At his house in Thenkarai village in Madurai’s Sholavandan, Kasi maintains an extensive archive of almost all of DMK’s party functions since the '60s.

Kasi at his house with a black shawl on his shoulder
Features History Sunday, December 13, 2020 - 13:23

The Dravidian movement spearheaded by EV Ramasamy, popularly called Periyar, can be called the biggest defining influence on the political history of Tamil Nadu. Books have been written on the movement and on the leaders who shook up the country with their Dravidian ideologies. What began as a huge tidal wave of change  is still infused in the state's population. Now, even as parties like the BJP, the ideology of which is seen as the polar opposite of the Dravidian parties, are trying to gain a foothold in the state, here is an oldtimer who has dedicated his life to preserving memories of the movement.

Dressed in a plain white shirt and dhoti, with a black shawl slung across his shoulders, 75-year-old K Kasi cuts the image of a respected village elder. He says without hesitation that it was the movement that played a major role in making him the man he is today. Consequently, his unwavering loyalty lies with the DMK.

At his house in Thenkarai village in Madurai’s Sholavandan, Kasi maintains an extensive archive of almost all of DMK’s party functions since the '60s. He has saved up hundreds of letters, correspondences, wall posters, membership cards, hand bills, invitations, and memorabilia since the time he became a member of the party at the age of 23. “It has to be a part of my legacy,” he says when we ask him why he holds them dear.

His introduction to Dravidian ideology was in 1965, when he heard Anna speak on stage at a gathering in Trichy. “MGR was with him and before he began his speech, I remember, he sternly told MGR on stage that he should walk ahead of him and not arrive after. You see, the people had already stood up, seeing Anna, and MGR was yet to arrive. Anna wanted the former also to get the attention,” Kasi recalls.

'Porvaal meesaikarar' (the man with the sword-like moustache) as he was fondly called by Kalaignar Karunanidhi, Kasi would go on to attend several meetings by Periyar, Anna and Karunanidhi. He was enthralled by all that they had to say, assimilating the core ideals of the Dravidian ideology. “The village where I am from has a sizable Brahmin population and while growing up, we were subject to oppression. Farmlands would be leased out by the Brahmins and we’d have to give them a major share from the bounty. What was left was barely enough for us to sustain or even give a proper education to our children,” Kasi explains.

Rationalism, self-respect, women's empowerment, equality and education for all — these ideas encouraged Kasi to stand up to his oppressors. At one point, Kasi’s arrangement to hold party meetings, where Dravidian ideologies are discussed, right outside Brahmin colonies (agraharam) would land him in trouble with his oppressors. “They once took away my leased land because I had organised such a meeting. I told my father I’d rather be doing something else other than till their lands,” he chuckles.

As someone who had to drop out of school after class 5 to take care of his family situation, Kasi’s learning was largely through the movement and more so from reading Murasoli, the DMK's newspaper started by Karunanidhi.

Muthurasa Kumar, Kasi’s grandson, is a Laadli award winning journalist and a published poet. He tells TNM that his grandfather was a great inspiration for him to study journalism. “He valued education above everything else. It was he who inspired me to do what I am doing today,” he says. Now, carefully involved in documenting his grandfather’s archive, Muthurasa adds, “He was not one for party postings. In fact, he never got his due recognition from the party, but his beliefs are beyond such frameworks.”

“I would always be the first one to arrive at gatherings, speeches etc., rain or shine,” says Kasi adding, “With the caste based inequalities that continue to exist, the Dravidian ideology is a ray of hope. How many have died without clothes on their back, and food in their stomach? Periyar, Anna and Kalaignar have tried to change all of it. That is what I stand by today.”

In Thenkarai, Kasi holds an important place among villagers, having served in Panchayat level postings. But his call of duty goes beyond such postings. “Dravidian ideology taught me to stand up for myself. Even when a family dispute arose, I knew that I had to deal with it legally. I encourage others too to do the same. I have helped them file petitions, I have solved police station cases amicably and would always make sure children were enrolled in schools,” Kasi explains.

The anti-Hindi imposition agitation in 1965 took him to the prison, and so did the demonstration he was part of against then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1977, the year the Emergency was lifted. In Tamil Nadu, ’Go Back Indira’ chants from 1977 echo in the form of ‘Go Back Modi’. It would be interesting to chart a parallel between the two political timelines and see how the state has fared in upholding Dravidian principles. But that is a different essay.

Indira’s visit to Tamil Nadu’s Madurai, Trichy and Madras had turned into a fiasco in 1977, with two dead, 200 wounded and over 1,000 in jail. Just the previous year, the DMK was dismissed on charges of corruption and so sentiments in the state were running high.

In 1977, Kasi was booked under the Maintenance of Internal Security (MISA) Act and subject to custodial violence. He spent over 50 days in jail. Upon release, he says that he was awarded “Siraiagiya Semmal’ by the DMK. 

The 75-year-old -- who has a tattoo of the rising sun, Kalaignar's face, followed by his name on his left arm -- continues to be a member of the DMK. Kasi has been actively participating in all agitations held by the party, right from anti-Hindi imposition protests from the sixties to DMK's recent protests held in support of the farmers demanding to scrap the Farm Bill 2020.

His party history aside, the 75-year-old is a living testament to why Tamil Nadu continues to be a challenging state to the BJP-led Union government, even if the resistance now may not be as strong as it was in the past. “I can say that the members today are not like us. We would drink tea, go on processions spreading the core ideals. We are lovers of ideology. It is no longer the same but it is not that easy to destroy the movement. It is a seed sown by Periyar,” Kasi says.