DMK Working President M K Stalin recently warned of “1965-like” protests in Tamil Nadu if the Centre continued to impose Hindi on the state. Stalin has of late been speaking a language that recalls the DMK’s anti-Hindi mobilisations of the 1960s. Separately, actor Kamal Haasan, who recently announced his entry into electoral politics, has implored Chief Ministers of Southern states to embrace their Dravidian identity to “fight the discrimination from the Centre”. “Together, our voices will become a loud chorus that will allow us to talk to Delhi,” he said in a blog. Clearly, Kamal Haasan intends to project his politics in the idiom of Dravidian identity, and may invoke the legacy of the Dravidian Movement when he sets out on a tour of Tamil Nadu later this month.
The political thrust of Stalin and Kamal Hasaan is in contrast to that of Rajinikanth, who has promised to usher in spiritual politics in the state. Sangh Parivar ideologues have said Rajinikanth will change the political discourse that has been dominated by the vision and vocabulary of the Dravidian Movement for over a half century. The Dravidian Movement emerged out of political struggles that sought equal opportunity for non-Brahmins in the bureaucracy, demanded social justice in all aspects of life, and privileged a Tamil national identity over the claims made by the Indian National Movement. The Sangh Parivar, which anticipates greater space for its agenda in the state, would like to project Rajinikanth as an alternative to the praxis of the Dravidian Movement. Statements emerging from various political actors, even if they aren’t direct responses to each other, suggest the emergence of competing ideological narratives that are likely to clash in the near future.
So, what happened in 1965? The year is a landmark in the history of the Dravidian Movement and its engagement with the Indian nation state. The Official Languages Bill presented by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1963 set 1965 as the year when English would make way for Hindi as the country’s sole official language. The DMK, the political inheritor of the Dravidian Movement, began a campaign against the move. After it announced that party cadres would burn copies of Chapter 17 of the Constitution, which accorded Hindi the status of official language, DMK chief C N Annadurai was arrested and sentenced to six months in prison. On January 25, 1964, a 27-year-old DMK worker, Chinnasamy, set himself on fire to protest the imposition of Hindi, becoming the first martyr in the cause of Tamil. But the Centre remained unfazed, and announced that from January 26, 1965, Hindi would become the sole official language.
On January 25, 1965, DMK leaders, including Annadurai, were taken into preventive custody. Some 50,000 students from colleges in Madras marched to Fort St George, the seat of the government, to petition Chief Minister M Bhaktavatsalam to remove Hindi from the school curriculum. “In the early hours of 26 January, even as Kalaignar (Karunanidhi) and many other DMK functionaries were taken into custody, a DMK member, T M Sivalingam, doused his body with gasoline and immolated himself in Kodambakkam, Madras… Virugambakkam Aranganathan, Ayyanpalayam Veerappan and Rangasamuthiram Muthu would also choose death by fire, while Keeranoor Muthu, Viralimalai Shanmugham and Peelamedu Dhandapani would consume poison to take their life,” wrote R Kannan in Anna: The Life and Times of C N Annadurai. After two union ministers from Tamil Nadu, C Subramaniam and O V Alagesan, threatened to resign, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri publicly assured that Hindi would not be imposed, and English would continue to be the official language. In February, the Congress Working Committee passed a resolution in favour of the three-language formula in schools, and sought the amendment of the Official Languages Act, 1963, to address the fears of non-Hindi speaking populations.
In 1965, therefore, the battle against Hindi was won conclusively and an important aspect of Indian federalism was established: India’s linguist plurality was not to be messed with, and every Indian language was to be accorded equal respect. The Congress in Tamil Nadu could never recover the ground it lost during the anti-Hindi agitations. Two years later, in 1967, the DMK won the Assembly elections, and the Dravidian parties alone have been in power ever since. The Anna government renamed Madras state as Tamil Nadu, and embarked on a mission to establish the primacy of Tamil in public discourse.
The opposition to Hindi is about both linguistic pride and the assertion of a regional cultural identity. Across India in the early 20th century, nationalisms centred on linguistic identity had developed parallel to the National Movement. The social justice politics of Tamil Nadu, which initially lacked a sense of the nation, embraced Tamil and Dravidian linguistic and ethnic identities to distinguish itself both from the Congress-led National Movement and the communists. It was the earlier anti-Hindi agitation of 1937-39 that allowed Periyar E V Ramaswamy and his followers to reclaim political space after losing the provincial elections to the Congress in 1936. C Rajagopalachari’s government had introduced Hindi in primary schools in the Madras presidency, and the anti-Hindi agitation led by Periyar powered the imagination of a Tamil/Dravidian nation independent of the Indian nation state. The Tamil versus Hindi argument also seamlessly joined the Dravidian versus Aryan debate (the caste system and Brahmin supremacy was projected as values imposed by the Aryans who came from northern India) — this imagery (of Tamil versus Hindi, South versus North) has since fed and framed every federal assertion in Tamil Nadu, from solidarity mobilisations for Sri Lankan Tamils in the 1980s to the right to conduct jallikattu in recent times.
The rise of the BJP post-2014 has raised the spectre of a Hindi-Hindu-Hindutva India, and triggered subnationalist counter-narratives in all the Southern states. In Tamil Nadu, Hindi and Centre have long been a trope for political parties to mobilise cadres and divert public attention from their performance. Post-Jayalalithaa, the influence of the Centre and the BJP on Tamil Nadu politics has increased manifold, and local outfits sense a potential shift in the political dynamic. As the DMK seeks to reassert its position as Tamil Nadu’s predominant regional party, what better legacy to invoke than that of 1965 to position itself as the protector of Tamil interests?