This is an excerpt from ‘Rajinikanth: A Life’ by Vaasanthi.

Rajinikanth: A Life book coverAleph Book Company
Flix Books Wednesday, April 14, 2021 - 16:52
Written by  Vaasanthi Sundaram

When he returned to Chennai after his Bangalore sojourn, Rajinikanth had to face some harsh realities. When he had left his place of birth many years ago, in search of new shores to carve out a decent life, he was not really aware of some of the affiliations that would become weightier as his fame grew. When he was starting out, he was young, with a burning passion in his heart and a raging hunger to succeed. He had just one agenda—to prove his acting skills and make a name for himself. Language and borders had no meaning for him then. The world of art did not care where you were from. There was one language you had to master—the language of the artist that was universal. The audience did not see the difference either. They embraced him as he was. And what an embrace it was. It was overwhelming and overpowering. In all this, his origins and the affiliations that came with it were forgotten. When he became a superstar, these affiliations and labels made themselves felt. When he began to rule the film world, his admirers, and detractors were always curious to hear from him about the issues of the day. Many also began to question his loyalties—was his allegiance to the state that had given him opportunities, status, and wealth? Did he feel a debt to the salt of Tamil Nadu or was he still loyal to the land of his birth? Some of these questions were raised when he had criticized Veerappan but they really came to the fore when a long-running dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka once again began to dominate the headlines.

The Cauvery water-sharing dispute between the two states was a century old. With years of political mishandling and because of the intense emotion that it raised on both sides, the dispute had not been resolved. The Cauvery was Tamil Nadu’s lifeline but the source of the river was in Karnataka. This meant Tamil Nadu’s water supply depended on Karnataka releasing the water. The genesis of this conflict rests in two agreements—one signed in 1892 and the other in 1924—between the then Madras Presidency and the kingdom of Mysore. The 765-kilometre-long Cauvery has a basin area of 44,000 square kilometres in Tamil Nadu and 32,000 square kilometres in Karnataka. As per the agreements, water sharing was to be determined as per the basin area of each state. But Karnataka claims that the agreements were unfair to Karnataka and that new agreements were needed to ensure equitable sharing. Tamil Nadu argues that an equal share is not possible since the state has already cultivated 12,000 square kilometres of land around the river and is heavily dependent on the current usage pattern. Any change would affect the livelihood of millions of farmers in Tamil Nadu. Following repeated demands by Tamil Nadu to constitute the Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal, it was created in 1990 at the direction of the Supreme Court. The tribunal passed an interim award which required Karnataka to release 205 tmcft water to Tamil Nadu every year. But Karnataka refused to comply, stating that the state did not have enough water for its own consumption.

Agitations and demands by both states continued over the decades and things came to a head in 2002. The monsoon failed in both states. Reservoirs fell to record low levels and tempers predictably rose on both sides. The crucial question was: how could this distress year be handled amicably by both the states? The tribunal had overlooked this point when it gave the interim award.

Karnataka ruled out releasing any water in the circumstances that prevailed. A meeting of the Cauvery River Authority (formed in 1998)—which was a modified version of the tribunal but expected to have more powers—was called on 27 August 2002. But Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa walked out of the meeting saying that the Cauvery River Authority was a toothless tiger, pointing out that Karnataka had refused to abide by the interim order of the authority to release 1.25 tmcft to Tamil Nadu every day. Tamil Nadu went to the Supreme Court with an appeal. In response to the appeal the Supreme Court ordered Karnataka to release 1.25 tmcft to Tamil Nadu every day as per the order of the tribunal and river authority. Karnataka was forced to release water but insisted on another meeting with the Cauvery River Authority to present its case. Following the meeting, the authority revised the court order and asked Karnataka to release a reduced volume—0.8 tmc per day.

This angered the farmers of Tamil Nadu who were faced with parched farmlands and also fanned passions in Karnataka. The Karnataka government, succumbing to the large-scale protests that began in the Cauvery districts of the state, refused to release any water at all, echoing the sentiments of the protestors—‘not a drop of water can go to Tamil Nadu’. Jayalalithaa (who, ironically, originally hailed from Karnataka) was furious and once again knocked at the doors of the Supreme Court. Karnataka resumed releasing the water for a few days, but stopped on 18 September as the protests began to turn ugly and threatened to spread to other parts of the state. A farmer jumped into the Kabini reservoir in protest and died. Vatal Nagaraj, leader of the Karnataka Rakshana Vedike, a Kannada chauvinist unit thundered, ‘Not a drop shall go to Tamil Nadu.’ The protests and dispute spilled into the streets of Mandya in Karnataka and Tanjavur in Tamil Nadu. Soon more people joined—artists, writers, and film stars on both sides raised their voice. Tamil TV channels and the screening of Tamil films were blocked in Karnataka. All buses and vehicles from Tamil Nadu were barred from entering Karnataka.

With passions running high, many were curious to see how Rajinikanth, the Tamil superstar from Karnataka, was going to react. Members of the Tamil film industry, led by well-known director Bharathiraja (the director of one of Rajini’s early films, 16 Vayathinile) called for a protest rally at Neyveli on 12 October, demanding the stoppage of power supply to Karnataka from the Neyveli Lignite Corporation. Rajinikanth refused to join the agitation as it would ‘aggravate tensions’. He suggested a nonconfrontational mode of agitation, perhaps in Chennai. He felt that linking the supply of power to Karnataka with the release of water from the Cauvery was preposterous.

Chief Minister Jayalalithaa extended indirect support to the protesters and agreed to provide them police protection. DMK president Karunanidhi, mainly to counter her stance, questioned the validity of the demand since electricity production and sharing came under the centre’s jurisdiction. Jayalalithaa was fully aware of this, of course, but the Cauvery water dispute was an emotive issue, and she wanted to show that she was a leader who would go to any lengths to protect the rights of the Tamils. Despite hailing from the ‘enemy’ state, Karnataka, she wanted to show her Tamil followers that she could be more ferocious in protecting Tamil interests than her chief native-born rival, Karunanidhi, the ‘Thamizina thalaivar’—leader of the Tamil community.

An estimated 5,000 members of the film industry—even those who were known to be DMK supporters—staged an anti-Karnataka demonstration in Neyveli attired in black and carrying black flags and placards. Bharathiraja launched a vitriolic attack on Rajinikanth. He accused Rajinikanth of showing his true colours by keeping away from the Neyveli stir. Giving a clarion call to Tamils to save their land, he said, ‘We can tolerate enemies, but not traitors.’ In a thinly veiled reference to Rajinikanth’s possible entry into politics, Bharathiraja said, the ‘Tamils are hospitable to outsiders, but should not be gullible and gift away their land.’

In response, Rajinikanth announced he was fasting on 13 October to protest Karnataka’s refusal to release Cauvery water. ‘He is trying to divide the Tamil film industry’, Bharatiraja cried. But the next day, other big stars from the film world including Kamal Haasan, Vijayakanth, and Sathyaraj joined Rajinikanth in the fast. Even Karunanidhi offered to join, but was requested not to, considering his age. Rajinikanth did not respond to Bharathiraja’s taunts. Perhaps he thought it would only make matters worse.

This passage has been excerpted with permission from ‘Rajinikanth: A Life’ by Vaasanthi Sundaram. The book has been published by Aleph Book Company. You can buy the book here.

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