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Sunday, March 07, 2010

Periyar and Anna parted with bitterness

Amrith Lal Times of India - Mar 7, 2010

Before cutouts and ‘cooling' glasses captured the Dravidian movement and the imagination of the Tamil public, there was Anna. Conjeevaram Natarajan Annadurai or Anna (elder brother in Tamil) to admirers and followers, is a seminal figure in Indian politics. He was a mass leader who spoke of social justice and linguistic nationalism. He saw the potential of the mass media, especially theatre and cinema, to spread the political message and mobilize people. His work radically transformed power equations in Tamil Nadu. R Kannan's biography is a sensitive portrayal of the man and the movement he led.

Anna belonged to a political tradition that gave precedence to social reform over political freedom. The Dravidian movement suspected Indian nationalism as represented by Congress of wanting to emasculate regional, ethnic and linguistic communities. It interpreted pan-Indian nationalism as an Aryan project to subdue Dravidians. In many ways, the Dravidian movement anticipated the national struggles that emerged in independent
India, especially in the northeastern region.

Kannan begins his story by analyzing the political trends that prepared the ground for Anna's career. The early decades of the 20th century were a time of political and social upheaval in south
India. Madras was the political centre of south India. Brahmins dominated the bureaucracy, just as they did other spheres.

It was natural for the struggle for representation to acquire an anti-Brahmin thrust. A non-Brahmin manifesto issued in 1916 said caste and class distinctions would have to disappear before self-government could become more satisfactory. When the Justice Party, the main vehicle of non-Brahmin politics, gained office in Madras Presidency in 1920, it issued the communal government order that demanded more non-Brahmin representation in all government departments. Later, it gave priority to non-Brahmins and backward communities in recruitment and promotion. This was six decades before
New Delhi accepted the Mandal Commission recommendations.

It is impossible to separate Anna's story from the history of the Dravidian movement and the life of Periyar EV Ramasamy Naicker. Periyar began his political career as a Congressman but joined the Justice Party after he was convinced that social reform must precede political reform. He transformed the Justice Party into a mass organization. Anna, born into a family of weavers, became his trusted ally. According to Kannan, there could not have been two more different men.

"EVR spoke the bitter truth without mincing words and was extreme in his views....Unlike his iconoclast leader, Anna, the genteel disciple, chastised Aryanism, caste, ritualistic religion, unethical pontiffs, feudal landlords and the heartless rich in a much more acceptable manner and consequently doors hitherto shut to the movement opened to him," he writes.

Together, the mentor and his disciple spearheaded the anti-Hindi protests of the 1930s. This phase of mass mobilization saw the advent of Tamil linguistic nationalism, which was a combination of the social reform agenda and pride in the Tamil language and culture. Soon, it became a cry for a separate Dravida nation. But what was that? According to Kannan, territorially unworkable and ethnically amorphous, the project was no more than a medley of ad hoc theses and arguments.

Periyar and Anna split ranks on the question of state power. Unlike Periyar, Anna thought electoral politics necessary. They parted with bitterness. Kannan betrays a nuanced understanding of the complex relations between Periyar and Anna. His narration is sensitive.

The DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), formed in 1949, refused to accept the Indian nation state's primacy but aspired to public office. It held to the demand for self-determination till 1962. Anna's explanation for abandoning this demand was simple: "We need to get our (Dravida Nadu) from Pandit Nehru. Not from the Chinese." Attempts to make Hindi the sole official language in the 1960s provoked language riots in
Madras. Emotions ran high as DMK leaders used the issue to mobilize people and self-immolation began. Kannan writes that Anna didn't approve of the suicides and said, "they should fight injustice by living; to die is wrong. There should be no such thoughts." The mobilization helped the DMK win office in Madras in 1967.

