Karunanidhi and the politics of Tamil culture

via Iqbal Mohideen - Sri Lanka published on July 3, 2010

Sri Lankan newspapers have had no coverage of the World Classical Tamil Conference that begins in Coimbatore on June 23. The Karunanidhi administration in Tamil Nadu is sponsoring the event. 2011 is an election year in Tamil Nadu. Karunanidhi, allied to the Congress party in New Delhi, just celebrated his 87th birthday. His DMK is on a strong wicket until such time that he retires. That would likely lead to a split in the party between his two sons, Stalin and Azhagiri. This conference is an effort to bolster the image of his party in the run-up to the state polls.

Karunanidhi played a significant role in upholding the then minority Congress party as the Sri Lankan military crushed the Tamil Tigers in the run up to the Indian general elections in May, 2009 . Had Karunanidhi insisted that India exert pressure on Rajapakse, the Congress Party, which depended on his support in the Indian parliament, would have been forced to do so. Prabhakaran anticipated Karunanidhi to bail him out. Karunandhi chose not to provide that help to the LTTE. Despite the public pretense of concern at the situation of Sri Lankan Tamil civilians for electoral reasons in Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi helped Sri Lanka by his deliberate and calculated inaction. This allowed Manmohan Singh to provide the strategic space for Sri Lanka to pursue a determined military option despite western pressure.

For once, Colombo, New Delhi and Chennai were on the same wavelength. While Karunanidhi went through the public motions of expressing alarm on behalf of Tamil IDPs caught in the cross fire, his disingenuous inaction served Sri Lanka. The Congress led administration could not have covertly supported Sri Lanka and survived in office without his explicit backing. Karunanidhi despite the public posture had no real interest in the Sri Lankan Tamils. His understandable priority was the political consolidation of his legacy.

The upcoming Tamil Conference has a similar objective. It is intended to leverage Tamil ethnic pride on the eve of the state elections. It will consist of pageants, exhibitions, awards, literary speeches, poetry sessions, dance operas and music performances to showcase Tamil history. It even includes a marathon race. There is very little in terms of academic research. There have been eight earlier conferences between 1966 and 1995 held at roughly three year intervals. The Tamil political establishment uses such conferences to boost its political standing.

English, French, Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic, Russian and perhaps Hindi-Urdu have had more international literary, scientific and entertainment clout in the contemporary world. And yet, one does not witness regular conferences to pander to the self-esteem of the speakers of these languages. This appears to be a Tamil phenomenon.

The pomp and pageantry in Tamil Nadu appears to be directly inverse to the real influence of the Tamil language in scientific research, 20th century literature and contemporary academic discourse, all of which is conducted in the English language in Tamil Nadu! The contrast with contemporary Chinese or even Hindi-Urdu can not be more pronounced. The Chinese dialects are spoken by 1,200 million people while Hindi-Urdu is spoken by at least 700 million individuals in India and Pakistan. The political imperative in Tamil Nadu explains the need to link the Indus valley civilization with Tamil history despite no real evidence and repeatedly showcase the Tamil literary past when little has been achieved in the 20th century.

A particular discussion on Thiruvalluvar and his Thirukural would be relevant here. Much of the Karunanidhi administration’s cultural policy is to celebrate the classical Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar. Professor Vaiyapuri Pillai, a noted etymologist, dates Thiruvalluvar to 600 AD based on internal textual evidence including its syntax and vocabulary. The dating is contested by some with widely discrepant alternate dates provided.

However, what is clear is that unlike the earlier Sangam era Tamil literature, the Thirukural owes much to the ideas and cultural motifs prevalent in the Indo-Gangetic plains as encapsulated in Sanskrit, Prakrit and Pali literature. The text itself is divided into three sections – Aram/Dharma, Porul/Artha and Inpam/Kama which follows the Dharma Shastra. The imprint of the Manu Dharma Shastra, Kautilya’s Artha Shastra, Kamandaka’s Niti Shastra, the Panchatantra, the Jain scriptures and the Pali Buddhist texts is all too visible in the Thirukural. The Thirukural represents the pan-Indic civilization. Unlike earlier Tamil literary works of the Sangam era, it has a far greater proportion of Sanskrit and Prakrit derived words.

The reason for this is simple. The Buddhist Kalabhra dynasty had invaded and ruled Tamil Nadu between the 4th and the 6th centuries AD. Inscriptional and literary evidence indicates that the Chola, Chera and Pandya kings were ruthlessly eliminated. The Kalabhras supported Buddhism and the Pali language, not Tamil. Many Tamil Buddhist monks of that period chose to write in Pali alone. This included Buddhadatta Thera from Uragapura (Uraiyur) and Dhammapala Thera from Tambarattha (Tirunelveli) who traveled to Sri Lanka to translate the Sinhalese commentaries into Pali. Even the celebrated Buddhist commentator Buddhaghosha lived for a while in Madhura-sutta-pattana (Madurai) en route to Sri Lanka. The Buddhist Kalabhra dynasty facilitated the wholesale import of motifs from the Indo-Gangetic plains. This reshaped Tamil literature. The imprint of Prakrit redefined the Tamil language during the Buddhist Kalabhra period. The Thirukural with its pan Indic motifs was one cultural consequence. It represented the adoption of a broader Indic world view in Tamil literature.

The motto of the 2010 World Tamil Conference is derived from verse 972 of the Thirukural that begins with the words ‘Pirapokkum ella uyirkum’. This verse states that all men are alike at birth and that their deeds differentiate them. This is similar to verses 21 and 27 of the Vasala Sutta as taught by the Buddha.

The Buddhist zeal of the Kalabhras triggered a home-grown Saivite Hindu revival in the 6th century. This in turn saw the eclipse of Buddhism and Pali scholarship in the Tamil land, not to mention a renewed pride in the Tamil language. But the Kalabhra inter-regnum had ended the earlier Sangam epoch of Tamil literature, one that was to never resurrect. Few contemporary Tamil Nadu politicians are aware of the historical background behind Thiruvalluvar. The ever increasing pitch of singing the glories of that undoubtedly great literary work and the repeated Tamil conferences are intended to serve a narrow partisan purpose, one of political consolidation.

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