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Decoding the Tamil psyche: Why the Tamil Nadu development model has succeeded

Sushila Ravindranath
Tamil Nadu, AR Venkatachalapathy

AR Venkatachalapathy, professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), Chennai, has done extensive work on Tamil Nadu s Dravidian movement. He has a PhD in history from the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, and has taught at the University of Chicago and the National University of Singapore; he has also held fellowships in Paris, Cambridge and Harvard. His research, among other things, focuses on the early history of nationalism, the social history of the Dravidian movement, caste politics, politics of language, and literary cultures.

Venkatachalapathy is a recipient of the VKRV Rao Prize (in 2007), and has published more than 30 books on a variety of subjects. His latest, Tamil Characters: Personalities, Politics, Culture , is an attempt to deconstruct Tamil Nadu to the rest of the country. Tamil Nadu poses a challenge to common sense. Its politics and culture continue to confuse outside observers. The state has been ruled for half a century by two regional parties. Its politics has been marked by language pride, non-Brahmin movement, caste-based reservation, regionalism, welfare populism, and cinema. Despite all the negatives, Tamil Nadu is one of the most developed states in the country, scoring high on all human development indicators, he says in his preface.

The Mandal report left Tamil Nadu unscathed, as reservations had been successfully implemented far ahead of other states, opening up education and jobs to a new generation. How did all this happen? We meet at Mathsya, a popular restaurant situated close to MIDS, to discuss these issues and decode the Tamil psyche.

The pure vegetarian restaurant has a nice old-world ambience, with large windows. Venkatachalapathy knows what he wants. He likes the Udupi special platter. I want the famous Karnataka oil-free neer dosa and the equally famous bisi bele huli anna dripping with ghee and full of cashew nuts.

We ask for cold tender coconut water; Chennai s brief spell with good weather is over. There are many historical reasons for Tamil Nadu being what it is. Calcutta had a head start over Madras at the time of Independence. But it paid the price of cultural and intellectual leadership by the bhadralok (gentlefolk) who were just emotional. Bombay, on the other hand, was primarily a business centre with Gujarati and Parsi capital, and capital coming from other places. There was nothing of great intellectual impact happening there. Tamil Nadu, in terms of trade and commerce, was seen as a laggard, he says.

He adds what went unnoticed was that Madras produced well-educated, non-flamboyant intellectuals with razor sharp legal minds who played a major role in the mainstream. People were also setting up industries and trading businesses. However, post-Independence, the Tamil Brahmins who held powerful positions in Delhi did nothing to promote Tamil Nadu. They constantly projected the culture and politics of the state in negative terms. They could not come to terms with the Dravidian parties. I was constantly writing rejoinders to their columns in the 1990s.

Tamils have always managed to maintain their distinctiveness. Venkatachalapathy says the social profile of Tamil intellectuals and intelligentsia differs from other states. Take JNU, for example. Almost every surname of students, who come from all parts of the country, will carry their caste identity without them even being conscious of it. The entire Bengali renaissance happened because of bhadralok. In Kerala, in spite of the upper caste Nair dominance declining, 90% of the intellectuals are Nairs. If a state has two dominant castes, they flourish at the expense of other castes, as is the case in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. Tamil Nadu s intellectual class is much wider because of the Dravidian movement.

Our food arrives. The special platter has a variety of dosas, vadas and rice in small portions. Although my bisi bele is aromatic and tastes as it should, I wish I had ordered the platter.

There has always been a conception of Tamil country from the ancient times, and an idea of how it is bounded. There has been a very long continuity of Tamil culture, going back to the Chola period, which was maintained by subsequent dynasties as well. The south of India, especially Tamil Nadu, has always demanded a separate history, he says.

As I start eating the oil-free neer dosa, I ask Venkatachalapathy about the long-lasting influence of EV Ramasamy Naicker, known as Periyar (sage), who changed the cultural and intellectual landscape of Tamil Nadu. Only Tamil Nadu has seen a full-blown non-Brahmin, Dravidian movement. The state was dominated by a minuscule community. Its caste system is marked by the absence of intermediary Kshatriya and Vaishya varnas. The Brahmins controlled rituals and enjoyed prosperity historically. Lands were endowed to them from the Chola times at the cost of other castes, in some cases, he replies, adding, Periyar was a man of ideas. He questioned all religions, particularly the dominant role of Hinduism. Indian intellectuals were largely Brahmins, and Periyar loathed them. He appealed to the common man suffering from oppression by the upper castes. He was a man way ahead of his times. His questioning of patriarchal norms regarding marriage, chastity and motherhood was breathtaking.

As we polish off our food, we order coffee, which is always good in a Udupi restaurant. I then ask Venkatachalapathy how Periyar continues to remain an icon and a major influence till today, although the Dravidian parties broke away from him?
He replies: Periyar brought about social transformation. Not a day went by when he did not address a public meeting. People became aspirational, thanks to him. Congress chief minister K Kamaraj, who did not come from an upper caste, set Tamil Nadu s development agenda of building roads, rural electrification and a nascent stage of noon meal scheme in motion. CN Annadurai, the founder of the DMK and the first non-Congress chief minister of the state, also worked on people s aspirations. When M Karunanidhi became the chief minister, he nationalised private transport companies. This resulted in every village being connected.
He adds that the Tamil Nadu model is a combination of many things. There is widespread education network, serious attempts at sensitisation and, most importantly, importance is given to quality healthcare. There are 18,000 pharmacies in Tamil Nadu as compared to 1,000 in Bihar.

Tamil Nadu has always had relative communal harmony. However, there has been increasing caste violence and violence against women in recent times in the state, which is seen as progressive. Rapid changes after the 1990s have brought about economic mobility among the lower castes. The dominant castes see them as upstarts. The religious cultural jingoism in Tamil Nadu is a product of affluence, says Venkatachalapathy.
There is much more to discuss. We have run out of time. We agree to meet again after he completes his definitive biography on Periyar.