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Struggling to make notable gains in playing its usual Hindu chord in Tamil Nadu, the BJP has shifted its attention to Tamil identity politics. Union Home Minister Amit Shah, while visiting the state recently, praised the Tamil language and requested Chief Minister M K Stalin to introduce Tamil as a medium of instruction in engineering and medical courses in the State.

Amit Shah’s request comes after state BJP leaders accused the DMK of using Tamil for political gains while doing nothing for the development of the language. The saffron party leaders were responding to Chief Minister M K Stalin’s opposition to the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee on Official Language to the use of Hindi as a medium of instruction in higher education institutions such as IIT, IIM and other central institutions in Hindi speaking states. Now, the BJP’s top leadership has turned the issue back on the DMK.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has praised Tamil several times and even quoted from the Thirukkural, a revered ethical work by savant Thiruvalluvar. Even during a recent election campaign in Himachal Pradesh, he mentioned Tamil Nadu and said it was one state where the Congress has not been able to make a comeback after it lost power six decades ago. His mention of Tamil Nadu during the Himachal Pradesh campaign indicates that the Dravidian state has a special place in the BJP’s political agenda. It is one of the few states where they haven’t been able to reach a double-digit vote share.

Among the BJP leaders, former Prime Minister A B Vajpayee alone is respected in Tamil Nadu; the DMK and MDMK even joined his ministry. Vajpayee was a member of the now defunct Tamil Eelam Sponsors Organisation (TESO), which was started to support a separate homeland for Tamils in Sri Lanka. When Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, he convened an all-party meeting to pass a resolution asserting that the Indian government would not provide arms to the island government in its war against the LTTE.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mention of Tamil Nadu during a recent election campaign in Himachal Pradesh indicates that the Dravidian state has a special place in the BJP’s political agenda

On Home Minister Amit Shah’s recent visit to Tamil Nadu, he focused his speech on Tamil. “Tamil is one of the oldest languages in the world and Tamil literature is very ancient. Preserving and promoting the Tamil language is the responsibility of the entire nation,” he said, adding “If the State government introduced Tamil as a medium of instruction in medical and technical education, it would be considered a great service to the language”.

Shah’s remarks are seen as an attempt to show that the DMK is only interested in promoting English and not keen on developing Tamil, which it uses only to garner votes. The speech is also a bid to convey that the BJP is not pushing for Hindi alone and it wants to promote the use of the mother tongue in education, by removing English.

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The BJP seems to have realised that its Hindu identity politics has few takers in Tamil Nadu, where Tamil identity politics is the more powerful. The State witnessed anti-Hindi agitations in 1965, which propelled the DMK to power in just two years. During the Sri Lankan military offensive against the LTTE in 2009, 17 Tamils immolated themselves asking the Indian government to stop the war. The leaderless and apolitical pro-jallikattu protests in 2017 revolved around protecting Tamil identity and culture.

When the BJP tried to utilize the success of the film ‘Ponniyin Selvan’ to show Chola emperor Raja Raja Chola as a Hindu icon, it was met with stiff resistance from political leaders and film personalities, who said Tamils were not Hindus at the time of the famous king. At a time when the Hindu identity itself has become an issue of debate leading to demands of dividing the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department into two – Saivaite and Vaishnavite sections – the BJP appears to have shifted to Tamil identity politics to challenge the DMK in its own den. Even Governor RN Ravi is using the word ‘Sanathan Dharma’ instead of ‘Hindu’ now.

During Narendra Modi’s first term in government, former BJP MP and former editor of RSS weekly Panchjanya Tarun Vijay had taken up the development of Tamil language as one of his political planks. Lauding the Tamil book of ethics Thirukkural, he undertook a ‘kural yatra’ demanding that Thirukkural should be taught in north Indian schools.

Preserving and promoting the Tamil language is the responsibility of the entire nation. If the State government introduced Tamil as a medium of instruction in medical and technical education, it would be considered a great service to the language

He tried to install a statue for Thiruvalluvar who composed the book at Haridwar. However, plans to install his statue near Shankaracharya Chowk, named after Adi Sankara failed as the priests in Haridwar objected to it saying that Thiruvalluvar was a Dalit icon and his statue near Adi Sankara could not be allowed. Now, one of the BJP’s top leaders Amit Shah has raised the demand for making Tamil as the medium of instruction for engineering and medical courses.

For the BJP, it will be difficult to move ahead on the Tamil plank using rhetoric alone, without showing its keenness to serve the language in practice, at a time when the party is ruling the country. Despite declaring Tamil as one of the classical languages, the vote share of Congress had gone down to around five percent in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Amit Shah’s declaration that it is the responsibility of the entire nation to preserve and promote Tamil is not enough since the Modi government is yet to show its love for Tamil in practice.

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Already the DMK has pointed out that its government had introduced Tamil as the medium of instruction in engineering courses 12 years ago and constituted a committee of three professors to introduce MBBS in Tamil. Higher education minister K Ponmudi in an attempt to call the BJP’s bluff has also requested the BJP government to declare Tamil as one of the official languages in Central government offices and allocate funds for its development on par with Sanskrit. He also asked for Tamil to be made a compulsory language in the Central government-run Kendriya Vidyalaya Schools.

Besides the DMK, there are several Tamil outfits in the State which are demanding 80 per cent reservation for Tamils in education and jobs of Central government institutions in the State. A competitive politics on Tamil identity issues would bring such outfits to the centre stage of politics and lead to their rise in Tamil Nadu.

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