The 93-year-old chief of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the main opposition in Tamil Nadu, Karunanidhi on Monday called the proposal an “atrocity”, and said “every Tamil would take a whip and stand ready to eradicate the language (Sanskrit/Hindi)”.
“We will not allow the domination Sanskrit in any state, including Tamil Nadu,” the veteran politician further said, referring to the proposed Ved Vidya Board Scheme, an optional Sanskrit-only medium under the Central Board of Secondary Education.
The DMK patriarch also promised to launch anti-Sanskrit agitations in the same vein as the anti-Hindi riots which reached their peak during the 1960s should the proposal come through.
The comparison is interesting given that it was these riots which first gave the nonagenarian the chance to distinguish himself as a political leader in the context of Tamil politics.
The anti-Hindi agitations of yesteryear first began in the 1930s as a natural extension of the Dravidian movement spearheaded by Tamil firebrand E Ramaswamy Naicker, better known as Periyar.
At a time when the Independence movement was searching for a way to project a united front, the adoption of Hindi as a universal language was suggested.
This was received less than graciously by Periyar, who called for agitations in the Madras Presidency which continued sporadically post-Independence.
Naicker and his followers were resisting what they perceived was an imposition of a language almost as alien to Tamil as English was – in etymological, linguistic, and communicative terms.
His Self-Respect movement also refused to entertain the idea that the government of a newly liberated nation would conduct its business in a language that more than half the country didn’t call its mother tongue.These agitations were carried on by the DMK, and Periyar’s once-loyal disciple, Annadurai. In response to the argument that Hindi was spoken as a first language by a significant percentage of the population, the veteran leader famously said, “If we had to accept the principle of numerical superiority while selecting our national bird, the choice would have fallen not on the peacock, but on the common crow.”
The ferocity of the agitations prompted Jawaharlal Nehru to sign the 1963 Official Languages Act, which stated that English would continue to be used, but in addition to Hindi.
But the “may” outraged the DMK, whose leaders, including an eloquent writer called Muthuvel Karunanidhi, argued that future governments may also choose to eschew English as an official language.
Karunanidhi helped raise the call for state-wide agitations in 1965, a period marked by a great deal of violence as student agitators clashed with lathi-wielding policemen.
It finally took an assurance from Lal Bahadur Shastri that Hindi would not be imposed to finally quell the riots.
The agitations finally ceased when, in 1967, Indira Gandhi amended the act her father had signed to ensure that both Hindi and English would be the official languages of the Indian Republic.
The riots brought Karunanidhi into prominence among his party, as well as highlighting a new generation of potential leaders – such as a young, 14-year-old MK Stalin.
It also provided the impetus for the DMK to storm into power in the 1967 elections, heralding the end of the Congress party’s fortunes in Tamil Nadu.
But Karunanidhi’s veiled threats could merely be more bark than bite.
“It is a dead issue now,” says Sampath Kumar, a veteran journalist who saw the riots which brought the DMK to power firsthand. “Karunanidhi is flogging a dead horse.”
At 93, the DMK patriarch is one of India’s longest serving politicians. But the last Assembly Elections, where his bete noir Jayalalithaa managed to buck history and retain a majority, may be his last: And if so, his threat may simply be a last snarl from the grand old man of Dravidian politics, and not a serious declaration.