A lengthening shadow of Tamil nativism – The Hindu
As a player in Tamil Nadu’s residual vote share space, the Naam Tamilar Katchi’s political offering could hurt the State’s social fabric
A recent public conference on the theme, “Tamil or Dravidian?”, was organised by the Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK), featuring NTK leaders, a couple of veteran Tamil nationalist ideologues, and a hotchpotch of largely non-descript speakers. The points raised were that Dravidian politics had duped the native Tamil castes, led to an influx of immigrants, and was responsible for the troubles that the Eelam Tamils faced.
The common point for all was that Dravidian politics had to go and be replaced by a nativist form of Tamil nationalism. The main speaker was the coordinator-in-chief of the NTK, Seeman, who, among other things, invoked Adolf Hitler to bolster his anti-Dravidian rhetoric. This is not the first time he has referenced Hitler positively.Public image
Mr. Seeman’s route to fame was through public speeches at meetings organised by Dravidian collectives in the 2000s. He initially claimed to be inspired by both Periyar, and the chief of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) Velupillai Prabhakaran. However, after Sri Lanka’s military defeat of the LTTE in 2009, Mr. Seeman abandoned the former for the latter. To Mr. Seeman, Prabhakaran is a leader not just for the Eelam Tamils but Indian Tamils as well. The NTK was floated in 2010 and claims to have popularised the image of Prabhakaran in Tamil Nadu, often making up apocryphal stories of friendship between Mr. Seeman and the LTTE leadership. However, the image that NTK is trying to cultivate is that of Mr. Seeman as the sole spokesperson of Tamils the world over.Leader identification matters
The NTK pursues a programme of nativism in identifying its leaders. Apart from Prabhakaran, it identifies Tamil kings of yore, and a pool of modern Tamil leaders such as Iyothee Thass, Bharathiyar, Immanuel Sekaran, U. Muthuramalingam, M.P. Sivagnanam among others, as its inspirations and icons. To the NTK, the Tamil identity of these figures plays a greater role than the ideology they professed. The NTK’s targets for attacks are leaders of the Dravidian parties, especially C.N. Annadurai and M. Karunanidhi, often on the specious claim that they belong to non-Tamil immigrant castes. Some in the NTK play lip service to E.V.R. Periyar, but they consistently try to downplay his central role in modern Tamil politics, owing to his irreverence for any form of identitarian parochialism. The NTK seeks to foreground only those who can claim to belong to a Tamil native caste, determined by birth in a Tamil clan (kudi) — their very definition of Tamil identity is based on this.Nationalism and politics
Chauvinistic Tamil nationalism has historically had a marginal place in modern Tamil politics. For the good part, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) contained extremist Tamil elements and promoted a composite and pluralist approach to politics and identity. Even during the anti-Hindi agitations, neither caste-elites nor Hindi speakers were harmed. The conflict was on ideas rather than identities, as laid out by several Dravidian ideologues. The camaraderie between Periyar and Rajaji is also a testament to the same. Likewise, once they captured power, the Dravidian parties have maintained Tamil Nadu as a State free from major communal or ethnic conflagrations. Post the 1960s, Dravidian rule has also prevented the rise of violent movements threatening the sovereignty of India.
While Tamil Nadu’s legislature is the most diverse in terms of caste representation across the country, localised caste conflicts of course are quite common in Tamil Nadu, with sections of Dalits usually being at the receiving end of atrocities. Likewise, of the more than 250 backward castes, quite a few have minimal or intermittent political representation.
Both the NTK and Bharatiya Janata Party have tried to mobilise such caste groups that have been articulating their grievances by promoting leaders from the said communities in their party ranks. The target for both is Dravidian politics, specifically the DMK.
While the BJP tries to unite such castes on the religious plank, the NTK tries to do the same on an ethnic nativist plank. The NTK’s Tamil nativism addresses the grievances of these castes with theories of a Dravidian conspiracy to secure the dominance of non-Tamil castes and a global conspiracy against the Tamil identity. Normally, such conspiracy theories are humourous, but when they are backed by a political party that secured an estimated 6.6% vote share in the recent elections, they are potentially dangerous. The inability of progressive governments to contain the class disparities generated by the current economic order engenders the proclivity for such parties.
Mr. Seeman’s sympathisers are very active on social media, especially YouTube, characterised by conspiracy theories, abusive language and aggressive machismo, and rooted in an aggravated sense of Tamil victimhood. It is not unusual to spot them making threats of violence that they would unleash should they come to power. Their key targets of attack, apart from linguistic minorities in the State are Dravidianists, leftists and feminists.
For long, several political parties and activist groups in Tamil Nadu have expressed solidarity with the Tamils of Sri Lanka and have supported calls for a just political solution for their crisis. The NTK has capitalised on a grave issue to promote its own chauvinistic variant of nativist nationalism.
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The NTK continues to operate in the residual vote share space. Though the elections have become more competitive with the NTK’s participation, the two Dravidian alliances continue to garner 85% of votes. However, the NTK’s leader’s rhetoric has become shriller and the followers he inspires are restive. The NTK’s political offering could hurt Tamil Nadu’s composite social fabric especially when the current regime is attempting to cover more ground inter alia in empowering marginal backward castes, Dalits and women, reducing caste-class disparities, and upholding the federal ethos of the country.
Karthick Ram Manoharan is a Marie-Sklodowska Curie Research Fellow working on the political thought of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy at the University of Wolverhampton, U.K. Vignesh Karthik K.R. is a doctoral researcher at the King’s India Institute, King’s College London. The views expressed are personal