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Sri Lankan Tamil writer Shobasakthi writes about late Tamil Nadu chief minister and DMK president M Karunanidhi and his contribution to the Eelam Tamil movement.
I had dedicated my compilation of short stories Kandy Veeran, released three years ago, to Kalaignar (late Tamil Nadu chief minister and DMK president M Karunanidhi). I had mentioned there that I gained knowledge of Tamil through Kalaignar's film dialogues.
At the end of the 1940s, had begun Kalaignar's fiery rise in Tamil cinema and politics. The impact of Kalaignar's words and films, along with that of the DMK, was soon felt across the sea in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lankan Tamil households, photos of Arignar Anna (late DMK founder and Chief Minister C N Annadurai) and M Karunanidhi began to find a place.
It was at this time that notions of Tamil nationalism and calls for a separate Eelam began to arise. Tamil nationalist leaders of Sri Lanka and their passionate cadres modelled their politics on that of the DMK. DMK's demand for a sovereign state and later, for State autonomy, to achieve which they espoused the ideas of linguistic and Dravidian pride while also harking to the glories of the ancient Tamil kingdoms, its use of an elaborate form of Tamil in stage speeches and fiery writings were all absorbed into the politics of Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka.
At the same time, the Sri Lankan Tamil nationalists consciously avoided the progressive politics of the DMK - abolition of caste, atheism, social justice, self-respect marriages and so on. The reason being, from then till date, the positions of power in Tamil Nationalist Parties of Sri Lanka have rested with those belonging to the same caste- the Vellalars. They took from the DMK, only the idea of Tamil Nationalism, that was essential to their political fortunes. The swan is said to separate milk from the water; they took the water from the milk, instead.
In the 1970s, in the unelectrified village I come from, that had neither cinema hall nor newspaper, Kalaignar's film dialogues would boom from the loud speakers during temple functions and weddings. The dialogues of Parasakthi, Manogara, Poombuhar reverberated through our village. From the cone speakers tied atop the palm trees, calls for caste abolition, atheism, the chorus of the working class, women's rights were heard in the voices of Sivaji Ganesan, SS Rajendran and the likes. Kalaignar's film dialogues were performed in their entirety in village dramas. Of the many who borrowed their voices from Kalaignar, I, too, was one. In a village that had no progressive movements, my first brush with Tamil literature, social justice and atheism was through Kalaignar's film dialogues. This gratitude led me to dedicate one of my works to Kalaignar. But for this, I have never dedicated my work to a living person.
The first attack on Tamils in Sri Lanka took place in 1956. Against every attack that has followed since, the first voice raised from India, was that of Kalaignar. Till his last breath, Kalaignar wished for autonomy of the Lankan Tamils and a dignified political solution.
Kalaignar did not lend his support merely through announcements and on stages. He and his party men have held numerous protests and rallies in support of Tamil Eelam. Eelam protesters were sheltered in their own homes and in government-run hostels. They saved the Tigers from tight situations, at times, by even bending the law. One of DMK's main leaders, Subbulakshmi Jagadeesan and several others have even spent time in jail for this.
Unlike Vaiko and Seeman, Kalaignar never condoned the fratricide of these groups. Neither did he attempt to justify the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. But when the Tigers murdered Padmanabha (leader of Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front) and his party men in Chennai, Kalaignar's government was dissolved. Following the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, the DMK was targeted. It was a great setback for the party. In the following election, DMK was routed.
Kalaignar always had cordial relations with important leaders like S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, A Amirthalingam. In a letter that Prabhakaran once wrote to Kalaignar, he had referred to the latter as the guiding star. Prabhakaran's first rendezvous with Kalaignar was at the Marina. He was 23 years old then. Kalaignar held continuous dialogue with all Eelam leaders and did not merely indulge in patronising the Tigers, like MGR who had no knowledge about Eelam.
Kalaignar understood the Eelam issue from its foundation. He condemned and opposed the Tigers whenever necessary. But, the opposition never turned to hatred. When the Tigers' political leader S. P. Tamilselvan was killed, Kalaignar wrote a condolence poem. He buried Eelam propaganda in the dialogues in his movies. He wrote an epic on Pandara Vanniyan, who is akin to Kattabomman, in Sri Lanka.
TESO (Tamil Eelam Supporters Organisation), that Kalaignar founded in 1985, held various protests in the State in support of Eelam Tamils. In May 1986, a massive conference supporting Sri Lankan Tamils was held in Madurai. (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee, NT Rama Rao and other national leaders participated.
Kalaignar consistently condemned the excesses of the Indian peace keeping force (IPKF), that included murders of civilians, rapes and aerial attacks on civilian villages, in 1987. To top it off, Kalaignar refused to welcome the IPKF as per protocol when they returned in Chennai in 1990. At that time, he was even labelled an anti-national. He did not falter under such criticisms. Instead, he clandestinely welcomed Anton Balasingham (LTTE strategist & negotiator) to the city.
By holding talks with Balasingham and Varadaraja Perumal (co-founder of Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front), he attempted to broker a deal between various groups fighting for the Tamil cause. It didn't happen. The Rajiv Gandhi assassination followed. After this, not only the Indian government, but its citizens also started seeing Eelam fighters in a different light.
Many countries were determined to finish off the Tigers. After 9/11, the Tigers were targeted internationally. They were banned in, at least, 30 countries. The things were beyond the reach of Kalaignar, leader of a State party.
Until the final straw was drawn at Mullivaikkal, Kalaignar made every effort to end the war. The Tigers were in touch with certain leaders of the DMK until the very end. Kalaignar's fast at Marina, that lasted a few hours, seeking a ceasefire has been ridiculed. I do not agree with that.
When he was fasting, the Sri Lankan government agreed to cease attacks by heavy artillery and air strikes. A photocopy of the confirmation order stating the above was handed over to Kalaignar through (then Union Minister) Pranab Mukherjee. It was only after that he decided to end his fast.
Kalaignar was not in a position that he needed to gain political mileage by expressing unwavering loyalty to the Tigers. His political strength and the foundation of his party was beyond the frivolous Tamil Nationalism of other leaders. His politics was built on democratic principles.
Kalaignar is considered a forebear of the Dravidian movement, Tamil literature and cinema. Likewise, history will remember him as a leader who was with the Eelam Tamils in their good and bad times and as a man who had a deep impact on the politics, arts and literature of us Eelam Tamils.
Translated from Tamil by Nirupama Viswanathan
About the author: Shobasakthi is the pen name of Anthonythasan Jesuthasan, a Sri Lankan Tamil writer, actor and former child soldier. He is based in Paris.