BJP will have to change its DNA to enter Tamil Nadu: Kalaiyarasan A

Courtesy Kalaiyarasan A
23 October, 2019

Tamil Nadu has emerged as an outlier among Indian states in its resistance to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindutva ideology and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma. The BJP drew a blank in the state during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, losing the one seat it had won in 2014. The state simmers every time Modi visits. He was, for instance, greeted with the slogan “Modi Go Back” when he flew to Chennai to inaugurate the 2018 Defence Expo. That slogan trended on Twitter earlier this month, when Modi visited the state for a meeting with the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, at Mamallapuram. Several political parties in Tamil Nadu have also been vociferous in opposing some of the union government’s decisions, such as the introduction of ten-percent reservation for economically weaker sections, and the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.

Ajaz Ashraf, an independent journalist, spoke to Kalaiyarasan A, an assistant professor in the Madras Institute of Development Studies, about the reasons for the BJP’s inability to make electoral gains in Tamil Nadu. Kalaiyarasan ascribed the party’s failure to make inroads into Tamil Nadu to the state’s long history of opposing Brahminical Hinduism, which the BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, are known to propagate.

Kalaiyarasan discussed the key role of anti-caste movements in forming the Tamil identity, and the strategy that Modi and his team could adopt to breach the anti-Hindutva citadel. In reference to the perception of the Muslim community in the state, Kalaiyarasan noted, “The Islamic idea of equality was in sharp contrast to the contempt that Sanskrit-speaking elites had for the lower castes.” In Tamil Nadu, he added, the othering of Muslims was “a failed project.”

Ajaz Ashraf: When Modi met Xi at Mamallapuram, the hashtag #GoBackModi generated over a hundred and fifty thousand tweets within hours. What is the degree of unacceptability for Modi in Tamil Nadu?
Kalaiyarasan A: There is very little acceptability for Modi in Tamil Nadu. His low acceptability is largely linked to the popular perception of the Bharatiya Janata Party: that it is yet another instrument for imposing the hegemony of Hindi–Hindu–Brahminical identity on Tamil Nadu. The Congress was the earlier instrument of this hegemony. Despite Modi portraying himself as a subaltern who loves the Tamil language, he and his party haven’t been able to alter the perception that they represent the interests of Brahminism and Sanskritised Tamil.

AA: What do you mean by Sanskritised Tamil?
KA: It is a mistake to think of the Tamil identity as merely a language question. The Tamil identity has historically evolved in opposition to the domination of Sanskrit and to the caste hierarchy. Speaking in Tamil implies lower-caste assertion. This is largely because the upper-caste Hindus would speak in Sanskrit.

AA: In Tamil Nadu, therefore, language and caste are strongly linked.
KA: Yes. This linkage also secularised Tamil. Muslims are not seen outside the Tamil identity, but as an intrinsic element of the Tamil identity.

AA: How did Muslims become an element of the Tamil identity? I remember the late scholar MSS Pandian saying the exact same thing.
KA: In the 1930s, a very popular slogan among Muslims was, “Islam is our path; sweet Tamil is our language.” Most of the celebrated Tamil poets came from the Muslim community. Nobody in Tamil Nadu will disown them just because they are Muslim. Abdul Rahman, who died in June 2017, was metaphorically described as the “mother of poets,” not least because he nurtured many poets.

AA: Was this also because the anti-caste Self-Respect Movement, which the social activist Periyar started in the early twentieth century, interrogated Brahminical Hinduism and consciously pulled the Muslims into its fold?
KA: The defining aspect of the Self-Respect Movement was the issue of caste equality. There was an understanding that Islam is a religion of equality. For instance, Periyar said, “In Islam…there is no Brahmin or Shudras or Panchaman [least caste]. In other words, Islam is founded on the principle of one god and one caste, that is, one family and one divinity.” Critiquing caste-riven Hinduism and integrating Islam within the Tamil identity became a simultaneous process. It is not that Dravidian leaders were not critical of certain aspects of Islam.

AA: Like what?
KA: They were critical of the purdah system and also of the priestly system, which had crept into Islam, even though the religion does not doctrinally recognise such a class. Periyar said that Islam’s idea of equality is beneficial for lower castes. The Islamic idea of equality was in sharp contrast to the contempt that Sanskrit-speaking elites had for the lower castes. Since the Muslims, too, spoke and celebrated Tamil, they and non-Brahmin castes were drawn together on the question of language.

