Tamil Nadu's 'non-Brahmin' trinity

Last Updated: Mon, Jan 06, 2014 07:27 hrs

It is completely appropriate that the books editor of this newspaper should have asked me to review these three books. I am a Tamil who has lived his entire life in Madhya Pradesh and Delhi and I am a Brahmin who has grown up wondering what the matter was with the other Tamils, the people to whom these books refer as ‘non-Brahmins’, who in 50 years managed to chase away more than half the Brahmins from Tamil Nadu.

Now I know why. It was severe caste discrimination by the Brahmins that got them their just desserts when democracy turned the tables on them. It was inevitable after the British first began to hold elections.

At first, the Brahmins saw to it that the ‘non-Brahmins’ didn't get a look in. This was easy because they also dominated the local government, education and other social services, which annoyed the ‘non-Brahmins’ no end.

This domination and the ages-old discriminatory practices led, in the second decade of the 20th century, to the growth of a ‘non-Brahmin’ political movement called the ‘self-respect’ movement.

In due course, despite the strenuous efforts of the Brahmins to counter the rising political power of the ‘non-Brahmins’, the logic of the numbers proved inexorable. Their goose got cooked.

These three biographies tell that story in a very urbane way. They are also the story of Tamil Nadu politics, which in the 20th century was pretty one-dimensional - Brahmins versus ‘non-Brahmins’.

I have seldom read such cleanly edited copies, which also makes them a manageably tidy read.

The stories of these men needed to be told for another reason as well: their successors have cunningly managed to airbrush them more or less completely out of public memory.

I hope the publishers will bring out Tamil editions so that the people of Tamil Nadu can be reminded.

E V Ramaswami Naicker (EVR or ‘Periyar’) was the father of the anti-Brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu. K Kamaraj Nadar of the Congress party, in terms of power during the 1960s, was to the Congress what the Gandhis are to it now. And M G Ramachandran (MGR), who broke away from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) to form the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), squeezed out the Congress from the state.

EVR was a truly great man, comparable in terms of what he achieved to Gandhiji and Nelson Mandela for fighting the same problem: senseless discrimination. Few now know that he had, until 1925, been a member of the Congress party.

Few also know about how the Congress, dominated as it was by the Brahmins, let him down with regard to his demand for separate electorates for ‘non-Brahmins’ along the lines of such electorates for Muslims granted to them by the Minto-Morley reforms of 1909.

He quit and started the self-respect movement, which would eventually make the anti-Brahmin Justice Party a major political force in Tamil Nadu.

As a social reformer, he was equal to all the reformers India has ever seen. It was his campaign against caste discrimination that gave him his moral legitimacy.

The other two men were also remarkable, if not actually great in the sense that EVR was. Kamaraj had deep political acumen and was a consummate in-fighter who was eventually outmanoeuvred in 1969 by another, younger and more ruthless in-fighter - Indira Gandhi.

Of course, the fact that North Indian members of Parliament (MPs) numbered around 190 out of the 292 seats the Congress had in the Lok Sabha in 1967 (of whom barely half a dozen were Kamaraj's men) also helped.

The top leadership of the Congress in the mid-1960s comprised Kamaraj and S Nijalingappa from the southern region, Atulya Ghosh from Bengal and S K Patil from western India. Indira Gandhi cleverly mobilised the MPs from the north, mostly from the Hindi states, against them.

MGR was not anything like these two men. He was a film actor who built up an astonishing mass following at the expense of his own party and even Chief Minister M Karunanidhi.

His films were always about how he championed the cause of the poor against the government, never mind that it was one in which he was a minister. That enabled him, first, to become a force within the DMK and then, five years of breaking away from the DMK, to win a huge majority and form his own government in 1977.

The break came because the head of the DMK, M Karunanidhi, was trying to set up his own son as a rival to MGR, which he could not countenance.

Unlike Kamaraj, both EVR and MGR made lasting contributions to the way India is run. If EVR's fight was against discrimination, MGR fought hunger, especially among children by reviving Kamaraj's 1964 midday meal scheme for schools, which has since become a template for the country.

Sadly, his biographer makes only a passing mention of it.

Bala Jeyaraman
Rupa; 124 pages

Bala Jeyaraman
Rupa; 114 pages

Shrikanth Veeravalli
Rupa; 144 pages

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