Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s forays into states going to polls can be summarised thus: He comes, he speaks, and he conquers. The South, particularly Tamil Nadu, which sends 39 MPs to the Lok Sabha, has been largely impervious to Modi’s magic.
In the 2014 Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu, the Bharatiya Janata Party won one out of nine seats and registered 5.48% of total votes [and 23.91% votes in seats contested], which slid to 3.66% of total votes [and 28.37% votes in seats contested] and failed to win a single seat out of five it fought in, five years later. In between these two national elections, the BJP battled alone in the 2016 Tamil Nadu Assembly elections, drew a blank out of 188 seats it fielded a candidate in, and polled only 2.86% of votes [and 3.57% votes in seats contested].
These figures show Tamil Nadu’s disenchantment with Modi, who seems to incite the antipathy of its people. When he visited Chennai to inaugurate the 2018 Defence Expo, he was greeted with a social media trend and the slogan, “#GoBackModi”. A year later, during his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mamallapuram, the hashtag#GoBackModi generated lakhs of tweets. This happened even when Modi invoked Tamil cultural symbols—he wore a veshti and mel thundu, and treated Xi to Tamil cuisine.
Modi has often made a show of his apparent fondness for the Tamil language, in the hope of dispelling the image that the BJP’s politics revolves around the interconnected ideas of Hindi-Hindu-Hindustan/Hindutva. To quote one example of the many: In his 2019 speech at the United Nations General Assembly, he quoted the Tamil Sangam era poet, Kaniyan Poongundran, and subsequently told the audience at the convocation of the Indian Institute of Technology, in Chennai, that his reference to the antiquity of the Tamil language in the United States became a talking point there!
The BJP has hitched the politics of caste to that of language in Tamil Nadu, where Sanskrit and Hindi are perceived as markers of the upper castes and outsiders. The BJP appointed as its state president L Murugan, who belongs to the Arunthathiyar caste, which occupies the lowest rung among the Scheduled Castes. Also, the BJP recently implemented the demand of seven Pallar castes belonging to the Scheduled Caste category that they be clubbed under the nomenclature of Devendra Kula Vellalar. The word Pallar, they said, is used derogatorily.
But what remains constant in the BJP’s political repertoire is Hindutva. In a recent speech at Salem, Tejasvi Surya, an MP and the National President of the BJP’s youth wing said, “The DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] represents a bad, virulent ideology that is anti-Hindu.” Surya said that if Tamil has to survive, Hindutva has to win—and that every Tamil is a proud Hindu. At an event organised to mark the anniversary of the 14 February 1998 serial bomb blasts in Coimbatore, Murugan thundered, “If the sacrifice of the 58 people who had died…were not to go waste and if Hindu faith has to be protected then DMK should not be given a chance to rule as it is anti-Hindu and anti-Tamil.” Such statements are deliberately crafted to Hinduise the Tamil identity, which has been vibrantly composite, inclusive, and secular.
Limits of Hindu-Muslim politics
The Coimbatore bomb blasts created a crack in Tamil Nadu’s secular edifice, through which the BJP had hoped to sneak into the state. Hindu Right and borderline militant outfits mushroomed in the Coimbatore belt, as did radical Muslim groups, an ideal situation for polarising the public. Yet, as election results testify, the BJP has not succeeded in its endeavour. One reason for its failure is that Muslims constitute less than 6% of the state’s population, too low a number to amplify the imagined threat to the society in the name of Muslims.
But a more substantial reason for the BJP’s failure is the integration of Muslims during the making of the composite Tamil identity. In 1920, a debate in the Madras Presidency Legislature on Indianising the administration was sparked by a motion moved by CV Venkatramana Iyengar. The motion asked for Indians to be given certain posts in the police along with the Europeans. Dr. Natesa Mudaliar, the founding member of the Justice Party, sought a revision in the motion and asked for the usage of the phrase ‘Non-Brahmin Indians’ as an additional category to socially diversify the police. He framed non-Brahmin Indians as a collective comprising non-Brahmin Hindus, Mohammedans, Indian Christians, Jains, Parsis, and Anglo-Indians.
