Carrying Identity Too Far?
MK Stalin's tirade against 'north Indians' is dangerous for democracy

Carrying Identity Too Far?

Ideological war between two diametrically opposed political rivals could end up in tragedy, as the history books tell us

On 06 September, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president MK Stalin issued a statement demanding that Tamil applicants be given first right to jobs in the railways.

He claimed that 90% of the openings in the Madurai railways division had been filled by “north Indians” and that not even 10 Tamils had been selected for the same.

“Since the BJP government came to power at the centre along with the state government led by chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, Tamil youth getting jobs in Tamil Nadu has become a question mark. In a double whammy, even in the existing vacancies, “north Indians” are being imposed upon us,” he wrote.

Stalin further claimed that in the Trichy Ponmalai railways workshop, not even one Tamil had been selected for around 300 available jobs. He further stated that in ICF (Integrated Coach Factory), out of 1765 trainees, 1600 were “north Indians”.

“Central government offices in Tamil Nadu are being filled by the BJP government with “north Indians” in an effort to completely overlook Tamils. From “importing” Vice Chancellors from other states to attempting to fill up all Central government jobs with “north Indian” youth, the central BJP government is playing a poisonous game,” he wrote.

Taking a potshot at the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), he asked why they had selected “north Indians” for engineer posts in the state power utility and allowed non-Tamils to write exams for the civil judge positions, when there are 96 lakh unemployed Tamil youth in the state.

His demand before the centre was for 90% reservation for Tamil youth in railways jobs in Tamil Nadu and only Tamils to be selected for state government posts.

“If the centre and state governments do not bring the necessary changes in laws to help Tamil youth, I warn you that we will be forced to bring youngsters together and conduct largescale protests,” he wrote.

It was not just Stalin, though. In the last Assembly session, Alandur MLA TM Anbarasan, who is a former Labour Minister of the state during the DMK regime, commented that when he had accompanied his colleague to Sriperumbudur to thank voters after Parliamentary polls, he could see only “north Indian” faces and stated that they were taking up jobs meant for Tamils.

AIADMK Labour Minister Nilofer Kafeel began to respond and was joined by Industries Minister MC Sampath, who clarified that Tamil youth were not keen on taking up low paying jobs and those were the ones which were being taken by “north Indians”. He pointed out that the MLA was wrong in his conclusions.

Migration & Tamils

The gradually increasing rhetoric against the ubiquitous “north Indians” by the DMK has uneasy roots in history.

Tamils were historically a migrant race, traveling to far flung lands and finding jobs as labourers since the British period. Countries like Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Singapore in particular have vast populations of Tamil settlers who had originally arrived on their shores to work on plantations as manual labourers.

“Tamils were once the most sought after workers,” said Radha Venkatesan, political analyst based in Coimbatore. “Earlier they were all wanted by the Malaysians, Singaporeans and other countries. Today Tamil businessmen themselves find they are not reliable. Tamil businessmen themselves prefer to hire north Indians because they work hard and take lower wages,” she said.

With the privatisation of education in the 1970s and successive governments’ keen focus on education for the masses, Tamil Nadu rapidly upped its literacy rate from 20.8% in 1951 to 80.09% in 2011 (as per Tamil Nadu, Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Department, Department of Economics and Statistics). The most rapid strides were made between 1981 (54.39%) and 2011.

As a result, since the early 2000s, manual jobs in Tamil Nadu were not keenly sought after by the youth who are now graduates.

To fill this gap arrived migrant labourers from north and north-east India. Largely illiterate, uneducated or barely educated, these poverty-stricken men and women came to find jobs and relative peace.

The 2011 Census data paints an interesting picture of a different Tamil Nadu. The state has 18.85 lakh migrants out of a total population of 7.21 crore.

But contrary to the claims of MK Stalin, these migrants, who arrived in Tamil Nadu, are largely from the neighbouring states of Kerala (4.47 lakh), Karnataka (2.89 lakh), united Andhra Pradesh (2.86 lakh) and the Tamil speaking union territory of Puducherry (2.52 lakh).

