The headquarters of the Tamil Nadu state government in Chennai, which has been criticized over its growing pollution problem. Photo: iStock
The headquarters of the Tamil Nadu state government in Chennai, which has been criticized over its growing pollution problem. Photo: iStock

The south Indian state of Tamil Nadu has become a battleground for the proponents of Hindutva and the champions of Tamil nationalism. Hindutva is the rallying cry of the Bharathiya Janata Party and   Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist group that has for decades provided the shock troops for the BJP.

The BJP’s approach is based on the assumption that the predominantly Hindu Tamils could be persuaded to embrace Hindu nationalism based on Hindutva, which calls for a homogeneous identity for all Hindus by eschewing other markers, languages and cultures.

Tamil nationalism

This runs counter to Tamil nationalism, which derives its identity from language and rejects religion as a marker of Tamil identity.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a political party founded in 1949, and several other Tamil nationalist parties and personalities have joined together in countering Hindutva. A DMK offshoot and political rival, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the ruling party in Tamil Nadu, is in no position to take on the BJP, having imploded after the death of its charismatic leader Jayaram Jayalalithaa.

The success of the DMK and the AIADMK is a testimony to the potency of Tamil nationalism, which both parties have successfully exploited. In the hands of the DMK, Tamil nationalism became an ideology of mass mobilization. This has enabled the DMK and the AIADMK to secure and hold political power for more than 50 years.

The clash

In January, the latest clash between these two nationalisms was played out in two separate incidents. Central to both incidents was H Raja, the national secretary of the BJP, the ruling party federally.

In late January, at an event marking the release of a book by H Raja’s father, a participant at the event, a Hindu priest, triggered a controversy by not standing up when the Tamil anthem was played. Vijayendra Saraswathi remained seated even as other dignitaries such as the chief guest, Tamil Nadu Governor Banwarilal Purohit, stood up for the Tamizh Thai Vazhthu.

The Tamil anthem is sung or played at the beginning of functions in Tamil Nadu. By not standing up, Vijayendra Saraswathi angered the public. Several public figures condemned the Hindu priest for disrespecting Tamil sentiments, and these notably included leading politicians across Tamil Nadu with strong nationalistic leanings.

Earlier in January, Vairamuthu, a Tamil scholar, speaking on Andal, one of the best-loved Hindu poet-saints of the Tamils, quoted from the 1978 book Indian Movements: Some Aspects of Dissent, Protest and Reform, which identified Andal as a devadasi. The term devadasi is open to interpretation; it could mean a female servant of a deva (god) or in a more pedestrian sense a temple prostitute.

The BJP’s Raja mounted a vituperative attack by claiming that Vairamuthu had reduced the Hindu saint to a common prostitute. The attack gained momentum as several Andal devotees joined in, believing Vairamuthu had tarnished the image of Andal. This was met by a massive uproar against H Raja by Tamil nationalists who accused him of exploiting religious sentiments for political gain.

Political vacuum

The BJP’s evocation of Hindutva is an obvious attempt to capture power based on the perception that there is a political vacuum in Tamil Nadu.

Since 1967, Tamil Nadu’s politics has been dominated by two regional political parties, the DMK and AIADMK. Ever since the DMK captured political power in 1967, the state has been ruled by one of these two parties.

In terms of policy and ideology, the two parties are similar. The distinction is largely attributable to the personalities of its leaders. Both parties have had charismatic leaders with mass appeal.

The DMK’s M Karunanidhi has led the party since 1969, when he became leader after the death of its founder C N Annadurai. At the age of 92, Karunanidhi created history by winning his seat in the legislative assembly for the 13th time in a row in 2016. However, old age and ill health made him retire from politics.

The AIADMK owed its success to its own charismatic leaders, M G Ramachandran, who was its leader since his split from the DMK to form the new party in 1972 until his death in 1989. And thereafter Jayalalithaa led the party from 1989 until her untimely demise in December 2016 while in office.

Since then the AIADMK has been torn apart by a leadership struggle, while the DMK is yet to find a leader who can match Karunanidhi. M K Stalin, the son of Karunanidhi and heir apparent, is yet to prove himself.

Strategy and tactics

It is this apparent political vacuum caused by the departures of Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi that seems to have rekindled the BJP’s hopes of securing a foothold in Tamil Nadu. This sits well with the BJP’s two-stage strategy – electoral victory at the national level, which has been achieved, to be followed by similar success at the state level.

The tactics used by the proponents of Hindutva have been shaped by the RSS’s tried and tested methods in northern India. In the north, it is not difficult to provoke anti-Islamic sentiment because of the widely held belief that conversions to Islam were made at the point of the sword, and memories of the horrendous clashes between Hindus and Muslims that took place during India’s partition have not faded away.

Anti-Christian sentiments are also much more pronounced in northern Indian states than in the southern states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala, which have larger Christian populations and longer exposure to Christianity.

H Raja’s tactics are predicated on the assumption that by labeling anyone expressing anti-BJP sentiments, or by referring to his or her Islamic or Christian background, a religious divide could be perpetrated. Last October, Raja’s attempt to discredit Tamil actor Vijay, who had been critical of the BJP’s politics, by “outing” him as a Christian failed.

It is hard to refute the assessment by Ramu Manivannan, head of the department of politics at the University of Madras, that the BJP has forfeited the opportunity to present itself as a potential alternative by embarking on polarizing tactics and intimidating strategies to gain access to political power.

Ana Pararajasingham

Ana Pararajasingham is an independent researcher focusing on political developments in the South Asian region with particular emphasis on geopolitical developments impacting Sri Lanka and India. He was director of programs with the Switzerland-based Centre for Just Peace and Democracy between 2007 and 2009.

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