It’s a curious malady that afflicts Tamil Nadu—a periodic impulse to cleave a separate path for itself, a need to split away from the larger, overbearing body politic of India and crown Tamil identity with statehood. Initially, it was demand for a separate Dravida Nadu and then a pan-Tamil nation. Presently, an exasperated wish for freedom from the clutches of New Delhi has again taken hold over the demand for the setting up of a Cauvery water management board.
The state’s political players have lurched from one separatist concept to the other to give shape to their brand of Tamil politics. Every chapter in the fight for the state’s right—either over the Cauvery waters or support for Sri Lankan Tamils—has seen the question of Tamil nationalism being dangled before the masses. Yet, in spite of repeated temptations, most Tamils have rejected it—not only at the hustings, but also in populist discourse.
“Over five decades of Dravidian rule by regional parties have kept the embers of Tamil nationalism alive, but it has not gathered enough strength to push the state to break away from the Indian union. One reason is the presence of strong nationalist leaders like MGR and Jayalalitha. Even Karunanidhi diluted the Dravida Naadu concept to greater state autonomy,” points out Ramu Manivannan, HoD, political science, in Madras University.
“As Karnataka, Kerala defy SC orders, deny water to TN, Tamils wonder, ‘Do we belong to India?’” says P. Nedumaran.
The latest protests over the setting up of the Cauvery Management Board (CMB) again saw the assertion of Tamil Nadu’s rights through a call for a Tamil nationalist approach. Fringe parties like Seeman’s Naam Thamzihar Katchi, P. Velmurugan’s Thamizhar Vaazhvurimai Katchi and the Tamil activist group May 17 Iyakkam, along with a few film directors, took a hard, nationalistic line too, declaring that mainstream regional parties like the DMK and AIADMK have failed to support the Tamil cause.
Violence, often, is a handmaiden of such assertion. Velmurugan and his cadres ransacked the toll plaza on the Chennai-Tiruchy highway, asking why they should pay central taxes when it has failed to protect TN’s right by not appointing the CMB. “Centre’s refusal to honour the Supreme Court verdict on Cauvery is also a kind of violence against our people. So we responded with violence against its agents in the toll plaza,” he brazenly declared, threatening more such attacks.
Yet, such violence undermines Tamil nationalism too. “Once the average public identifies Tamil nationalism with violence they have second thoughts about supporting such groups. When actor Rajkumar was kidnapped by Veerappan, a few Tamil nationalist outfits grouped around the sandalwood smuggler and appended their demands to that of releasing Rajkumar. It showed these groups in poor light. The groups dissolved even before Veerappan was killed, proving that a firm ideological footing is a prerequisite for propagating nationalism,” observes a former DGP.
Even the DMK, with its ideology and stated aims, found it hard to sustain its concept of a separate Dravida Naadu comprising the four southern states, a demand as old as the party itself. Its clarion call, Adainthaal Dravida Naadu Illayel Sudukaadu (‘Either Dravida Land or Death’), remained just a slogan. “In 1962, after the Chinese aggression, any call to secession was termed as an act of sedition. So DMK founder C.N. Annadurai gave up the call for a Dravida Naadu, but observed that the reasons for establishing such a country were still valid,” recalls DMK spokesperson K.S. Radhakrishnan.
The DMK instead went on to demand greater autonomy for states to preserve the federal character of India. Though Karunanidhi had been tempted to flirt with Sri Lankan militant groups active in Tamil Nadu in the ’80s and ’90s, his support wasn’t consistent. Even the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation that he floated functioned only desultorily. Ultimately, rubbing shoulders with the LTTE cost the DMK its hold on power in 1991.
Members of Tamil outfits protest PM Modi’s visit to Chennai on April 12
The fight for Eelam, of course, threw up the grand prospect of a pan-Tamil nation consisting of Eelam in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu in India. Similar to the way Israel is supposed to be a home for the world’s Jewish people, the rhetoric in the ’80s was how Tamils would carve out their own destiny by the formation of such a nation, emerge as a powerful force in South Asia and extend support to Tamils across the world.
The assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 effectively put paid to this theory. But leaders like Vaiko and smaller groups continued to openly support the LTTE and even got jailed for it, thus keeping the Tamil nationalist line alive.
Tamil Nationalist leader P. Nedumaran dismisses the pan-Tamil nation idea as a fiction created by Indian intelligence agencies to discredit the LTTE and its fight for Eelam. “It was made out as if the formation of Eelam would lead to a call for a similar demand from Tamils in India. Pure nonsense. No one suspected that Bengalis of West Bengal would call for a nation after the formation of Bangladesh. Tamils were easy meat for such propaganda,” he argues. But he admits that many Indian Tamils yearned for an Eelam in Lanka.
