Ilankai Tamil Sangam

28th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Dravidian Movement in Tamil Nadu

Part 1

The Views of Marguerite Ross Barnett

Barnett has inferred from her observations that [as of 1972] in Tamil Nadu, “Tamilians taken as a unit see themselves, not as an ethnic group within a nationwide system of ethnic groups, but as a nation with an intrinsic legitimacy of its own. This crucial difference reflects the role of political leaders in articulating the concept of nation-hood as well as early belief in the qualitative character of ‘racial’ distinctions between Aryan and Dravidian; Brahmin and non-Brahmin.” [Italics are as in the original]

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

Marguerite Ross Barnett This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party’s entry into the electoral politics of India, and also the 40th anniversary of the DMK becoming the ruling party in Tamil Nadu for the first time. If the activities of the Indian National Congress led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1930s and 1940s were looked upon favorably by the Tamilians all over the world, it is not an exaggeration to state that the DMK and its leadership of the 1950s and 1960s positively influenced the thoughts and (some) deeds of Tamilians living in many countries. Thus, in the annals of 20th century Tamil history, the DMK’s contribution to Tamil society at large (in politics, social activism, literary trends, and evolution of Tamil mass media and stage-movie arts) cannot be underestimated.

Among the pantheon of DMK leaders of that era, six were adored by virtue of their talents and skills. These were – in chronological order of birth -  C.N. Annadurai (Anna;1909-1969), M.G. Ramachandran (MGR; 1917-1987), V.N. Nedunchezhiyan (Navalar; 1920-2000), M. Karunanidhi (Kalaignar; b.1924), Kannadasan (Kavi Arasu; 1927-1981) and V.C. Ganesan (Sivaji Ganesan; 1928-2001).

The DMK, founded by Anna, is an offshoot of the Dravida Kazhagam (DK) which had its genesis in 1944. The 58 year history of the DMK, since its founding in 1949, can conveniently be divided into two phases; Anna phase (1949-1968) and Karunanidhi phase (1969- present). While, Sivaji Ganesan and Kannadasan left the DMK during its Anna phase, MGR and Nedunchezhiyan opted to leave the DMK during the Karunanidhi phase.

Those who are under 40 may not be much familiar now about the origin and the Anna phase of the DMK party. Primarily for their benefit, I have transcribed a relatively lengthy analysis written by Marguerite Ross Barnett (1942-1992), a Black American scholar, who conducted field research in India between 1967 and 1969 on this subject for her doctoral degree. This analysis covers DMK history until early 1972 – just prior to the major split of the party in its post-Anna phase resulting in the expulsion of MGR from the party, which occurred in October 1972.

Since the 1970s, the politics of the DMK and its offshoot, the Anna DMK of MGR, have been derisively commented on by some vociferous Tamil Nadu analysts such as Cho Ramasamy, Subramanian Swamy, and M.S.S. Pandian, who embraced the policies of non-DMK parties parading as the ‘Indian-National (Janatha Party and its offshoots)’ or ‘International (Marxist-Communist)’ brands, at one period or other. Compared to the harsh views of these swadeshi (native-born) analysts about the influence of the Dravidian movement on Tamil ethnics, the thoughts of a paradeshi (foreigner) academic of the caliber of Marguerite Ross Barnett appear sympathetic to DMK ideology and how it influenced the Tamil masses.

A few words about Marguerite Ross Barnett are not inappropriate here. She was one of a kind; a woman academic whose 1972 Ph.D.dissertation submitted at the University of Chicago was entitled, ‘The Politics of Cultural Nationalism: The DMK in Tamil Nadu, South India.’ When she contributed this analysis, derived from her Ph.D. dissertation, to the Ethnicity journal, Marguerite Ross Barnett was affiliated to Princeton University. Subsequently, she became the President of the University of Houston in 1990 – the first woman and the first Black American academic to hold such an office in that institution. It's rather unfortunate that Marguerite Ross Barnett’s life ended prematurely, two months shy of her 50th birthday, as a consequence of complications from a neuroendocrinological disorder.

Probably for the sake of convenience, Barnett divided her analysis into the following sections:

1. Introduction

2. Origins of Tamil Identity: The Non-Brahmin Movement

3. Tamil Political Identity and Contemporary Politics

4. Post-Independence Modernization and Tamil Identity

5. Conclusion

I have indicated these five sections in bold, large case letters. The 2nd and 3rd sections have been further split into additional sub-sections by the author.

Barnett has inferred from her observations that [as of 1972] in Tamil Nadu, “Tamilians taken as a unit see themselves, not as an ethnic group within a nationwide system of ethnic groups, but as a nation with an intrinsic legitimacy of its own. This crucial difference reflects the role of political leaders in articulating the concept of nation-hood as well as early belief in the qualitative character of ‘racial’ distinctions between Aryan and Dravidian; Brahmin and non-Brahmin.” [Italics are as in the original]

Has the ideology of the DMK lost its luster among the Tamils now, due to the flip-flops made by its leadership in the political arena and/or due to the tactical errors of Karunanidhi, since 1972? Considering the popularity and affection MGR had with the Tamil populace, Karunanidhi conceeding three straight general elections (1977, 1980 and 1984) to his former pal was explainable. But why Karunanidhi had to abysmally lose twice (1991 and 2001) in the popularity contest against Jayalalitha, a low caliber opponent and one belonging to his subsequent generation? Now 35 years years after Barnett’s observations on the DMK, what percent of Tamil Nadu Tamilians still consider themselves as “a nation with an intrinsic legitimacy of its own”? Can any Indian-National parties again become the dominant ruling party in Tamil Nadu in the near future? What will be the direction of the DMK, in the post-Karunanidhi phase which is around the corner sooner rather than later? These are interesting themes to be ploughed further by the younger generation of scholars.

Details relating to the 64 references cited in the paper are provided at the end of the text. The dots as well as the words and phrases in italics and parentheses, are as in the original. Minor and obvious type-setting errors have been corrected for the sake of accuracy.

Creating Political Identity: The Emergent South Indian Tamils*

by Marguerite Ross Barnett

Princeton University

[courtesy: Ethnicity, 1974, vol.1, pp.237-265]


Theories of nationalism and ethnicity often assume what must be examined: the existence of nationality or ethnic groups. Viewing group identity as a cultural or biological ‘given’ fosters synchronic rather than diachronic analysis. For that reason, studies in this area have paid relatively little attention to the process of identity emergence, symbolic transformation in ideologies of cultural nationalism and linkages between core symbols which delineate identity and concrete situations of social change. Beginning with a theoretical perspective which challenges the notion of identity being a direct reflection of cultural ‘givens’ and/or atavistic non-rational primordial sentiments, this paper analyzes the process of identity change in South India. Emergence of Tamil political identity and the ‘creation’ of Tamil nationality is etiologically related to the interaction of variables that are broadly social, cultural, economic, and political in character. It was found that transformations in the caste system and other dislocations resulting from modernization processes, social change, and truncated economic development created the structural potential for emergence of new forms of political identity.


Two years after the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (henceforth DMK) came to power in the state of Tamil Nadu[1], South India, Nam Nadu, the official DMK party organ exuberantly declared ‘the DMK in power is [i.e., epitomizes] the day to day life of the Tamilian people.’ Behind this elaborate political metaphor stand two salient aspects of the last fifty years of Tamil Nadu political development: the ‘Creation’ of a Tamilian people (i.e., a Tamilian political identity) and the linkage of that process to the, once radical, Dravidian movement of which the ruling DMK political party is a recent offshoot. Although Dravidian movement ideologists have articulated a cultural nationalist position for the past fifty years (i.e., emphasizing cultural factors such as language, common Tamil heritage, ‘race’ as delineators of the boundaries of the political community) cultural nationalism has only recently become the stressed theme in Tamil Nadu political culture.

This paper chronicles the emergence of Tamil political identity since the turn of the century and relates it to social, cultural, economic and political change in South Indian society. It discusses and accounts for transformations in the symbols linked to Tamil political identity and indicates the context in which cultural nationalism and Tamil political identity gained ideological priority. In a more general sense, it examines two crucial and interrelated themes of our time, the emergence of ideologies of cultural nationalism and their ‘creation’ of culturally defined groups which claim ethnicity or nationhood.

Definition and Theory

Political identity refers to the subjective basis of individual attachment to a political community [2]. What has become known as the political identity crisis: ‘…arises, in part, from the insistence that subjective identity and objective political identity coincide.’[3] Typically the stress on developing attachments to a territorially defined nation-state is accompanied by attempts to undermine or destroy tribal, ethnic, religious, linguistic, etc. identities and loyalties. This approach to ‘national integration’ stems from the conceptualization of political identity as a zero-sum game. As such, ethnic, tribal, linguistic loyalties ipso-facto detract from, weaken, dilute or blur (territorial) nationalism. Nehru forcefully articulated this point of view (in a letter to the Chief Ministers of the Indian states) in 1961.

