On Wednesday, as Tamil Nadu’s ruling party and the main Opposition were stitching up alliances for the upcoming general election, a band of protestors blocked the track at the Madurai railway junction. Much of the city was shut that day, with The Hindu quoting the police as saying around 5,000 shops were shuttered. The shutdown was called by 52 groups representing the Thevar community to demand the renaming of the Madurai airport after their icon Muthuramalinga Thevar.
It wasn’t a political protest, the organisers claimed but did not convince many. Most observers saw the shutdown as a show of strength by the Thevars ahead of the polls, reminding the political parties that the community was an electoral force in southern Tamil Nadu. The timing, indeed, was a giveaway.
The day before the shutdown, the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam formed an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Pattali Makkal Katchi of S Ramadoss. The next day, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam announced a seat-sharing deal with the Congress.
Possibly, the Thevars were moved to prompt action after seeing the Pattali Makkal Katchi land seven of the state’s 39 Lok Sabha seats to contest. The party represents the most backward Vanniyar community, which competes for political influence with the Thevars.
The Thevars are an influential community in their own right, comprising the three sub-castes of Maravars, Kallars and Agamudaiyars and making up 8%-10% of Tamil Nadu’s population. Categorised among the Other Backward Classes, the Thevars are concentrated in the southern districts of Madurai, Sivagangai, Theni and Tirunelveli.
The community traditionally voted for the AIADMK. That might not be the case this election. A substantial section of the community is expected to back TTV Dhinakaran, a Thevar leader who launched the Amma Makkal Munnetra Kazhagam after being forced out of the ruling party following former Chief Minister J Jayalaithaa’s death.
“The split in the AIADMK has opened up an opportunity for parties representing the Thevar community to stake claim to power,” said Stalin Rajangam, a commentator in Madurai. “Although the shutdown call was not a great success, it reminded the major political parties that the Thevar community cannot be ignored.”
The Madurai protest was led by the All India Forward Bloc, a party founded by Subhash Chandra Bose in 1939 to campaign for freedom from the British. After independence, the party was popularised in Tamil Nadu by Muthuramalinga Thevar and it came to be associated with his community.
In 1971, three years after his death, Muthuramalinga Thevar’s grave was converted into a memorial. In 1980, his portrait was hung in the Tamil Nadu Assembly. Today, his birth anniversary on October 30 is celebrated as Thevar Jayanthi. In 2018, it was attended by leaders of all major political parties, with Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, his deputy O Pannerselvam, DMK chief MK Stalin and Dhinakaran garlanding his statue in Madurai.
“The demand to name the Madurai airport after Muthuramalinga Thevar has been pending before the government for long,” the Forward Block General Secretary PV Kathiravan explained the reason for their protest. “We have been raising this issue for over 10 years now. We submitted a memorandum to the chief minister and the deputy chief minister but the state government has not responded to our demand.”
The party plans to hold another protest on February 27. “We will observe a fast unto death until our demands are met,” said Kathiravan.