Farmers from some states have been agitating continuously in New Delhi against the farm laws. In Tamil Nadu, farmers are largely quiet. Opinion is divided on why that is so. While some say farmers in the state are actually looking forward to the implementation of the farm laws, some say that they are quite aggrieved. A reason for them not coming to the streets to agitate is that there is no leader and organization representing them to mobilize them.
Some 40 years ago, however, a farmers leader named Narayanaswami Naidu shook the state with his agitations. Then chief minister MGR and Indira Gandhi had to visit Naidu in his village to persuade him to call off the agitation. Though Narayanaswami Naidu’s political party came a cropper, his farmers association was powerful. He would bring city life to a halt with his bullock cart agitations in which farmers would come on their bullock carts.
In Tamil Nadu today, there are many farmers associations just like there are political parties. The issues are common such as Cauvery water, Mullaiperiyar dam and so on but farmers don’t speak in one voice. There is no common platform on which farmers demands are articulated. The reason is politics. Political vested interests ensure that this situation continues in the state. But Narayanaswamy Naidu was able to draw broad-based support among farmers so they became a powerful group. His ability to bring massive numbers of farmers to the streets for their cause rattled the state administration.
At that time only the DMK and AIADMK would hold big conferences. The talk of the town would be how many people attended which conference. Debates would happen on which was more spectacular.
At that time, Narayanaswamy Naidu organized a farmers rally in Chennai that turned everybody’s heads towards him including that of the Dravidian parties.
Narayanaswamy Naidu would hold court in Chennai. A room was permanently booked in his name at a hotel at Royapettah near where Deccan Plaza stands today. Though hailing from Coimbatore district, Naidu would often stay there. Instead of holding press conferences to seek out journalists, reporters would seek him out in his room. That was Narayanaswamy Naidu’s standing.
Naidu would badger me with questions about what was happening in the DMK and the AIADMK. Once I asked him why he was so interested in the internal functioning of these parties. He in turn asked me if the rallies and conferences he was organizing were not as big as what the two Kazhagams were organizing. When I said, yes, he in turn asked why can’t farmers unite under his leadership and capture power.
I replied that anyone could have political aspirations in our country, but asked him if the farmers’ cause and his farmers association will not be negatively affected by his entering politics. This made him quite angry.
Though he was keen on politics, he had not realized that the two parties had filled all the political space in the state. Every field had been appropriated by the two parties. Their behind-the-scenes manoeuvring and use of police intelligence ensured that others did not get any space. Without realizing his dream of political success, Naidu passed away.
Not too often do protests evoke an immediate official response. In some cases, protesters get to meet ministers who try to pacify them. Only in rare cases do protest leaders get to meet the chief minister. In Naidu’s case, however, not only did chief minister MGR go and meet him at his house in Vaiyampalayam near Coimbatore city, but so did Indira Gandhi.
This boosted the image of Naidu among farmers who were in awe of him and trusted him.
In 1957, Naidu made his mark with an agitation against reducing power supply to farmers from 16 hours to four hours. He organized a big agitation in Coimbatore against this. He forced the administration to roll back the measure and return to 16 hour power supply.
As Naidu grew in stature and his organization struck roots, his public image grew too. In 1970, the government increased the price of power supplied to farmers from 8 paise a unit to 10 paise a unit. Naidu again brought his supporters to the streets and launched big protests. In a police firing on farmers, three died. The government responded by bringing the price from 10 paise to 9 paise. Naidu’s stock was at a high as a result.
Then in January of 1972, the government increased the price from 9 paise to 12 paise. Naidu again switched to protest mode. In two months, Naidu launched an agitation with a 12-point charter of demands. By May, the agitation had intensified. Naidu ordered the blockade of supply of vegetables and milk from villages to cities. This continued for three days.
His protests caught the attention of even international media. His bullock cart rallies brought life in Coimbatore city to a halt. Narayanaswami Naidu and Sivaswami were the leaders of these protests. The government agreed to roll back the price by one paise. That he was able to wrest concessions from the government was enough to send Narayanaswamy’s stock soaring. At that time, there were only two towering personalities in state politics: MGR and Karunanidhi. Narayanaswamy Naidu was being spoken off as a possible third tower.
His agitations rocked Coimbatore for a decade. Between 1970 and 1980 more than 45 farmers were estimated killed in police firing.
The political establishment hit back. Second and third rung leaders in his organization were slowed down by pressure. The farmers association was chipped away though no split was engineered.
Naidu’s farmers association launched a political party that called itself Tamizhaga Uzhavar Uzhaippalar Katchi (Tamil Nadu Farmers and Workers Party) in 1982. He was its supreme leader. The party contested in many by-polls but lost badly. Electoral politics was a different cup of tea compared to organizing protests.
The two Kazhagams have been at each other’s throats often but they have often linked up to deny space to third forces. Karunanidhi and MGR played this game, too.
In the 1984 election, Naidu went to campaign for Azhagirisamy of CPI at the Kovilpatti assembly constituency. On his way back he passed away.