Did Tamil Nadu’s legendary saint-poet, Thiruvalluvar, wear a saffron robe, which was changed to a white one after the DMK came to power in the sixties? The great poet’s religious and caste identities remain a mystery. Little reliable information is available even about his name. Recently, when the BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit tweeted a picture of the poet wearing saffron robes and rudraksha beads, it stirred a hornet’s nest in the state.
Thiruvalluvar has been a mascot of Tamil pride. Dravidian ideologues were the first to add a political hue in the name of reviving the poet’s literary works. Periyar E V Ramasamy, the Dravidian movement leader, had held conferences on Thirukkural, which is the collection of the poet’s 1,330 verses on love, life, ethics and simplicity. And in the 1970s, the DMK government built Valluvar Kottam, the monument in Chennai dedicated to the poet, where all his verses have been etched on granite slabs. The DMK even started the concept of writing Thirukkural verses in public buses.
So when the BJP wanted Tamils to see the poet from a saffron prism, it was but natural for the DMK to see red. The BJP suddenly singing paeans about the poet is seen as an attempt to reap political dividends. The BJP tweet even quoted a section from the Thirukkural that says “what is the use of education when all they do is defame God and earn the wrath of believers”.
It used the poet’s use of the word ‘God’ to drive home the point that he could not belong to the atheist Dravidian party. The timing was noteworthy as it coincided with PM Narendra Modi releasing a Thai translation of the Kural at a community event in Bangkok. This seems a continuation of the Hindutva brigade’s statue politics. In 2018, members of the BJP damaged a statue of Lenin in Tripura and a party functionary vandalised a statue of Periyar in TN.
Thiruvalluvar still resonates with Tamil youngsters and is often quoted in pop culture. So it’s not surprising that political parties and religious leaders have frequently attempted to appropriate the poet’s legacy. Perhaps, it will do good to internalise his verses and keep him out of politics.