AA: This is unlike in north India, where Muslims and lower castes haven’t been welded together through a movement. They only come together for electoral purposes.
KA:Yes, this is largely because the Muslim elites of north India had been very comfortable with the Hindu elites, or the upper castes, until the Ram Janmabhoomi movement began, in the 1980s. By contrast, Muslims had a significant role in the formation of the Tamil identity.

AA: Why have Tamil Nadu’s Muslims adopted a trajectory different to their brethren in north India?
KA: Tamil Nadu tops the list of states on the index of educational status of Muslims. Economically, it is second to Kerala. The social mobility of Muslims in Tamil Nadu is on account of them having been an inextricable element of the state’s social-justice framework. They had been on the Other Backward Classes list for reservation for a long time. But they were also given, in 2007, a separate three-percent share within the OBC reservation. This has enabled them to access education. P Daud Shah, the editor of Darul Islam, a Tamil magazine published between 1919 and 1957, propagated the use of Tamil among Muslims for understanding their religion. He wanted all Muslims to be educated in Tamil and avoid taking Brahminical positions on national issues.

AA: Could it be that the BJP has failed to make inroads into Tamil Nadu because othering the Muslims isn’t as easy as it has been for them in other states?
KA: Exactly, but it is not that the BJP hasn’t tried othering, or demonising, the Muslims. For instance, they tried it when there were bomb blasts and violence in Coimbatore in 1998. Not only did the BJP fail to derive electoral gains then, the party could not create a rift between Hindus and Muslims. Tamil Nadu’s Muslims are extremely confident of their Tamil identity. Since the Tamil identity and language are markers of equality and secularism, the state’s politics creates a platform for the lower castes and Muslims to come together.

AA: Are you saying that the othering or demonisation of Muslims is an inordinately difficult project to execute in Tamil Nadu?
KA: Frankly, it is a failed project.

AA: There are different methods the BJP is trying to make inroads into Tamil Nadu. For instance, Modi wore a veshti during his meeting with Xi, made it a point to speak a line in Tamil at his recent event in Houston and has repeatedly stressed his love for the Tamil language.
KA: This is part of the BJP’s strategy of [making] Hindutva Tamil-friendly. Even before Modi became the prime minister in 2014, Tarun Vijay—the [former] Rajya Sabha MP who was earlier the editor of Panchajanya, the Hindi weekly of the RSS—tried to celebrate the Tamil language and the great classical Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar. The RSS–BJP even erected his statue in Haridwar. They gave a Padma Bhushan to R Nagaswamy, an archaeologist, in 2018. Why? Because Nagaswamy has tried to establish that classical Tamil was part of the Vedic culture. This is as good as rewriting the past.

AA: How is classical Tamil different from classical Sanskrit or Vedic literature?
KA: Classical Tamil is not linked to caste, nor is it associated with organised religious worship. This makes classical Tamil the very antithesis of classical Sanskrit. Significantly, classical Tamil precedes the Vedic tradition.

AA: The excavations at Keezhadi, near Madurai, found artefacts dating back to the Sangam era—the period between 400 BCE and 200 CE, which is widely considered the crowning the point of Tamil art and literature. Is this why they have attracted huge crowds? After all, the Keezhadi excavations push the antiquity of the classical Tamil culture even further and establish the existence of urban settlements.
KA: Yes. It also establishes that classical Tamil was autonomous of the Vedic tradition. Just as the othering of Muslims hasn’t worked, the language route, too, hasn’t given the BJP an entry point into Tamil Nadu. The language issue in Tamil Nadu is conflated with caste equality and secularism. Hindi is seen as a vehicle of Sanskrit-based elites, or Brahmins, to enter Tamil Nadu. Delhi still remains synonymous with Hindi.

AA: But the BJP has shown tremendous expertise in aggregating castes against dominant groups. Can’t they bring their brand of caste politics to Tamil Nadu?
KA: They are already trying to exploit the uneven development among caste groups in Tamil Nadu. [The political scientist Christophe] Jaffrelot and I have written on how the BJP capitalised on the uneven development across castes [to pit them] against the dominant Yadavs in Uttar Pradesh. There are caste contradictions in Tamil Nadu, too.