“Communalism is one of the obvious examples of backward looking people trying to hold on to something that is wholly out of place in the modern world and is essentially opposed to the concept of nationalism. In fact, it splits up nationalism into a number of narrower nationalisms.”[4]

The basis of this conceptualization rests on a dichotomous view of political identity; the postulation of two kinds of attachments or ‘ties’ to the nation, primordial and civil. A primordial tie stems from the ‘givens’ of social existence: ‘The congruities of blood, speech, custom, and so on, are seen to have an ineffable, and at times overpowering, coerciveness in and of themselves.’[5] In contrast,

“In modern societies the lifting of such ties (primordial) to the level of political supremacy – though it has, of course, occurred and may again occur has more and more come to be deplored as pathological. To an increasing degree national unity is maintained not by calls to blood and land but by vague, intermittent, and routine allegiance to a civil state (civil ties), supplemented to a greater or lesser extent by governmental use of police power and ideological exhortation.”[6]

At best, this view relegates important segments of recent and contemporary world history (Nazi Germany, recent developments in Ireland, in Belgium, etc.) to a recidivist limbo, explaining them away rather than explaining them. Of course, the author does say granting supremacy to primordial ties is more and more deplored as pathological. But deplored by whom? The masses? The social scientists? The political elite? Did not De Gaulle adroitly manipulate the symbols of Frenchness when convenient? Enoch Powell and ‘British Blood’ is not an anachronism or a genetic ‘sport’. In the United States, an ideology of white supremacy (‘blood’ again) has been used to foster political unity north and south.

In the Japanese evacuation cases, the Supreme Court was most candid in revealing the relationship between (‘white’) blood and loyalty. The first case to come before the court, Hirabayashi v United States (320 U.S. 81 [1943],[7] involved a curfew order which subjected all persons of Japanese ancestry, including American-born Japanese, in prescribed West Coast areas to remain in their residences from 8 pm to 6 am. In upholding this order the court said:

‘There is support for the view that social, economic and political conditions which have prevailed since the close of the last century, when the Japanese began to come to this country in substantial numbers have intensified their solidarity and have in large measure prevented their assimilation as an integral part of the white population…’ [My emphasis]

‘Whatever views we may entertain regarding the loyalty to this country of the citizens of Japanese ancestry, we cannot reject as unfounded the judgment of the military authorities and of Congress that there are disloyal members of that population, whose number and strength could not be precisely and quickly ascertained.’[7] [My emphasis]

The myth of individual, personal guilt before the law and ‘civil’ rather than ‘blood’ ties as the basis of national unity are directly challenged in the Japanese evacuation cases. While they existed, Jim Crow laws were an even more blatant example of the role of ‘blood’ in defining the relevant political community in the United States. Of course, American racism continues to limit the political community and the personal liberty of individual Blacks on the basis of ‘blood’. In fact, it would seem closer to the truth of historical events to say that nationalism finds its most comfortable manifestation when territorial and ethnic boundaries coincided. Exceptions (e.g.: Switzerland) are few.

One explanation of the persistence of ‘primordial sentiments’ is that they are ‘…rooted in the non-rational foundations of personality’ [8] But again, how do we know? Are ‘primordial sentiments’ also non-rational? If all national ‘ties’ are infused with beliefs about blood and land what exactly is the utility of the ‘primordial’ concept? [9]

Having postulated a conflict between ‘primordial’ and ‘civil’ sentiments it is an easy step for politicians and social scientists to argue for the substitution of one (civil ties) for the other (primordial ties). [10] Even when theorists are careful not to postulate a dichotomy, primordial ties are believed (their modern recrudescence notwithstanding) to be ‘traditional’ and ‘civil’ ties to be modern. However, if all nationalism (ideologies of national unity) are infused with notions of blood and soil and specifically evoke these emotional ‘primordial sentiments’ at the first sign of the ‘nation in danger’, the dichotomy (or near dichotomy) of the civil and the primordial falls apart and with it accepted notions of political identity and political integration.

If the loci of political identity (cultural unit versus nation-state) is not necessarily concomitant with the nature of the ‘tie’ or loyalty (i.e., routine versus affective or rational versus non-rational) then the primordial-civil distinction may be a clumsy way to distinguish the competing elements which precipitate a political identity crisis. As Nehru so perceptively saw, what is at issue are two forms of nationalism, one a cultural nationalism which defines the relevant political community as coterminous with a cultural community and the other territorial nationalism which defines the relevant political community according to territorial boundaries as defined by the nation-state and the international community. But is one form of nationalism traditional and the other modern? [11] What are the distinguishing characteristics of the two nationalisms? Why does one nationalism, with its attendant locus of political identity develop and not the other? What is the relevant level of analysis of these two nationalisms? In the process of modernization will territorial nationalism inevitably replace cultural nationalism? If modernity and cultural nationalism are defined as in opposition to each other how do we understand the resurgence of cultural nationalism (and the definition of cultural variables as the relevant determinants of political identity) in many post-industrial societies?

On a theoretical level, it may be that Quebec separatism in Canada, Black cultural nationalism and separatism in the United States, Zionism culminating in the foundation of the state of Israel, Eriterean separatism in Ethiopia, Tamil and Assamese separatism in India and the Bangla Desh tragedy have much in common with each other. Furthermore, understanding of those similarities may illuminate phenomena such as the rise of the Jewish Defense League in the United States, constant ethnic conflict in territorially defined nation-states, etc. We might begin by analyzing the distinctive features of territorial nationalism.

The problem of how it became ‘natural’ that a given territorial unit be vested with emotional attachment has been well analyzed in historical and social science literature. Hans Kohn, whose work on nationalism is classic, defines nationalism as ‘…a state of mind, in which the supreme loyalty of the individual is felt to be due to the nation-state’.[12] Nationalism, Kohn emphasizes, is a rather recent phenomenon in world history: ‘…it was not until the end of the eighteenth century that nationalism in the modern sense of the word became a generally recognized sentiment increasingly molding all public and private life.’[13]

As the nation-state idea was evolving, European philosophical development was moving in the direction of individualism and therefore a ‘social contract’ as the link between antecedently autonomous selves and the state. The concepts of natural law, the social contract, and individualism provide the ideological basis for granting sovereignty to the nation-state. At the heart of this is the concept of the individual as the basic unit of society:

‘The societies of the past, most societies, have believed themselves to be based in the order of things, natural as well as social; they thought they were copying or designing their very conventions after the principles of life and the world. Modern society wants to be ‘rational’, to break away from nature in order to set up an autonomous human order. To that end, lit is enough to take the true measure of man and from it to deduce the human order. No gap between the ideal and the real: like an engineer’s blueprint, the representation will create the actuality. At this point the society, the old mediator between man in his particularity and nature disappears. There are but human individuals, and the problem is how to make them all fit together…The individuals becomes the measure of all things, the source of all ‘rationality’.’[14]

As the measure of all things, it was the individual who became the relevant political and legal unit; only the individual entered into a social contract.[15]

Hans Kohn states the position thus:

‘In the modern West, nationalism which arose in the eighteenth century, the Age of Englightenment, was predominantly a political movement to limit governmental power and the secure civic rights.’[16]

‘English nationalism became identified, to a degree unknown anywhere, with the concept of individual liberty.’[17]

Hence the ideological basis of territorial nationalism can only be understood in the social, political and cultural context of European history. As western nations (particularly England) came to dominate world politics and shape world political culture, the concept of the nation-state as the ‘natural’ locus for political identity spread. However, this idea often took hold in non-western societies with markedly different social, cultural and economic structures.[18]

In an article discussing the partition of India and the Hindu-Moslim estrangement, Louis Dumont explores the differences between what he terms the holistic (collectivist) ideological orientation of traditional society and the individualistic ideological orientation of modern society:

‘…What has been attempted here is to try and understand a particular but important political phenomenon as an aspect of the interaction of the one hand, British domination and modern Western ideals and norms on the other. To spot the broad features of this interaction and the difficulties encountered in the emergence, to this day incomplete, of nations and nationalism, we have compared in their political aspect the two social universes thus confronted. It has been shown that elements such as people and territory, normatively stressed on one side, are found as empirical and undifferentiated datum on the other. The orientation to ultimate values shows a more drastic and complex difference. On the traditional side, the ultimate values are found in the conformity of each element to the role assigned to it in the whole of Being as such; in the modern society, they are found in the concrete human indivisible element, which is taken as an end in itself, and as the source of all norms, rationality and order: in other words, the Individual.’[19]

The interaction of three factors (British domination, western individualism and European nationalism) with traditional, holistic, hierarchical caste society forms the basis of Dumont’s analysis of the emergence of religious communalism.[20] Dumont sees collectivism/hierarchy vs individualism/egalitarianism as ideal types differentiating traditional from modern society. However, collectivism and hierarchy as principles of cultural organization can also be found in modern societies. If we remove the traditional-modern dichotomy from Dumont’s analysis, we are left with a suggestive theory of cultural nationalism. This theory would emphasize the interaction of individualist and collectivist perspectives in contexts of social change and domination. It provides an interesting way of looking at cultural nationalism, focusing on the structure of the cultural system (individualistic vs collectivist or some interaction of the two) rather than focusing on the nature of personal ‘ties’ (primordial vs civil) to the political community.

