C.N. Annadurai's mission incomplete
R. Kannan
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Today is the 96th birth anniversary of Anna. His sense of mission, his simplicity, compassion, and talents may seem outmoded. But so long as human values remain a worthy goal, his legacy will be relevant.

THE NIGHT of March 5, 1967, C.N. Annadurai, known better by his diminutive `Anna' or elder brother, remained sleepless. There was reason to be excited. He was to be sworn in Chief Minister of Madras State the next day. But it was not his Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam's flush of victory against the Congress Goliath that kept him in that state. Anna explained: "I was wide awake through the break of dawn. I visualised huts, the faces of those in search of food and those waiting in queues, with their legs aching, before ration shops. I kept wondering how I could remedy the situation. I could not fall asleep."

Anna opted for public life over a potential career to serve. Office, Anna soon realised, was also a sentence. Only 20 days into his new job, he wrote dolefully: "I am already tired of my new ministerial status filled with mirthless laughter, contacts devoid of context and insipid conversations." He wondered how Congressmen had spent 20 years in this state.

Let us be clear. Anna was neither antipathetic to power as an instrument nor averse to the Machiavellian machinations that politicking entailed. In fact, he parted company with his mentor E.V. Ramasamy (Periyar) in pursuit of power. He possessed great equanimity and a vision.

In his four decades of public life, Anna espoused social justice, regional autonomy, and the interests of Tamils and Tamil Nadu. As party leader, he felt secure unlike many others in similar positions. While nurturing talent and leadership within the party, he remained faithful to democratic precepts — staying clear of nominating an heir even when he was afflicted with a serious illness. In the end, the party witnessed an organic choice in the election of `Kalaignar' M. Karunanidhi.

The DMK was Anna's family. Partymen or thambis (younger brothers) found their Anna at once awesome and accessible. The thambis and their families began to internalise Anna's successes and defeats as their own, even as their elder brother instilled self-esteem and Tamil nationalist pride in them. Anna treated all thambis with equal affection although he showed great judgment and foresight in tapping their potential. He thus invited the genial `Navalar' V.R. Nedunchezian, an Annamalai University graduate, to take over from him as party general secretary. Early on, a multifaceted Mr. Karunanidhi attracted Anna's attention for his organisational and other abilities. Anna also skilfully utilised the services of the charismatic actor, `Makkal Thilagam' (the people's darling) M.G. Ramachandran.

To one hailing from a modest family background, a backward class scholarship brought a college education in Madras. Drawn to public service and the non-Brahmin ferment, Anna resigned his job as schoolteacher and spurned other offers and suggestions of employment. Anna's gifted oratory and élan in both Tamil and English marked him out quickly. Together with Periyar, he espoused rationalism, social justice, and an independent south India (Dravida Nadu). A more mellowed Anna, secular to the core, later described himself as a Hindu sans the sacred ash, a Christian minus the holy cross, and a Muslim without the prayer cap. He was also to give up the Dravida Nadu demand, although he had seen separation as a panacea and believed that Pakistan's emergence would have a domino effect.

Barely 40 years old, Anna had founded the DMK in 1949. The young leader beckoned `thazhntha Tamizhagam' (the fallen Tamil nation) to rise to its former splendour through his dazzling powers of oratory and writing. Anna's plays, Chandrodayam (Moonrise), Oar Iravu (One night) — Anna literally wrote it overnight — Velaikkari (Servant Maid), Sorgavasal (The entrance to paradise) and Needhi Devan Mayakkam (The Judge's dilemma), heralded a new era of social introspection and revolutionised an entertainment industry long captive to epics and legends. His script was no less scintillating.

The poet, Bharatidasan, and the nationalist journalist, Kalki Krishnamurthy, aptly called Anna Arignar (scholar) with the latter comparing him with playwright George Bernard Shaw. As Anna's genius enlisted actors N.S. Krishnan, K.R. Ramasamy, Sivaji V.C. Ganesan, D.V. Narayanasamy, S.S. Rajendran and M.G. Ramachandran in the party's service, the organisation grew in strength. It finally captured power in a span of just 18 years.

But how has Anna's legacy fared since? Institutionally, social justice — Anna's main plank — remains strong. The unanimous demand from political parties for legislation to undo the effects of the recent apex court judgment on affirmative action in self-financing colleges is a classic case. In practice, however, the sense of alienation of the Adi Dravidas (Dalits) in Tamil Nadu and also elsewhere appears to have accentuated. While the intermediary communities and individual Dalits have shown social mobility, a cross-section of them seems to feel excluded despite the Dravidian parties' casteless and social welfare moorings. The emergence of caste-based and exclusive Dalit organisations is testimony that Anna's vision of inclusiveness has not been fully realised. Some parties seem to have reacted by installing the depressed classes and women in senior positions. Institutional arrangements notwithstanding, it is time to de-emphasise caste-based politics and vigorously promote social reform.

Cooperation and opposition

Ironically, the proliferation of regional parties has achieved little in securing more power for the States. In Anna's native Tamil Nadu, the Congress remains permanently emaciated. The Dravidian parties, which between themselves have a two-thirds share of the popular vote, remain the largest players. Despite their long stint in power and their significant roles in coalition governments at the Centre, their influence is yet to fully translate into the State's gains. Anna's political philosophy of "opposition if necessary and cooperation where possible" is eminently worth recall.

In retrospect, Anna's Dravida Nadu demand might be interpreted as a carefully preserved negotiating position for regional autonomy leading to a more equitable distribution of power, wealth, and resources between the Centre and the States. Regretfully, however, the Sarkaria Commission recommendations on Centre-State relations continue to gather dust even as regional parties concentrate on power-sharing at the Centre. Compare this with Anna's disinterested response to Congress leader P. G. Karuthiruman — the latter wondered about Anna's reaction in the wake of speculation that his Government might face punitive action for excluding Hindi from government schools as part of the DMK's two-language formula. Anna's response was that he would tender his resignation and leave as happily as when he had taken office. Today education remains on the concurrent list (since its transfer in 1976 from the States' list, a post-Anna development). Is anyone seriously interested in getting it back to the State list?

Language was an important issue during Anna's time. Some might argue it remains crucial even today. It is important to note that Anna himself had an open mind on the question, asking only for a home-grown solution over a period of time. He wanted all `regional languages' to have the status of national languages. This is yet to become a reality.

Apart from practicalities, concerns about the quality of education, governance, and integration remain. It is surely a matter of satisfaction that civil servants who did their exams in the `regional languages' have proved just as able and committed as has anyone else. Anna would have treated the question of language as a personal one, leaving the choice in the individual's hands. Besides, globalisation and the Internet revolution seem to have taken the political sting out of the language issue.

Thirtysix years on, Anna appears ubiquitous in Tamil Nadu. His statues abound even as thousands of streets and hundreds of institutions and buildings proclaim his name, thanks to the efforts of those claiming his legacy. Yet Anna remains at best a symbol. His individual thambis and thangais (younger sisters) are a generally prosperous lot. The elder brother, however, might have found a large majority of them otherwise poor. Anna's sense of mission, his simplicity, compassion, and talents may look outmoded. But so long as human values remain a worthy goal, his legacy will be relevant — he cared not for those who could help themselves, but for those who needed help.

(The writer heads Civil Affairs with the U.N. Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus.)

Published in THE HINDU on 15th August 2005.