AA: What is the BJP’s strategy to exploit the caste contradictions?
KA: The BJP is trying to harness caste associations, some of which own temples and educational institutions, to influence politics in Tamil Nadu. It is trying to rope in a section of Dalits in south Tamil Nadu, through the Puthiya Tamizhagam party. Its leader, K Krishnasamy, met the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, before the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Krishnaswamy’s demand is that his caste, Devendra Kula Velalar, should be upgraded to OBC. Among the backward castes, the BJP is trying to woo the Nadars, who have not been left out of the economic-growth process. But Hindu Nadars have a problem with Christian Nadars, which is a fault line the BJP is trying to exploit in the Kanyakumari region. The BJP is also targetting the Gounders in the Tiruppur–Coimbatore belt and using the alliance with the Pattali Makkal Katchi to enter the Vanniyar belt.

AA: What are the chances of the BJP’s caste strategy succeeding?
KA: Very low. This is because Tamil–Dravidian politics has tried to address the issue of unevenness among castes. For instance, when the numerically significant Vanniyars felt left out, they were included, in 1989, in the Most Backward Caste category, which was allocated 20 percentwithin the OBC reservation of 50 percent. In 2008, the sub-categorisation of Dalits [for reservations] was done. Both these measures were implemented by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s leader, M Karunanidhi. Tamil Nadu has 69-percent reservation, within which the interests of different caste groups have been accommodated. It, therefore, becomes very difficult for the BJP to convince a large number of castes that the Dravidian parties have cheated them.

But the one route available to the BJP to make inroads into Tamil Nadu is to exploit the politics of Tamil nationalists, whose agenda is to disconnect the Dravidian parties from Tamil.

AA: Who are the Tamil nationalists?
KA: They are those who claim that for a person to be Tamil, he or she has to be born in the historical Tamil state; he or she has to have a historical rootedness in a Tamil state. How do Tamil nationalists identify who is a Tamil? They do it through caste lineages and the language spoken at home. A person deemed as Tamil by the nationalists is, in their eyes, a pure Tamil. They look upon Dravidian parties as contaminated Tamils, just because some of them had a Telugu or Malayalam origin. The Tamil nationalist’s argument is dubious, but that is another matter.

The Tamil nationalist’s approach can be best illustrated by a Sikh who was asked, in 2017, why he was participating in the protest against the ban on Jallikattu. The Sikh shot back, “Who are you to say I am not a Tamil?” For him, the Tamil identity was not in conflict with his Sikh identity. For the Tamil nationalist, however, Sikhs can’t be Tamil, nor can Urdu-speaking Muslims. The Tamil nationalist’s project is to reconstruct the Tamil identity, different from that crafted by the Dravidian movement over the last hundred years.

AA: The nationalists seem to be making a distinction between the Tamil identity and the Dravidian identity.
KA: The Dravidian identity is a political identity. It is not an identity based on ethnicity. The Dravidian identity is the identity of the future, of modernity. It had multiple sources: from Tamil history, the anti-caste movement and different religious minorities. On the other hand, the Tamil nationalist’s identity is based on ethnicity and is exclusivist. Anyone can adopt the Dravidian identity as long as he or she subscribes to its ideals of treating the Tamil language as his or her lingua franca, caste equality and secularism. But not everyone can adopt the Tamil identity as it is based on descent. Religious minorities can’t, for instance.

AA: The Tamil nationalist’s argument about Tamil purity echoes the BJP’s about Brahminical purity and superiority. Are they high in number?
KA: There is indeed a clear convergence between the Tamil nationalists and the BJP. As of now, the number of Tamil nationalists is small. Their party—Naam Tamilar Katchi [which translates to “We Tamil Party”]—is just about emerging. It got about one percent votes in the 2016 assembly elections and four percent votes in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

The NTK’s role is somewhat akin to that of the Hindu Munnani, or Hindu Front, around ten–fifteen years ago. The Hindu Munnani came into existence around the time the RSS–BJP wanted to build itself in the state. The Munnani sourced members from lower-caste groups, largely because anything associated with the Brahmins doesn’t acquire much currency in Tamil Nadu. The Hindu Munnani’s role is now being played by the Tamil nationalists, who could pave the way for the BJP.

AA: Are the Tamil nationalists intrinsically opposed to Muslims as well?
KA: Their theory on ethnic purity automatically excludes the Muslims and other religious and linguistic minorities.