Social, economic and political factors are crucial in determining whether or not collective identity is stressed by a group. However, as we shall see, emergence of a cultural nationalist perspective articulating a communal political identity, in a context where the potential exists, also depends on other factors. They include leadership, ideology, and a sense of relative deprivation.[21] (i.e., an invidious comparison of one’s group status to that of a reference group.)

Some social scientitsts have postulated that ‘primordial sentiments’ and loyalties to sub-national units are transformable through communication, literacy, political participation, and/or empathy.[22] Of course, this naively optimistic approach does not explain why nations with high communication, literacy, etc. still experience cultural nationalism. More important, modernization forces can increase one’s sense of cultural separateness as well as decrease it depending on (a) perception of the nature of political reality and the role of one’s group (collectivity) in that political reality and (2) the actions and interpretations of political leaders.

In other words, whether cultural nationalism arises at all is not a function of the direct translation of objective conditions into political identity. The objective conditions only constitute a necessay, not a sufficient condition for the rise of cultural nationalism and communal political identity. Someone must define (or create) the collectivity and relate it to a greater whole. So whether cultural nationalism arises and the specific shape it takes is at least partially a factor of leadership. Similarly the relationship of a particular cultural unit to the whole is a matter of ideological definition – an ideological definition made by political leaders.

Given the existence of collective identity, social, cultural, and economic dislocations accompanying social change and the continuation of a world political culture dominated by a view that nationalism and construction of a nation-state are the only ‘legitimate’ routes to power, cultural nationalism is an understandable option. If so, cultural nationalism is neither a transitional form to territorial nationalism nor is it an autochthonous, pathological form of nationalism. Rather, territorial nationalism and cultural nationalism may each derive from their own historical and social-cultural contexts, in fact they may be dialectically rather than dichotomously related.

The central question this paper will attempt to answer in light of the theoretical framework outlined above is why did a cultural nationalist ideology propagating a Tamil political identity emerge and how did it ‘create’ a Tamilian nationality? The first step in this complex process took place at the turn of the century.


Tamil Nadu politics in the early part of the twentieth century was dominated by the ‘Brahmin-non-Brahmin’ conflict. The term ‘non-Brahmin movement’ is usually applied to this early period. It was during this early period that the caste identity of certain groups of elite non-Brahmins was challenged in the process of South Indian social change. Also, social and cultural ‘differences’ were politicized in ways which laid the groundwork for the emergence of Tamil political identity. However, Tamil political identity does not become widespread until the 1950s. First comes the concept of a non-Brahmin community which becomes synonymous with Dravidian-ness. Since Dravidian and Tamil identity meld together at a later stage, examination of the emergence of Dravidian political identity in the context of the non-Brahmin movement is the key to understanding the creation of ‘The Tamil People’.

Fundamental to any analysis of politics during the period of the ‘non-Brahmin movement’ is an understanding of South Indian society and culture. The Vedic theory of the Hindu caste system designates four divisions or varnas: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Suddhra. These varnas are differentiated hierarchically according to occupation and ritual status. Brahmins, who are said to have originated in the mouth of Purusha (God) are the highest varna and are priests and scholars (according to theology). Kshatriyas originate in Purusha’s chest and are rulers and soldiers; Vaisyas are born from his thighs and are merchants and landowners; and finally Suddhras, originating from the feet of Purusha, are peasants, laborers and servants. Below the Suddhras and outside the varna system are the outcastes or untouchables.[23]

In North Indian society the Vedic theory of varna is realized at least to the extent that we find castes claiming Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Suddhra status. In South India there are no Kshatriyas or Vaisyas, so according to Vedic theology all castes are either Brahmin, Suddhra or Untouchable. This potential for the cultural isolation of Brahmins, although not salient in pre-modern history, became significant because of certain aspects of South Indian social change.

Caste in Pre-Twentieth Century South India

Prior to the twentieth century, inter-caste relations in South India involved competition, conflict and cooperation between or among Jatis (endogamous caste units) in localized village or district areas. Burton Stein reports that in the fourteenth century there were alliances and close cooperation between Brahmins and ‘…respectable cultivating groups’.[24] Brahmins and these respectable cultivating groups shared local control. Stein describes these alliances as ‘…the distinctive social and political elements up to the fourteenth century’.[25]

Stein also reports that the most land-owning castes, the Vellalas, Reddis and Kammas sought to remain above and apart from other non-Brahmin groups. These groups, among others, later became known as ‘forward non-Brahmins’.[26] Remaining above other non-Brahmin groups,

‘…required a special relationship with Brahmins based upon ritual opportunities not shared by other non-Brahmins. In later medieval times, especially among Srivaisnavas, such people often achieved considerable, if insecure, prominence in temples, and there were some castes of Saivite Vellalas about whom little has been written, that enjoyed a special relationship with Brahmins for substantial periods.’[27]

However, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Brahmins entrenched their position vis-à-vis these non-Brahmins. T.V.Subramaniam attributes the increasing Brahmin dominance in the nineteenth century to British rule.[28] Brahmins entered the British administration and newly created urban professions in disproportionately large numbers. As these positions increased in importance with consolidation of British Rule, so too the Brahmin position vis-à-vis other castes was improved.[29] Non-Brahmin land-owning groups however, maintained their dominant position in many rural districts. Increased urbanization and Brahmin dominance were interrelated features of nineteenth century social change resulting in the dichotomization of socio-economic elites into rural (non-Brahmin) and urban (Brahmin) segments.[30]

Although the ‘non-Brahmin’-Brahmin conflict was styled by non-Brahmins as a conflict between the ‘forward’ Brahmins and the ‘backward’ non-Brahmins, this is an emotional metaphor which masks more than it illuminates. It might more accurately be defined as a conflict between a land-owning non-Brahmin elite with a history of rural dominance and an urban Brahmin elite which had used the opportunities presented by British Rule to enhance their positions during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Not all non-Brahmins were initially involved in this conflict, only a small segment of Sat (‘clean’) Suddhras.

Before the ‘non-Brahmin movement’, ‘non-Brahmin’ was not a relevant social, cultural or political category. These groups which later became known as ‘non-Brahmins’ earlier identified themselves only as members of specific Jatis. Put another way, since ‘Non-Brahmin’ is an ideological not a social or cultural category, prior to the early twentieth century, there were no ‘non-Brahmins’ in South India, only the Vellalas, Nairs, Reddis, Chettiars, etc. Therefore the very idea of a ‘Non-Brahmin’ movement and a ‘Non-Brahmin’ community represents a significant reorientation of perception about castes and communities.

The roots of the concept of non-Brahmin are intrinsically related to evolution of the idea of the cultural unity and integrity of South India based on the Dravidian past. Paradoxically, this Dravidian-ness was first postulated by Europeans. Eugene Irschick suggests that Christian missionaries were the first westerners to show an interest in Tamil culture, and to study the Tamil language.[31] Roberto Di Nobili (1577-1656), Constantius Beschi (1680-1734), Rev.Robert Caldwell (1819-1891) and G.U.Pope (1820-1907) were all outstanding Tamil scholars. It was Caldwell who developed the theory that: ‘…Sanskrit had been brought to South India originally by Aryan Brahman colonists, and with it a peculiar type of Hinduism, which embodied the worship of idols…’[32]

According to him, Tamil had been ‘…cultivated by native Tamilians called Sudras by the Brahmans, even though they had been Dravidian chieftains, soldiers, and cultivators, never conquered by the Brahmans’.[33] Indeed, says Caldwell ‘the term Sudra should be dropped because its usage was associated with Brahmans and ‘those Europeans who take their nomenclature from Brahmans, and instead each ‘Dravidian caste,’ according to the locality, should be used.’[34]

Some British officials echoed the sentiments of those missionaries. For example, J.H.Nelson agreed with Caldwell that neither the Vellalas nor the other non-Brahmins of South India should be called Suddas because this was a term that had been forced upon them by Brahmans from the North.[35] In 1886 the Governor of Madras, Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant-Duff said, in an address to the graduates of the University of Madras: ‘It was these Sanskrit speakers not Europeans, who lumped up the Southern races as Rakshusas – demons. It was they who deliberately grounded all social distinctions on Varna, Colour.’ [36] The ideological category ‘non-Brahmin, therefore, was preceded by the development of a sense of a Dravidian cultural history separate, distinct and perhaps ‘superior’ to that of the South Indian Brahmins.

The Justice Party and the ‘Non-Brahmin Movement’

Prior to 1916 and the founding of the South Indian Liberal Federation (Justice Party), a political activity in Madras Presidency was dominated by Brahmins and had been oriented toward achieving home rule for India. Furthermore Brahmin dominance in the political arena was paralleled by the Brahmin dominance in the administrative arena and in university admissions. For example, Government Order 22 (January 27, 1919) reported that:

‘In the year 1911, statistics were obtained from heads of departments as to the distribution of appointments in the several offices under their control…The figures obtained showed the preponderance of Brahmins which was specially marked in some departments; and instructions were thereupon issued to heads of departments in order to secure a proper distribution of appointments among the various castes…The instructions issued by government in 1912 had had no effect.’ [37]

One major reason, therefore, for the development of the non-Brahmin movement was self-interest on the part of those members of forward non-Brahmin Jatis who were well educated, had left traditional occupations, and hoped to enter the administrative service or other urban pursuits.

