Tamil Nadu’s last icon | Daily News

Tamil Nadu’s last icon

“Someone who never rested, rests here”. So read the Tamil wordings on the casket of Muthuvel “Kalaignar” Karunanidhi (94), popular politician, poet and scriptwriter of Tamil Nadu. The Southern Indian State has lost the last icon who came to the political stage from the silver screen, along with the legendary M G Ramachandran (MGR) and Jayaram Jayalalithaa, both of whom predeceased him. All three of them did become Chief Minister, a post which Karunanidhi held five times.

Karunanidhi dominated the Tamil-language movie industry as a screenwriter beginning in the 1950s, and later the political scene for nearly five decades. From his school days, Karunanidhi showed an interest in drama, poetry and literature. He began his career as a screenwriter at the age of just 20. His first film, Rajakumaari (1945), which incidentally starred MGR, gained him immense recognition and popularity. Karunanidhi penned screenplays, stories and dialogues for more than 50 Tamil movies including Marudanattu Ilavarasi, Mandiri Kumari, Tirumbipar and Arasilangkumari. Some of his movies were a conduit for his Dravidian ideology, infused with his anti-caste and anti-religious attitudes.

A life in politics was an inevitable trajectory for Karunanidhi, who was well known for his wit and oratorical skills. After joining politics at age 33 and winning a State Legislature seat in 1957, he won 13 State elections. He became the Chief Minister for the first time nearly 50 years ago and held that position five times for a total of 19 years. He led the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) political party founded by his mentor C.N. Annadurai, himself a scriptwriter and Chief Minister and the leading light of the Dravidian Movement in Tamil Nadu. Appropriately, Karunanidhi will be laid to rest next to the Anna Memorial.

Although Karunanidhi and MGR, who later formed the AIADMK, fell out over serious differences in 1972, MGR continued to address Karunanidhi as “Andavane” (God), which is a measure of the respect the latter commanded in Tamil Nadu political circles. This was somewhat ironic, given that Karunanidhi was known as an atheist. In the words of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Karunanidhi was a “deep-rooted mass leader, prolific thinker, accomplished writer and a stalwart whose life was devoted to the welfare of the poor and the marginalized”. It was only two years ago that he gave up active politics as his health deteriorated.

To his legion of supporters, Karunanidhi was ‘Tamil Inaththalaivar’ or, ‘the leader of the Tamil race’ which, perhaps unfortunately led him to believe that he should get involved in the conflict in Sri Lanka’s North. He divided opinion on both sides of the Palk Strait with his apparent support for the Tamil militant movements in Sri Lanka and leadership of the controversial Tamil Eelam Supporters Association in 1986. However, he was seen as being more supportive towards the TELO than the LTTE and was devastated when the LTTE assassinated TELO leaders despite a personal appeal to the LTTE leader. He counted many friends among Sri Lankan politicians, even those from the South. While being supportive of the separatist movements in Sri Lanka, he was careful not to stoke separatist sentiments in his own State, whose populace shares common linguistic and cultural traits with Tamils in Sri Lanka’s North. He justified his actions saying he primarily stood for a just solution for the Tamils. He was among the Indian politicians who opposed the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 and the presence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka.

Things turned sour for Karunanidhi and the LTTE in 1991, when the latter was accused of and later found guilty of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Even though the Karunanidhi tenure which began in 1989 was curtailed in January 1991 due to its apparent encouragement of the LTTE, it was a bit too late as the LTTE had used the prevailing freedom to assemble a team to assassinate Gandhi just four months later. Although Karunanidhi vehemently denied allegations that the Tigers were having a free run during his regime, the public opinion in Tamil Nadu had turned firmly against the terror group by this time. It was no longer fashionable to support the separatist cause in Sri Lanka and Karunanidhi adopted an anti-LTTE attitude.

In his subsequent terms as Chief Minister (1996-2001 and 2006-11), Karunanidhi cracked down on overt expressions of support to the organisation. However, he still advocated a federalist sort of solution to the conflict in Sri Lanka, which found few takers on either side. His last hurrah on this issue was going on a sudden fast one day in April 2009, which was called off a few hours later after the Centre said it had got an assurance from the Sri Lankan Government that major combat operations using heavy weapons were over.

Karunanidhi is survived in the political world by two of his children – his second son, M.K. Stalin, is his chosen political heir while a daughter, Kanimozhi, is a MP the Indian Parliament. This will ensure that his political legacy will not be forgotten for many years to come.


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