In May 2006, Kalaignar Dr Karunanidhi assumed office as the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for the fifth time. While the DMK-led coalition won the elections, the DMK itself did not win as many seats as it would have wanted.
And so, for the next year, television channels aligned with the Opposition AIADMK referred to the government as “Minority DMK” government. While funny, and a clever jab, the tag Minority DMK also revealed a significant aspect of both the DMK, and its long-serving leader Dr Mu Karunanidhi.
Throughout his political life, Karunanidhi has stayed true to the larger principles of Periyar’s Self Respect and Dravidian movements: breaking the stranglehold of caste and class, and actively uplifting the most vulnerable and marginalised sections of Tamil society, all to create a more equal and just state.
Dr Ravikumar of the VCK, a writer and intellectual, and a long-time anti-caste activist, says that Kalaignar has always been conscious of caste. “Kalaignar knows the violence of casteism. And so, he went out of his way to weaken casteist forces in Tamil Nadu,” he says.
One of Karunanidhi's earliest moves was to give legal and political backing for self-respect marriages. Not only did the government encourage inter-caste couples to marry, in many instances they bore the expenses of the wedding. The self-respect marriage, a Periyar idea that the DMK inherited, was especially welcome for poor families who could not afford to pay for all the trappings of a traditional ceremony.
While the Self-Respect Movement of Periyar had an obvious enemy in brahminism and brahmins, other castes in Tamil Nadu also were dominant. Karunanidhi’s policies ensured that power did not consolidate in the hands of those numerically-strong dominant castes.
Equality, more than welfare
One of the major criticism of the AIADMK – led by both MGR and Jayalalithaa – is that it was not a party as much as a fan club. While both leaders were strong on policy and governance, they did not care much for internal party dynamics or criticism. The fan club nature of the AIADMK also meant that when they were in government, power and clout was concentrated in the hands of certain dominant castes, especially in the southern districts of the state.
This was a battle Karunanidhi waged multiple times in his political career. When he took office as Chief Minister for the third time, after a resounding victory in the 1996 elections, clashes between Thevars and Pallars had intensified in south Tamil Nadu. The government led by Karunanidhi decided to rename districts and state transport corporations with neutral names, a move that may sound merely symbolic but went a fair way to lighten the clashes.
The Karunanidhi-led DMK government was the first to establish separate departments for the Backward and Most Backward communities. “More than welfare, what Kalaignar aimed for was equality,” says Ravikumar.
Kalaignar’s special welfare boards
In 2006, the DMK government established 30 special welfare boards. These boards were tasked with advocating for the rights of vulnerable and marginalised persons who may not have political clout or form voting blocs. As Manu Sundaram, a DMK spokesperson says, the idea behind the welfare boards was “to allow those persons from marginalised communities to be directly involved in the making of policies that affect them.”
Persons with disabilities. Transgender persons. Domestic workers. Practitioners of traditional medicine. Autorickshaw and taxi drivers. Folk artistes. Hairdressers. Weavers and artisans. Washermen of the Kudurai-Vannar communities. Construction workers. In all, these 30 boards together covered and supported over 10 lakh people across the state, most of whom face multiple intersections of oppression.
The pioneer of transgender rights
In 2014, the Supreme Court of India, in a landmark judgement in the NALSA vs Union of India case, declared that transgender persons can identify as male, female, or transgender, and self-determination of gender was a right of all persons.
This was one of the most progressive rulings and went a long way to give recognition for trans communities in India. The Supreme Court also directed state and central governments to establish Transgender Welfare boards across the country.
It just so happened, six years earlier, Tamil Nadu had already established the country’s first-ever Transgender Persons Welfare Board. Another initiative of Kalaignar Karunanidhi. A Revathi, a writer, stage actor, and trans rights activist, talks of a time before the TN Transgender Welfare board. “Before 2006-2007, we all had to go to Delhi or Bombay to transition. We would have to live lives of stealth before then.”
The transgender board gave recognition, for the first time. The board gave transgender persons the “Aravani identity card”, allowing them to apply for and get ration cards, voter IDs, driving licenses and other identity documents.
This was not just an India-first, but perhaps even a world first.