However, self-interest or the view of the non-Brahmin ideology as merely a weapon in the struggle for political position cannot explain the specific forms of the movement and its ideological development. The Justice Party need not have challenged the theological concept Varnashrama Dharma (duty according to caste) in order to claim seats in universities or more posts in the administrative service.[38] Furthermore, although Brahmin-non-Brahmin antipathy is an important consequence of the early ‘non-Brahmin movement’, it is by far not the only or even the most important lasting effect. The most interesting problem is not why these two rival elite groups found themselves at loggerheads during this period but how the contest led to development of a radical political ideology and a restructuring of political identity.

In examining the origins of Tamil political identity, we must look primarily at the expectations and circumstances of wealthy, educated non-Brahmin elites. The first important clue in unraveling the sources of this political identity is the importance of the symbol ‘Suddhra’. Interviews with Justice Party members revealed a consistent pattern of response to questions about why the Justice Party was formed. Usually the first response mentioned the backward state of non-Brahmins at that time, the need for uplift of non-Brahmins, and Brahmin dominance of administration and politics. But then, typically the tone of the respondent would change and with emotion he would recount some personal incident, insult to his dignity or psychic injury suffered at the hands of the Brahmins and would relate this to being designated a Suddhra. Furthermore, not only did Suddhra-hood become a highly emotional issue but the frustration, disgrace and emotive content attached to Suddhra status became linked logically to ‘Dravidian’ and ‘non-Brahmin’, all becoming symbolically synonymous. That is, member of the Justice Party would at the same time be a Suddhra (since there were no Vaisyas or Kshatriyas), a Dravidian (meaning a speaker of a Dravidian language and a member of the Dravidian ‘race’) and a non-Brahmin. Attacks on Varnashrama Dharma were directed against its justification of Suddhra status. Opposition to Varnashrama Dharma and to Gandhi’s early endorsement of it was intense and frequently articulated. In 1927 the Justice wrote:

“We are told that Mahatma Gandhi held up a lofty institution Varnashrama Dharma and extolled Brahminism. No doubt he referred to a few incidents like untouchability, and child marriage and the spoilation of young children of twelve years of age and stated that they were a parody of Brahminism. But if these did not exist he ‘adored Brahminism and Varnashrama Dharma’.

We must confess to considerable mystification at the attitude of the Mahatma. Is it suggested that untouchability is removed by merely treating the depressed, classes as touchables and giving them the same privileges – if they can be called such – which the touchable classes enjoy at the hands of the Brahmins?

Does the Mahatma think that if the Adi-Dravida is made to have the rights of a Vellala, Vannia or an Agambadia, or to use a more compendious term which the Mahatma may understand though it is objected to as connoting to a vulgar meaning – a Suddhra – he could adore Varnashrama Dharma?


…Varnashrama Dharma as in practice Mahatma Gandhi ought to have found out, is the quintessence of the idea of privilege, of superiority and snobbishness.”[39]

Criticisms of Varnashrama Dharma such as these constituted the basis for development of the radical tenets of the Dravidian ideology at a later stage. As is evident from the Justice quotation, Suddhra status is intrinsically and emotionally linked to a rejection of Varnashrama Dharma.

Urbanization and Relative Deprivation

So far, we have examined several variables which explain the rise of Dravidian-Tamil identity as well as some of the initial focal points of the Dravidian ideology. But what factors triggered establishment of the emotional link between Suddhra status, Varnashrama Dharma and Dravidian-Tamil identity? What forces produced the emotive content attached to the term ‘Suddhra’? How was the connection between ideology and political action defined? The key explanatory factor is urbanization and urban contact as it affected those upper non-Brahmin caste Hindus (principally Sat Suddhras) that historically occupied a structural position close to Brahmins and above and apart from other upper (or forward) non-Brahmins.

Urbanization entailed the discovery of a new moral (Vedic theological) definition of their identity which conflicted with previous rural experience.[40] Theological definitions of ‘Suddhra’ conflicted with the cultural assumptions underlying their religious orthopraxy (including for some vegetarianism, no animal sacrifice, and a general concern with purity). Secondly, the increasing importance of urban occupations such as law, positions in the British administration and places in universities became a concrete behavioral manifestation of the realignment of elite forward non-Brahmin position vis-à-vis Brahmins. Brahmin domination of politics in spite of a numerical minority position, was the third element in a triangle of seeming Brahmin ‘control’.[41]

Village Social Organization

At the village level, caste relationships are of primary significance. The villager’s social universe is largely defined in terms of transactions among the various endogamous Hindu castes in one village or in a localized area.[42] Brahmins are only 3% of the population in South India and their percentage in villages even less. In villages, Brahmin relations with caste Hindus are by no means those of exalted superiority and abject inferiority. Rather, in villages where there are caste Hindus of sufficiently high economic and ritual status, Brahmins, particularly poor Brahmins (even though highest ranked), must show concomitant respect and deference.

While adjustment for Brahmins in urban areas was relatively easy and urbanization enhanced their status,[43] for many non-Brahmins the situation was fraught with problems that challenged their caste identity. Their position, unlike Brahmins, was dependent upon very specific localized transactional relationships and deference patterns. The lack of generalized (that is, throughout Madras Presidency) ranking and even of general knowledge of the position of various non-Brahmins castes meant that some castes previously ranked above and apart from other non-Brahmins were now ‘lumped’ with the non-Brahmin masses in cities and towns.[44] In urban areas non-Brahmins from highly orthodox castes were treated as part of the undifferentiated category – Suddhra. The contrast with Brahmins can be neatly stated: For Brahmins their position and status was independent of their residence in any given local area. For non-Brahmins (especially the highest castes) rank was directly dependent on village, economic and ritual dominance, transactionally corroborated.[45] For non-Brahmins, movement from rural to urban meant a transition from a secure transactional system to a system in flux; a system where deference patterns below Brahmin and above untouchable were ambiguous.

For educated, wealthy members of orthodox castes social strain took the form of a sense of relative deprivation. Relative deprivation is sued by Samuel Stouffer to explain reactions of soldiers to army life – reactions which could best be interpreted in terms of the tendency to define and evaluate one’s own position in comparison with a relevant reference group.[46] The argument here is that for many elite non-Brahmins there developed a sense of (comparative) loss of status in the urban context. Comparison of urban with rural status was unfavorable. Men who were identified as proud, orthodox landlords in villages were ‘just’ low ranked Suddhras in cities. It was the theological concept Varnashrama Dharma (duty according to varna) rather than specific transactions, which normatively defined the negative connotation of Suddhra. Following the same theory, Brahmins were socially separated from all others as the only twice-born caste in Tamil Nadu. Rejection of Suddhra status was therefore linked to rejection of Varnashrama Dharma, a theory not pertinent in villages. Rejection of Varnashrama Dharma meant rejection of the religious justification of Brahmin superiority. Redefinition of Brahmin as a negative symbol lead to the symmetrically logical category of non-Brahmin as a positive symbol. From the theories of a few colonial authors extolling past Dravidian greatness and from a belief in Aryan-Dravidian racial distinctness, emerged outlines for a general ideological framework for rendering non-Brahmin social strain explicable. It should be recalled that while the Varnashrama Dharma view ranked Brahmins first, a pre-Aryan, Dravidian hierarchy would have been headed by forward non-Brahmins. This ideological framework also defined a new Dravidian identity for non-Brahmins.

To summarize the argument:

1. A potential existed in South Indian culture and society for the separation of Brahmins. This potential was the lack of Kshatriya and Vaisya Varnas as well as the co-existence of a distinct Dravidian cultural tradition. However, this potential was not realized prior to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries since this all-India varna scheme was irrelevant to village transactions in which some so-called ‘Suddhras’ were in fact allied with local Brahmins.

2. Realization of the cultural separation of Brahmins resulted from the breakdown of some integrative features of pre-eighteenth century South Indian life.

3. British Rule led to the enhancement of the Brahmins vis-à-vis forward non-Brahmins. Brahmins were prominent in urban occupations and in the British administration. In addition, they were also the first to develop political consciousness and hence dominated early Madras Presidency political parties and politics.

4. This increasing political, social and cultural isolation became significant (necessitated action) as increasing urbanization and mobility threatened forward non-Brahmin status, rendered the symbol ‘Suddhra’ exceptionally meaningful and led to development of a sense of relative deprivation. Politically, Home Rule was identified with Brahmin rule. Therefore, the first Justice Party demands were political and administrative, attempting to counteract Brahmin dominance. However, Justice Party ideology and demands did not long remain so limited.

5. Elite Suddhras focused their ire on Brahmins and, utilizing the research on Dravidians by European scholars, began elaborating a Dravidian counter cultural tradition. To give some examples from newspapers of the period: (all excerpts are from the Madras Native Newspaper Report).[47]

Brahmins and Swaraj

Dravidian October 11, 1921 details categorically selfishness, trickery, mischief, partiality for their own class, hatred and avarice as the traits of Brahmins and remarks ‘their selfishness is exhibited in their demanding immediate swaraj with the idea that they may thereby advance the cause of their class and ranking other classes their servitors, retard the progress of the world.’

