In popular perception, it is C N Annadurai who founded the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam or DMK, the bedrock of Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu.
Similarly, if one were to ask who transformed the Dravidian movement into a potent political force, the name that might crop is that of M Karunanidhi.
In reality, there was another person, V R Nedunchezhiyan who through his field work, oratorical work, and writings contributed to the cause. He got overshadowed due to the charisma and glitter of cinema that enveloped these two leaders.
The two arch rivals DMK, AIADMK and a host of other parties are therefore celebrating the birth centenary of Nedunchezhiyan, beginning July 11, underlining his importance as a Dravidian ideologue.
Originally, DMK had five stalwarts — Annadurai, E.V.K. Sampath, V.R. Nedunchezhiyan, K.A. Mathiyazhagan, and N.V. Natarajan. That time, Karunanidhi was nowhere in the reckoning.
Nedunchezhiyan was fondly called ‘Thambi’ by Annadurai, (meaning younger brother). Figuratively, throughout his political career, Nedunchezhiyan played this role obediently. He was always number two or a night watchman of sorts who never aspired to become number one.
Periyar to Anna
Born on July 11, 1920 in Thirukannapuram village in Nagapattinam district, he was named Narayanasamy. He renamed himself as Nedunchezhiyan, influenced by the then prevailing trend where leaders avoided caste identities and embraced classic Tamil names.
His family, steeped in politics, backed the Justice Party. This influenced Nedunchezhiyan’s early years. He started taking part in political activities during his student days at Annamalai University in Cuddalore district.
He studied epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata to find faults in the narratives so that he could use them as scoring points in debates against believers.
Advocate and writer K S Radhakrishan, reminiscing Nedunchezhiyan says, ”Though Annadurai believed in ‘Ondrey Kulam, Oruvaney Devan’ (One God, One Community), his followers such as MG Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa deviated from that principle. But Nedunchezhiyan, till his last breath, was a staunch atheist.”
When Nedunchezhiyan was 24, he was brought into the Dravidar Kazhagam or DK by Annadurai. Karunanidhi and K. Anbazhagan were his contemporaries. Nedunchezhiyan used to sport a beard and wear a black coat to resemble Periyar, prompting the party men call him “Ilamthaadi” or “neo-beard” Nedunchezhiyan.
Periyar loved his new associate. Though he would often pull up Annadurai and others, he never publicly disagreed with Nedunchezhiyan, as the young follower used to articulate his ideas clearly and never deviated from them. Naturally, he was perceived as the successor to Periyar.
But when Annadurai parted ways with Periyar to jump into electoral politics and founded DMK in 1949, Nedunchezhiyan too followed him, which was a surprise. He was made deputy general secretary of the party. He was 29.
The 1956 Tiruchy conference decided that the DMK would contest the general elections next year. Subsequently, the party won 15 seats. In 1962 general elections, Annadurai was elected to the Parliament and in the state Assembly elections, the DMK got 50 seats.
This was when Annadurai called Nedunchezhiyan to take over the mantle saying, “Thambi Vaa, Thalaimai Thaanga Vaa (Come Brother, Take up the leadership).” He was made general secretary of the party and became the Opposition leader in the Assembly. He played the role for four years till Annadurai’s return to state politics.
From a stutterer to an orator
Nedunchezhiyan, in his youth, suffered from stuttering. Anbazhagan, his party colleague, helped him overcome the disorder. Yet, Nedunchezhiyan was unable to pronounce the Tamil letter ‘ing’ and whenever he need to use a word with the pronunciation, he would pause, emphasise and pronounce.
Nedunchezhiyan used to pepper his speeches with developments from around the world. He used flowery language, quoting extensively from Tamil literature. Much of this was lost on the ordinary folks as they found it difficult to follow him. Periyar advised him to opt for more down-to-earth expressions.
“It was Nedunchezhiyan who first made a public speech into a performing art. Anna used to speak lengthy sentences at a stretch but still comprehendible to a layman. Karunanidhi’s speeches were blended with contemporary social and political happenings. But Nedunchezhiyan used voice modulation and body language to convey complex ideas. Actor Sivaji Ganesan would emulate Nedunchezhiyan’s style while portraying the character of a landlord,” writes T K Kalapria, an author, in his Facebook post.
His knowledge in world affairs and his oratorical skills earned him the epithet of ‘Nadamaadum Palkalaikazhagam’ (A walking university) and ‘Navalar’, respectively.
A deliberate decision?
Nedunchezhiyan used his oratorical skills and fieldwork managed to pull in crowds in favour of his party. There was a point when DMK was known as a party that had more MAs (people holding Master’s degrees) than MLAs or members of the Legislative Assembly.
He was the education minister between 1967 and 1969. However, he failed to get the kind of recognition he probably deserved, both from the masses and within his own party.
Nedunchezhiyan lost his prominence because of the manoeuvres of MGR. He brought in Karunanidhi as supreme leader of the party, downgrading the post of general secretary. Till then, the seniormost post in DMK was that of the general secretary. Caste equations too played its role since Bhaktavatsalam and Annadurai were from the forward Mudaliar community. Nedunchezhiyan too belonged to that community.
However, he was given the education portfolio in Karunanidhi’s cabinet between 1971 and 1975. According to Radhakrishnan, “It was during this period, the state set up many arts and science colleges. He increased the scholarships for college students from ₹50 to ₹150,” he added.
Nedunchezhiyan stressed on vocationalisation of education. He had remarked, “Education should provide the necessary skills for boys and girls so that they could find suitable vocation or self-employment opportunities.”
Later, he parted with the DMK and floated his own party Makkal Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), which lasted briefly. When MGR came to power in 1977, he joined the AIADMK and served as food minister till 1980. After that, whenever MGR or Jayalalithaa were CMs, he was given the finance portfolio.
After MGR’s demise, when Jayalalithaa faced stiff opposition from within the AIADMK, Nedunchezhiyan extended support to her.
“As a minister, Nedunchezhiyan had no corruption charges against him. Compared to today, he would clear the files on time without accepting bribes. That itself should be regarded as an achievement,” said a political commentator requesting anonymity.
Like Annadurai, Karunanidhi, Pudumaipithan and Kannadasan, Nedunchezhiyan too was a great writer. Inspired by the social and political conditions of ancient Greece, he wrote a book ‘Pandaiya Greykkam’. Published by Dravida Pannai, the book was received well by the then students of history and literature. He also wrote a book on anti-Hindi agitation titled ‘Mozhi Poraattam’ and his autobiography ‘Vaazhvil Naan Kandathum Kettathum’, which the present AIADMK regime seeks to nationalise.
“He did not write anything on his association with Jayalalithaa and his experiences as a finance minister under her. May be that is the reason why AIADMK seeks to nationalise his book,” quipped a political commentator.