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Periyar is there on the bookshelves or as a statue on street corners. So all is right with the world, almost… That I think neatly sums up the Dravidian model. Going through the endless proclamations on the strides made by Tamil Nadu under the leadership of the Dravidian movement, one is struck by the brazen or shameless apologia characterising the literature. While there can be little doubt that Tamil Nadu is easily among the best performing states in the country, who is to blame for the sore spots in the rosy picture sought to be painted by the Dravidianists?

The Dravidian Model: Interpreting the Political Economy of Tamil Nadu by A Kalaiyarasan and M Vijayabhaskar of the Madras Institute of Development Studies is yet another panegyric that is assiduously promoted by the Stalin-led DMK government.

We should recall here MSS Pandian, also of the same institute, who never lost an opportunity to hail the non-brahmin movement as the panacea to all the evils afflicting Tamil society and roundly denounced anyone critical as being either brahmins or their agents. He was a sociologist and hence had the freedom to spin narratives of his choice – he didn’t have to trouble himself too very much with hard data to prove his point.  He did his job so thoroughly, so successfully, that anyone writing on the Dravidian movement, or even referring to it in passing, has to perforce cite Pandian.

But the duo mentioned above are economists and have backed up their claims with solid data. There’s data to prove the dramatic reduction in rural poverty in Tamil Nadu at a rate faster than most states. Per capita income has increased much faster than national average though the state was head-to-head in the 1960s. Poverty reduction has been across caste groups. The economy has advanced and modernized with farming contributing only some 8% of state income.

We are tops in education, public health, social justice… Now if all these indices reflect the quality of life in the state, we should be lauded a lot more than the neighbouring Kerala, but no, we are not. By human development ranking at the all India level, we are placed at 11th, Kerala being the first

The authors say: “Dalits are a lot less dependent on the landed non-Dalits for livelihoods with a section of them entering into relatively remunerative jobs in the non-farm economy. While the educational mobility of Dalits is a trend that is visible across India, it is much sharper in Tamil Nadu…The Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) in fact claims that the state that is home to one of the highest concentrations of Dalit enterprises in India seen a dramatic decline in poverty in the last 50 years, and has done better than most states with regard to poverty reduction.”

We are tops in education, public health, social justice… Now if all these indices reflect the quality of life in the state, we should be lauded a lot more than the neighbouring Kerala, but no, we are not. By human development ranking at the all India level, we are placed at 11th, Kerala being the first.

Tamil Nadu has done well, no doubt. It is not a laggard, certainly not a sick state, not where law and order goes for the toss all the time. Access to public health is relatively good. We are well-connected in terms of roads and so on.

Also Read: Why the Dravidian model can’t be quickly scaled up to defeat BJP nationally

Still there is widespread poverty, something that doesn’t escape our eyes when we travel. Even in the cities slums could be seen everywhere – stampedes whenever anything is given away free are a regular occurrence.

It is relevant to remember that hardly five per cent of the Indian population are graded middle class – and where Rs 25,000 is fixed as the income criterion. Given the price level of most commodities and house rents, one can imagine what could be the lifestyle of these middle classes. The situation cannot be much different in Tamil Nadu – such being the case, why all the hoohaas?

Besides, for all the rhetoric of inclusive development, the Scheduled Castes are still way behind in most metrics. We do not have to go very far; look at the ‘colonies’, the Dalit settlements – in which village are the settlements considered part of the main habitation? The oor is always distinguished from the cheri or colonies, and Dalits cannot walk through the oor to reach their settlement. Why, even in death, equality is difficult to come by with Dalits seldom allowed to cremate or bury their dead in places allotted to caste Hindus.

How is that after more than five decades of uninterrupted Dravidian rule, the Dalits are still outside the pale? The Dravidian movement most comprehensively demolished upper caste domination, no doubt, but who have moved in? The intermediate castes rule the roost socially all over, Dalits being at the receiving end.

Pandian used to argue that when one tier is toppled, inevitably, those immediately behind move up to occupy the top slots. That is true yes, but even after 55 years of the social revolution via the Dravidianists, you still can’t harp on that cliché to explain away your failures.

Reservations for the socially disadvantaged are a most laudable affirmative action, yes, but the descendants of those who have benefited solidly tend to cling on to the bandwagon, denying those left out. The very first Backward Class Commission did talk eloquently on the need to filter out creamy layers. A second commission headed by Ambashankar went on to suggest deletion of communities from the list of reservation beneficiaries.

The authors of The Dravidian Model repeatedly refer to Sattanathan who headed the first commission, but are silent on his major recommendation. Ambashankar is not even mentioned, leave alone MGR’s attempt to exclude creamy layers, only to back down and increase reservations in the wake of a major electoral setback.

The authors barely give credit to former CM Jayalalithaa for the Amma Unavagam scheme, of subsidized canteens for the poor, which have grown in number over the years because of their popularity. All that the authors say is that the Unavagams were named after her

Painting a rosy picture of the DMK and M. Karunanidhi’s tenure goes to a point where Kalaiyarasan and Vijayabhaskar seek to attribute to the party something that was not due to them at all, viz. the abolition of the hereditary village headship or the Karnam system. That move was the signal contribution of MGR, but the book gets the year of the law wrong, as 1975. MGR came to power two years later and the privilege was abolished in 1980. It is still cited as a great enabling measure that broke the stranglehold of upper/intermediate caste vested interests, to the relief of the Dalits.

The underplaying of the AIADMK seems to be a pattern for the authors. Though they might bring the AIADMK too under the rubric of Dravidianism, clearly they are not happy about its existence. There is not even a mention of how the party came about, how it was a rebellion against their favourite, M Karaunanidhi and his misdeeds.

The authors barely give credit to former CM Jayalalithaa for the Amma Unavagam scheme, of subsidized canteens for the poor, which have grown in number over the years because of their popularity. All that the authors say is that the Unavagams were named after her.

It is not as if the authors don’t advert to grey areas, that they do towards the end, but with no concrete suggestions to remedy, perhaps implying this is all a sub-national government can do, and has done.

Also Read: NFHS 5: From womb to tomb, women face violence in TN

Among the shortcomings is the climate of anti-intellectualism of the Dravidian movement. As noted Japanese scholar and historian of south India Noboru Karashima trenchantly remarked, “I would also like to make the point that while the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu was historically very important and socially progressive, especially their view that the caste system needed to be changed, it unfortunately had an anti-intellectual tendency. The situation was something like what took place in China during the Cultural Revolution, a movement that may have been historically necessary to some extent, but did great damage to academics.”

What this has meant is the lack of a rigorous and critical evaluation of state politics, and economic, social and educational policies, especially in academic institutions. All Dravidianist discourse is hobbled by such reluctance to make an honest critique of omissions and commissions. Did not Saint Valluvar himself say, a king always surrounded by flunkeys would only meet with his doom? (இடிப்பாரை இல்லாத ஏமரா மன்னன்…)

The fact is the Tamil Nadu ‘steel frame’ has been relatively efficient and held good through so many ups and downs, the foundation stone having been laid during the colonial times, when Madras was the headquarters of most of the southern region.

The Congress which ruled for about two decades did a commendable job when it came to industrialization and theirs were governments much less corrupt than what we came to experience thereafter. That both the DMK and the AIADMK governments did a lot to build on the strong foundations already laid and that they did not destroy in their greed whatever had already been achieved is a strong plus. If ours is still a relatively peaceable, liveable state, it is thanks to everyone including Karunanidhi and Jayalalithaa. But hyperbole is unwarranted and remaining silent on the damage done to the social fabric is not acceptable.


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