Dravidian January 22, 1923 ‘From the very beginning of the English rule, the cunning Brahmins in Madras have occupied all posts in the government from the lowest to the highest and have been successfully keeping out the other communities by filling up the vacancies with men of their own community.’

Brahmins as Foreigners

Nyaya Dipsika January 25, 1923 ‘The Brahmins are also foreigners to India as are the British. The English have been ruling India for the last one century and a half. The Brahmins, coming into India from Central Asia three thousand years ago, put down the ancient inhabitants of the country, have created disaffection among them by bringing into racial, religious, and caste differences, and have been commanding the Indians ever since.’

Dravidian identity was ideologically grounded in a supposition of common origin of non-Brahmin Dravidian language speakers. This common origin was supposedly cultural and racial as well as linguistic. The concept of Dravidian-ness created horizontal political attachments that ideologically transcended caste and linguistic boundaries. Tamil, Telegu, Malayali and Kannarese speakers all fell under the Dravidian cultural aegis. Politically, the notion of a common Dravidian identity corresponded to and rationalized the political alliances among non-Brahmin Dravidian language speakers in the composite Madras Presidency.[48]

However, although Madras Presidency included at least some sizeable representation from all four Dravidian linguistic groups, the Justice Party was dominated by Tamil and Telegu speakers, while later organizations like the, Self-Respect League [49], Dravida Kazhagam and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam were virtually entirely composed of Tamil speakers and were popular mainly in Tamil speaking areas.

From the earliest days of the Justice Party, Tamil (and some Telegu) leaders emphasized symbols of Tamil culture and depicted Tamil as the preeminent Dravidian language. It was Tamil (of the four Dravidian languages) which was considered superior to Sanskrit and an important Tamil religious preceptor, Tiruvalluar, became the source and symbol of Tamil-Dravidian cultural and social superiority. The following quotation articulating the theory of a pre-Aryan, casteless Tamil society indicates the importance of Tamil cultural symbols in the Dravidian movement.

“Let us contemplate for a moment the condition of ancient Tamilian society. Saint Tiruvalluvar has said: ‘Birth is common to all, but intrinsic worth differs according to various deed in which people are engaged…’ Untouchability, unapproachability, unseeability and other monstrous customs were unknown to our ancients. Caste distinctions, religious dissensions and class disputes were absent. The word Jati which connotes caste, is not of Tamil origin. Every human being had equal rights of access to tanks, temples, choultries, etc. People regulated their lives in a spirit of brotherliness towards their fellow beings. Love was their watchword and hatred never found a place in their hearts. They worshiped nature and led a life of utter simplicity resulting in true happiness. Ever since the days when the Aryans penetrated the South and attempted to strengthen and consolidate their position a great calamity overtook the country.”[50]

After the late 1930s when many Justicites entered Congress, and when Congress gained increased support, the Dravidian movement became pretty much a Tamil affair. Thus it was somewhat ironic that when Dravidian cultural identity crystallized into Dravidian political identity in 1938 through the demand for a separate ‘homeland’, the demand was for a Dravida Nadu (literally: country of the Dravidians.)


Thus far discussion has centered on the way in which the idea of an encompassing political identity, cross-cutting non-Brahmin caste boundaries, emerged among certain non-Brahmin elites. Mass internalization of Tamil identity is intricately related to the pattern and development of Dravidian movement politics between the 1930s and 1970s. Radical Dravidian Movement organizations played a crucial role in both elite-mass ideological integration (i.e., the vertical dissemination of Tamil political identity) and in pervasive mass acceptance of Tamil identity. A brief summary of these activities helps clarify the organizational dynamics relevant to the diffusion of Tamil identity.

Although many aspects of Dravidian movement ideology have been touched on, it might be useful to summarize the entire ideology before discussing radical Dravidian movement activities and mass internalization of Tamil identity. Dravidian movement ideology can best be described in terms of the cultural oppositions which structured the pattern of political demands and social reform goals.

The most basic opposition was between Dravidian and Aryan. At one historical point, this division was depicted in racial terms. But now, most people consider it merely linguistic. The general Dravidian-Aryan opposition was present within Tamilnadu in the particular form of an opposition between Brahmins and non-Brahmins. Brahmins were considered to be descendants of Aryan invaders who had conquered the indigenous Dravidian people.

It was further argued that Brahmins constituted a reactionary elite with a vested interest in maintaining the caste system and the principle of duty (Dharma) according to rank (Varna). This principle, Varnashrama Dharma, was a focal point for ideological attack for some elements of the Dravidian movement. Hinduism per se was inconsistent with social egalitarianism, therefore religious belief must be rationalized and rid of ‘superstitition’.

These oppositions were linked to linguistic differences: the language of the northern Aryans was Hindi, the language of the southern Dravidians Tamil. Aryan culture and learning, it was argued, is transmitted through and based on Sanskritic tradition and its modern linguistic offshoot, Hindi. In contrast, Dravidian culture was said to be embodied in the Dravidian languages, Tamil, Telegu, Kannarese and Malayalam. ‘Imposition’ of Hindi on Dravidian speakers (a continuing political issue in the all-India language conflict) therefore was a symbolic manifestation of the perceived cultural conflict between north and south, Aryan and Dravidian.

Northern domination of the South was to be terminated with the formation of a separate nation, Dravida Nadu, composed of the four states where Dravidian languages were spoken. This nation would be ‘caste-less and classless’, following the supposed ancient ideal. Short of actual separation, Brahmin domination could be overcome through the effective political organization of non-Brahmins.

While non-Brahmin criticism of Varnashrama Dharma laid the foundation for an elaborate radical social reform Dravidian ideology, it was one individual, E.V.Ramasami, who primarily was responsible for the radicalization of the Dravidian ideology. E.V.Ramasami founded the Self-Respect League to propagate his ideas on radical social reform. League members were extremely active in the northern Tamil-speaking areas of Madras Presidency. They traveled widely, holding public meetings and advocating religious, social and often economic [51] reform and they were influential in changing many of the social and religious practices of elite non-Brahmin communities.

Between 1925 and 1944 the Self-Respect League continued its social reform activity. After 1938, the League (and the Justice Party) demanded an independent Dravida Nadu. They also escalated agitational activities by moving from criticism of Hindu gods and goddesses to actual destruction of religious idols. In the meantime, Congress had managed to attract more adherents as non-Brahmins replaced Brahmins in party leadership positions and as Congress emerged as the most likely post-independence ruling party. In 1944, the Dravida Kazhagam was formed to try to win wider support for the ideas of social reform and Dravidian separation.

After the formation of the Dravida Kazhagam, propaganda activities entered a new radical phase. Large numbers of radical social reform publications were produced; radio broadcasts were regularly arranged; the Dravida Kazhagam leaders edited and published pamphlets, journals and newspapers; large social reform conferences were held at which Untouchable (Adi-Dravida) cooks were used; Untouchables were taken into temples and numerous Hindu idols were smashed in protest demonstrations. The central messages of Dravida Kazhagam propagandists were radical reform, Dravidian separation, Brahmin perfidy and the need for non-Brahmin unity.

In 1949, the Dravida Kazhagam was split with 75% of the membership leaving to follow C.N.Annadurai and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). The reasons for the split need not concern us here. What is important is that the DMK engaged in radical social reform propaganda with even greater intensity, effectiveness and penetration of the mass consciousness than the Dravida Kazhagam. Unlike the DK, the DMK was interested in building a mass base for participation in electoral politics.

After the formation of the DMK in 1949, the party leadership faced the problem of how the DMK might carve out an ideological and political niche in Madras politics. A partial solution was the DMK virtual monopoly of cinema talent, its strong appeal to non-Brahmin intellectuals specializing in Tamil literature, and the large numbers of talented orators in the party. Gradually, the perceived beauty and literary quality of the Tamil language as a communications medium became as politically and symbolically meaningful as the content of the message. DMK creative techniques of political communication played an important role in their success.

There were numerous party papers published by DMK leaders. In fact, DMK magazines and party papers were so popular that almost every major leader published either a paper or a journal and sometimes both plus party pamphlets. The field of political propaganda was dominated by the DMK.

Radio dramas and speeches were given by Annadurai and the more important second rank leaders. Traveling drama companies presented the party’s ideas in dramatic dialogues. Of all media perhaps films were most important. Annadurai, Karunanidhi [52] and many lower level leaders were connected with film making. Hence the party’s ideas were presented through their films. Some of the most famous Tamil films (and some of the most Tamil Film music) have DMK themes.

The DMK used films for political propaganda purposes at a point when cinema houses were just being extended to the rural areas of Madras.[53] It was common for people to walk as much as five miles to see a film and films were (and still are) seen repeatedly. Children re-enact parts of the film in play and both adults and children memorize and sing these film songs.

