Did TN Dalits piggyback on Dravidian parties for social empowerment?

DMK MP RS Bharathi’s assertion that the party helped a Dalit become a high court judge sparked a row

The recent remarks of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) MP RS Bharathi that Dalits had to rely on Dravidian movements for their uplift has kicked up a storm, both online and offline.

Even though Bharathi took back his words after a furore, the controversy has refused to die down with the party’s ally namely, the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), rejecting his contention. It is also because he used the term “Harijan” to refer to Dalits, which the scheduled caste people are opposed to.

It all began when the DMK Parliamentarian asserted, in a function organised by Kalaignar Vasagar Vattam, that Dalits got appointed to High Courts only due to the alms given by his party. This was in the context of A Varadarajan getting appointed a High Court judge in 1974, when the DMK was in power in Tamil Nadu.


Taking exception to his remark VCK founder Thol Thirumavalavan hit back by saying that Dalits could make it to positions such as a High Court judge due to the efforts of Ambedkar not due to alms given by whosoever.

He made the statement while addressing an anti-CAA rally in Trichy on February 22. Even though the two parties have been at loggerheads ever since the controversy broke over the alleged Panchami land housing Murasoli, Thirumavalavan’s attack is being seen in the context of the DMK ignoring the rally of VCK despite the latter taking part in a rally organised by the former over the same issue.

In the backdrop of claims and counter claims over whether the Dravidian movement was pivotal in emancipating the Dalits, The Federal explores the history of the community and those responsible for empowering it.

Dalits before Dravidian movements

Dalit Scholars are of the view that prior to their community getting categorised as scheduled castes intellectuals from the group debated and discussed with the British in equal terms.

In 1891, Pandit Iyothee Thass founded the “Dravida Mahajana Sabha”, much before Periyar started using the word ‘Dravidian’. Also, Thass and Reverend John Rathinam, founder of “Dravida Kazhagam” started a magazine called “Dravida Pandian.”

Pallikonda Krishnasamy, a Dalit leader contested an election in 1940, under the “rising sun” symbol. The symbol was acquired by the DMK, officially, in 1958. However in 1957, DMK patron M Karunanidhi, contested under the very same symbol and entered the assembly for the first ever time from Kulithalai constituency.

Pointing to the sequence of events, Stalin Rajangam, a researcher based in Madurai, said that it is the Dalits who have to claim that the DMK got a lease of life because of the Dalits. He said, “If we consider history and the background, it is the Dalits who should be making such remarks against the DMK and not vice versa.”

According to him, understanding the difference between Dalit politics and Dravidian politics is important to interpret such unfounded remarks.

“Dalit politics is played at the national level, whereas Dravidian politics is limited just to Tamil Nadu. When issues concerning reservations arise, the Dalits from Tamil Nadu too get included. So DMK’s statement on Dalits becoming judges is logically wrong. Dravidian parties are not against Dalits, but at the same time Dalits are not their prime concern. They will throw some goodies at the Dalits if they get along well with them and Bharathi’s remark has only reflected that” he said.

“Bharathi’s speech shows the attitude of his party. Use of words like ‘Harijan’ reflects their casteist mind-set. He is not ready to use the words ‘Adi Dravidar’, which was popularised by his own party. So, there is no need for Dalits to worry about his remarks” opined Rajangam.

It was because of MC Raja, a dalit icon’s effort, the government authorised the use of the words ‘Adi Dravidar’ in official records. Later, Dravidian parties normalised the usage, even in private conversations added the research scholar.

Right from 1916, when the Justice Party was born, fight against Brahmanism was the prime agenda of the Dravidian movements, added Rajangam.

Listing out the reasons for the Dravidian parties to count Dalits among their supporters Rajangam said, “Firstly, the Dalits had a political narrative even before the Dravidian movements could build one. Secondly, Dravidian movements needed someone to be shown as victim. Thirdly, they needed a large base of supporters to claim a huge impact. If we grasp this, we can understand why Dalits are not given leadership positions, even today, in Dravidian parties.”

Case of Justice Varadarajan

Debunking the theory that it was DMK which spearheaded the social justice movement, Gowthama Sanna of the VCK alleged that the DMK hijacked the right won by the Dalits.

“Before reservations were introduced, the then Madras Presidency passed an order providing caste-based reservation in government jobs and colleges. In 1951, a Brahmin named Champakam Dorairajan filed a case against it in the Madras High Court and the Court struck down the GO. The Supreme Court too upheld the High Court’s judgement. Thereafter Dalits began to protest. The then Union Law Minister Ambedkar criticised the Madras High Court Judge Rajamannar for striking down the reservation order. As that was the first instance of a sitting law minister publicly criticising a sitting judge, it provoked a debate in Parliament which led to the first amendment in our Constitution. That amendment protected socially weaker sections from social injustice. That move clearly showed that it was Ambedkar who ensured the incorporation of Dalit rights in the Constitution. Periyar fought for the rights of backward classes and not for that of Dalits” said advocate Sanna, propaganda secretary of the VCK.

This being a fact, the DMK’s claim of appointing Varadarajan as a High Court judge is untrue, added Sanna.

Tracing the appointment of A Varadharajan to the High Court, he said that Varadarajan became an advocate in 1944 ahead of the DMK’s birth in 1949. In 1967, when the DMK assumed office for the first time, he was already a district judge and by 1973 he was made an additional judge in the Madras High Court., he said.

Since he was the senior-most coupled with the fact that the High Court didn’t have a Dalit judge, he was tipped to become a permanent judge, he added and alleged that the DMK government sat on the recommendation of the Chief Justice appointing Varadarajan as a permanent judge. After a delay of six months, Karunanidhi, the then chief minister had no choice but to forward the recommendation that resulted in Varadarajan’s appointment. Six years later, he was promoted to the Supreme Court. “

This being the case, it is surprising to hear that the DMK played a role or gave alms to a Dalit judge to move up the hierarchy?” added Sanna.

Dalit researchers claim that because of the efforts of Sathyavani Muthu, a Dalit who served as the Harijan Welfare Minister during Karunanidhi’s tenure, the latter agreed to forward Varadarajan’s name.

“We believe Bharathi’s remark to be his own and not that of his party. So it is not required for Thirumavalavan to reply. Anyone from our party can reply,” he added

Ruling out parting of ways between the DMK and the VCK, he said, “It is not a conflict between DMK chief MK Stalin and VCK chief Thirumavalavan. So it is wrong to think that these kind of issues will have an impact on alliance,” Sanna said.

DMK leaders were not available for comment.

Get breaking news and latest updates from India
and around the world on thefederal.com