Growing up in Coimbatore’s Saibaba Colony, a middle-class neighbourhood, 27-year-old Prakashan* boasted of an ‘entourage’ of six close friends in college. That number came down a few years back to just two after Prakashan found a new ‘mission’ in life—to be proud of his Hindu roots.
Some of those friends still don’t know what changed Prakashan’s worldview. The guy who once loved science, his social media timelines are now full of laments about the “unfair perception about Hindus, especially Brahmins” like him.
“Wake up Tamizh Hindus. Don’t let adharmics rule and ruin our glorious Tamil culture. #TamilsAreHindus,” reads one of his posts.
Prakashan is part of a growing tribe of Hindu nationalists in Tamil Nadu aggressively working for their “rightful place in the state”. His social circle includes 44.6k followers who have been working hard for past many years to ‘enlighten’ Tamils about the ‘divisive’ Dravidian politics and consolidate savarna identity.
“Tamil Hindus should take pride in their faith and culture. Instead most of them are brainwashed into laughing at their own [Hindu] culture in an attempt to sound woke,” says one of Prakashan’s followers in the comment section of his post.
The growing network of Hindu nationalists in Tamil Nadu is not only a social media phenomenon but a reflection of the fact that Hindutva politics is gaining heft on the ground in a state that otherwise prides itself in the Dravidian movement that kicked off more than a hundred years ago.
Rise of Hindu nationalism
While Tamil nationalism centred around regional and linguistic identity, upholding the Dravidian principles, it now seems to have been redefined.
“Whether Tamil brahmins or Tamil nadars, we are all Hindus,” says an RSS worker who declined to be named.
Notwithstanding the fact that the BJP has still not been able to make inroads into Tamil Nadu electorally, Hindu nationalism seems to have dug its heels well into the state. Hindutva forces, including the RSS and its affiliates, have managed to register a considerable presence by bringing caste Hindus as well as Dalits under their fold. This many believe was done by making use of the splits and factions within the Dalit movement itself.
The RSS worker claims the organisation has made impressive gains across the state mainly through affiliates like the Seva Bharati—RSS’s social service wing—and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh. “Five years ago, Seva Bharati used to run 115 evening tuition centres across nine districts. Now, that number has increased to over 1,000 such centres in over 20 districts in the state,” he says.
When The Federal visited one such centre in Coimbatore’s Gandhipuram, as many as 20 children were getting ready for their daily lessons. The mariamman temple at the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board Housing Colony was reverberating with evening prayers. Around 20 children, belonging to the Arunthathiyar caste (Dalits), were sitting before their tuition teacher Vinitha*, with their eyes closed, hands folded and foreheads smeared with saffron vermilion.
Every evening, these children come and clean the temple and then break into two prayer songs before starting with their daily lessons. However, Vinitha does not charge the students any money. The only thing she asked her students was to come to the class with vermilion on their foreheads.
“My son is getting free lessons. How does it matter if he was asked to wear vermilion. We are anyway Hindus,” says the mother of a Class 7 student. She, however, wasn’t aware that the classes were being organised by Seva Bharati.
According to independent researcher Arun, there is a reason why more and more Tamils, including the Dalits, are getting sucked into the Hindutva ecosystem.
“We cannot blame the people. Since none of the parties that claim to protect the Tamil identity reached out to help these poor families, it’s natural for them to take help from anyone who comes to their aid.”
On September 7, CITU-affiliated Chennai Corporation Red Flag Union staged a protest demanding a wage hike. Soon after the protest, the corporation terminated as many as 270 contract workers from their services and suspended several permanent workers.
While the demand to reinstate them has been pending for close to a month now, in early October, the corporation reinstated some of the workers who left the Chennai Red Flag Union and joined the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (affiliated to RSS).
According to Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh’s functionary S Purushothaman, he and his colleagues reached out to the senior officials of the corporation and requested them to reinstate the workers. “The workers who joined BMS have been reinstated after they tendered an apology letter to the block health officials,” Purushothaman bragged.
“At the end of the day, I need a job. I was told that I would be given a job if I joined BMS. So, I did. I don’t know if they are affiliated to the RSS or not. But, even if they are a Hindu outfit, why would I bother? I am also a Hindu, afterall,” Chinnaiya, who left Chennai Corporation Red Flag Union and joined BMS, tells The Federal.
“As I said, it’s all about grabbing the right opportunity at the right time,” says Arun.
Like Arun, more and more political observers feel it is the crumbling of the Dravidian ethos that is to be blamed for the rise of Hindu nationalism. Also, the opportunist politics of the Dravidian parties—flirting on and off with the BJP-led NDA at the Centre—have opened the doors for Hindutva forces to infiltrate.
So much so that the Dravidian parties are now forced to align themselves with the greater Hindu identity. The recent past has seen DMK chief MK Stalin repeatedly talk about his party’s contribution towards ‘Hindu welfare’ and assert that the DMK is not anti-Hindu.