The DMK was also successful in attracting many Tamil scholars to the party. Its major leaders always made a point of speaking in scholastic (poetic) Tamil and all leaders were skilled in Tamil oratory. Since some of the top leaders were themselves Tamil scholars, the DMK was able to win a number of strong supporters in academic circles. The emphasis of DMK leaders on scholarly studies of Tamil helped to renew interest in Tamil literary and linguistic studies and also brought about a renaissance in Tamil literature. The DMK increasingly combined political and literary conferences, often having poetry contests on political subjects.[54]

Therefore, DMK ideas reached every area of life in Madras either through films, books, pamphlets, speeches, dramas, poems, songs or newspapers. Apart from these, committed young people often went to the remotest corners of the state to spread the ideas of the DMK and to establish reading rooms and DMK branches. As a result, the basic ideas of the Dravidian movement were exposed throughout Madras State. Hence, during the movement phase of DMK development the ideology of the party was widely spread and began to take hold. Enough of the DMK ideology was accepted to cause large numbers of people to restructure their conceptions of political and social reality. What was widely internalized and accepted, however, were not the radical ideas, but the cultural definition of what it meant to be a Tamilian.

After 1957, the DMK entered electoral politics.[55] In the process of competing for political office, the party further had an opportunity to spread both is pragmatic policy alternatives and the cultural symbols of Tamil identity. By 1967 the DMK had won a majority in the Madras Legislative Assembly and has been the ruling on the State level ever since. Since 1957 the DMK has increased its representation of 13 in the Madras Legislative Assembly to 50 in 1962; 138 in 1967 and 184 in 1971.

DMK victories can be viewed as an indication of the spread and acceptance of Tamil Cultural nationalism. More indicative is the emergence of a faction in the Congress with a strongly Tamil nationalist orientation. As the DMK experienced success through manipulation of the symbols of Tamil nationalism, the demand for imitation of DMK methods became convincing to many inside Congress.

The coexistence of a Tamil nationalist faction within Congress underscores an important element in dissemination and internalization of Tamil political identity. After the DMK officially [56] abandoned the demand for separation, the contradiction between Tamil nationalism and all-India nationalism was gradually resolved by compartmentalization [57] of political identity into state and national arenas. All-India political identity is emphasized on all-India issues. Therefore, a patriotic response of the DMK to the 1962-63 China-India war was consistent with the party’s cultural nationalism. Tamil political identity is emphasized as relevant to the overwhelming majority of political issues. Thus all-India identity can coexist with Tamil identity albeit as a residual category. The conflict emerges over issues not readily compartmentalized into arenas (as with the language question) and over the proper distribution of power between the center and the states. Since the DMK conceptualizes the Indian Federal system, as composed of equal cultural units, organized into states and regions, they seek greater autonomy for the states and decentralization of much of the power presently in the hands of the central government. Hence, the manner in which the Central government handles this demand for institutional recognition of the DMK cultural nationalist position on national integration is crucial for future political development in Tamil Nadu and the rest of India.

The Contemporary ‘Meaning’ of Tamil Political Identity

Emergence of the process I have identified as identity compartmentalization must be viewed in the context of the contemporary meaning of Tamil political identity. On the lowest level, internalization of Tamil political identity means the belief that Tamil Nadu forms a distinct, coherent unit, defined by language and culture. This belief cuts across political party, age, and caste.[58] In the political culture, Tamil political identity is the stressed theme and, more important, since Tamil political identity and all-India political identity are located in distinct political arenas, it is possible for ardent Dravidian movement radicals to ‘worry about’ all-India problems and for Congress supporters to extol the greatness of ancient Dravidian culture, to deplore its present decay and call for cultural renaissance. Some Tamil nationalist Congress orators often parallel the messianic tone of the DMK.

Tamil political identity, as it has become embedded in Tamil Cultural nationalism, shapes views on the language issues, and north-south perceptions. It also creates a positive response to rhetorics calling for recapturing the greatness of the Tamil/Dravidian past and rejuvenating the downtrodden Tamilian ‘race’. However, the argument is not being made that Tamil political identity replaced discrete caste identity. Tamil identity has been of an additive nature. It has defined the political implications of caste at the regional (i.e., state) level and provided an inclusive, encompassing category of political attachment.

There are two crucial aspects of DMK cultural nationalist politics which should be underlined. First is the priority of ‘Tamil-ness’ in cultural nationalist politics. During the radical period, emphasis was placed on systemic reform. As the politics of cultural nationalism emerged, Tamil-ness gave validity and legitimacy to policies not vice versa. Priority was placed on the authenticity and political viability of the Tamil people. The language issue (anti-Hindi and pro-Tamil) became an important vehicle for the expression of Tamil nationalism.

A second important aspect of cultural nationalist politics has to do with ideological change. In the Dravidian ideology as articulated during the radical period, ‘Dravidian’ specifically excluded Brahmins. The new Tamil ‘nation’, in contrast, is defined as including all Tamil speakers. While Dravidian identity was based on a radical definition of common origin and was linked to the concepts ‘non-Brahmin’ and Suddhra, Tamil identity is based on a linguistic definition of commonality. In elaborating the basis of the Tamil nation, the DMK began to argue that all Tamil speakers (including Muslims and Brahmins) were Dravidians (i.e., of the same race).

Tamil Identity in the Context of Social Change

In examining the emergence of Tamil nationality, I have emphasized the key role of the Dravidian movement (its leadership and ideology) in the identity formation process. However, the Dravidian movement itself must be viewed in the context of South Indian social change. On the one hand, the acceptance of certain aspects of Dravidian movement ideology (including Tamil nationality) is related to and grows out of the particular form social change took; on the other hand, Dravidian movement leaders structured perception of political reality and definition of expectations.

Earlier discussions of the impact of urbanization and the social, economic and cultural dislocations associated with modernization related these variables to the rise of the early Dravidian ideology among non-Brahmins elites in the 1900s and 1920s. Penetration of Tamil identity on the mass level must also be placed in the context of social change are central to analysis of the mass internalization of Tamil political identity and spread of cultural nationalism: transformation of the caste system and the impact of modernization policies pursued by the Congress party after 1952.

From Caste to Ethnicity

One of the best shorthand descriptions of the impact of social change on the caste system is the concept of a change from caste to ethnicity. The idea of a transformation from caste to ethnicity has been developed in the work of Steve Barnett. He states:

‘The essential structural transformation is the removal of hierarchy from this system, or what may be called the transition from caste to ethnicity. The development of caste associations explicitly changing caste behavior and allowing, unlike traditional caste courts or panchayats, personal deviance in codes-for-conduct is but one aspect of this transition. Castes are now large regional blocs, incorporating (typically by widening the marriage network) many formerly discrete subcastes. These regional blocs reckon membership through ancestry alone, not through adherence to a particular code for conduct. Outcasting is thus impossible and individual caste members may behave toward other castes as they wish, without fear of losing caste standing. And so while different caste blocs may claim equivalence or superiority to each other, there is no transactional way to corroborate that claim. In this case, there is an ideological shift from an emphasis upon the whole to an emphasis upon the individual or groups conceived on the model of the individual. The person, with his freedom of choice, becomes the ultimate locus of value. There is no enjoined caste-wide code for conduct, rather theoretically a person may choose any behavioral stance since he embodies within himself the inviolable essence of his caste – his ancestral blood. Or, substance now inherited in the individual. These caste blocs do not perceive themselves as interdependent, each performing a necessary function directed toward the whole as in the traditional caste system, but as independent units having no direct need of other caste blocs.[59]

A key outcome of this shift to ‘ethnic-like’ regional blocs is the rise of individualism. This individualism, lays the groundwork for construction of new cultural nationalist identities which include individualistic and collectivist elements. Tamil cultural nationalism emphasizes the individual on the one hand (Annadurai emphasized the common man and the notion of an individual ‘duty’ to follow party policies) and collectivism on the other (the notion of Tamilian people as jointly inheriting ancestral greatness is pertinent here). What is being suggested is that cultural nationalism, as an ideology of a subgroup within a territorial whole, is possible when both individualist and collective (but not hierarchial) perspectives exists. It provides political ordering of those perspectives by emphasizing the political validity of the relation of the individual to the (culturally defined) collective and by demanding that the nation-state be ideologically conceived as a composite of collectives, rather than a composite of individuals. Both ethnic and cultural nationalist identities are based on the individual as the embodiment of the collectivity. An anecdote from the 1960 American Presidential election illustrates this point. A Buffalo industrial worker was asked: ‘Are you going to vote for Kennedy because he is a Catholic?’ (Answer)’…No because I am’.[60]

Once we are no longer talking of the holism of caste, cultural nationalism becomes one way in which individual identity can be related to larger units. Thus the shift from caste to ethnicity among Tamilians laid the groundwork for new forms of identity. However, Tamilians taken as a unit see themselves, not as an ethnic group within a nationwide system of ethnic groups, but as a nation with an intrinsic legitimacy of its own. This crucial difference reflects the role of political leaders in articulating the concept of nation-hood as well as early belief in the qualitative character of ‘racial’ distinctions between Aryan and Dravidian; Brahmin and non-Brahmin. Even after the notion of racial differences between Brahmins and non-Brahmins was dropped, the supposed Aryan/Dravidian ‘racial’ distinction had been mapped onto the North India-South India political cleavage.