“While there was politics inside the transgender board, and will continue to be, the identity card allowed me for the first time to say ‘I am a resident of Tamil Nadu’,” says Revathi. The cards, issued at the Zilla level, meant trans women could for the first time apply for a ration card. The TN ration card – called the Kudumba Attai or Family card – till then could only be acquired by the head of the family, and had to list all “dependent” members – spouse, children, parents. A single individual could not get the ration card. But with the Transgender Identity Card, trans persons could apply for and get the ration card even as a single person.
While successive governments’ apathy, and internal politics of the board itself, have rendered it ineffective, that a board was formed, and that a government actively looked to grant personhood to trans people, was a brilliant step.
“The transgender welfare board was originally an idea of the VCK party, but credit for supporting it and establishing it must go to Karunanidhi and the DMK. In that sense, I am happy with Kalaignar Karunanidhi,” says Grace Banu, a dalit and trans rights activist. “The DMK pushed for reservation in education and employment, and enacted many policies. But at the same time, they depleted the funds for the Adi Dravidar commission. I do not agree with this.”
Karunanidhi is also that rare politician who listens to his team’s advice. DMK MP and Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi was seen as an ally of the trans community, and the Chief minister took on board her suggestions in coming up with, and popularising the terms Thirunangai and Thirunambi, and the umbrella term Thirunar. ‘Aravani’ – the term that was in vogue – was steeped in sexist, transphobic perceptions and based on a mythological character. Further, Aravani only applied to a trans woman, and excluded trans men and other identities. By coining and popularising the new terms, Karunanidhi helped expand the scope of dialogue and provide a better framework for rights.
Policies for persons with disabilities
In 2006, a large public meeting of activists and persons with disabilities was held in Cuddalore. At the end of the meeting-protest, representatives met Kanimozhi. Very soon, the Karunanidhi-led government announced the setting up of a welfare board for persons with disabilities.
“But Kalaignar’s contribution to the disabilities sector started before that. Even before I was born,” says Prof Deepak, the president of the December 3 movement. The DMK government announced the “KannoLi thittam” in the late 60s -- a policy which provided free cataract surgery, among other things, for the visually impaired.
Kalaignar, and his DMK led government continued to bring important policies and acts for persons with disabilities, including a 75% concession for long-distance travel on the state bus network. The government also announced a waiver of all tuition fees for higher education for persons with disabilities. This was extended to even professional courses. Further the government announced that it will pay the 5% self-contribution requirement when a disabled entrepreneur sought loans to start up businesses.
Kalaignar, who also laid the foundation for the building of TIDEL park, wrote letters in his personal capacity to all IT companies in the state recommending that the organisations have at least 5% disabled persons and have policies to recruit more disabled persons subsequently.
“When Kalaignar set up the disabled persons welfare board, he gave his salary from two films to the board as funds,” says Deepak.
The Karunanidhi government in 2010 reconstituted the board into a department - called the ‘Differently Abled Persons Departments’, under the Ministry of Social Welfare. “This gave visibility to the issues and concerns of the persons with disability, and gave focus to the work that needed to be done,” says Meenakshi Balu, co-founder of Equals CPSJ, an organisation that works for the rights of persons with disabilities.
“The department has its own staff now, under a Secretary who reports to the minister,” she adds. However, Meenakshi believes that the department has no clarity on its role and functions. “When we meet the secretaries of other departments in subsequent years, what they tell us is that inclusive perspective is missing. ‘Your department should be engaging with the rest of the departments’, is what they say.”
The department should liaise with other departments in the government, and look at policy from a disability perspective. “That is missing,” she says. However, as a sector not too many people have questioned or criticised the department.
Criticism valid, but so are his achievements
The DMK has its fair share of critics. And justifiably so. The Sarkaria commission pulled up the DMK government on corruption charges, and Indira Gandhi dismissed the state government and imposed President’s rule. The party, and its leader, have been blamed for nepotism, favouritism, corruption and more. However, both the DMK as a party, and Karunanidhi as its leader, have taken considerable efforts to ensure development is not limited to a few sections of society.
That TN as a state has far outraced other states in economic and social development, and has human development indices that compare with european countries, is due in significant part to the policies of Kalaignar Dr Karunanidhi and the Dravidian movement.