When Indira Gandhi announced the Emergency in 1975, among the few Chief Ministers of the country who opposed her was Tamil Nadu’s Muthuvel Karunanidhi. His supporters say that despite having political control of the state, he took a stand against the draconian act and the despotic Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA), and stood by democracy. It cost him dearly – his government was dissolved soon, and his confidantes and family members faced the wrath of Indira's government.
He would not return to power for nearly 13 years. But those years defined him as the brave, shrewd and perseverant person he was, until the very end of his life. On August 7, the master politician and Dravidian luminary who held five terms as the CM of the state, passed away in Chennai, not before a long and hard battle against his own body. The ailing leader’s mortal remains are at Kauvery Hospital, where he had been receiving treatment since July 28.
The veteran politician had been keeping unwell and was out of active politics for nearly two years. His public appearances had also become limited. In December 2016 alone, he was hospitalised twice, and since then had been in and out of the hospital.
Following the deterioration in his health, his son MK Stalin was named the Working President of the party on January 4, 2017 at a meeting of the DMK’s general council in Chennai. Ill-health prevented Karunanidhi from attending the event, the first time ever he missed it due to his health. Karunanidhi, however, continued to hold the post of President till his death.
From Thanjavur to Fort St. George
Karunanidhi was born on June 3, 1924 at Thirukkuvalai in erstwhile Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, around 300 km from state capital Chennai. He was born into a poor Isai Vellalar family – members of a temple-dependent caste that traditionally played the Nadaswaram. While his father wanted him to propagate the family’s musical tradition, Karunanidhi was not inclined.
But it was the music classes that gave Karunanidhi his first lessons in politics, as it reflected the caste intricacies of that era. He was not allowed to cover his upper body and his learning was restricted to a few songs.
At the age of 14, Karunanidhi was inspired by a speech made by Alagiriswamy of the Justice Party in 1932, which prompted him to enter politics. He became a student activist in Periyar’s Self-Respect Movement, which fought for the rights of the Dravidians against the domination of the ‘Aryan’ north Indians.
The 1937 anti-Hindi agitations catapulted him into the thick of Dravidian movement, and elevated his profile in the state. After Hindi was made compulsory in schools, Periyar brought to the forefront inspiring young Tamil students to take to the streets in protest. Among the students leading the protest was Karunanidhi, who gave speeches and even brought out a magazine. His political activism found favour with Periyar and his lieutenant CN Annadurai, who gave him political space.
Both of them were also impressed with his excellent oratorical skills and gave him the opportunity to address public gatherings. He was later made the editor of the Dravidar Kazhagam party magazine, Kudiyarasu.
He led campaigns fighting for the rights of Dravidians and this brought him into political prominence in Tamil Nadu in the 1950s and 1960s.
After Independence, after Periyar’s movement split in two, Karunanidhi joined the faction led by Annadurai, who went on to form the DMK in 1949. While Karunanidhi was good at mobilising crowds, he also managed to raise funds for the party.
He was first elected to the Tamil Nadu Assembly from the Kulithalai seat of Tiruchirapalli district in 1957. He was among 15 DMK legislators elected.
Thereafter in 1961, he was appointed the DMK Treasurer, and a year later, he became the Deputy Leader of Opposition in the state Assembly. He got a cabinet berth in 1967 when he was made the Minister for Public Works and Highways, after the DMK formed the government.
Following the death of CN Annadurai in 1969, he became the CM of Tamil Nadu with the help of MG Ramachandran, known popularly as MGR. In 1971, he led the party to a resounding victory in the snap elections held that year. The very next year, after a cabinet post was denied to him, MGR split from DMK and formed his own party, the AIADMK.
Political rivalry in later years
Karunanidhi’s government was dismissed in 1976 by then PM Indira Gandhi, who imposed President’s rule in the state, following a declaration of Emergency in the country. In the 1977 elections, the AIADMK led by MGR trounced the DMK and stayed in power for as long as he was alive. Only after MGR’s death in 1989, did the DMK stage a comeback and Karunanidhi became CM for a third time after a gap of 13 years.
However, an unsavoury event on March 25, 1989 turned the tide against Karunanidhi. On that day, Jayalalithaa, the Leader of the Opposition and the first woman in the state to occupy that post, was assaulted in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. The DMK minister for Public Works, Duraimurugan was at the centre of the controversy, as he allegedly tugged at her saree, which tore in the process.
This incident altered the political dynamics of the state. In early 1991, the Centre dismissed the DMK government and Karunanidhi suffered a humbling defeat in the elections held in June. The government in Tamil Nadu alternated between the two Dravidian parties every five years, until the last Assembly election in 2016 which Jayalalithaa managed to win, for a second successive term in office.
An important reason for the loss of DMK in 2011 Assembly polls was the corruption allegations against his party and family, most notably the 2G spectrum scam in 2008. The CBI arrested several people in connection with the scam, including DMK member and former telecom minister A Raja and Karunanidhi’s daughter Kanimozhi. Both were subsequently acquitted.
Karunanidhi perceived the 2G investigations against DMK members as part of a grand plan by the Congress to dump the party. Vinod Jose for Caravan reported that Karunanidhi had in fact confided to his closest associates that Sonia Gandhi was planning to betray the party, just like her mother-in-law had done several decades back. After Indira won a landslide victory in the general elections of 1971, Karunanidhi felt that she abandoned the DMK and associated with MGR who had left the DMK, in order to gain a stronger foothold for the Congress in Tamil Nadu.
Life beyond politics
Outside his political life, he was a prolific scriptwriter in the Tamil film industry. He was popular for writing historical stories which furthered the rationalist ideals of the Dravidian movement.
He started his writing career with the film Rajakumari in 1947 and this was also the first time that MGR and him were seen together onscreen. Many early MGR films like Abimanyu, Manthiri Kumari, Marutha Naattu Ilavarasi, Naam and Pudhumai Pithan had script and dialogues written by Karunanidhi.
Some of his early plays included Manimagudam, Ore Ratham, Thooku Medai, Vellikizhamai, Udhayasooriyan and Silappathikaram. In 2009, a Tamil film, Pen Singham, which had script written by Karunanidhi based on his old novel, was released. In 2010, he wrote his 75th script titled Ilaingan, based on which a film was released later.
On the personal front, he married twice and had six children. From his first wife Padmavati, he had a son Muthu. His second wife was Dayaluammal from whom he had sons MK Alagiri, MK Stalin, Thamizharasu and a daughter Selvi. He also had a daughter, Kanimozhi, from his partner Rajathiammal.