A fascinating account of the process of integration involving Muslims is provided by late social scientist MSS Pandian, in his paper Being ‘Hindu’ and Being ‘Secular’, which was published in the Economic and Political Weekly. Pandian credits the process to Dravidar Kazhagam leader EV Ramasamy, who founded the Self-Respect Movement in Tamil Nadu and is popularly revered as Periyar.
Periyar’s method of mobilisation was to portray Muslims as Dalits who converted to Islam to escape the caste oppression integral to Hinduism. But, even more significantly, he advocated the conversion of Dalits to Islam as a method of overcoming untouchability. He extolled the idea of equality central to Islam and praised it for allowing widow remarriage and divorce, at the same time vehemently critical of it for the purdah system. Karthick Ram Manoharan also argues that while Periyar was “strategically sympathetic” to Islam, he drew inspiration from Buddha, who advocated reason. Periyar regarded Buddhism as a philosophy of reason.
Pandian quotes from one of Periyar’s speeches, delivered on 18 March 1947, which shows the latter believed Islam and the Dravidian movement shared similar ideals. “In Islam… there is no Brahmin (high caste) or Shudras (low caste) or Panchaman (least caste)… It could also be said that such a principle belongs to and needed for the Dravidians,” Periyar said. He then went on to analyse what he thought was the Brahmin’s hatred for Islam: “The so-called Hindu (Aryan) religion is based on many gods and many castes…Through this arrangement of many gods [and] many castes the Aryans (the Brahmins) get good benefits and privileges. The Dravidians, on the other hand, find only ruin, degradation and obstacle to human rights. It is for this reason the Islamic principle is very odious to the Brahmins.”
After analysing Periyar’s speech, Pandian concludes, “Given the caste-based inequalities within Hinduism, Islam was, in the Self-Respect Movement’s representation, a religious ideal and a weapon against the degradation of lower-caste Hindus.”
Periyar delivered the above speech at the time Hindu-Muslim riots had broken out across the country, in the months preceding the 1947 Partition. His positive portrayal of Islam pulled Muslims into the fold of the Self-Respect Movement. Pandian cites the example of P Daud Shah, the influential editor of Darul Islam, a Tamil magazine published until 1957, who laid out for Muslims an agenda, which advocated, among other things, the use of Tamil for both understanding Islam as well as the medium of instruction. Shah also wanted the community to eschew taking Brahminical positions on ‘national’ matters. Pandian points out, “The major outcome of this collaboration between the non-Brahmin Dravidian movement and the Muslims is found in a slogan which Tamil Muslims continue to use till today, Islam engal vazhi, inba Tamil engal mozhi (Islam is our path, sweet Tamil is our language.)”
Despite the attempts of the Hindu Right, the inclusive Tamil identity has endured, largely because its principal marker is the Tamil language, which is primarily seen as the language of resistance mounted by subaltern groups against the upper castes. Muslims were an integral element of both these simultaneous processes. Not only do Muslims speak Tamil, they were a part of the subaltern assertion against elite groups, and still are. The Tamil identity is a political one. It is not based on ethnicity.
This has had a salutary impact. For instance, certain Muslim castes are there in the Other Backward Classes list of almost all states. In 2007, the DMK government went a step further—it gave Muslims a separate three-percent share within the OBC reservations, without protests breaking out in Tamil Nadu, something unlikely to happen in any of north Indian states, not least because the BJP is the principal political player. Contrast this benefit to Muslims to the DMK’s strident opposition to 10% reservations for the Economically Weaker Sections of the upper castes. DMK leader MK Stalin knew his position would go down well with his supporters among subaltern castes. The DMK swept the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, winning 37 out of the state’s 39 seats.
The secular nature of the Tamil identity was why the DMK vociferously opposed the reading down of Article 370, claiming that the Modi government’s measure would undermine the principle of federalism. Not in Tamil Nadu the irrepressible desire to teach Kashmiri Muslims a lesson, as was the case in several states. A similar protest was staged against the Citizenship Amendment Act, which was led by an alliance of parties including the DMK, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi leader Thol Thirumavalavan and the Left.