Strangely, the three national parties—the Congress, the BJP and the CPI(M)—have contributed to a raising of the nationalist pitch: whenever the Cauvery or Mullaiperiyar issues have cropped up, they behaved like regional parties out to protect their interests in Karnataka or Kerala. “When Karnataka or Kerala openly defy SC orders to deny water to Tamil Nadu, the sense of injustice leads the average Tamil to ask, ‘Do we belong to India?’,” points out Nedumaran.
Recently, Tamil nationalism reared its head over the Jallikattu protests of January 2017 and the agitation against NEET. In the current protests against the delay of the CMB’s constitution, it has changed shape—now, it’s also a fight against the BJP’s hegemony and its designs to replace Tamil identity with a homogenous Hindutva. “The recent agitations have been to protect our linguistic freedom, cultural identity and livelihood rights. The Modi government’s over-Centrist approach has contributed to this situation, as Tamils have never felt so suffocated by the actions of a Central government,” says Thirumurugan Gandhi, convener of the May 17 Movement.
Yet, such nationalistsic fire rages for only so long. Jallikattu, opposition to NEET and the anti-BJP position might fan the fire of Tamil nationalism, but to what end? A good monsoon and copious flows in the Cauvery would dilute the demand for CMB. The protests against NEET have petered out as more students have enrolled in special classes to prepare for the exam. Next year, as the state is caught up with the Lok Sabha polls, even the anti-Modi plank would weaken if TN parties strike electoral alliances with the BJP.
The episodic nature of Tamil nationalism—it seems to leapfrog from issue to issue, flares up, gathers momentum, then dies down as the storm subsides— could also be attributed to the absence of strong leaders who have the charisma and the demotic pull to keep the fires going. A master of needless drama, Vaiko has wasted himself as a political opportunist. Karunanidhi, by entering into alliances of convenience with the BJP and the Congress to share power at the Centre, had virtually given up on the Tamil cause. Jayalalitha actually dreamed of becoming the prime minister ahead of the 2014 elections, and thus had to privilege a politics befitting such national ambitions over mere regional aspirations.
Pro-Jallikattu protestors confront the police on Chennai’s Marina beach
The current crop of players, like Seeman and Velmurugan, are proving to be more rabble-rousers than mature politicians with a distinct plan of action, backed by an ideology that has popular support. Seeman’s strident shtick—a demand that Tamil Nadu belongs only to Tamils and can only be ruled by Tamils—hasn’t aroused much enthusiasm, though his fiery speeches have a loyal following among sections of the youth. “How can you target the Telugus or Malayalis, who have culturally integrated into the Tamil narrative? The Reddiyars, Rajus and Naidus are part of the Tamil milieu and employ thousands of Tamils in their businesses. When you seek to separate them to establish your Tamil credentials it militates against the Tamil ethos of inclusiveness. This is one reason why Tamil nationalism has not thrown up great leaders who can lead a Tamil nation on its separate path,” explains B. Thirumavelan, editor of Junior Vikatan.
If one were to assume the notional presence of a separate Tamil nation, it wouldn’t pass a feasibility test. Primarily, this is not economically viable, when Tamil Nadu’s business interests and other needs are dependent on neighbouring states. For example, Tamil Nadu gets all its coal from Orissa and Bihar, and the sharing inter-state river water would become a near impossibility if it were to be independent. “Globalisation, economic interdependence and migration of Tamils to others states of India would make it all the more difficult to form a separate Tamil nation,” says DMK’s Radhakrishnan.
“Imagine tourists from the rest of India requiring a passport and visa to visit Tamil Nadu or your railway network being restricted to your borders or thousands of your fellow Tamils losing jobs in the military and Central government offices. It is an economic nightmare that no right thinking Tamil would agree to,” points out Thuglak editor S. Gurumurthy, while discounting the possibility of a Tamil nation. Also, the religious integration of Tamils with the rest of India was a solid insurance against any kind of separatism, he adds.
But Thirumurgan Gandhi of the May 17 Iyakkam, who has demanded justice for the thousands of Tamil civilians allegedly killed in the brutal final days of the Lankan civil war in May 2009 in national and international fora, cautions that a separate Tamil nation remains a distinct possibility if the Centrist approach of the BJP further alienated Tamils from the idea of India. “If Catalonia, Bosnia and Kazakhstan are a political and economic reality, so can be a stand-alone Tamil Nadu,” he says. It only required one potent push triggered by mass outrage, he adds.
In spite of such warnings, Tamil separatism has always stopped short with angry gestures and empty slogans. The majority of Tamils are not inclined towards it, as illustrated by Seeman failing to retain his deposit in any assembly constituency he contested in 2016. Even Karnataka has a separate flag, something Tamil Nadu has not even considered, to mark its uniqueness. It’s probably the first symbolic gesture of a movement towards sub-nationalism.
Inconsistency, lack of emotionally unifiable, lasting goals and political opportunism are the bane of any movement. Tamil separatism is no exception.