The role which radical Dravidian movement politics and specifically the DMK played in spreading the notion and facilitating the acceptance of Tamil political identity underscores the fact that cultural collectivities are not ‘natural’ phenomena. Cultural nationalisms and the cultural collectivities they create often reflect a complex etiology which includes political leadership, organization, and ideology as important variables. Transformation in the caste system provides the structural framework within which a new identity could emerge. However, relative deprivation remains an important mechanism which gives political meaning to collectivities and legitimacy to nationalist ‘solutions’.

Ironically, growth and penetration of support for the DMK, the Dravidian ideology and a Tamil identity (which was mainly associated with the DMK) occurred in one of the best administered, most prosperous Indian states. Until 1967, the Congress Party was in power in the state.

At that time Madras State was one of five states which showed rates of growth higher than the all-India average (4.17% vs. 3.01% for all states).[61] In agricultural productivity and education the State had a particularly good record.[62] In addition, there had been extensive irrigation, installation of village electric power and a large-scale road building program. In fact, the picture is generally one of substantial and visible economic development in Tamil Nadu since the first Five Year Plan was inaugurated in 1952.

However, we must ask two questions about Tamil Nadu economic development: who benefited from it and what was believed to be the state of economic development in Tamil Nadu. Even concrete economic improvements are objective facts which speak for themselves but must be put in the context of expectations – and expectations are structured by politicization and ideology. The interpretative framework can be as crucial in some cases as externally measurable facts.

While Congress policies were beneficial to the state as a whole, they benefited some segments of the population more than others, thus they became a source of discontent. Many of those whose lives were objectively improved because of Congress policies (educated for example) become critical of the Congress government because their horizons and expectations had been expanded and their political and social consciousness had been raised. In discussing the 1967 elections, C.Subramaniam, President of the TNCC at the time of this interview, placed great emphasis on this point,[63] saying:

‘People try to find simple reasons for the Congress defeat. More fundamental reasons are involved in the Congress defeat. It happened because of the success of the Congress administration. The implementation of the three Five-year plans was the best in Madras State [out of all the Indian states]. There was economic development, provision of amenities and considerable educational progress. However, for many backward [class] families, that educated their children, after the children were educated if they are not able to get jobs, then education becomes a liability instead of an asset. In spite of economic development, it was not possible to provide [full or increased] employment. Education became a liability because then the person expected a higher standard of living. Thus, Congress could not reap the benefits of a good policy. [Recall that DMK support came heavily from younger segments of the population.] With respect to economic development, in fifteen years large sections of the people had benefits of economic development. Even though the poor sections had disadvantages the gap between the richer sections and the poor sections had decreased. However, after fifteen years of having given support to Congress…poor sections found their lot looked more miserable…

Rural electrification is an example. Initially, it gave a thrill to the people [however] only the better placed sections were able to use electrification for irrigation and in their houses.

Roads are another example. Who gets the benefit of a village road? [You] must own a bullock cart to take advantage of that road. If you walk it makes no difference.’[64]

C.Subramaniam then went on to say that because they could not take full advantage of improvements the way the rural elite could, 80% of the people thought they were worse off after fifteen years of Congress rule. This is important because growing discontent provided the fertile background in which DMK ideology could expand and take hold, particularly among young people. Since Tamil nationalism was the central focus of DMK ideology after the late 1950s, it was Tamil political identity which was accepted and internalized. Thus Tamil cultural nationalism is more than an idealist expression of a few poetic politicians. Neither is it a manipulative device of DMK leaders. Rather Tamil nationalism has elements of both didactic model and mobilization mechanism for readjustment of power relations perceived as unjust. Tamil political identity, as a mass phenomenon, emerged out of a context in which concrete motivations existed for identification with a nationalism which promised power and ‘justice’ as well as cultural autonomy and integrity.


Theories of nationalism and ethnicity often assume what must be examined: the existence of nationality or ethnic groups. Viewing group identity as a cultural or biological ‘given’ fosters synchronic rather than diachronic analysis. For that reason, studies in this area have paid relatively little attention to the process of identity emergence, symbolic transformation in ideologies of cultural nationalism and linkages between core symbols which delineate identity and concrete situations of social change. Beginning with a theoretical perspective which challenges the notion of identity being a direct reflection of cultural ‘givens’ and/or atavistic non-rational primordial sentiments, this paper has attempted to analyze the process of identity emergence and transformation and to relate this process to structural features in Tamil Nadu development over the past 70 years.

Emergence of Tamil political identity has been etiologically related to the interaction of variables that are broadly social, cultural, economic and political in character. Transformations in the caste system and other dislocations resulting from modernization processes, social change and truncated economic development created the structural potential for emergence of new forms of identity. However, whether or not the potential for cultural nationalism is exploited and the direction that nationalist ideology takes depends primarily on political leadership and secondarily on government policy. Collectivities, political identities, even nationalities are not natural phenomena to be ‘discovered’, they are ideological constructs created and lived in. ‘Non-Brahmin community’, ‘Dravidian people’, ‘Tamil nation’ are all ideological constructions for ordering South Indian political reality. The broader ideology which encompassed these identities was a template which was more or less useful and compelling for masses of people as social, cultural, economic and political change moved Tamil society in specific direction. In this sense, the observation that cultural nationalism can emerge in post-industrial societies as well as in less developed countries depending on the nature of social change must be elaborated to specify the interaction of socio-cultural and economic conditions; leadership potential; government policy and political ideology in the creation of new identities.

One of the more interesting findings of this analysis was the relationship between Congress territorial nationalism and DMK cultural nationalism. While Tamil cultural nationalism is the encompassing, stressed theme in Tamil Nadu politics, compartmentalization enables territorial nationalism to coexist. Implicit in DMK commitment to electoral politics is the notion of working within the framework of a multi-cultural nation-state. DMK proposals for a new more decentralized federal system based on DMK perceptions of India’s multi-national character are a reflection of DMK attempts to formally and ideologically reconcile Tamil cultural nationalism with the exigencies of India as the larger territorial unit.

In recent years the split in the Congress Party and the subsequent exigencies of Indian politics led India’s Premier, Indira Gandhi to form an alliance with the DMK party. While this was a purely pragmatic venture, it took a predictable form: Mrs.Gandhi wanted DMK support on the national level in the Lok Sabha and the DMK wanted certain projects for the state. Although the alliance fell apart soon after Mrs.Gandhi’s dramatic 1971 electoral victory, while it operated it was institutional evidence for the possibility of coexistence between these two diverse views of the political community. These and other findings indicate that the zero-sum notion of political identity must be revised. Central to that revision must be an appreciation of the complex concrete, material motivations which create the basis for response to cultural symbolism; the possibilities for various identities to coexist on different levels and to be judged relevant in diverse arenas; the relationship between core and peripheral and explicit and implicit symbols in nationalist ideologies. Most important is an understanding of the role of political leaders in defining priorities and setting forth relevant ideological models for handling this complex process.


A version of this article was first presented at the Southern Asian Institute Seminar, held at Columbia University, February 15, 1972. I would like to thank the seminar for the helpful comments made at that time. Also, I would like to thank Stephen Barnett, Dennis Dalton, and Robert Gilpir for their comments on this paper. The line of argument developed in this paper has been sharpened by discussions with Leonard Binder, Lloyd Rudolph and Aristide Zolberg. Funds for research in India between 1967 and 1969 were provided by the Committee on Southern Asian Studies and the Committee on Comparative Politics at the University of Chicago. I would like to thank those two Committees and also the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and the Princeton University Fund for Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences.


1. See Marguerite Ross Barnett, The Politics of Cultural Nationalism: The DMK in Tamil Nadu, South India. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 1972 for a full discussion of the DMK in power.

2. Leonard Binder et al. Crises and Sequences in Political Development (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972).

3. Note 2, pp.72-73.

4. Letter from Prime Minister Nehru to Chief Minister of Madras State, Kamaraj Nadar, India. Tamilnadu Government. Government Order 2089, December 16, 1961.

5. Clifford Geertz, ‘The integrative revolution: Primordial sentiments and civil politics in the New States’, in Clifford Geertz, ed. Old Societies and New States: The Quest for Modernity in Asia and Africa (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), p.109.

6. Note 5, p.110.

7. Hirabayashi v. United States 320 US 81 (1943). For more on the Japanese cases see: Korematsu v United States 323 US 214 (1944) and Ex parte Endo 323 US 283 (1944). Note too the hypocritical concurring opinion of Justice Murphy which overlooked the massive apparatus of Jim Crow legislation to state: ‘Distinctions based on color and ancestry are utterly inconsistent with our traditions and ideals’ and ‘Today is the first time, so far as I am aware, that we have sustained a substantial restriction of the personal liberty of citizens of the United States based on the accident of race or ancestry.’

8. C.Geertz, Old Societies and New States, p.128.

9. This is not to say that ties of blood and land are one-dimensional in Western society. In and Out-group definitions of ethnicity, race and citizenship have hardly been explored. And, of course, even the most remote tribes have means (e.g., so-called fictive kinship) to take in outsiders and override the blot of ‘alien blood’. Even the expression ‘naturalized’ citizen reveals a desire to render culturally ‘natural’ what is initially artificial. Obviously, these conundrums cannot be completely explored here; the basic point remains – at the very least ‘primordial’ ties are part of our own political culture, however distasteful to some social scientists.

