The Political Career of Kamarajar

November 18, 2017 Geography

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.

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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. 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. 1 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. 4 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.

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