Whose crime is it that Kalyani had to wander as a destitute? Is it famine’s fault? Or the fault of those who allowed such a situation to arise? Whose crime is it that perverted priests are able to roam around in the name of the almighty? Is it that of god? Or of those who squander in god’s name?”
These are (loosely-translated) lines from the climax of the 1952 Tamil film Parasakthi that arguably created two icons - Sivaji Ganesan, the actor who spoke the dialogue, and M Karunanidhi, who scripted the dialogues. Karunanidhi, the DMK president and five-time chief minister died on August 7 at the age of 94. This dialogue came up frequently in discussions on his contributions to Tamil cinema and the language itself over the past month.
Some have written that in the dialogue of Parasakthi, Karunanidhi laid out the ideology of the Dravidian movement. Perhaps in the dialogue of the film and ideology itself lies an embedded critique of structural violence. Structural violence is a term used to denote violences — poverty, inequities, etc — that are the result of social structures or institutions. Anthropologist Paul Farmer has written about it in the context of Haiti’s poverty and African-American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has analysed housing policies in American states that resulted from racism and that perpetuated multiple violences against black Americans.
In its critiques of religion, caste and patriarchy, was this film, that predates the term itself by 17 years, not attacking structures that created and perpetuated violences against some classes of people?
On his demise, social media was full of recollections from people who believed they had directly benefited from policies of the Dravidian governments in general, and Karunanidhi’s in particular. Property rights to women, reservation to oppressed communities, self-respect marriages, governmental recognition to transgender persons are just some initiatives by which people remembered him. The Dravidian movement and its reservation policies are also responsible for having changed the social and caste landscape in the state.
Yet, for all his perceptiveness, it can be said that those structural inequities he took aim at in 1952 have yet to be brought down, though arguably his policies may have helped chip away at a few of them. Taking caste, for instance, Dalits remain oppressed in the state, although now by the empowered intermediate castes. It has been argued that the Dravidian parties have not challenged this oppression sufficiently, if at all, for purely political self-serving reasons. Indeed, Karunanidhi himself poses a challenge in that aspect for having sparked anger at social injustice — Sri Lankan Tamil writer Shobashakthi articulated as much in a recent article in TNIE — and yet appearing to have become tolerant of in many ways himself.
What many may remember most of his last term (2006-2011) may be the allegations of corruption, land-grab and other abuses of power by many of his extended family and party. By tolerating such alleged transgressions, he contributed to their perpetuation. Indeed, in the diminishing of a party rooted in giants such as Periyar and Annadurai, Karunanidhi, a giant himself, reduced the party of social justice to a dynastic venture. For this reason, his family has been in the focus since his death, with the question of a split in the party on the minds of many. Karunanidhi had made it clear who his chosen heir was to be — M K Stalin, groomed for decades for the role he is to step into as party president on Monday — clearing the path for him by sidelining his more troublesome son M K Alagiri.
The DMK dynasty, after all, was a conscious creation, not a quirk of fate. Stalin is not his father, whose shoes it must be daunting to fill. Karunanidhi held his party together through lean patches — MGR’s rule, Vaiko’s departure, the 2G fallout. Stalin, at 65, finally has the opportunity to step out of his father’s shadow.
His many faults notwithstanding, it’s the perceptive Karunanidhi of the searing insight who ought to have the last word. There is still injustice in the world, and his words should continue to inspire scores to take aim at the structures of oppression: To do as he said, not always as he did.
Assistant Resident Editor, Tamil Nadu