It’s been a tiring week for Tamil social media – from having fun with Nesamani to protesting against Hindi imposition. While the influence of a fictional character like Nesamani and dissent over Hindi imposition aren’t new to Tamil Nadu, it is necessary to discern and dissect this traction – both online and offline – that has kept Tamil Nadu engaged. Both indicate the underlying layers of popular culture and linguistic sub-nationalism, and establish the premise over which Tamil identity and polity are built.
Sequence of events
Exactly a week ago, when Tamil people were busy “praying for Nesamani”, the rest of social media, clueless, was frantically searching as to who Nesamani was. The role played by popular comedian Vadivelu in Friends, a 2001 Tamil film, took Twitter by storm as #Pray_for_Nesamani trended globally. Though it was partly amazing to see the impact Contractor Nesamani was creating – even larger brands jumped in to promote their products through Nesamani – it was not entirely surprising, considering the sheer clout the actor enjoys among the Tamil populace. Vadivelu has become a part of Tamil people's everyday life through his movie dialogues and expressions, which dominate the meme factory and have entered regular colloquial speech.
The fun trend became aggressive by May 30, as the swearing in of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his cabinet got lesser traction on Twitter compared to Nesamani, even irking some BJP supporters. Tamil Nadu, which was one of the only states where the Modi wave failed, with the BJP-AIADMK combine routed in the Lok Sabha Elections, used its favourite comedian to unleash a meme war. Many added ‘contractor’ to their Twitter names just as BJP supporters had included ‘chowkidar’ to their names before the elections.
By Saturday morning, the discussion on social media had shifted from Nesamani to Hindi imposition, after a committee headed by K Kasturirangan submitted the draft National Education Policy 2019 to the Human Resource Development Ministry (MHRD).
As the draft was made public to seek feedback, a severe backlash followed, mostly from Tamil Nadu, over its recommendation of a three-language formula. The Union government was forced to release a clarification and cabinet ministers of Tamil origin, Nirmala Sitharaman and S Jaishankar, did some damage control with Tamil tweets. By Monday morning, the controversial sentence – making Hindi mandatory for non-Hindi speaking states – was removed, and the revised draft was uploaded to the MHRD website.
Whenever the language issue springs up, Tamil Nadu which has a long political history of agitations against Hindi imposition, quickly jumps into action. And when it does, the state often encounters the question: “Do Tamils hate Hindi?”
Verse 192 written by Kaniyan Pungundranar in Purananuru, an anthology of Tamil poems belonging to the Sangam period (dating between 5 BCE to 3 CE), may provide an answer. Professing one of the highest levels of equality and universality, it states:
யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேளிர்…
பெரியோரை வியத்தலும் இலமே,
சிறியோரை இகழ்தல் அதனினும் இலமே.
(Yaathum oorey yaavarum kelir …
periyorai viyathalum ilame,
siriyorai egazhthal athaninum ilame)
Every town is our own, everyone our kin…
...We neither fawn over the great and powerful,
nor do we scorn those who are less so.
The Tamil psyche hates imposition and the idea of hegemony, but it definitely does not hate Hindi.
Dravidian political identity
It is also important to highlight the modern political history of Tamil Nadu which has displayed strong sub-national identities along with a sense of self-respect in its political realm.
Marguerite Ross Barnett in her 1976 book titled The Politics and Cultural Nationalism in South India, summarises that the imposition of Hindi on Dravidian speakers was a “symbolic manifestation of the perceived cultural conflict between north and south, Aryan and Dravidian.”
In the late 1930s, the introduction of compulsory Hindi in schools in Madras Presidency became a rallying point. It could also be considered as a period of crystallisation of Dravidian political identity that resonated with the demand for separate Dravida Nadu.
The understanding of the language issue would be incomplete if it’s viewed in isolation. It is closely tied to the non-Brahmin movement that shaped the modern Dravidian political identity and it gets reflected in the opposition to Sanskrit and its presumed contemporary form, Hindi. Social reformer Periyar saw Hindi as an agent of “continuing Aryan, Brahminic, Sanskritic imperialism.” And, a revolt against its imposition meant registering a protest over Brahmanical hegemony.
Nesamani: Popular culture and sub-nationalism
In Tamil Nadu, the idea of sub-nationalism is heavily institutionalised through socio-political movements, mixed with a strong dose of historical and cultural relevance which is espoused by a sense of linguistic pride.
After the 1940s, at the peak of its emergence, the contemporary Dravidian politics witnessed a sustained evocation of symbolism, culture, art, and literature, along with theatre and cinema which became powerful tools to propagate its ideology.
Now, in a period where memes have become part of regular conversation, Nesamani was not a mere online prank, he was talking serious politics: criticising the ambiguous health updates during then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa’s hospitalisation, critiquing politicians, government policies, and even mocking media coverage. In addition, the fact that Hindi speaking North India did not understand what was going on was in itself a delight to the Tamil alter ego.
While Tamil memes are being used as effective tools of political satire over the last few years, Nesamani could easily qualify as the height of this popular culture and political expression. From celebrities to politicians, everyone was quick to appropriate Nesamani; from the Chennai police to Ahmedabad police, he was part of ‘wear helmet’ campaigns while corporate giants like Amazon Prime Video, Sony Music, Air Asia, and Nippon paints made Nesamani their brand ambassadors.
Overnight, Nesamani was accruing soft power by forcing both the production and consumption of popular culture centered on him. Nesamani and the persistence to dismantle the overpowering linguistic hegemony merely reflect the cultural and political dimensions that bolster the assertion of sub-nationalistic identities.
Dharani Thangavelu is a journalist who writes on politics, caste-based issues, and the environment. Views expressed are the author’s own.