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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
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 > Kumaraswamy Kamaraj

One Hundred Tamils of the 20th Century



Nellai Kannan on Kamarajar...

Perunthalaivar Kamaraj
Kamaraj - the Common Sense Politician
K. Kamaraj at All India Congress History
Madurai Kamaraj University
Picture Slide Show of Karma Veerar Kamarajar
Kamaraj:the Film - A.Balakrishnan "..I very much want this film to create a righteous anger in the minds of the people against the malpractices our political parties indulge in. We must go to the polling booth with the same vigour and sense of purpose as we go to fight for water. That will ring the death knell of unethical practices. This will also induce all the parties to change themselves. I will be happy if this happens..."
Kamaraj, the King Maker - the Film in English

Kumaraswamy Kamaraj - Karma Veerar

15 July 1903 - 2 October 1975

Kamarajar"Mr Kamaraj was not rich and has not grown rich; he is a bachelor and has no family ties. He has been and is a whole-time politician and has laboured to acquire personal knowledge of men and things all over the Tamil country and he knows all the leaders of his party from every part of India. He has also acquired facility in English and very considerable knowledge of world affairs. He is immensely popular for all these reasons and especially because he has no vices and leads a simple life. Above all he is the 'representative' Tamil as most Tamils imagine that figure. His ways of speaking, walking, eating and dress commend themselves to the many millions to whom these are familiar ways with nothing outlandish about them"

" சொத்து சுகம் நாடார், சொந்தந்தனை நாடார் பொன்னென்றும் நாடார், பொருள் நாடார், தான்பிறந்த அன்னையையும் நாடார், ஆசைதனை நாடார், நாடொன்றே நாடித்தன் நலமொன்றும் நாடாதநாடாரை நாடென்றார்." KaNNa DhAsan on KAmarAja n^AdAr (காமராஜ நாடார்)

From the Economics & Political Weekly Commentary by Y Vincent Kumaradoss - April 24, 2004:

The political career of Kumaraswamy Kamaraj (1903-1975) spanning about 50 years, cutting across the colonial and post-independent phases, of Indian history, is indeed an enviable record. Representing a novel political culture neither bordering on Gandhian thought and action nor possessing the anglicised sophistication and cosmopolitanism of the Nehruvian vision, Kamaraj, rose from an underprivileged background, stood forth as a sober and robust figure winning the confidence and respect of the common people.

He showed a rare political acumen and the uncanny ability to grasp social and political realities from the grass roots level upwards. A hard core political realist, his political life was never governed by any high theories or fancy jargon. Accredited with the capacity to be at ease with cliques, groups, factions and castes, Kamaraj applied his energies in favour of common people. Endowed with an extraordinary memory, his minimal formal schooling was never a serious impediment. In fact rarely could a man from such a humble origin possess such knowledge about Tamil Nadu, be it geography or ethnography, which is beyond most intellectuals and academicians.

Kamaraj rose from the lowest Congress ranks during the freedom struggle to become the president of the Tamil Nadu Congress Party for over 20 years (1940-1963) interspersed by short intervals, the chief minister of Madras (1954-1963) for nine years; and, as the president of the Indian National Congress (1964-1967), he assumed the crucial role of 'kingmaker'. Kamaraj's ascendancy is all the more significant because he belonged to the low caste Nadar community,1 which had a long history of struggle against social oppression and economic deprivation.

The Nadars, originally known as Shanars, were found principally in the two southern districts of Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari. Palmyra climbing and toddy tapping were their traditional occupations. In the Hindu caste hierarchy the Nadars were ranked very low just above the untouchables and were forbidden entry into temples because of their association with alcohol. Mercantilism and Christianity played crucial roles in facilitating their upward mobility. Within a span of two centuries, they rose from near untouchability to a position of social and economic power. Though Kamaraj typified the Nadar success story he never was a leader of his community2 and transcended the bounds of Nadar caste identity3 dropping the caste title early in his political career.

