the DMK in the 1972 elections.
The rediscovery of Ravana as a southern hero combating northern imperialism is a direct fallout of mainstream Indian nationalism, which motivated by the ideology of Hindu-Hindi-Hindusthan, inferiorised the south and its predominantly Sudra inhabitants. Invocation of Ravana functioned as an antidote restoring the pride of the Tamils in the non-sanskritic regional culture and unleashing a critique of brahminism. If Indian nationalism uncritically prided itself as Aryan, Ravana was the response from the alienated south. Though one may wish it is just a colonial story, it is not.
If the embattled Ravana returns in the 1990s to confront Rama, it is not so much in a different context. It is indeed true that the Mandal agitation breached the north-south divide and the Sudras of the south found an ally in the northern V.P.Singh and those of the north found a powerful political icon in Periyar. If pictures of Periyar are carried in BSP rallies in north India, every visit of V.P.Singh, who has been compared to Ravana by votaries of the anti-Mandal Hindu Right, to Tamil Nadu is a moment of jubilation. No longer the south is south and the north is north. Then the gains of such integration is quickly being gobbled up by the Hindu Rights agenda of casting the Aryans (whoever they were and are) as the original inhabitants of India and annexing the Indus Valley civilisation as their finest achievement. What of others? It is a legitimate question for those who cannot find a place in this national self-definition and old battles will get a new lease of life.
If Rama is interrogated on Shambukas death in an audio cassette brought out by the Peoples Art and Literature Association appropriately named Asura Ganam (songs of the Asuras), if the Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam is desiring a fire ordeal for Rama, and if Karunanidhi is finding himself one with Ravana, it is all signs of a new battle in the making this time against Hindutva. Ravanas task is no less difficult. Rama has found his new Vibhishanas Ramadoss, Dalit Ezhilmalai, Vaiko, Vazhapadi Ramamurthi and so on.
The writer is with the Madras Institute of Development Studies