The “north Indian” states of Uttar Pradesh (27,985), Bihar (29,277) and Madhya Pradesh (10,917) barely scratch the surface.

Even if one throws in migrants from the western states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan as well as the eastern and north-eastern states of West Bengal, Odisha and Assam, the “north Indian import, influx or imposition” is a far cry from reality. (Refer to Table 1)

Table 1
Table 1

Let us do the reverse exercise.

Now take a look at the number of Tamils migrating to other states. There are many more Tamils migrating to Karnataka than the other way around – 7.36 lakh Tamils as of 2011 moved to the neighbouring state.

Another 3.11 lakh migrated to Kerala, 2.66 lakh to erstwhile united Andhra Pradesh, 2.26 lakh to Maharashtra and over 45,000 to Delhi.

But Tamil migrants to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and West Bengal were understandably fewer, in the mere thousands. (Refer to Table 2)

Table 2
Table 2

So why exactly is the DMK repeating this particular rhetoric against the ominous “north Indian”?

“Every political party which is ideologically bankrupt and has nothing to show in terms of performance will have to show these parochial sentiments,” said political analyst Radha Venkatesan.

“Elections in India are not won on intellectual reasons but on emotional reactions. They (the DMK) know this is an emotive issue. If Modi invokes nationalism, the DMK wants to invoke parochial sentiments and regionalism. They are trying to find an answer to Modi. If this space is not taken by the DMK, it will shift to the nationalistic mode,” she said.

But Dravidian historians like Sangoli S Thirunavukkarasu swear by the DMK’s commitment to the Tamil identity and protection of linguistic and regional freedoms.

“Stalin is just asking for first rights for Tamils in central government jobs in the state,” said the septuagenarian Thirunavukkarasu. “At one time we were against north Indians coming to Tamil Nadu because we had taken a separatist stance. Kaalathin kattayam – the need of the times – meant that we had to change our views and we accepted that we are part of the union of India.

All states are asking for first rights for their own people in the railways. Look at Rao (K Chandrasekhar Rao, Telangana chief minister) and Reddy (YS Jaganmohan Reddy, Andhra Pradesh chief minister) – they are announcing 75% reservation for their own people. There is nothing wrong with what Stalin has said,” he added.

An Abbreviated History Of Parochialism

Parochialism in the name of regionalism is not new to India. Parties like the Shiv Sena came to power on the politics of hate whipped up systematically by first identifying and then vilifying the “other”.

If in the mid-1960s, the Sena turned its ire on south Indians who they said were taking away the jobs of the Maharashtrians, in the early 2000s, it was the turn of the north Indians to be attacked and thrashed for the same reason.

The DMK’s rhetoric too appears to be inching towards a similar narrative – that of the “other” trying to take over what is rightfully “ours”.

Thirunavukkarasu though dismisses any comparisons with the Shiv Sena, but recalls an incident that took place in Chennai in 1966. The famous Music Academy was in its final stages of construction and it was the second day of its opening.

“Bal Thackeray delivered a speech,” recalled Thirunavukkarasu. “He spoke about his soon-to-be launched party’s ideology at that event. The next day Anna (CN Annadurai, former chief minister of Tamil Nadu and DMK founder) issued a strong condemnation of his speech, saying that it was not right to indulge in politics of hate.”

He added that the DMK would never be even marginally similar to the Shiv Sena in its politics.

But the track record of the Dravidian party is not particularly inspiring.

From the strident anti-Hindi protests in the 1960s to the crackdown on trade union leaders and Communists in the 1970s, violence has been an integral part of the DMK’s politics.

The Tamil cause has, thanks to the example set by the DMK, been championed by a clutch of smaller outfits, each vying with the other to be more aggressive in its display of support.

