Tamil Nadu has witnessed several mass agitations in the past two months – over the Cauvery river water-sharing dispute with Karnataka, for instance, and against the expansion of Vedanta firm Sterlite Copper’s plant in Tuticorin, which residents claim has contaminated the area’s air and water. Thousands of people across the state have taken to the streets for these causes.

Amplifying the dissenting voices have been small, pro-Tamil groups, such as the Tamizhaga Vaazhurimai Katchi and the Naam Tamizhar Katchi, some of which advocate Tamil nationalism and a separate Tamil nation. Since they lack the mass backing enjoyed by the major Dravidian parties – particularly the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam – they have existed on the margins of the state’s politics.

But their energetic participation in the protests has brought them greater visibility and support. When the demand by the state’s political parties for the Centre to establish a Cauvery Management Board to oversee the water-sharing between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu went unheard, many of these groups demanded the cancellation of Indian Premier League cricket matches scheduled to be held in Chennai in April and May. They claimed that the games would divert attention from the protests. On the day of the first match on April 10, hundreds of protestors gathered outside the MA Chidambaram stadium, blocking traffic for hours. Citing security concerns, the Indian cricket board finally decided to shift the remaining six matches to Pune.

The emergence of these pro-Tamil groups could be a reaction to the surfacing of pro-Kannada outfits in Karnataka, said AS Panneerselvam, who teaches politics at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. “The formation of these parties mirrors the state which you have to negotiate with,” he said.

The professor added that the presence of such groups works to the advantage of the big political parties. “Having smaller groups taking maximal or extreme positions has been encouraged by bigger political parties because that helps them negotiate a reasonable solution to an issue,” Panneerselvam said. “Any negotiation, there is give and take, so you cannot start with a fair position.”

Emerging political organisations

Tamizhaga Vazhvurimai Katchi

Velmurugan said his party was for everybody, irrespective of religion, caste or creed. (Credit: Tamizhaga Vazhvurimai Katchi)

When 48-year-old Velmurugan launched this party in 2012, he was already an experienced politician. He had started his political career at the age of 15 in the Vanniyar Sangam, a political organisation of the Vanniyar community. Later, he joined the Pattali Makkal Katchi, a social-democratic political party, and rose to the position of joint secretary. He was elected to the Tamil Nadu Assembly from Panruti constituency in the 2001 and 2006 elections. All this while, he maintained close ties with the Dravidian parties as well as the Congress. But in 2011, he was expelled from the Pattali Makkal Katchi for speaking against the party.

A few months later, he launched the Tamizhaga Vazhvurimai Katchi. Explaining the objective of his party, Velmurugan said, “Each party tends to box itself into one identity. Dravidian parties support only the Dravidian identity, Tamil nationalist parties feel they should support only Tamils. I wanted a party for everybody, to address everyone’s problem – irrespective of religion, caste or creed.”

He said he had held demonstrations against the bombings in Syria, the persecution of Rohingya Muslim refugees in Myanmar and the health status of children in Somalia. While the party did not espouse the idea of a separate Tamil nation, Velmurugan said he believed the state should be given more powers to deal with matters right from education to environmental protection.

Velmurugan also claimed it was largely because of his efforts that the Indian Premier League matches had been moved out of Chennai. “Earlier, they had dismissed my plea asking them to stop the matches saying that I was a small party leader,” he said. “But when we said we would protest for the second match, they finally took us seriously.”

Since the Cauvery protests, his support base, which was confined to the Panruti and Neyveli areas of Cuddalore district, has spread across the state and beyond, he added.

Naam Tamilar Katchi

Seeman, leader of the Naam Tamilar Katchi, counts LTTE chief V Prabhakaran as his idol. (Credit: I Support Seeman/NTK)

The “We Tamils” party was founded by lawyer and politician SP Adithanar in 1958, with the aim of creating a Tamil nation comprising Tamil-speaking areas in Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. In 2012, actor and filmmaker Seeman revived the party. The party today counts V Prabhakaran, the late leader of the Sri Lanka-based armed group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as its idol.

A powerful speaker, Seeman has campaigned for the rights of Tamils in Sri Lanka and for a separate Tamil nation. He has faced arrest several times for speaking in favour of the civil war in Sri Lanka – a 26-year-long military campaign led by Prabhakaran for an independent Tamil state – and for advocating violence against the country’s Sinhalese majority. He said, “We live for our land, our soil, our language and culture and tradition, we have this as our dream.”

Seeman and his followers have also been part of protests against the setting up of nuclear reactors in Kudankulam town and against multi-national companies and industries that allegedly exploit the state’s resources. “There is no justice in private businesses using our groundwater, then asking us to use seawater for drinking purposes,” he said.

Seeman envisions his party to be an alternative to the mainstream politics of the Dravidian parties, whom he accuses of corruption. “We are seeing cash-for-votes is taking place,” he said. “Yet every party says that they aim to eradicate bribery. If so, then who is giving cash and who is receiving it? You need to eradicate the system of governance if you need to root out corruption.”

He added, “That’s why we don’t want to join anybody and want to be independent. We don’t care if we get votes or not, if people accept us or not, we are not bothered about that.”

May 17 Movement

Thirumurugan Gandhi was a software professional before he took up political activism. (Credit: May 17 Movement via Facebook)

“We have two goals which are inseparable,” activist and founder of the May 17 Movement, Thirumurugan Gandhi, told the Tamil language news website Vikatan in an interview in October. “Tamil nationalism and annihilation of caste. The true strength comes out only when these two unite.”

Gandhi was a software professional who took up political activism at the height of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2008. He participated in fasts, human chains and student protests organised by various political outfits. He said reading the letter of Muthukumar, a protestor in Chennai who immolated himself for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause, changed his life. “That is when I decided not to continue the same life and all the like-minded youngsters came together to function as a movement,” he said. He started the May 17 Movement, named thus to commemorate the last two days of the civil war – May 17-May 18, 2009 – when thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils were reportedly killed.

The movement has international support and uses social media extensively for its campaigns on environmental concerns, human rights and other causes. According to Panneerselvam of the Asian College of Journalism, it is the manifestation of newly professionalised Tamil nationalists.

But Gandhi insists that his idea of Tamil nationalism does not suggest that only Tamils will be favoured. “Whoever struggles for the ideology of Tamil nationalism is our comrade,” he said. “There were people who spoke other languages who performed self-immolation during the Eelam war. What united them with us? Humanity is the point where they came together. Can we deny that?”

Smaller groups

There are several such groups in Tamil Nadu and many of them have attached themselves to the highly emotive Cauvery protests – the Tamilar Vidiyal Katchi, a breakaway faction of the Naam Tamilar Katchi, and the December 3 Movement for the disabled, among others.

“Each party may not have state-wide resonance on its own,” said Panneerselvam. “It is the geographical specificity that manifests itself in different forms. If you start looking at them in the sphere of influence, you will realise that they are so localised.”

But together, they add up to the mood of the state, which is growing increasingly disenchanted with the state government and the Centre, he said. “This takes different turns, in terms of jallikattu, NEET exam, Cauvery – and it will keep moving from one thing to another,” he said, referring to the mass protests last year against a Supreme Court ban on the traditional bull-taming sport of jallikattu and over a common entrance test for admission to medical and dental colleges.