Rising from ground zero

Book cover of Karunanidhi: A Life
Muthuvel Karunanidhi strode like a colossus in Indian politics for more than 50 years. He never lost an election, believed strongly in the institutions and values of democracy, became chief minister of Tamil Nadu five times and shaped political thought, melding it with administrative policy in a way that can never be replicated. As a scholar and journalist, A S Panneerselvan got the enviable chance to interview Karunanidhi multiple times. This book, a biography of Karunanidhi, is a product of those labours.It is superb. 

Let us be clear. Mr Panneerselvan’s view of Karunanidhi is not that of a disinterested academic observer. His admiration for Karunanidhi’s personal and political struggles as one born and raised in deprivation, weighed down by both caste and class, is evident. There is, occasionally, also a flash of the personal: Tender affection, especially when he describes Karunanidhi’s early years, growing up as the son of a temple musician (Isai Vellalar), low in the varna hierarchy. He quotes Karunanidhi: “My music classes were in reality my first political class. I learnt about the subjugation of human beings based on their caste: I could witness the glee with which some people could humiliate others as well as the self righteousness of others in practising their customs without even realising that they are ill-treating a vast majority of the people”.

 Before God, everyone is supposed to be equal. In the temple, Karunanidhi could not wear any cloth to cover his upper torso, because of the “big” people. Outside, he could not wear slippers before the “big” people. And yet the lyrics to which he played were always about salvation and the ultimate truth!

Karunanidhi was not the only one thinking about this. E V Ramaswamy, or Periyar as he was known, had launched a spirited struggle not just against Brahmanism and its weapons but also against Hindi that C Rajagopalachari, first chief minister, was determined to foist on Tamil Nadu as a compulsory language in school. Resistance to the two led to the evolution and growth of the ideology of Dravidian nationalism that endures to this day. C N  Annadurai and later Karunanidhi have to be credited with creating the vehicle that would take the thought forward — in the form of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) through sheer, physical hard work. Mr Panneerselvan cites hundreds of examples, but one that stands out is the campaign to re-name the Dalmianagar railway station by its Tamil name: Kallakudi. The campaign involved groups of DMK volunteers blackening the name of the station and then lying down on the railway track to prevent trains from passing. As batches of protestors were arrested others took their place: Ultimately the local police opened fire. The protest was statewide, ending in six killed, many badly injured and thousands of volunteers arrested.

Karunanidhi: A Life
Author: A S Panneerselvan
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 450; Price: Rs 699

This happened as Karunanidhi was on an upward professional trajectory. Writing pamphlets in Tamil had segued into crafting stories, poems and film scripts that reflected the political struggle. Film scripts and songs became the alternate political pamphlet. Penury continued to dog him. But he couldn’t give up the struggle. Some of the reforms that governments headed by him wrought in Tamil Nadu emerged out of his personal experiences: He saw his first wife die because he couldn’t afford medical care. State-run medical care in Tamil Nadu is among the best in the country today because of policies he put in place. Changes in prison administration were an outcome of the numerous occasions on which he went to jail as a political prisoner.  

The book doesn’t confine itself only to state politics. Never fully appreciated by the national media, Karunanidhi played an important part in navigating the leadership crisis the country faced during the V P Singh years, and later in 2004 when he was one of the first to reject any controversy about the Italian origins of Sonia Gandhi. He was deeply committed to Singh’s social reform agenda and his decision to order the Indian Peace Keeping Forces home from Sri Lanka. The book explores the delicate balancing act Karunanidhi had to do in preventing Indian troops from killing fellow Tamils in Sri Lanka’s north and east; while at the same time, rejecting the LTTE’s deadly politics of eliminating rival guerilla group leaders so that they could be the only ones to claim they were fighting for a Tamil homeland. The book touches on the Jain Commission report which linked the DMK with the plot that killed Rajiv Gandhi in Sriperumbudur. But Mr Panneerselvan quotes Sonia Gandhi as saying the DMK was exonerated from the charge of being involved in the final report, so what Justice Jain had said in the interim didn’t matter. However, there is evidence in the interim report of involvement of some DMK MLAs and ministers that merits investigation.

Mr Paneerselvan touches with some delicacy on the crisis the extended Karunanidhi family faced because of the 2G spectrum scam and colliding ambitions of various branches of the clan. He also writes with passion about the attacks on the DMK, its leaders and on him when he headed Sun TV and Jayalalithaa became chief minister. It was trial by fire: but assaults on him and other fellow journalists provide a fuller appreciation of what Karunanidhi managed to achieve.

Much is said about chaiwallahs,  their sacrifices and struggles. Karunanidhi’s life tells you what it’s really like.

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