Hailing from Virudhupatti (now Virudhunagar), one of the early settlements of migrant Nadars, Kamaraj, born in 1903 into an ordinary small scale Nadar business family, was a school dropout at the age of 11 and for a number of years never had steady and proper employment. Kumaraswamy Kamaraj evinced interest in politics at the age of 15 when the news of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre reached his ears. Responding to the call of Gandhiji's Non-Cooperation Movement, Kamaraj entered the freedom struggle as a Congress volunteer organising meetings, processions and demonstrations. He soon found an abiding place for himself in the Congress ranks as a gritty grass roots level, full-time worker and mass leader of the Congress; and he was imprisoned a number of times for actively participating in the freedom struggle. He spent a total of eight years in British Indian jails during six spells of imprisonment.

When the Brahmin dominance in the Tamil Nadu Congress leadership4 was firmly entrenched and the rivalry between the two key Brahmin leaders, C Rajagopalachari and S Satyamurthi, was brewing, Kamaraj wove his way into the top echelons of the Tamil Nadu Congress organisation as the representative of the non-Brahmin enclave. The 'Brahmin image'5 of the Congress found its affirmation at the hands of Rajaji when he introduced compulsory Hindi in schools in 1938 when he was the chief minister.

This move was met with resentment and brought about an open confrontation between him and E V Ramasamy in 1938. A massive anti-Hindi agitation was launched by E V Ramasamy unleashing a vehement onslaught on the nexus between Rajaji, the Brahmin and Hindi, the 'Aryan language of oppression'.6 The statewide anti-Hindi campaign involved picketing schools, picketing in front of Rajaji's residence and hunger strikes. E V Ramasamy was arrested in December 1938 and imprisoned for a year.

This confrontation sharpened the conflict between the non-Brahmins and Brahmins within the Congress organisation. The agitation was continued till Rajaji had to opt for making Hindi an optional subject in schools in February 1940. At this crucial moment, Rajaji's candidate, C P Subbiah, was defeated by K Kamaraj with the support of the Brahmin leader, Satyamurthi. Kamaraj was elected as the president of the Tamil Nadu Congress in 1940, the post which he held till he became the chief minister of Tamil Nadu in 1954.

The advent of Kamaraj as the party boss from a low caste non-Brahmin background made a "powerful appeal to the vast non-Brahmin majority" and attracted the non-Brahmin elites and the political-minded elements "who had long resented the power and privileges" of the Brahmins, and broadened the social base of the Congress.7 The non-Brahmin presence in the Congress gained ground, rallying around Kamaraj, a 'rustic' leader who transformed the Congress into a people's party championing the causes of the lower castes. Kamaraj grew steadily from strength to strength displaying his organising skills to control men and matters. During these years his contact with the people and the respect he commanded made his position unassailable. The untimely death of Satyamurti in 1943 improved his position and gave him a further lease of power. With the Congress machinery under his control, he overshadowed his party men and effectively reduced the Brahmin dominance in the party.

As the party chief, Kamaraj commenced his active role in the successive elections of the Congress legislative party of Madras and was the prime author of installing three chief ministers between 1946 and 1952: T Prakasam, Omandur Ramaswamy Reddiar and Kumaraswamy Raja. The next successor Rajaji was certainly not Kamaraj's choice but was appointed by the Congress high command. The re-entry of Rajaji as chief minister8 without even an election could have derailed Kamaraj's emerging equations with non-Brahmins. The die was cast when Rajaji, flaunting his authority, introduced a vocational educational scheme based on hereditary calling, which met with stiff opposition not only from the Dravida Kazhagam and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, but also from a large number of non-Brahmins in the Congress quarters. This educational pattern, aimed at imparting to school children the traditional caste occupation of their parents, came to be condemned by E V! Ramasamy as kula kalvi thittam, devised to perpetuate varnashrama dharma. Rajaji also took the drastic step of closing down nearly 6,000 schools, citing financial constraints.9

