If indeed Stalin is trying to recast the image of the party, and if he succeeds, the Dravidian movement as we know it could cease to exist.

A historic debate is afoot in the Dravidian movement Is DMK trying to project a pro-Hindu imageImage source: MK Stalin/Facebook
news In-Depth Thursday, October 15, 2015 - 15:05

On  September 28, 2015, MK Stalin, visited the Thirukoshtiyur Temple in Sivaganga during the first phase of his ‘Namakku Nammey’ campaign ahead of the 2016 Assembly Elections, only to come under sharp criticism from his political rival AIADMK.

In a column in party mouthpiece Namadhu MGR, AIADMK asked Karunanidhi if he will take action against Stalin for not following the rationalist ideas of the Dravidian movement. “Or, will he accept that he is the one who let them (Stalin and family) pray in a discreet manner and apologize for criticising Lord Rama and maligning Hindus as thieves?” it asked, referring to Karunanidhi’s statements in the past attacking Hindus and Hindu gods.

Initially, Stalin said that the visit to the temple was not to pray, but to see the spot also visited several centuries ago by Vaishnava saint and philosopher Ramanuja, who was known to be a progressive saint who denounced caste and brought more people into the Vaishnavite fold. Later, however, justifying his act of entering the temple on his video blog Stalin Connect, he made some statements which have raised eyebrows.

“Aringar Anna’s philosophy was ‘Ondre kulam, oruvane kaduvul’ (there is one race, one god), and we as a party stand by that. Further, 90% of DMK members are Hindus. So there is nothing surprising in my visit,” he said. This has not gone down too well with many.

Writer Arunan says there would have been no criticism if Stalin had stopped with stating that he had gone there just to visit Ramanuja’s spot, or had only accompanied his wife. But in his statements, he also brought in Anna and the Hindus. “He seems to have decided that he will not say that he will not visit temples,” says Arunan, adding that Stalin is wrong in using Anna’s statements as justification.

Arunan says that Anna accepted the concept of God, but he never accepted the Brahminical Gods who have their abodes in the temples. He quotes Anna who said, “I will not break idol of Pilayar (Lord Ganesha), nor will I break coconuts for Pilayar” pointing out that Anna never accepted the idea of visiting temples.

Arunan also refuses to accept that saint Ramanuja was a progressive reformer, he was just slightly better off for those times.

His biggest problem however is with the “90% Hindus” statement, which many would agree is new in the Dravidian parlance.

And then there have been videos like this one which have been doing the rounds on social media. Titled “Is DMK opposed to spiritualism?” and labelled “DMK anti-Hinduism” on Youtube, EV Velu, a Stalin loyalist is seen addressing a public meeting where he justifies the existence of God.

He refers to a scene from the blockbuster movie Parasakthi, which was written by Karunanidhi in 1953. The lead character played by Sivaji says that he is not opposed to temples, but to the corrupt practices there, and that goes to show Karunanidhi was not against temples. He says even Sai Baba came to meet Karunanidhi, and he was well received.

He talks about the schemes and several crore rupees that DMK governments have spent over the years for the temples of Tamil Nadu. The video, in effect, tries to project the idea that the DMK is not anti-temple or anti-Hindu.

Recently, another DMK man, J Anbazhagan tweeted a picture of himself celebrating Vinayakar Chaturthi.

So why would Stalin and his loyalists make such statements?

Arunan says there could be two reasons. One, to keep their options open for a possible alliance with the BJP in the upcoming elections and two, given that the AIADMK openly embraces religion and temples, the present DMK leadership may feel that there is a gulf between them and the Tamil people, who are indeed religious. DMK could be attempting to redress this perception.

DMK, obviously, disagrees. 

Though, many party insiders agree that Stalin and his men should have put the controversy to rest and not made statements about Anna or Hindus, they deny that there are any political motives behind the statements.

Defending Stalin, DMK’s chief spokesperson TKS Elangovan says that the political heir’s statements should be seen more as an endorsement of the fact that people have the freedom to go to temples and practice their religion freely.

He says that it is also a clarification of their position on secularism, that it includes Hindus too. He says that the terms “Hindus” also was used in the technical and legal sense, as to how many identify themselves in the country.

“And his statement was a response to the criticism from people and the opposition parties that he was being hypocritical, he did not make the statement on his own,” says Elangovan.

Political commentator Gnani Sankaran tends to agree, and says that there is no particular effort from Stalin to project a pro-Hindu image, and that he was only responding to the onslaught from the AIADMK. This, however, may not sit well with some recent events.