As a result, Hindutva groups have succeeded in mobilising the “greater Hindu population”, including Dalits and other dominant castes such as the Thevars, Gounders and Vanniyars.
For instance, after the death of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) leader and Vanniyar Sangam chief J Gurunathan alias Kaduvetti Guru in 2018, a chunk of his supporters in the Cauvery Delta districts joined the BJP, citing lack of visibility within the party. The actual reason, many among them now claim, was much more layered. A former PMK worker who moved to the BJP four months ago says he doesn’t see much difference between the PMK and the BJP.
“In PMK, we all united as Vanniyars, a dominant caste, and in BJP all Hindus are united. We feel it is need of the hour to unite as Hindus,” says K Sivaraj, a BJP functionary from Thanjavur district.
Assertion of Hindu identity by Tamils, Arun says, has been there since Independence. “Ma Po Si (Mylai Ponnuswamy Sivagnanam), a Tamil scholar who wanted to spread the merits of Silapathikaram has consistently asserted that he was a Tamil Hindu. But, the opinion did not gain grounds as the Dravidian movement was pretty strong back then and had put Tamil identity before all other identities,” Arun said.
Karthikeyan Damodaran, a research scholar at the University of Edinburgh, couldn’t agree more. “Hindu nationalism has always been working at disempowering the idea of politicisation of caste as it was for uniformity, but not in a way to emancipate lower or marginalised castes. Instead, it wants to strengthen Hindu unity through sheer numbers.”
The mobilisation of Devendra Kula Vellalars in the recent past—who are now demanding regrouping of their caste and delisting from Schedule Caste category—could be seen as one such move.
But writer Stalin Rajangam says while Tamils embraced their Tamil identity, they never abandoned their caste and religious identity.
He cites the example of the pro-Jallikattu protests of 2017.
“People in huge numbers united as Tamilians and turned out for the pro-Jallikattu protests at the Marina beach. But after the protests, they all went back to their villages with the same casteist mindsets and caste identities.”
The Dravidian leaders, he says, back then thought people would leave all other identities and unite just as Tamils. But that didn’t happen. People continued to worship their respective gods, follow their traditions and assert religious and caste identity as and when the need arose.”
And this need seemed only ‘natural’ to arise in order to accomplish BJP’s ambitions of making electoral inroads into the state. What has helped bolster the Hindutva sentiments is the drilling down a sense of Hindu persecution among Tamils. It is this reignited sense of persecution that has jolted people like Prakashan into action.
The latest example of that is an opinion piece, ‘What Kamala Harris Isn’t Saying About Her Mother’s Background’, by Sadanand Dhume that appeared in the WSJ. Dhume goes on to suggest that ‘Tambrams’ like Shyamala Gopalan—mother of Democratic vice-presidential candidate Harris—‘fled identity politics and socialism’, in Tamil Nadu for the US. As intended, Dhume’s pop opinion was lapped up by many in the Hindutva ecosphere who immediately went on to peddle theories that affirmative action in India to bring the marginalised to the mainstream has “only ended up creating reverse discrimination”.
While many Tamil Brahmins migrated out of the state in the heady days of the Dravidian movement, which was mainly rooted in anti-Brahminism, what Dhume tries to airbrush is the fact that emigrations to the US were largely driven by the ‘big American Dream’. A dream that only the privileged and those with access to the best of educational opportunities could afford to fulfil.
Another such project is the Hindu Spiritual and Service Fair. According to the organisers and the website description, the objective of the fair “is to correct an unfair perception about a majority population and build a proper image of India that tallies with reality…” As the logo suggests, one of its core objectives is also to instil patriotism.
Tamil Nadu has already hosted 11 editions of the fair. While RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy is one of the trustees of the Hindu Spiritual and Service Foundation, the event has gained more and more currency with influential figures from the state in regular attendance.
Visited Hindu spiritual&Service fair being held at Chennai&met Dr.R.Nagaswamy, frmr dirctr, archeological dept.TN pic.twitter.com/lDBDQVBD3a
— Prof.S.Venugopalan🇮🇳 (@Gopalee67) August 4, 2016
According to coordinator Viswasree Maharaj, from a crowd of 35,000 in 2009, the fair got over 8 lakh footfall in January this year.
But Rajangam feels it’s the dilution of the Dravidian principles that has done more harm to the movement than the false equivalences embedded in so-called intellectual discourses.
“The [Dravidian] movement and party were politically correct and have been positioning them correctly. But, they failed to create an alternative culture and tradition for the Tamils.”
According to Periyar, Rajangam says, “he who invented God is a fool. He who propagates god is a scoundrel. He who worships god is a barbarian”.
“But, the Dravadian leaders over the years couldn’t provide an alternative nor could they find an answer to the question why people look for god.”
(*Names changed on request)