E V Ramasamy campaigned against the new educational policy much to the chagrin of Rajaji. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), formed in 1949 by breaking away from the Dravida Kazhagam, also joined the crusade against Rajaji's scheme. E V Ramasamy did not rest on his oars till the scheme was dropped. This second confrontation between them proved too costly for Rajaji. Rajaji, the statesman of Brahmin hagiography, had to bow out ingloriously tendering his resignation in 1954. Rajaji's political vagaries in 1938 and 1953 meant the passing of Brahmins as the controllers of Tamil Nadu's political destiny till the next four decades. With the resignation of Rajaji, Kamaraj was perhaps the natural and logical choice. At the meeting of the Congress legislature party on March 31, 1954, with Rajaji presiding, his arch rival and the target of his ridicule10 Kamaraj was elected as the leader, securing 93 votes as against 41 received by C Subramaniam who was propped up by Rajaji.11

Kamaraj as Chief Minister

Kamaraj was 'reluctant to accept' the chief ministership but the circumstance prevailed upon him as there was no 'alternative to the kingmaker himself ascending the throne.'12 Kamaraj took the mantle from Rajaji, and formed his first cabinet, which did not contain a single Brahmin contrary to Rajaji's first ministry in 1937, 'dominated by Brahmins'.13 The elevation of Kamaraj as the chief minister on the wave of opposition to the Rajaji scheme of education, led to the development of closer ties between Kamaraj and E V Ramasamy. The Congress gained the support of E V Ramasamy and Kamaraj's equation with the non-Brahmins was kept intact. E V Ramasamy was all set to endorse his solidarity with Kamaraj on the grounds that in all these years he was the first and only non-Brahmin with Tamil as his mother tongue to become the chief minister; and for the first time a full-fledged ministry had been formed without a single Brahmin headed! by Kamaraj.

According to E V Ramasamy all credit should go to Kamaraj for dropping Rajaji's educational scheme despite opposition from upper castes led by C Subramaniam and Bakthavatchalam who were in favour of it.14 Extolling Kamaraj as the pacchai Tamilan he urged his followers to extend every support to sustain the Kamaraj rule and prevent it from being ousted, as the interests of Tamils were safe in his hands.15 However, Kamaraj did not follow the exclusion of Brahmins as a deliberate policy. In fact, Brahmins were incorporated into his ministry at a later stage, one of the prominent gainers being R Venkataraman.

For Kamaraj, E V Ramasamy's open proclamation of support was a great source of strength, arriving precisely at the right moment when he himself was under pressure since doubts were being echoed in certain circles whether Kamaraj, a low caste man without formal education, would be able to cope with the administrative exigencies of the office of chief minister.16 For Kamaraj, seasoned for the occasion, E V Ramasamy's endorsement was an unmistakable political gain and he saw its usefulness in countering his critics. Soon Kamaraj proved his capabilities as one of best chief ministers silencing the critics and sceptics. Kamaraj silently used the non-Brahmin movement in his favour though he did not 'share Periyar's anti-Brahmanism'.17 E V Ramasamy's crusade against brahmanism, religion and the threat of imposition of Hindi from Delhi would continue unabated under Kamaraj's rule only so long as it did not weaken Kamaraj's ministerial governance. Kamaraj distanced himself from Ramasamy and his followers when the mode of agitation culminated in a call for burning the national flag (August 1, 1955), maps of India and copies of the Constitution.18

One of the first political acts of Kamaraj during his tenure as chief minister was to widen representation of the rising non-Brahmins in the cabinet. Ministerial berths were given to the non-Brahmin caste-based parties, Tamil Nadu Toilers Party and Commonweal Party. Both the parties were subsequently 'subsumed' by the Congress.19 In a move to counter Tamil cultural politics espoused by the DMK, Kamaraj made conscious attempts to partake in the linguistic cultural matters. In order to placate Tamil aspirations, Kamaraj effected some measures.20 The efforts towards introducing Tamil language as a medium of instruction in schools and colleges was accompanied by the publication of textbooks on 'scientific and technical subjects' in Tamil.21 In 1960 the state education minister took steps to introduce Tamil in government arts colleges as a medium of instruction.

The introduction of the Tamil typewriter in government offices was another effort to change the language of administration gradually.22 Similarly the usage of Tamil in the courts received encouragement. To affirm his role in the linguistic politics of the state, Kamaraj did introduce a bill in February 1962 in the legislative assembly for changing the name of Madras to 'Tamilnad' for 'intra-state communication', the bill also proposing Madurai as the capital.23 But no decision was taken on it. However these moves were on a low key and inadequate to woo the masses. The DMK made capital out of this, routing Congress in the 1967 elections four years after Kamaraj relinquished his office as chief minister in accordance with the Kamaraj Plan to concentrate on Congress organisational work.