Language and Caste Faultlines
Given the role of language and caste in the construction of the Tamil identity, it is not surprising why Modi has laboured over portraying his love for the Tamil language—and the BJP has been fervently courting Dalits. Modi is an OBC, which he has often harped upon. Yet the Sanskritised Hindi he speaks and the aspects of Hinduism he focuses upon portray him as a pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which embodies, for the Tamil people, the upper-caste culture of north India. This impression is reinforced when there are occasional slip-ups, such as Home Minister Amit Shah saying, in September 2019, that only Hindi can unite India.
All this alienates a large segment of subaltern groups, who are further confounded at the tendency of BJP leaders to classify Tamil as a “Hindu” language. The word “Hindu” revives the memory of upper-caste Sanskritised Tamil speakers calling the shots in the decades past. MGS Narayanan, former chairman, Indian Council of Historical Research, has observed that Tamils were never Sanskritised, thus hinting that the Brahmins were originally outsiders to Tamil Nadu. He also remarked that only Tamils (apart from Adivasis) have retained their original language and a national personality.
The caste-language link is why the BJP seeks to woo Dalits, not only to expand their base but also because the BJP can pose as the party of plebeians. It is moot, though, the kind of purchase it can have in the next few years. Tamil Nadu’s politics of social justice has ended up according near proportional representation to all social groups in avenues of power. For instance, in the 1970s, the OBCs accounted for around three-fourths of all MLAs. They now constitute a little over half of members in the Assembly, with Dalits about 15-20% and others comprising the rest. In other words, all categories of castes are adequately represented, limiting the possibility of the BJP tapping resentment to rapidly expand its base.
The BJP draws its limited support from two quarters. There are castes that benefitted from subaltern mobilisation and now harbour pan-India socio-economic and cultural ambitions, such as Gounder and Hindu Nadar castes. It is debatable to what extent they can realise their ambition. Then some castes benefitted relatively less from the politics of empowerment—for instance, the Arunthathiyar Dalit caste. Their support can only marginally increase the BJP’s base, more so as the party has been assigned 20 seats as its share in the alliance led by the All-India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Both the DMK and the AIADMK also draw support from all these castes.
Indeed, the BJP’s growth in the future depends on the AIADMK’s fate. That is why the BJP identified the defeat of the DMK as its first task, primarily because it is the flag-bearer of the composite Tamil identity, which is positioned against the Hindutva ideology. This does not mean the AIADMK has forfeited the stake it acquired in the project of creating the Tamil identity. But the death of J Jayalalitha made the AIADMK vulnerable to factional fights. The BJP sniffed an opportunity to grow by upstaging the AIADMK.
This was why the BJP was perceived to have encouraged film-star Rajnikanth to float a party for the Assembly elections – and fracture the base of the AIADMK. The strategy of undermining the principal alliance partner had been tried by the BJP in Bihar, where it encouraged Lok Janshakti Party leader Chirag Paswan to enfeeble the Janata Dal-United. Rajnikanth floated a party but then withdrew.
Rajnikanth’s withdrawal made the BJP realise that only a strong AIADMK was their buoy to stay afloat in Tamil Nadu—and challenge the DMK at a later date. When VK Sasikala, late chief minister J Jayalalithaa’s aide, received a rousing reception on her release from jail, the BJP was keen she align with the AIADMK. RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy, who had in the past fulminated against Sasikala, said as much: “If your house is on fire, you can’t wait for Ganga water to put it out. You have to manage even with sewer water.”
Many discerned the casteist undertone of the word sewer, yet another example of how the Sangh’s upper-caste mindset inadvertently reveals itself. Gurumurthy, however, tried to dodge the criticism by attributing the line to veteran journalist Arun Shourie in another context.
Gurumurthy’s remark also showed that Sasikala and the AIADMK fighting separately would hand over an easy victory to the DMK. Quite mysteriously, Sasikala rescinded her earlier decision to jump into the electoral fray. However, the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam led by her nephew TTV Dinakaran is fighting the 2021 elections. The AMMK had secured over 5% votes in the 2019 general elections, this share is largely drawn from the AIADMK’s vote-base. If the AIADMK performs poorly, the BJP will aggressively attempt to co-opt a segment of the AIADMK, to give its Hindi-Hindu-Hindutva/Hindustan face a plebeian touch.
Vignesh Karthik KR is a doctoral researcher at King’s India Institute, King’s College London, and a political analyst. Ajaz Ashraf is an independent journalist. The views are personal.