AA: How could the Tamil nationalists pave the way for the BJP?
KA: The more the Tamil nationalists attack the Dravidian parties, the better it is for the BJP. They say the Dravidian parties haven’t done much for Tamil interests. They adopt, essentially, the language of betrayal to criticise the Dravidian parties.

AA: Do you think the language of betrayal will elicit support?
KA: There are problems within the Dravidian identity: Dalits have not gained a lot, yet their relative mobility fans the anxiety of some of the middle castes; then corruption and the tagging of political mobilisation by the Dravidian parties as caste-based. On the other side, you see three fundamentalisms coming together: the language fundamentalism of the nationalists; the caste fundamentalism of some OBC groups, which are opposed to Dalit mobility; and the religious fundamentalism of the BJP. The question is whether the Dravidian parties can fend off the challenge posed by the three fundamentalisms.

AA: What are the faultlines the three fundamentalisms can exploit?
KA: Modi helped the BJP’s mobilisation in north India through his development plank, which included social-welfares measures like constructing toilets, providing gas cylinders and electricity. The BJP can’t gain much out of these policies, as Tamil Nadu has done far better than most states, including Gujarat, on welfare measures. Tamil Nadu’s model is also far more inclusive than Gujarat’s.

The problem for the Dravidian parties, however, is that they have raised expectations to the point where it is difficult to meet them. Forty-eight percent of Tamil Nadu’s youth between 18 and 23 are enrolled in educational institutions. This is double the national average of 24 percent. The educated youth have to be absorbed in the labour market. A large number of this 48 percentare first-generation learners. If they do not get employment commensurate with their educational qualifications, they are likely to become disenchanted with the Dravidian parties.

AA: Are signs of disenchantment visible to you?
KA: People resent that most of the workers in restaurants and the construction sector in Chennai are from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

AA: But the educated will not be willing to take up menial jobs.
KA: You are right, but their very presence and visibility triggers a reaction, however unjustified and illogical. It could help the Tamil nationalists fan sentiments against outsiders, in the same way the Shiv Sena did decades ago in Maharashtra. There exists a social clime for justifying the Tamil nationalist’s claim that the Dravidian parties ignore Tamils.

AA: But the Tamil nationalists and the BJP are not in alliance, are they?
KA: No, but they don’t criticise each other much. The focus of both is to weaken the Dravidian parties.

AA: Is the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s future significantly linked to the BJP’s?
KA: The AIADMK is a leaders-driven party. It does not have a party structure of the kind the DMK has. So what happens to the AIADMK will determine to what extent its space can be captured by the BJP. The politics of the AIADMK has been veering closer to the BJP’s. The AIADMK is increasingly appearing as a home-grown substitute to the BJP. In the absence of a strong leader, the party has become pliable to the BJP. While the AIADMK did not talk much about Brahminism or Sanskrit even under J Jayalalitha, after her demise it seems to have accepted even the centre’s dominance and policies, including reservation for the economically weaker section and the reading down of Article 370.

AA: By contrast, the DMK has been very vocal in criticising the reading down of Article 370.
KA: The DMK has been vocal because Kashmir is linked to the ideas of federalism and state autonomy. But it is also true that the DMK’s position on Kashmir has electoral viability. The DMK will become muted on Kashmir the day it feels its position will not fetch votes. In today’s Tamil Nadu, Delhi’s Kashmir policy is located in the matrix of the BJP’s homogenising and centralising tendencies, and Brahminical Hinduism’s assertion.

AA: Why did the DMK oppose the ten-percent EWS reservation?
KA: In 1979, the AIADMK, under MG Ramachandran, gave reservation for the economically backward in Tamil Nadu. However, his party lost in the Lok Sabha election soon after and [withdrew the government order] granting reservation to the EWS. Instead, he increased OBC reservation from 31 percent to 50 percent. This should tell you a lot about Tamil Nadu politics.

AA: How would you rate the BJP’s chances of winning Tamil Nadu?
KA: The BJP can’t enter Tamil Nadu until it not only embraces the Tamil language, but also adopts a non-hierarchical attitude towards caste, sheds its Brahminical image and accepts the inclusive nature of the Tamil identity. For entering Tamil Nadu, the BJP will have to change its own DNA.

AA: Assume the BJP wins Tamil Nadu. What would its victory signify?
KA: It will signify to me the crisis of political mobilisation, of using wealth, breaking parties and wooing disaffected leaders. The BJP’s win in Tamil Nadu will go against the weight of the state’s history.

This interview has been edited and condensed.