K Veermani’s life has run parallel to the politics of Tamil Nadu. On Friday, as the chief of the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK), the fountainhead of the Dravida movements and their offshoots in the state, turns 90, it is against the backdrop of a new Tamil assertion in the face of a mighty Centre.
And as the ruling DMK engages in ideological debate and political conflict with the BJP over the ‘Dravidian’ idea, the DK, founded by social reformer E V Ramaswamy Naicker or Periyar, dictates at least some of the course of it.
Speaking with The Indian Express, Veeramani, who has worked, apart from Periyar, with DMK founder C N Annadurai and DMK stalwart M Karunanidhi, asserts that Tamil Nadu has flourished because of Dravidian politics and its stress on “scientific temper”.
“In terms of social justice, equality, industrialisation, production, health, education, what do you think makes Tamil Nadu a better state? All of that was possible because of the Dravidian politics we follow, which is based on scientific thinking,” Veeramani says.
This is not to be confused with being against religion or Hinduism, a charge often thrown by rivals at the DK, Veeramani says. “Only our enemies will say we are against the people who believe. We have nothing against Brahmins too, but we do have something against Brahmanism and Brahminical powers. Our anti-Brahmanism is all about being pro-human. Periyar came up with the word ‘Brahminocracy’, which is still true today if you look at the caste of the top judges and bureaucrats who run the country,” he says.
Some opponents also accuse the DK of being the ideological determinant of the DMK, much as the RSS is of the BJP, and of wielding as much “unconstitutional” influence.
Veeramani contests the basis of such arguments. “The RSS is a secretive group with a fascist philosophy, while we are open about everything and don’t believe in violence. When Periyar was alive, he would even tell us to go to the police and tell them about the time and place of any protest or public event. We are at most a pressure group. While the RSS is in-charge of the BJP, we don’t dictate terms to the DMK. The only thing the DK and RSS might have in common is that neither contests elections,” he says.
Plus, Veeramani adds, their objections to, say, Brahminism are not “based on hate”. “We don’t do to Brahmins what the RSS does to Muslims.”
Veeramani got associated with Periyar, and consequently the DK, when still a child, then named Sarangapani. It was his childhood friend and well-known Tamil writer D Jayakanthan, and elementary school teacher Subramanian, who first introduced the child Sarangapani to Periyar. Subramanian told his students about Periyar and his ideas, which were gaining popularity at the time, as well as schooled them in the style of delivering speeches that is believed to have played a crucial role in spreading Dravidian thought.
When barely 10, Sarangapani was picked to speak at the 1944 Cuddalore conference of the DK. Among those impressed were Periyar and Annadurai, who were present in the audience. “Annadurai who spoke after me at the conference said ‘this child is drinking rational milk, not that of any Parvathy’,” Veeramani recalls.
Soon, Sarangapani was one of the DK’s most in-demand speakers, and was also sent out to propagate the organisation’s thoughts and message. “Posters and notices of public meetings would list me as the ‘child who spoke at the Cuddalore conference’,” Veeramani says, chuckling, showing one such framed poster he still has preserved.
He adopted the name ‘Veeramani’ to distance himself from symbols of Hindu religion, like other Dravidian leaders, including his teacher. By 1943, Periyar’s Justice Party too had taken on the name Dravidar Kazhagam.
Veeramani went on to head the Dravidian Student Federation of the DK. After graduating in Economics from Annamalai University, he taught for some time and then moved to Madras to pursue law.
In 1949, Annadurai took a different path and founded the DMK. Veeramani talks about how many colleagues “were swayed by Annadurai’s arguments”, and that only a minority such as him stood by the DK. It was not always easy, Veeramani adds, talking about Periyar’s strict norms regarding personal life and habits.
About the challenges over his long fight in the Dravidian cause, Veeramani gives the example of a German delegation that came to install a printing machine for them in 1972 and asked about “the auspicious time” to do the work, like they had learnt to do in the rest of Tamil Nadu. Veeramani shows a calendar of the DK with a column that reads “Good time: 24 hours”, the same as what they told the delegation then.
With the world getting increasingly polarised, Veeramani mentions Periyar’s message of flexibility. “Periyar would remind us not to impose,” he says.
On more substantial terms, Veeramani lists the DK’s contributions as helping in “nation building”, ensuring changes in law allowing state governments to formulate reservation policies for the oppressed, including making its 69% reservation system stable and immune to judicial scrutiny.
The 90-year-old has also had his share of controversies, particularly over allegations that he monopolised both the material and intellectual legacy of Periyar, and his running of educational institutions like other Tamil Nadu leaders. However, the grand old man of Tamil politics, amidst the last of the survivors among his contemporaries, says he “doesn’t regret anything”.