An excerpt from his first English biography ‘Karunanidhi: A Life in Politics’ published in 2018
In memory of the late former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, the legendary M Karunanidhi, The Lede brings you an excerpt of his early years and introduction to political thought from Sandhya Ravishankar’s biography titled ‘Karunanidhi: A Life in Politics’.
The book was published in 2018 by HarperCollins and the excerpt below has been reproduced with permission from the publisher.
The excerpt begins with experiences of caste based repression during his boyhood days in the village of Thirukuvalai and his entry into politics during high school in Tiruvarur.
The young mind revolted against the caste-based discrimination that he was continually subjected to in Thirukuvalai. ‘In front of the “big” men we could not wear shirts. We had to tie the upper cloth around our waist. It was wrong to wear slippers. Such was the vicious repression in those days,’ he writes. ‘In the name of God, in the name of caste and religious rituals, one community was perpetrating torture, and my young mind began to oppose it heartily.’
High school beckoned, and as Thirukuvalai did not offer higher education, it was decided to send Karunanidhi to the town of Tiruvarur to pursue his studies. At the age of twelve, in 1936, Karunanidhi and his father Muthuvel, along with a neighbour, went to the Tiruvarur high school, and Karunanidhi wrote the entrance exams, confident of securing admission. They were in for a rude shock.
‘The headmaster of the high school said that I was not fit to even join the fifth standard,’ recounts Karunanidhi. His name was Kasturi Iyengar, a Brahmin.
Muthuvel was shattered. But his son did not take no for an answer. Bursting unannounced into the headmaster’s room, with a peon chasing him, Karunanidhi made a desperate argument. ‘If I go back to my village, everyone will laugh at me.’ Headmaster Iyengar reiterated a firm no. ‘In that case, I will jump into the lake in front of your eyes and die.’ With this statement, the twelve-year-old burst into uncontrollable sobs.
Iyengar relented and Karunanidhi secured admission in the fifth standard. He stood first in class that year.
Introduction to Political Thought
It was a fifty-page book in Tamil, part of the syllabus, titled Panagal Arasar that caught the teenager’s fancy. Karunanidhi remembers that only he in the entire class knew that book by heart. This was his introduction to politics and political thought.
Panagal Arasar was one of the founders of the Justice Party, which many see as the precursor to the DMK. With Periyar’s launch of the Self-Respect Movement in 1926, students across the state were captivated – one of them, C.N. Annadurai, studying in Madras’s Pacchaiyappan College, began to be noticed as a firebrand orator as he debated on the movement and its ideology.
In 1930, Annadurai formed the Self-Respect Youth Body in the college.
When Karunanidhi joined the fifth standard in Tiruvarur, the Justice Party lost the election. The next year, the first Congress government was elected in Madras, defeating the Swarajya Party. Rajaji became the chief minister and ushered in a law to make the learning of Hindi in schools compulsory.
Furore swept across the intelligentsia of the state. Periyar and his followers raised the flag of rebellion against the imposition of Hindi on a Dravidian populace. Meetings, marches, pamphlets and magazines were distributed by the followers of Periyar’s ideology, urging the people to oppose Hindi.
On 3 June 1938, the first anti-Hindi protest was held in Saidapet, Madras, led by Maraimalai Adigal. Pattukottai Azhagirisamy, the ‘suraavali pechaalar’ (whirlwind speaker) of the Self-Respect Movement, led a march all over the state in protest against the imposition of Hindi.
Karunanidhi devoured the developments keenly and was roused. ‘The compelling arguments of Periyar’s speeches, the bravery and courage in Azhagiri’s sentences, Anna’s beautiful Tamil – these mesmerized me,’ he writes.
Such was the impression made by Azhagirisamy on the young Karunanidhi that many years later he would name his son after him. Of course, M.K. Azhagiri’s followers did the obvious – they gave him the moniker of ‘Anjaa Nenjan’ or Braveheart, the same as for Pattukottai Azhagirisamy.
By 1938, at the age of fourteen, Karunanidhi had cobbled together a band of boys as well as a cycle rickshaw. This ragged gang roamed the streets of Tiruvarur with the Tamil Thaai (Tamil mother) flag perched on a pole atop the vehicle. A picture of Rajaji stabbing the Tamil Thaai with the dagger of compulsory Hindi was soon added to the melee. Karunanidhi composed little ditties that his gang shouted as they went along.
On one of those rounds, his Hindi teacher from school was witness to these protests. Karunanidhi went up to the teacher, handed him a pamphlet and shouted in his face, ‘Defeat Hindi! Long live Tamil!’ The teacher did not say a word. ‘But an answer awaited me the next day in class,’ writes Karunanidhi.
On the classroom’s blackboard, he (the Hindi teacher) wrote some Hindi words. He asked me to read them. I stood up.
‘Mmm… Let me see you read,’ he said.
I could read only if I understood! So I stood silent as he approached. The class looked on with great expectation. The teacher twisted my ear.
‘Can you read or not?’ he growled.
‘I don’t understand,’ I told him. He slapped me hard on my cheek. The classroom spun along with my head. I managed to sit down.
Nevertheless, his protests continued.
Karunanidhi participated in debates and honed his oratorical skills in school. The first such debate did not come easy. The topic was friendship. Karunanidhi told a beautifully woven story of the lasting friendship between Duryodhana and Karnan in the Mahabharata. The speech won him laurels. But Karunanidhi confesses, ‘How would they know that for three days I wrote and memorized and spoke to pillars in my home.’
When he was fifteen years old, Karunanidhi first put his writing skills on display. He founded a fortnightly magazine for students called Manava Nesan (Friend of Students). The manuscripts were handwritten and fifty copies were made by hand and distributed by him and his friends.
The first tryst with politics came in the form of a communist cadre dressed in a khadi shirt and dark glasses who had sought him out. Perhaps expecting to find someone older, the man asked doubtfully, ‘Are you the same Karunanidhi who is writing Manava Nesan?’
The communist told Karunanidhi to bring students from the schools of Tiruvarur together to further a cause – the clarion call was for freedom, tolerance and equality. He also encouraged him to begin a weekly tabloid. Four months after this meeting, Murasoli (Drumroll) was founded.
Enthused by the communist’s interest and advice, Karunanidhi brought together 200 students and the khadi-clad man conducted elections. Karunanidhi became the secretary of the student group, while his friend S.P. Chidambaram was made the treasurer.
Students affiliated to the Congress party too joined the group and began suggesting that a slogan be raised: ‘Long live Tamil! Let Hindi grow!’
Students affiliated to the communists nodded in agreement. Karunanidhi refused to acquiesce. Having spent a sleepless night, Karunanidhi decided that he wanted no truck with the communists or the Congress. He decided to dissolve the association.
‘I returned Rs 100 to the students from the fees collected. Some of them refused to take the money. Using that, I started the Tamil Students’ Association [in 1941],’ writes Karunanidhi. After that, he never saw the communist.
Karunanidhi was firmly on the path towards Periyar and Anna.