THE POLITICS OF HONEYED TONGUES

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By Language arouses such passion in Tamil Nadu that dissenters baulk at running down Karunanidhi's Tamil conference directly, writes Chirosree Basu
  • Published 19.01.10
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The official logo for the World Classical Tamil Conference, scheduled to be held in June in Coimbatore, shows the gigantic statue of Thiruvalluvar. Behind it are the towering waves of the tsunami. Tamil language and culture, which the statue of the Tamil poet symbolizes, are supposed to have stood as rock-solid as Thiruvalluvar in the face of upsurges no less devastating than the tsunami.

Like the statue, the logo is the brainchild of the Tamil Nadu chief minister, M. Karunanidhi. He is personally monitoring every aspect of the conference. Right from the designing of the logo, the opening of the official website, the anointing of the committees, the receiving of the daily progress reports, Karunanidhi is in it all. Ever since the conference bug bit him, he has been unstoppable. He has steamrolled the opposition of the International Association of Tamil Research — under whose aegis Tamil conferences have so far been held — that said it could not organize the event at such short notice (within a year of announcement). He has dissociated the conference from the IATR and chosen a new name — the World Classical Tamil Conference.

It is not the circumstances of its birth alone that have marked this conference out for intense speculation, but also the possible “political motive” behind it. World Tamil conferences, since they first began to be held in Tamil Nadu in 1968, have spoken more about the glory of political leaders than that of Tamil. The 1968 conference eulogized C.N. Annadurai, the 1981 conference M.G. Ramachandran and the 1995 conference in Thanjavur, the most infamous one, J. Jayalalithaa. Given that legacy, Karunanidhi’s desire to hold a Tamil conference should have been accepted as part of this political tradition. Instead, he is being blamed for harbouring a political motive — to regain his reputation as a world leader of the Tamil community which he lost because of his inaction during the war in Sri Lanka.

The Federation of Tamil Creative Writers and Tamil Lovers is a group of dissenting intellectuals among whom are several well-known writers and poets, such as Jeya Pirakasam, Inquilab, Suriyadeepan, Jayabaskaran and others. Both Pirakasam and Inquilab, apart from reminding me of Karunanidhi’s insensitivity to the condition of the Sri Lankan Tamils, point to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s failure to make Tamil compulsory at the primary level. Pirakasam agrees that the failure is not the DMK’s alone, but it is Karunanidhi’s posturing as the supreme benefactor of Tamil that makes him insufferable. The group insists that dissenters are increasing although there is not enough media attention. Many literary figures, including Puviarasu, the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi award this year, have dissociated themselves from the conference.

Even the intellectuals roped into the jamboree are not entirely comfortable with Karunanidhi’s evident flip-flop on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue. But they put it down to his political compulsions — the party needs to retain its men at the Centre. One of them, who does not want to be named for the fear of being dragged into a controversy, even emphasizes that the DMK’s attitude has been the result of a possible disjunction between the chief minister, who correctly gauged the groundswell of support for the issue, and his partymen. For a leader-centric party like the DMK, where every word of its patriarch is carried out as a command, that is perhaps pushing things a bit too far. As for Tamil not being made the medium of instruction at the primary level, the party argues that the government’s two-language policy is in keeping with people’s “preferences”.

Clearly, many in Tamil Nadu’s intelligentsia find it difficult to reconcile their romantic notions of the Dravidian ideology with the current political avatars of the movement. On the ground, it is biriyani, bribes and booze that bring votes, and no longer self-respect or linguistic pride. But, as A.R. Venkatachalapathy of the Madras Institute of Development Studies and member of the seminar committee at the conference, says, “It is important to keep the veneer on for the ideology to be passed on historically.”

The emotions that language can rake up are astonishing. Venkatachalapathy tells me how insulted he felt when, at a meeting attended by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam soon after he became president of India, Pramod Mahajan had stopped him from responding to a request for a few words in Tamil by saying, “He is the president of India. He cannot speak in Tamil.” Tamil has got its status as a classical language, but it is still denied its rightful place in India’s literary tradition, he argues. Tamil is not an official language in India although in Malaysia, Singapore and Sri Lanka, which have Tamil minorities, it is. Venkatachalapathy thinks it important to revisit these issues, and a Tamil conference of this scale, which may do so “is not possible without state patronage”. Encouraging soundbites from scholars seem expected as much as their unquestioning participation.

Language in Tamil Nadu still carries so much sentimental currency that neither the intelligentsia nor the Opposition can directly run down the DMK’s effort to organize a language conference. It is this sentiment, or the fear of hurting it, that stops the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam spokesman, G. Nanmaran, from disagreeing with the idea of the conference. Nanmaran emphasizes that he “is not saying that it [the conference] is not necessary”. His party is against the fact that it is being held by a person who has done nothing for the Sri Lankan Tamils. “Let the people judge,” says Nanmaran.

But the people have already judged the DMK and the MDMK on this issue in the last general elections. And despite the sham fast, Karunanidhi’s blow-hot-blow-cold on the fate of the Tamil Tigers, the DMK has romped home. Notwithstanding the subsequent revelations about human rights violations in Sri Lanka, the DMK has returned a thumping majority in three byelections. So will the people remember the issue when they judge the language conference?

There is little chance of that. No one knows this better than Karunanidhi. Apart from personally overseeing that none of the mistakes of the previous conferences are repeated (about inviting the Opposition, or securing the participation of the Sri Lankan scholars), he has enough up his sleeve for the ‘people’. About a hundred crore rupees have been sanctioned for the event, Rs 23 crore to spruce up the water supply schemes in seven panchayats, Rs 80 crore for upgrading roads, Rs 118 crore to build around 3,800 mutli-storeyed apartments for delegates (to be sold off eventually to middle-income groups). There are also, reportedly, plans to develop Coimbatore as an information hub.

Whether the Tamil language is served or not, the show will ensure, as Nanmaran points out, a six-month-long publicity campaign for the DMK before the assembly elections in 2011. It will entice western Tamil Nadu — particularly the Coimbatore-Erode-Karur-Salem belt, where the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam teamed up with Gounders to wrest power in the last general elections — to consider a shift in loyalty. Like other Dravidian parties, the DMK looks at the caste issue dispassionately. It knows that caste loyalties can be bought with reservations (say for the Arundathiyars), with free televisions, gas connections, rice at one rupee a kilogram or housing and health schemes.

There is also the question of image. With his kind of political career and literary achievements, Karunanidhi cannot be expected to disappear into the sunset. As Cho Ramaswamy says, “Karunanidhi is an ego purush.... He wants to be hailed as a Tamil scholar, a leader of the Tamil community,” never mind that it could be an exercise in self-delusion. “Only 30 per cent of the people support him. He is here because of the PMK.”

But where is the Pattali Makkal Katchi? It is beginning from scratch, wooing back its caste bank, the Vanniyars, after its electoral drubbing. As for the AIADMK, it is besieged by desertions and rebellion within. For the DMK, worries are never far away. The PMK is rebuilding its boats, the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam has decided to go for alliances and Amma is daily getting shriller in her criticism. That is probably why Karunanidhi wants to enjoy his moment in the sunshine while his doting family and worshipping partymen fawn over him.