Since March this year, Karunanidhi has been scripting a TV series on the Vaishnavite saint Ramanuja on Kalaignar TV.

In fact, when asked if this would break the perception that the DMK criticises Hinduism more than other religions,  he told The Hindu’s Sruthisagar Yamunan,

"That popular perception about the DMK you are stating is false. Our idea is that all religions should be treated equally. In fact, 90 per cent of those in the DMK belong to the religion you mentioned. However, we are against fundamentalist activities of a few who claim to be the protectors of Hinduism.”

He even makes an important distinction, stating that DMK is against fundamentalists, not Hindus.

Last year, Stalin raked up a similar controversy when his Facebook page put out greetings for Vinayakar Chaturthi, a festival considered Brahminical. While the DMK leadership released a statement later stating that it was wrong, Stalin himself never said that it was wrong to do so.

At that time, GC Shekar of The Telegraph had reported,

“While the party blamed the “overenthusiastic managers” of Stalin’s Facebook account for the ideological faux pas, insiders claimed Stalin’s son-in-law Sabarish had posted the greetings with his father-in-law’s approval.

“The idea was to dilute the DMK’s anti-Hindu image. Many of Stalin’s political moves are orchestrated by Sabarish these days,” an MLA said.

There does seem to be a clear pattern here. But it is important to look back at history.

On September 17, 1949, a DMK preparatory meet was underway at Muthialpet, Madras. By then, those who had separated from Periyar’s Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), led by CN Annadurai, had agreed upon the name ‘Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’ as the name of their new political party. But a question was hanging in the air, why was the first word not Dravidar meaning the ‘Dravidian people’, and instead Dravida as in the ‘Dravidian land’?

In his book Anna: The life and times of CN Annadurai, R Kannan brings attention to Anna’s (as Annadurai was popularly known) response.

At the meeting in Madras, Anna explains the choice of the words. “When we say [instead] Dravidar Munnetra Kazhagam [Progressive Association of Dravidians] it introduces the prohibition that only Dravidians can be its members... To add the proviso that only Dravidians can live on such a Dravidian soil is narrow-mindedness, and also that which cannot be achieved... We should work with the broad perspective that Dravidam can live here and so too Aryam, Christians and Muslims... Unlike the Dravidar Kazhagam which fought for racial welfare, we have to struggle on the basis of geography for the good of the entire ‘Dravidam’.”

It was a significant departure from the firebrand iconoclasm of Periyar, and as R Kannan puts it, an improvement over the original Dravida Nadu demand.

In many ways, this was also the maturing of the Dravidian movement into a more inclusive political animal, which understood that for the movement to go ahead, it has to bring people together, not alienate them. And that included the Brahmins who believe in God, referred to as ‘Aryam’ by Anna in his speech.

This was in spite of the fact that the Dravidian movement was rooted in atheism and attacking Brahminical worship of God.

If one looks closely at Anna’s statements then, be it about the name of DMK or about temples or Lord Ganesha, a significant departure had already happened then. It is clear that on the concept of God and religion, there seems to have been little difference between what Stalin says, what the DMK has maintained over the years and what Anna said after he formed the DMK.

For long, Karunanidhi has maintained a fine balance by trashing the ‘Brahminical’ Gods on one hand but not uttering a word against religious and cultural practices rooted in Tamil Nadu, and the duplicity continues.The only difference is this: Stalin uttered the word “Hindus”. And this is what seems to have critics, already paranoid under a BJP government, riled up against the DMK.

In a nation currently consumed by how Hindu nationalism under Modi is supposedly destroying the secular fabric of the country, some in the Dravidian establishment are enraged at the timing and usage of the word “Hindus”.

Whether Stalin is really peddling Hinduism to change the image of the party is now a matter of opinion and subject to much speculation.

Stalin with Brahmin priests during his Nammaku Nammey campaign

Amidst all of this, another question emerges, does the DMK really have an anti-Hindu image?

“No,” says Gnani, “the party has only been seen as anti-Brahminical, never really anti-Hindu.”

One wonders then why Stalin would want to address a problem which does not exist.

The significant take-away from what is happening within the DMK is that there is a churn within. Faced with changing political dynamics, and a resilient ADMK, the DMK is questioning its stand on various issues.

“I don’t think the DMK has moved away from its root. I don’t think they have crossed over to the other side, but there is a shake-up,” says Arunan.

And if indeed Stalin is trying to recast the image of the party, and if he succeeds, the Dravidian movement as we know it could cease to exist.

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