Why Karunanidhi Is Unpopular Among the Tamil Diaspora
Domestic adulation not shared by Tamil diaspora
NEW DELHI: Much has been written about the political legacy and personal life of departed Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) president and longtime Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, by patrons and critics alike. The current ruling establishment at the Centre adjourned the monsoon session of Parliament for a day in tribute, although Karunanidhi was never a parliamentarian, in a tribute to his political acumen, stellar stature and long innings in politics.
At the same time, Karunanidhi’s political praxis caused fault lines in the global Tamil community, because of his flip-flops, minimalist positions and his failure to play a staunch role in redressing their contentious issues and concerns. His legacy among the Tamil diaspora is dismal and shows him in poor light despite his far reaching legacy.
At the helm of affairs five times as chief minister of Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi promoted the Tamil language and made concerted efforts to preserve Tamil identity through various policy measures. He was steadfast in reviving the glory of Tamil language and popularising classical Tamil literature throughout his political career.
His relentless struggle to have Tamil declared an Indian classical language succeeded in October 2004. In May 2006 passed legislation to make Tamil a compulsory subject up to the 10th standard. He organised the World Classical Tamil Conference in June 2010 at Coimbatore, to expose the glory of Tamil language and Tamil culture.
He erected various memorials, statues, art galleries for Tamil poets, scholars and princes as symbols of Tamil pride and culture, unveiling a 133-foot-tall statue of Thiruvalluvar, author of the Tamil treatise on ethics Thirukkural, at the confluence of three seas in Kanyakumari.
Karunanidhi’s immense contribution to the cause of Tamil language and identity earned him the title of ‘Tamil Inaththalaivar’ or ‘leader of the Tamil race’. At the same time, he gained the stigma of being inactive, ambivalent and muted in the affairs of the Tamil diaspora. His critics argued that the politics of Tamil language and Tamil identity was nothing but a tool for political mobilisation, meant only to sustain his political life.
It is a well known fact that Karunanidhi had a long engagement with the ethnic issue of Tamils from Sri Lanka. Ever since the advent there of ethnic strife he articulated, espoused and empathised with the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka.
He championed the cause of a separate country, Tamil Eelam, founding the Tamil Eelam Supporters’ Organisation (TESO) in 1985, which organised a national conclave with the solidarity and participation of national political leaders like A.B. Vajpayee, H.N. Bahuguna, Subramanian Swamy and N.T. Rama Rao, in order to build a broad consensus on the question of self determination for Tamils of Sri Lankan origin.
He even sought the intervention of the United Nations and went on to suggest a ‘Czechoslovakia-model’ to resolve the Sri Lankan Tamil political impasse. It would seem that his hardline stand on the issue persisted due to the ‘competitive politics’ between him and friend-turned-archrival M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), who patronised the separatist leader and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran.
Karunanidhi, while modest and supportive of the moderate Tamil Eelam Liberation Organisation, neither patronised Prabhakaran nor criticised him. Ironically, in 1991 his government was dismissed citing a threat to national security following the assassination of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the LTTE.
After MGR’s death in 1987 the Sri Lankan Tamil ethnic cause was discernibly undermined by Karunanidhi, who adapted himself to soft-pedalling and increasingly ambivalent and opportunistic positions. His brainchild TESO became dormant then dysfunctional for several years. As chief minister from 1996 to 2001 and 2006-11 he muzzled the voices and activities of LTTE sympathisers in the state to prevent his governments’ downfall.
During the escalation in the final phase of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2008-09, not only was his mass cadre-based party DMK a mute spectator, but Karunanidhi initiated a crackdown on LTTE sympathisers in the state, who were protesting the Sri Lankan state’s increased violence against Tamil civilians. This anguished Tamil activists, sympathisers and commoners alike; his credentials in the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils stood exposed.
He was accused as a betrayer or traitor of Tamils for his inability to prevent the genocide of Tamils by the Sinhala-chauvinist Sri Lankan state, despite his party being in power in the state as well as the centre as part of the Congress-led United Progressive AlIiance.
The election held in Tamil Nadu after the decimation of the LTTE in the final phase of the war in 2009 was a debacle for the DMK. Karunanidhi reiterated the demand for an international investigation into alleged war crimes by the Sri Lankan state. In 2012 he revived TESO and demanded a referendum to decide whether Tamils should be given a separate state on the lines of Kosovo, Montenegro, East Timor and South Sudan. Overall his opportunistic and tentative politics for the cause of Sri Lankan Tamils made him unpopular among Sri Lankan Tamils in particular and global Tamils in general.
The global Tamil Diaspora, which is drawn from the Tamil region of India and northern and eastern Sri Lanka, has been undergoing a crisis of marginality and identity in various parts of the world for a host of reasons.
In Sri Lanka, Indian origin Tamils, popularly known as Malayaha Tamils, or hill country Tamils who are immigrants from colonial India, live in southern Sri Lanka in pitiable conditions. They are still under the aegis of the modern slavery system known as the indentured contractual system, working on tea plantations, without any socioeconomic and political rights because they have been denied citizenship. They are perceived as a ‘forgotten or neglected ethnic group’ within the social fabric of Sri Lanka.
The statelessness of the Tamil diaspora is yet another pertinent issue in countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Malaysia, due to the enactment of crude citizenship acts with unscrupulous criteria which deliberately denied them citizenship although they have been living there for five generations or more. In view of the ethno-religious, linguistic nationalism in these countries Tamils have been facing an onslaught on their socioeconomic, cultural and political rights, leading to deprivation and their subsequent marginalisation; finally relegating them to becoming ‘second class citizens’.
Owing to the loss of Tamil language, the identity crisis is glaring among the Tamil diaspora living in the Caribbean nations, Myanmar, Reunion Island, Fiji, South Africa and Mauritius. They could not integrate with the host societies due to ‘race’ and other factors, nor could they connect back with the state of Tamil Nadu.
In this context, the Dravidian titan Mr. Karunanidhi could have played a decisive role in the affairs of global Tamil diaspora given his stature as champion of Tamil rights, Tamil language, and Tamil culture. But his contribution was scanty and peripheral.
In general, to this day the global Tamil diaspora are left to fend for themselves, unlike the Punjabi and Gujarati diasporas which are rendered help through various policy measures to sustain their strong cultural and economic ties with their respective states.