Anna was chief minister only for two years. He died in 1969 at the age of 60. By then, he had skillfully convinced a party founded on a separatist platform to embrace the idea of a federal
India. The failure to invent a radical agenda after it exhausted the limited goals of political representation prevented the party from looking beyond identity issues. Excessive dependence on an emotional agenda crippled the party's ability to foster a democratic public culture. That, in the end, led the movement itself to decay. 

Meghnad Desai,  IE » Sunday , Mar 07, 2010

THE death of former British Labour leader Michael Foot at the age of 96 is a historic event in many ways. His commitment to democratic socialism was as intense as was his friendship for India. There was a conflict between his love of India and his commitment to freedom. When he supported Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, sentiment won over deeply held beliefs. His friends were shocked.
India absorbed much of its socialism from British sources. Nehru was friendly with Labour Party leaders Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan and Harold Laski. The basic idea of the British Socialists of that era was a firm belief in a gradual democratic approach to socialism but also a confidence that if only the state could own the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy, then control over capitalism would be easier. The Labour Government of 1945-1951 implemented these policies and many felt that the progress of socialism was irreversible.

Public ownership benefited the workers in these industries and only very indirectly the nation as a whole. Socialism became a private club for the workers in the public sector, leaving the rest out in the cold. This led to its defeat and reversal in Western European economies.
By the time Foot died, the party he had led had abandoned not just the theory but also the practice of socialism. Nationalisation became unfashionable. Even in the midst of the worst financial crisis, no one suggested going back to socialism. The urgent task everywhere in the West is the restoration of capitalism, not its abolition.

The one success which has survived the 60 years is the National Health Service, which was the greatest achievement of Foot’s hero Bevan. In many ways that was one policy of the Labour Party which benefited everyone. No subsequent government has had the heart to reverse it, not even Mrs Thatcher. All across Western Europe there is some version of the universal health care and now US President Barack Obama is trying his best to get the US in the same framework.
Indian Socialism has also had a troubled time. Nehru was a socialist in the Foot mould—liberal, democratic, reformist. The Congress Socialist Party worshipped him but failed to join him in government. The party had too many leaders and not enough followers and it proceeded to self-destruct itself. Jaya Prakash Narain could not work out the contradictions between Gandhism and socialism and withdrew. Ashok Mehta became a Congress intellectual.
The man who made the greatest impact on Indian politics as a socialist is of course Ram Manohar Lohia, whose centenary falls this month. He ‘Indianised’ socialism by shifting from class to caste and became convinced that Congress was the principal obstacle to radical reform. His greatest triumph came in 1967 when he showed that defeating the Congress was possible.

It was the 1967 defeat more than anything else which convinced Indira Gandhi that the Congress could not be an all purpose party but had to turn decisively left if it was to preserve itself in power. Her version of socialism was nationalisation and centralisation. It cost India 20 years of slow growth. Other Asian economies used the State as an instrument of economic development much more flexibly. It took till 1991 for the Congress to change its policy and even now the old policies have not been fully abandoned. What is welcome, however, is that at last, in the 21st century, issues of health and education which do concern everyone are receiving some attention in Indian policy. If socialism does not touch the life of the poorest, then what use is it to capture the ‘commanding heights’?
It is here also that Lohia’s original thinking has to be acknowledged. Lohia put the caste struggle at the forefront of his movement. Here was equality of status not of income placed at the centre of socialism. Even as it fragmented party structures, the Lohiaite approach to caste struggle made Indian politics more inclusive.
Yet 50 years on, anti-Congressism has run its course. Lohiaite parties are in a muddle. Their opposition to the Reservation Bill shows that in the hands of others, Lohia’s notion of caste struggle has become an obstacle and a not a help to development. Will there ever be socialists again, anywhere, of the likes of Foot and Lohia? [Up Against Caste: Comparative Study of Ambedkar and Periyar Debi Chatterjee (Apr 4, 2006), The Congress Party (1967-1977 : Role of Caste in Indian Politics) Meenakshi Jain ( Nov 1991), Marx, Gandhi and socialism Rammanohar Lohia]

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