Culture Wars

#Dravidanadu on Twitter: Can a pressure group of southern states take on New Delhi?

The idea is old but in its new avatar the focus is not on secession but to resist policies driven by northern sensibilities – from beef ban to Hindi imposition.

Late on May 28, #Dravidanadu began trending on Twitter in India. The first few tweets proposing this idea could be traced to Comrade Nambiar, a Keralite who describes himself as a Marxist and seemed to be tweeting from Dubai.

The hashtag was a response to the new cattle trade rules that the Union environment and forests ministry notified on May 25. Kerala was the first state to oppose the rules, which ban the sale of cattle in markets for slaughter. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said his government will not implement the rules and warned the Centre against interfering with the dietary practices of Keralites.

Conceptually, Dravidanadu is a separate nation geographically identified with South India and whose inhabitants belong to the Dravidian race, in contrast to the North Indian Aryans. It is not a new idea. One of the first thinkers to propound the concept was the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu led by the social reformer EV Ramasamy, popularly known as Periyar.

It is rather surprising that the social media resurrection of the idea was courtesy a self-professed Marxist. The Communist Party of India (Marxist), the largest Marxist party in India which heads the ruling Left Democratic Front in Kerala, has a history of being unkind to calls for secession, within the country and outside. Indian Marxist politicians, for example, have been among the harshest critics of the Tamil separatist movement in Sri Lanka, even though the issue still has wide resonance in Tamil Nadu. Even at the height of the civil war in the island nation between 2006 and 2009, the CPI(M) stuck to its stand that a political solution to the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka should be achieved within a unitary state.

The party’s stand on the secessionist movement in Jammu and Kashmir is no different. The party is also sympathetic to Chinese claims over Tibet and has even termed Tibetan resistance as a Western design to destabilise the region. Given this context, whether Comrade Nambiar will get any sympathy from fellow Marxists in Kerala is anybody’s guess.

In response to his tweets, Nambiar, along with a few other Twitter users who supported the idea, was accused of stoking secessionist emotions. Many called for action against him.

Not surprisingly, much of the positive response to #Dravidanadu tweets came from Tamils in Tamil Nadu.

This twitter war aside, #Dravidanadu does raise some questions: should the concept, in its modern avatar, be seen as a call for secession at all? Can the southern states come together to form a pressure group to “protect” their culture and politics from an increasingly assertive North Indian ruling establishment at the Centre?

Periyar’s Dravidanadu

Periyar’s articulation of the concept of a separate Dravidian nation began in the 1930s, culminating in a December 1939 conference where he outright demanded a sovereign state for the Dravidians.

The underlying justification was that the Dravidians were the original inhabitants of India. The Indus Valley Civilisation was a Dravidian civilisation, whose people were driven from their land by the invading Aryans, who later established the Brahminical Vedic civilisation. In Tamil Nadu, Aryans were identified with Brahmins, who dominated government employment before Independence, and Dravidians with non-Brahmins.

Periyar’s Dravidanadu was a historical necessity to right the wrong committed on a race for thousands of years. The Dravidian nation so formed would strive to remain casteless and protect the native languages and cultures of its people. The caste system, the Dravidian movement believed, came with the Aryans, who used it to dehumanise the Dravidian race. Dismantling the caste structure, which was birth-based, was seen as integral to the formation of a society founded on humanism and rationalism.

These views translated into Periyar’s opposition to Indian independence in 1947. He wanted the people to observe August 15 as a black day. To him, Independence without the abolition of caste was merely transfer of power from the British to Indian upper castes.

Periyar stuck to these views until his death in 1973. Through the 1950s, he threatened agitations against the Indian state. His movement, the Dravidar Kazhagam, took to burning the Constitution to express its angst against policies like imposition of Hindi in the 1960s.

What made Dravidanadu impractical was the linguistic reorganisation of states in the 1950s. Linguistic groups like the Telugu feared Tamil domination within the hypothetical Dravidian nation. By 1953, a vibrant movement emerged for the creation of a Telugu state, with Potti Sreeramulu as its face. Once the states were divided on linguistic basis, the larger Dravidanadu, which comprised of the erstwhile Madras Presidency, shrunk to the state of Tamil Nadu, and the Dravidar Kazhagam movement started asking for an independent Tamil nation. This demand, too, lost traction in the 1960s when CN Annadurai, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam founder, famously gave up the idea of a separate nation for the Tamils as he rode to power in Tamil Nadu.

Lack of unity

After the 1960s, various inter-state and intra-state problems rendered Dravidanadu a mere romantic idea. The southern states hardly see eye-to-eye on any issue; there is now more to divide them than to unite. Foremost are the water wars. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have become bitter enemies over the sharing of water from the Cauvery river, with the former even violating the Supreme Court’s order to deny the latter its share of the water. Hardline Kannada and Tamil nationalist outfits no longer see the South Indian population as belonging to a single, homogenous group. In fact, Tamil nationalists led by Seeman of the Naam Tamilar Katchi party have dismissed the concept of a Dravidian race as a hoax invented to subvert linguistic nationalism. Their idea of a Tamil nation accommodates Tamils alone.

Tamil Nadu is also locked in a battle with Kerala over the Mullaperiyar dam, often leading to violence and economic blockade on the borders.

Even within a single linguistic group, regional differences have driven a wedge. Andhra Pradesh had to be split into two states though people in both Andhra and Telangana are predominantly Telugu.

Electoral politics has also forced the groups to drift apart. Tamil Nadu is the only state where the Dravidian idea is still used for electoral mobilisation. In Karnataka and Kerala, the rule of national parties has thoroughly integrated them into national politics. It is difficult see the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the CPI(M) ever agreeing to the idea of a separate Dravidian nation.

Strong political personalities in all these states come with extra-large egos and hardly meet each other even though they are neighbours.

This apart, the market has made the southern states fierce competitors on the economic front.

Pressure tactic

Given all this, Dravidanadu today seems an impractical idea. However, this does not mean the southern states cannot come together as a pressure group to resist policies such as the beef ban and Hindi imposition, which infringe their cultural practices and are largely driven by North Indian sensibilities.

Together, the five southern states form a formidable grouping given their economic might and human development. They contribute as much as 30% of the country’s tax revenue and continue to grow at healthy rates.

Come 2026, when the restrictions on delimitation of parliamentary constituencies, put in place in 1976 through the 42nd Amendment to the Constitution, come to an end, their smaller populations will expose southern states to the risk of losing political clout at the Centre. Delimitation, which is the process of redrawing the electoral map of India, is done on the basis of population. The populous North Indian states will get more seats and more political power while the southern states, in what may look like punishment for the progress they have made on the social front, will lose seats. This loss of power alone could be a potent uniting factor.

At the moment, there is no evidence to suggest mass support for a separate Dravidian nation. But the threat of secession has cropped up during popular protests such as the one for Jallikattu in Chennai last January, serving the purpose of forcing the Centre to listen to the voice of these states. In that sense, Dravidanadu can act as a check on the Centre’s unilateral policymaking.

If anything, the popularity of the #Dravidanadu hashtag conveys the flawed nature of governance that Narendra Modi’s BJP government has come to represent. By pursuing ideologically-driven policies such as Hindi imposition and cattle slaughter restrictions, the BJP has brought to life a long-forgotten idea. If such alienating policies continue, Twitter may not be the only forum where ideas like Dravidanadu are expressed.

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