Things took a 180 degree turn when Jayalalithaa became Chief Minister and it is turning more and more frenzied.

Downfall of Dravidian rationalism Periyars iconoclasm to Jayas unabashed religiosity
news Opinion Friday, October 28, 2016 - 16:06

From the iconoclastic Periyar EVR and the original DMK motto ‘all gods are one’ to the dervish-like hysterics we see these days, it has been a remorseless slide for Dravidian politics on the rationalist front.

Periyar E V Ramasamy walked out of the Congress in the twenties of the last century essentially to challenge the Brahmin hegemony. But he perhaps intuitively realized the need to demonize the Brahmins as the priestly class responsible for all social evils. So he moved on to denounce Hinduism and its scriptures as their creation aimed at enslaving the vast non-Brahmin sections. Thus rationalism and atheism too became the cornerstone of his Dravidian movement. 

Historian E Sa Viswanathan says that while the non-Brahmin society of the times were willing, in varying degrees, to discard rituals, “… a majority of them spurned his call to renounce religious belief and worship as negative, and castigated him for spreading blatant atheism among the people. This atheistic image of the Self-Respect movement from its inception, was one of the mains reasons for Naicker’s limited success, even in the social sphere.”

It is difficult to say at this point of time how many of his associates were staunch non-believers and how many chose to play along in the larger interests.

While EVR took progressive stances on Dalits and on women, very few of his followers cared to adhere to them, even though they all paid lip-service. It was OK to attack the Brahmin priests virulently, but when it came to personal life, they took care not to miss out on any traditional rituals. 

If such was the case with the Dravidar Kazhagam, conceived of as a vehicle for far-reaching social change and not being involved in electoral politics, one can figure out the mindset of those who revolted to form the DMK. Their newfound motto was, “Onre Kulam, Oruvane Theivam.” (One god, one community.) 

When they chose to contest elections, they kept backpedaling furiously, and even anti-Brahminism was blunted. “We are opposed to Brahminism, but not Brahmins,” party founder CN Annadurai explained. No more would one hear imprecations against gods and scriptures or against the Brahmins, except implicitly.

When the DMK was catapulted to power in 1967, thanks to certain conjunctures, they did de-Brahminize the administration and empower the OBCs in various ways, but issues like atheism or rationalism were downplayed consistently. 

And for the sake of appearance, there was an order during the last days of Annadurai directing removal of pictures of gods from government offices, “in view of the secular nature of the state,” but predictably there were furious protests from the believers, and the order was shelved quietly, never to be revived thereafter.

When Annadurai was down with cancer, his wife was known to have made the rounds of temples, but of course it was all in vain. The Economic and Political Weekly then vividly describes the atmosphere on the marina where he was buried: “The auxiliary facilities that have sprung up in and around "Anna Square" provide the atmosphere of a religious festival. At the outer fringes are itinerant hawkers, selling light refreshments. As one proceeds along the path leading up to the samadhi, the fare is rather different. As around any Hindu temple, here are sold flowers, garlands, camphor, joss-sticks — even coconuts - and devotees follow the familiar Hindu routine with these accessories to worship. The guards on duty function also as priests, receiving floral offerings and giving back a portion as prasad.”

Karunanidhi as Chief Minister did try to appear to be a little more militant to please some sections, but he also thought nothing of accepting temple honours in person. He is also known to have consulted astrologers. 

His playing host to that controversial godman Saibaba and receiving Vaishnavite priests at home who dutifully chanted slokas, praying for divine mercy, are some recent events. Not to mention the temple expeditions of most of his family members. Still, he maintains a veneer of atheism and so does his son Stalin.

When MGR broke away, Karunandihi sought to damn him as a Malayali, outsider and hence not reliable. The nasty propaganda didn’t work, but the actor-turned-politician had to bend over backwards to prove his ‘Tamilness’ as also his commitment to Periyar’s ideals. So though he believed in god, purportedly an ardent devotee of Lord Muruga, he took care not to show his piety in public. His visits to the Moogambikai temple in Mysore used to be in secret. Once a picture of his praying there found its way to the media, kicking up some furore.

His confidant RM Veerappan, in his nineties now, was the minister overseeing temples, and he made no secret of his ‘piety’.

When the rain gods played truant, the government did organize a violin concert on a dry temple tank bed in Chennai, where the maestro Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan played Amritavarshini raga that could bring rains according to legends. But MGR government’s prayers went unheeded.  

When MGR was under treatment in the US and the state had to go to polls, his cohorts ordered screening of clips all over the state, both within theaters and outside.

(In that clip too, the god prayed to was Muruga! And MGR returned home to become the Chief Minister for the third time!!)

Still it was all low-key, seeking divine intervention relatively subtle. But things took a 180 degree turn when Jayalalithaa became Chief Minister. It is turning more and more frenzied. 

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