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Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home > Tamils - a Nation without a State> One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century : C.N.Annadurai > Letter and spirit - A.R. Venkatachalapathy

C.N.Annadurai - காஞ்சீபுரம் நடராஜன் அண்ணாதுரை

Annadurai: Politician, 1909 - 1969

Letter and spirit
A.R. Venkatachalapathy
Historian and Tamil Writer

India Today , 10 April 2008

Quick take

Q: What did he do before joining politics?
A:Wrote film scripts and dialogues

Q: Which state did he rename?
A: Tamil Nadu. Earlier known as Madras

Q: How many publications did he start?
A: Three—Dravida Nadu, A Tamil weekly in 1942 and two in English— homeland (1957), Home Rule (1966)

Q: What did he die of?
A: Oral cancer as he used to chew tobacco

Q: What was unusual about his funeral in 1969?
A: About 1.5 million people attended it, a record

When Conjeevaram Natarajan Annadurai died, his funeral, attended by many lakhs of people, was one of the largest the country had seen—and as Indians are often fond of claiming—it is supposed to be a Guinness record.

Anna, not only the diminutive of his name but which means “respected elder brother” as well in Tamil (an ambiguity capitalised on by the Dravidian movement), was born of rather undistinguished parentage for which he was often ridiculed by petty-minded political rivals.

In the rise of this barely five-and-a-quarter feet man with a balding pate, tobacco-stained teeth, stubbled chin and a captivating husky voice to prominence lies the story of modern Tamil Nadu.

Anna was the first leader of post Independence India who did not play a role in the freedom struggle. Education—an M.A. proudly tagged to his name—was his only claim to respect and he cut his political teeth in the non-Brahmin Justice Party, translating into Tamil the high-flown public speeches of its leaders.

The first anti-Hindi agitation of 1937–39 clearly established his skills with language—on the platform and with the pen to which he later added film script writing. In him Periyar E.V. Ramasamy found the lieutenant who would, however, soon upstage him.

In 1944, with freedom only a matter of time, Anna gave the crucial reorientation to the non-Brahmin movement, which would rid it of the stigma of loyalism. Rechristened the Dravidar Kazhagam, he prepared it for challenges of a newly independent nation state. His alliterative rhetoric, radically new to the Tamil language, changed Tamil public speaking forever. Combined with his voracious reading in western rationalism, his linguistic skills greatly enamoured the Tamil youth from upwardly mobile non-Brahmin families.

What perhaps contributed to Anna’s ultimate success was his ability to harness and tame the ideas and energies let lose by Periyar. Given his controversial and radical ideas on nation, caste, religion, women and language, understandably Periyar eschewed electoral politics.

In Anna, the emergent backward castes saw a leader who could take them to political power. He skilfully repackaged Periyar’s iconoclastic ideas to make them palatable in the public domain. Periyar’s rustic atheism became “Onre Kulam, Oruvane Devan” (One God, One Community) in a skilful appropriation of the venerated medieval Tamil saint Tirumular. When Periyar went about breaking the idols of Pillaiyar (Ganapati) Anna famously observed that he would neither break the idol nor the coconut (in worship).

The first open sign of break came when Periyar declared August 15, 1947, as a day of mourning. In perceptively judging the public mood—a trait he was to display many times in his political career—Anna declared that there was now one enemy less (the British).

Periyar’s mismatched marriage in 1949 with a young Maniammai provided the pretext for the birth of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Over the 1950s he built a party which expressed the dissatisfaction of Tamils with the Indian state, especially the imposition of Hindi.

The Congress’s well-planned defeat of Anna in the 1962 assembly elections led him into the Rajya Sabha. The abdication of the secessionist demand in the wake of the Chinese aggression was yet another indication of his political acumen.

DMK pretty much set the terms of the debate in early post-1947 Tamil Nadu. In a, perhaps now justly forgotten, book called India: the Most Dangerous Decade (1960), a US analyst Selig Harrison observed of Anna: “There is no doubt that this powerful orator is the single-most popular mass figure in the region”—a point completely missed by his political rivals.

And when DMK swept the polls— cobbling up a coalition with C. Rajagopalachari’s Swatantra Party, the Communists and the Muslim League, thereby gaining political acceptability across the board—in 1967 effectively ending Congress dominance in the state, it surprised no one except the Congress.

But the electoral success disturbed no one more than Anna himself, for he feared that success had come a little too early—DMK’s first cabinet was the youngest in India then. He had assiduously built up a party apparatus that spread to every corner of the state through a wide and democratic network of reading rooms that doubled up as party offices.

A magnanimous man who was generous to a fault, Anna had also groomed a distinguished line of second rung leaders by whom he never felt threatened—a lesson that every party leader in India should learn. The dazzling rise of Anna was cut short by death. He was not yet 60. The Indian nation state owes much to him for safely accommodating Tamil nationalism within it.


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