THOUGH Uttarakhand had 21,966 protests, the highest number in the year 2016, it was Tamil Nadu with 20,450 protests—at the rate of 47 protests a day—that caught the national attention. The reason was simple: the protests in Tamil Nadu were massive, prolonged and in many cases spontaneous. Of course, one way of looking at it was as vibrant democracy in action, though the cynical public would laugh it off because political agitations and protests are the way we do things in this country.Major protests in Tamil Nadu were an expression of Tamil angst, against injustice meted out to the people. Spontaneous protests like the Jallikattu agitation in 2017 that paralysed the State for nearly a week were an outpouring of such an expression, which has not been fully understood by New Delhi and rest of India.
The people of Tamil Nadu, home to over six-and-a-half crore people, take great pride in their distinct identity, ancient language and culture. They are quick to take offense at any threat to their distinct language and identity. The public outrage against the imposition of Hindi in Tamil Nadu (then Madras State) in 1960s that had brought the State to halt is a telling example. It forced the Centre to rethink its policy of compulsory use of Hindi and include English as a functional option.
The anti-Hindi agitation showed Tamils cannot be taken for granted. At the same time, it has also perpetuated the myth of Tamil separatism lurking behind every agitation. There are good reasons for it because Dravidian movement since its early days, even before Independence, had nurtured the idea of separatism. But the amorphous objective was for the creation of Dravida Nadu, an independent country of four southern states. But the creation of four separate southern States in the wake of the States Reorganisation Commission in 1953 saw the demand fading away.The Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK), led by the younger leaders of the parent Dravidar Kazagham movement, entered the election fray in 1957 with a call for separate Dravida Nadu—in reality Tamil Nadu. But the DMK wisely shelved its separatist dogma after the Chinese aggression in 1962. A constitutional amendment made secession illegal in 1967; the same year DMK won a thumping victory and came to power in Tamil Nadu. Now the DMK and its breakaway cousin, the AIADMK, after enjoying power in the State and at the Centre as coalition partners seem to be happy with the slogan “Maddhiyil kootatchi, Maanilathil suya-atchi” (Coalition government at the Centre and self-government at the State). This has led to the subsuming of the separatist creed.
HOWEVER, in times of threat to Tamil identity and culture ideas of secession would probably surface as it did when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency. A Wikileaks message in 2013 revealed that during the Emergency, Tamil Nadu’s DMK government minister K Rajaram asked a US diplomatic representative in Chennai whether the US would give assistance to the State if it decided to secede from India. The minister clarified that while no such move was in the offing, young people within the DMK were talking about separation. Of course, the US representative reiterated his government’s support only for unified India.
The two-and-a-half decade-long war for an independent Tamil Eelam in Sri Lanka led by the Tamil Tigers was perhaps the high point of Tamil separatism. Did the Eelam struggle trigger secession movements in Tamil Nadu or even Greater Tamil Nadu? This was the worst case scenario for New Delhi in 1987 when it sent troops to Sri Lanka. It still forms the theme of media analysts, who see embers of separatism in periodic mass upsurges. But as former Sri Lanka defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who masterminded Sri Lanka’s decisive victory over the LTTE, said in an interview, “Tamil separatist ideology came to Sri Lanka through Tamil Nadu and Tamil separatism has a much longer history in India than it does in Sri Lanka.” Though the DMK extended tacit support to the LTTE fighting the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) from 1987 to 1990, it did not allow Tamil sentiments to turn it into demand for separate Tamil Nadu. Only two small breakaway groups of the naxalite movement in Tamil Nadu, the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army (TNLA) and Tamil National Retrieval Troops (TNRT), supported the LTTE during the period of IPKF’s operations in Sri Lanka, linking it to the struggle for independent Tamil Nadu.
HOWEVER, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran inspired a whole generation of young leaders in Tamil Nadu in almost all political parties, particularly of the Dravidian and Dalit hue. The idea of ‘independent’ Tamil Nadu continues to remain as a notion among some of the younger cadres of almost all Dravidian parties and their clones.Former Congress leader Nedumaran and MDMK leader Vaiko, who had been vocal supporters of the LTTE and Eelam separatism, do keep alive the idea of a vague notion of greater Tamil Nadu. Even as late as August 2011, MDMK leader Vaiko, showing an absolute lack of perspective, “warned” the Centre that Tamil Nadu would soon secede from the Union of India if Santhan, Murugan and Perarivalan, the three accused in Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, were executed. But they enjoy little popular support to make a dent in Tamil Nadu power play. A few other leaders, like the late Perunchitranar and Thanjai Nalankilli, had focused on independent Tamil Nadu in their work. However, they appealed only to a small circle of people more active on the social media than on the ground. However, leaders like Seeman of Naam Thamilar party and Dalit leader Thol Thirumaavalavan of Viduthalai Chirruthaikal Katchi use Tamil nationalism as a rallying call to strengthen their parties. But their calls, like those of other fringe elements, get submerged in the loud chest-thumping of almost all Dravidian parties that claim to be the true guardians of Tamil identity and culture.
As long as the Centre pays attention to Tamil sensitivities, secession will continue to be far from the minds of the people of Tamil Nadu. They have prospered and made Tamil Nadu a front line state as a part of India. So the notion of breaking away, though romantic, is less appealing. With the Tamil diaspora touching two million spread in all continents, the notion of Greater Tamil Nadu has become virtual reality. They will rally to support Tamils everywhere and this makes an independent Tamil Nadu less appealing.