The World Classical Tamil Conference,which is being held in Coimbatore by the DMK government at the cost of Rs. 400 crore,is born in anti-intellectualism and draws sustenance from the self-serving politics of M. Karunanidhi,the chief minister of Tamil Nadu. The Ninth World Tamil Conference which was planned to be organised by the International Association of Tamil Research (IATR),a well-known global body of eminent Tamil scholars,had been gracelessly usurped by Karunanidhi to showcase his supposed love for Tamil and Tamils.
In 1968,when the first DMK government headed by the late C.N. Annadurai made the Second International Tamil Conference a popular political event with a historical pageant and a cultural exhibition,there was indeed a reason for that. The DMK had just come to power following a highly charged agitation against Hindi as the national language of India an agitation which was suppressed by the Congress government using the notorious provisions of the Defence of India Rules. The popular participation in the conference was massive. And the academic sessions were exemplary. Thus,the conference was a reaffirmation of the DMKs commitment to Tamil.
Four decades later,Tamil language is no longer viewed by the Tamils as a beleaguered language in need of political defence. Instead,there is a deep sense of self-confidence which marks both the language and its users. The field of cultural production in Tamil Nadu has been bubbling with new energy during the past two decades. Avant garde magazines,the proliferation of publishing houses,an expanded reading public,globally informed debates,and books which both in their content and design can compete with the best in the world,are all hallmarks of the new self-confident Tamil cultural public. As much as other language writings are translated into Tamil,Tamil literary and other writings are translated into other languages and showcased nationally and internationally.
Along with that,the old perception that Hindi is a threat to Tamil has by and large vanished. Every Tamil knows that Hindi is a lost cause even in the Hindi heartland. Even the prophets of Hindu-Hindi-Hindustan are vigorously courting Tamil in an effort to gain a foothold in the state.
In this changed context,the DMKs celebration of the so-called classical status conferred on Tamil by the Union government is somewhat ludicrous. The average Tamilian no longer seeks outside authorisation about his language or its antiquity. It is just taken for granted. In fact,Karunanidhi is belittling the self-confidence of the language by making a show of an inconsequential decision by the Union government.
Despite its irrelevance,the Classical Tamil Conference has its uses for Karunanidhi. His constant boast,that he is the leader of world Tamils,is in tatters after his dubious role in not stopping the massacre of the Sri Lankan Tamils last year. The DMK had,after passing three unanimous resolutions in the state assembly seeking the Union government to ensure a ceasefire in Sri Lanka,reversed its policy to please the Congress (I). Its decision to stick with the Congress was motivated by its sole desire to cling on to power in the state. Given this politics of rank opportunism,Karunanidhis dominant image today among the international Tamil community is one of a self-serving traitor.
The World Classical Tamil Conference is a desperate attempt by Karunanidhi to reinvent himself once again as the guardian of Tamil and Tamils. His narcissism is writ all over the conference. Self-obsessed as he is,a substantial part of his inaugural speech to the conference was about himself and his so-called love for Tamil from his childhood. The flood of newspaper advertisements on the conference attempts to produce an equivalence between him and the ancient Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar. The academic sessions,which are going to be intellectually enervating,have no less than 20 papers on Karunanidhi and five on his daughter Kanimozhi. If Karunanidhi has claimed that about 5000 scholars from all over India are participating in the conference,he has his own standards of scholarship.
In choosing the well-known Sri Lankan Tamil scholar Kartigesu Sivathamby,with his open sympathies for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause as the intellectual mascot of the conference,Karunanidhi is making an attempt to mend his battered image among the Tamil diaspora. Importantly,Sivathamby,who came to attend the International Tamil Conference held in Thanajavur in 1995,was deported at the instruction of the then AIADMK government because of his sympathies for the Sri Lankan Tamil cause.
Sivathmby,given his scholarly standing and his politics,may offer a fig leaf of legitimacy to Karunanidhi. But if Karunanidhi hopes that the conference,with all its garishly designed floats which resemble film sets of the past,will produce an image of him as the guardian of international Tamil community,he is mistaken.
The writer is a professor of history at Jawaharlal Nehru University,New Delhi.