The Dravidar Kazhagam, the ideological mother organisation of the DMK and its splinter groups like the Periyar Dravida Kazhagam, Seeman’s Naam Tamilar Katchi and Ramadoss’ Pattali Makkal Katchi are among those that seize every opportunity to prove their credentials.

This one-upmanship often leads to violence against innocent people.

In 2013, several Sinhala Buddhist monks were attacked by miscreants in Tamil Nadu.

In 2014, an under-15 school cricket team from Sri Lanka had to be sent back home by then chief minister Jayalalithaa, thanks to an alleged security threat.

In drought years, the harsh rhetoric of these parties, sometimes including the AIADMK, against Karnataka for not releasing Cauvery water to the state has frequently resulted in attacks on Kannadiga establishments, especially restaurants and hotels which share the state’s history. This violence took place as recently as in 2016.

At the height of the Mullaiperiyar issue in 2011, when the Supreme Court was deciding the height to which the dam could hold water, both the DMK and the AIADMK took on Kerala, resulting in random violence against Malayali tea stall owners, many of whom have made Tamil Nadu their home for decades.

“Whenever the party feels they are weakened, they invoke Tamil chaunivism and anti-Hindi sentiment,” said political analyst Radha Venkatesan. “The issue is now of unemployment. Stalin is trying to link unemployment with an anti-north India sentiment. And this could work in the DMK’s favour.

The AIADMK has been completely emaciated post Jayalalithaa’s death. The DMK’s only target now is Modi and the BJP. They want to create a monster of Modi and reap the benefits from it. And as I said, this could well work, not because people trust the DMK but because of three factors.

One, the BJP does not have an effective leader to communicate government policies in Tamil Nadu.

Two, when you compare Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the people who know Hindi are much fewer, so the BJP leadership which is largely Hindi-speaking, is ineffective here.

Three, the weakness of the AIADMK and the growing unemployment among the working classes and labourers.

Combine all of these and the result is that people are likely to take on face value an emotional issue, however devoid of facts, and believe in it,” she said.

Former law enforcement officers in the state say that while the DMK itself may not instigate violence openly, their statements and stances are likely to egg on smaller parties like the aforementioned Naam Tamilar Katchi led by Seeman.

In the 2016 Assembly election, Seeman’s campaign plank was to drive out all Telugu residents of Tamil Nadu. In elections prior to that, he has made a clarion call for Malayalis to be driven out as well.

“There are a number of organisations like Seeman’s which are heavily invested in puritanism of the Tamil language,” said Sangoli Thirunavukkarasu. “In fact there are 131 organisations that work to preserve the Tamil language and culture and not all of them are linked with the DMK. Many, like the Saiva Siddhanta Nool Padhippu Kazhagam are religious and devout, something the DMK does not believe in, yet they continue to work for Tamil language purity.

People like Seeman also want purity in Tamil politics. That is why he is questioning Rajinikanth – why should a person from Maharashtra who grew up in Karnataka enter politics in Tamil Nadu,” he said.

With a powerful ideological rival at the Centre in the form of the BJP, the DMK sees itself as one of the last standing pillars of democracy. This is evident from conversations with party leaders as well as from Stalin’s speeches.

And with diametrically opposed shrill stands being taken on emotive issues such as language and identity, it is perhaps natural that rebellion too would take on socially dangerous hues.

“There is definitely an urge to go to the other extreme in order to counter them (the BJP and RSS) somehow,” said Thirunavukkarasu. “But the DMK will remain within democratic norms. They will only oppose the BJP within those confines.”

To borrow from Spiderman who borrowed from Voltaire - with great power comes great responsibility. It is imperative that the DMK function as a constructive opposition and make their arguments without resorting to “othering” and parochialism.

The narrow lens of political gains could well destroy social fabric for generations to come. And in times when emotions run high and economic distress exacerbates misery, it is all the more imperative for a powerful political party to ensure that they do not catch the proverbial tiger’s tail.

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