10. Also see Lloyd I.Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, The Modernity of Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967) who also suggest attempts to dispense with rather than integrate tribal, linguistic, religious, regional, and caste loyalties are based on misapprehension of the nature of modern society and politics. See pp. 64-67.

11. Of course, low economic development, lack of sufficient military power to cope with outside intervention, and low levels of internal administrative control are factors which would exascerbate any problem, including competing cultural nationalisms.

12. Hans Kohn, Nationalism: Its Meaning and History (Princeton: D.Van Nostrand Co. Inc., 1955), p.9.

13. Note 12, p.9.

14. Louis Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus: An Essay on the Caste System (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), p.253.

15. Louis Dumont, Religion/Politics and History in India (Paris: Mouton Publishers, 1970), pp.109-110.

16. Hans Kohn, Nationalism: Its Meaning and History, p.9.

17. Note 12, p.9

18. See Rupert Emerson, From Empire to Nation: The Rise to Self Assertion of Asian and African Peoples (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962) for one interpretation of this process.

19. Louis Dumont, Region/Politics and History in India.

20. Of course Dumont is writing of a traditional context only. Also, he is writing of religious communalism. He states: ‘Communalism may be defined as that ideology which emphasizes as the social, political and economic unit the group of adherents of each religion, and emphasizes the distinction, even the antagonism, between such groups.’ Note 19, p.89.

21. Robert K.Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure (New York: Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), pp.234ff. In his discussion of Stouffer, Merton places the concept of relative deprivation in the theoretical framework of reference group theory.

22. See, for example, Karl W.Deutsch. ‘Social mobilization and political development’. The American Political Science Review, 55 (September 1961), pp.493-513.

23. For discussion of Varna as well as a theoretical analysis of the Indian caste system, see Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus. Also see Selig Harrison, India: The Most Dangerous Decades, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960). Harrison also related the rise of the non-Brahmin movement to the cultural framework embodied in the Varna system.

24. Burton, Stein, ‘Brahmin and Peasant in Early South Indian History’, Dr.V.Raghavan Felicitation Volume of the Adyar Library Bulletin, 31-32 (1967-1968), p.244.

25. Note 24, p.244.

26. The term ‘forward non-Brahmin’ subsequently became current in Madras politics. Generally it refers to land-owning and business castes that formed a rural elite.

27. Note 26, p.264. This special relationship involved specific ritual concessions. For an analysis of the stress created by attempts to terminate these special spiritual concessions, see Stephen A.Barnett, ‘Urban is as Urban does: Two incidents on One street in Madras City, South India’, in Urban Anthropology, volume 2, no.2, Fall 1973.

28. T.V.Subramaniam, ‘The Tamil Brahmins: Some guidelines to research on their emergence and eclipse.’ Economic and Political Weekly, (1969), p.1.

29. See Anil Seal, The emergence of Indian nationalism; Competition and Collaboration in the Later Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 1968), pp.107-113. Seal provides data on Brahmin numerical representation in the universities and administration in various areas of the country.

30. I am speaking of a general pattern. Of course there were non-Brahmins in urban professionals and there were Brahmin land-owners. Tanjore district was (and is) an area where the Brahmins are important landowners. Kathleen Gough (E.Kathleen Gough), ‘The social structure of a Tanjore village’, in McKim Marriott (ed.), Village India: Studies in the Little Community (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), states that the Brahmins “…own the land and have administrative rights in about 900 out of a total of 2,611 villages.”

31. Eugene Irshchick, Politics and social conflict in South India: The Non-Brahmin Movement and Tamil Separatism, 1916-1929 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), p.276. Also see Robert Hardgrave, The Nadars of Tamil Nadu: Political Culture of a Community in Change (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), pp.43-70 for a discussion of missionary activity.

32. Irschick, Politics and Social Conflict, p.278.

33. Note 32, p.279.

34. Note 32, p.279.

35. Note 32, p.280. Also see Rudolph and Rudolph, Modernity of Tradition, pp.276-77 for more on J.H.Nelson.

36. Irschick, Politics and Social Conflict in South India, p.280.

37. India. Tamil Nadu Government, Government Order No.22, January 27, 1919.

38. For example, the central symbols of the movement might have been drawn from British liberal thought. This is particularly likely since the political arena in the early twentieth century was an elite arena in which there was respect for and a desire to imitate the British political mode.

39. Justice Mirror of the Year 1927 (Madras:, 1928).

40. This was most dramatically true in cases where urbanization involved movement in new arenas where diverse castes came into contact with each other in circumstances where correct social relations were ambiguous, i.e., hostels, government offices, etc.

41. Samuel Stouffer’s concept of relative deprivation provides the best explanatory framework for analysis of this phenomenon. See Samuel Stouffer, The American Soldier (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941).

42. Stephen A.Barnett, ‘The structural position of a South Indian caste Kontaikatti Vellalas of Tamilnadu’ (unpublished dissertation, University of Chicago, 1970).

43. For an interesting study of urban Brahmins, see Milton Singer and Bernard Cohn, Structure and Change in Indian Society (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company, 1969), pp.423-452.

44. Stephen A.Barnett, From Structure to Substance: Caste and Change in South India (forthcoming) for a study of an elite non-Brahmin caste in rural and urban arenas.

45. See McKim Marriott, ‘Caste ranking and food transactions, A matrix analysis’, in Singer and Cohn, Structure and Change, pp.133ff for a general analysis of transactions in Indian villages.

46. Merton, Social Theory, pp.234ff. In his discussion of Stouffer, Merton places the concept, relative deprivation, in the theoretical framework of reference group theory.

47. The Madras Native Newspaper Reports are summaries and excerpts made by the British from vernacular newspapers. They are available in the Tamil Nadu Archives for the years 1916 to 1935.

48. Until 1956, Madras Presidency and later Madras State consisted of Tamil, Malayali, and Kannarese speaking areas. After 1956, Madras State became largely Tamil-speaking. In 1969 the state name was changed to Tamil Nadu.

49. The Self-Respect League contained more Telegu speakers than the DK or DMK.

50. Speech by Justice Party leader W.P.A.Soundrapandian at a 1929 Self-Respect League Conference. Reported in Revolt, vol.1, no.16 (February 20, 1929).

51. In 1930, E.V.Ramasami traveled to the Soviet Union and returned committed to economic reform along communist lines. However, Marxist theory was never fully integrated into the Dravidian ideology beyond the demand for a socialist society.

52. Present Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu State and a key DMK leader since 1949.

53. It is ironic that the DMK ability to extend its influence through the cinema was made possible by the Congress electrification campaign.

54. For a list of the exhausting schedule of the party leaders, see Dravida Nadu for these early years. It lists every conference, drama event, etc.

55. Marguerite Ross Barnett, ‘Cultural nationalist electoral politics in Tamil Nadu, South India’, in Myron Weiner, Electoral Patterns in the Indian States (forthcoming) discusses the Tamil Nadu electoral process.

56. The party leadership had unofficially given up separation in early 1961.

57. For development of the idea of compartmentalization as a way of analyzing social change, see Milton Singer, ‘The Indian joint family in modern industry’, in Milton Singer and Bernard S.Cohn (eds.) Structure and Change in Indian Society, (Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company), 1968.

58. These observations are based primarily on a study of political culture in Madras City. One neighborhood was selected for intensive study by means of surveys, observations and use of available ethnographic and historical materials. Interviews of approximately two hours in length were conducted with 225 respondents. These interviews provided a picture of the broad range of Madras political culture as well as some insight into what aspects were stressed by various castes and classes.

59. See Stephen Barnett, From Structure to Substance (forthcoming). The following passage is taken from M.R.Barnett and S.Barnett. “Contemporary Peasant and Post-Peasant Alternatives in South India: The Ideas of a Militant Untouchable”, A.L.La Ruffa et al. City and Peasant: A Study in Sociocultural Dynamics, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, volume 220, article 6, pp.385-410 in which the shift from caste to ethnicity to cultural nationalism is analyzed and related to the ‘raciation’ of South Indian Adi-Dravidas.

60. Edgar Litt, Ethnic Politics in America (Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1970), p.16.

61. Hindu, October 24, 1967, and also see the Techno-Economic Survey of Madras: Economic Report, Report of the National Council of Applied Economic Research, Government of Madras, Department of Industries, Labor and Cooperation, Madras, October 1961.

62. Hindu, October 24, 1967.

63. At the time of the interview quoted below, Subramaniam was President of the Tamil Nadu Congress Party. He had previously been State Finance and Education Minister for a time, as well as Union Minister for Food and a member of the National Planning Commission. After the Congress split in 1969, Subramaniam became a prominent member of Congress(R). Subramaniam is currently one of Indira Gandhi’s closest advisors. His opinions about the causes of the 1967 Congress defeat in Tamil Nadu deserve a good deal of consideration.

64. Interview with C.Subramaniam, 1968. These same general points were also made by other Congress leaders.



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