Committed to his version of 'socialism' meaning that "those who are backward should progress", Kamaraj remained truthful to the simple dictum of his 'socialism', providing 'what is essential for man's living' such as 'dwelling, job, food and education'.24 The great feature of Kamaraj rule was the ending of the retrogressive educational policies and setting the stage for universal and free schooling. Six thousand schools closed down by Rajagopalachari were revived and 12,000 schools added.25 The percentage of school going children in the age group between 6 and 11 increased from 45 per cent to 75 per cent within a span of seven years after he became the chief minister.26

Almost every village within a radius of one mile with a population of 300 and above inhabitants was provided with a school.27 With a view to encouraging and attracting the rural poor children to the schools Kamaraj pioneered a scheme of free mid-day meals for primary school children in panchayat and government institutions.28 This scheme, aided by the American voluntary organisation CARE, was launched in 1957.29 In addition the government came forward to supply school uniforms to poor students.30 To make the education easily accessible to children from various backgrounds, full exemption from school fees was introduced. Public enthusiasm and participation in raising funds and procuring equipment for the schools were entertained through different schemes making education a social responsibility.31 Such measures made education affordable for many who were denied basic educational opportunities for centuries.

Kamaraj's other major feat was his role in facilitating developmental programmes chiefly electrification and industrial development. Thousands of villages were electrified. Rural electrification led to the large-scale use of pumpsets for irrigational purposes and agriculture-received impetus. Large and small-scale industries were flagged off generating employment opportunities. Kamaraj made the best use of the funds available through the Five-Year Plans and guided Tamil Nadu in deriving the maximum benefit.

His efforts in these directions not only enhanced the profile of Tamil Nadu as one of the best-administered states in the post-independent era, but it also raised it high in social and economic rankings compared to other states.32 As chief minister for nine years Kamaraj headed a stable administration and managed two elections successfully and his reputation soared high as 'shrewd and competent' and "one of the most effective chief min! isters in India."33 He proved himself more than equal to the task and his detractors retracted the statements made about this 'village-green trundler'34 and his capacity to govern the state when he took the mantle from Rajaji.

His competent ministerial colleagues and the excellent set of senior state officials saw in Kamaraj 'a man with a mission' who could set aside any stricture in order to serve the common people. He was able to invoke cooperation, dedication and willingness ungrudgingly. Importantly his approach to governance and party control was never tainted with religious overtones and a secular commitment was natural and integral to his mission in life. Among his cherished political mentors, Kamaraj held George Joseph, a Kerala Christian nationalist who chose Madurai as his base for practising law and for his political activities, in high esteem.35

Kamaraj's association with George Joseph began early and grew in strength from the days when Kamaraj frequented political meetings addressed by George Joseph in Virudhunagar.36 It continued through the period of his involvement in the Vaikom Satyagraha then led by George Joseph, to the organising of demonstrations against the Simon Commission along with Joseph. It was George Joseph who defended Kamaraj and got him released when he was accused of making bombs and implicated in the Virudhunagar Conspiracy case. Profoundly fond of George Joseph and his family, Kamaraj continued to pay visits to the Joseph family especially his wife Susannah, even with his busy itinerary as chief minister.

His lifestyle never changed; power and position failed to dislocate his simplicity. His illustrious career as the chief minister of Tamil Nadu ended in 1963 and he commenced his political life in Delhi as the president of the All India Congress Party. Explicating Kamaraj's long stint and stature in Tamil Nadu politics, reputed political scientist, R Bhaskaran, observed:

"Mr Kamaraj was not rich and has not grown rich; he is a bachelor and has no family ties. He has been and is a whole-time politician and has laboured to acquire personal knowledge of men and things all over the Tamil country and he knows all the leaders of his party from every part of India. He has also acquired facility in English and very considerable knowledge of world affairs. He is immensely popular for all these reasons and especially because he has no vices and leads a simple life. Above all he is the 'representative' Tamil as most Tamils imagine that figure. His ways of speaking, walking, eating and dress commend themselves to the many millions to whom these are familiar ways with nothing outlandish about them."37

Bhaskaran's judgment is indeed right. That is certainly the reason why the beleaguered Congress in Tamil Nadu is wooing the Tamils today with the promise of 'Kamaraj Rule.'

Most know why it cannot promise a 'Rajaji Rule'.


1 Lloyd I Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1972, (Third Impression), pp 36-49.

2 Duncan B Forrester, ' Kamaraj: A Study in Percolation of Style,' Modern Asian Studies, 4, 1, 1970, p 47.

3 Dennis Templeman, The Northern Nadars of Tamil Nadu: An Indian Caste in the Process of Change, Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1996, p 262.

4 Ibid, p 48.

5 Karat Prakash, Language and Nationality in Tamil Nadu Politics, Orient Longman, Madras, 1973, p 78.

6 Ibid, p 78f.

7 J Anthony Lukas, 'Political Python of India', New York Times, February 20, 1966.

8 Rajaji was out of Congress between 1942 and 1946, disapproving Congress Party's Quit India Movement and its initial opposition to the demand for Pakistan.

9 Era Rathina Giri, Thanthai PeriyarVazhvum Thondum, National Book Trust, New Delhi, 1997, p 70.

10 Prabhanjan, 'Kamaraj Engira Acharyam', Inthiya Today, July 30, 2003, p 46.

11 Rajmohan Gandhi, The Rajaji Story 1937-1972, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1984, p 252

12 Duncan B Forrester, 'Kamaraj: A Study', p 53.

13 Ibid, p 54.

14 'Kamarasar Atharipu Ean?,' Viduthalai May 15, 1954, in Periyar EVR Sinthanaigal, p 829.

15 'Kamarasar Atharipu Ean?,' Viduthalai June 1, 1954, in Periyar EVR Sinthanaigal, pp 832-35.

16 Chinna Kuthusi Thiyagarajan, 'Ainthanduth Thittangal Kalamum Kamarajin Porkala Atchyum', Thittam, Vol 33, No 11, July 2003, p 2.

17 Anita Diehl, Periyar E V Ramaswami: A Study of the Influence of a Personality in Contemporary South India, B I Publications, Madras, 1978, p 73f.

18 Mohan Ram, Hindi against India: The Meaning of DMK, Rachna Prakashan, New Delhi, 1968, p 92f.

19 Lloyd I Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, The Modernity of Tradition, p 88f.

20 Karat Prakash, Language and Nationality, p 80.

21 Narendra Subramanian, Ethnicity and Populist Mobilisation: Political Parties, Citizens and Democracy in South India, UP, New-Delhi, 1999, p 16.

22 Ibid.

23 Robert L Hardgrave Jr, 'The DMK and the Politics of Tamil Nationalism', Pacific Affairs, 1965, p 409.

24 J Antony Lucas, 'Political Python', p 52.

25 Chinna Kuthusi Thiyagarajan, 'Ainthanduth Thittangal', p 2.

26 Ibid, p 3.

27 Ibid, p 2.

28 The Hindu, August 8, 2003, p 10.

29 P S Subbaraman, Kamaraj: Symbol of Indian Democracy, Popular Prakashan, New-Delhi, 1966, p 23.

30 Ibid.

31 Chinna Kuthusi Thiyagarajan, 'Ainthanduth Thittangal', p 3f

32 P S Subbaraman, Kamaraj: Symbol, p 19f.

33 Duncan B Forrester, Kamaraj: A Study, p 53.

34 Rajmohan Gandhi, The Rajaji Story, p 251.

35 George Gheverghese Joseph, George Joseph: the Life and Times of a Kerala Christian Nationalist, Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2003, p 224f.

36 John Asirvatham, Ganthiya Perunthalaivar Kamarasar, International Institute of Tamil Studies, Madras, 1991, p 5.

37 R Bhaskaran, 'Aspects of Political Leadership in Madras Politics', Sociology of Politics: Tradition and Politics in India, Asia Publishing House, Bombay, 1967, p 50.

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