Pearls and Perils of Post Ideological Political Activism in Tamilnadu

Right on the heels of the massive uprising in January demanding the lifting of ban on Jallikkattu, Tamilnadu is weathering through another storm in its political cauldron. Now cudgels have been raised against the hydro – carbon project in Pudukkottai district, the eye of the storm gaining momentum at a tiny village Neduvasal. Neduvasal neatly rhymes with the central slogan of the Jallikkattu struggle – “Vadivasal”, but in fact is an antonym (in Tamil, Vadivasal means a narrow entrance and Neduvasal a long entrance).

In spite of being antonyms, the parallels are quite starking, not to go unnoticed even by an indifferent observer. The locals sit in a “dharna”, activists of small organizations and youngsters with no political affiliation rush to the spot, and the eye gathers strength following which celebrities from Kollywood lend their support, and the late arrivals are politicians like the police personnel arriving at the climax in Kollywood flicks. But there are more rhye to catch up with the eye.

To surmise, the five points that set these struggles apart from those of the previous decades are as follows:

  1. These struggles express a new kind of dynamism in activism, which came out of blue since the anti – Koodankulam struggle in 2001. The usual mode of activism of all hues, was fixed at a point – born and buried at the point of strife. Solidarity was expressed at other points by other actors statically. In other words, there was no movement and interaction between actors. At the most, forms like “yatra” were performed to garner support, whose primary function was propaganda. In contrast, this new generation of “apolitical” actors move towards the point of strife garnering strength and support networks. A new kind of dynamism has evolved in political action.
  2. Local protestors, students and activists rallying around the issue are oblivious to any ideology or political thought. The focus is exclusively on the issue at hand based on information, data, and experience. Information is gathered from the demi-god of the times – internet, and disseminated through its social media avatars. Government policy decisions, statistics on the current phase of operations and fragmentary scientific data are collected and collated with disastrous consequences on the ground. Old schools of thought like Marxism and Dravidian ideology are virtually absent in this mode of activism much to the chagrin of the ideologues.
  3. Outright rejection of all political parties, including the minor ones along with the two major players, DMK and AIADMK. The widespread opinion that the major parties are embroiled in corruption and do not take any meaningful measures for the welfare of the people is deeply entrenched. The fact that the minor parties which mushroomed to give vent to such frustration ended up in aligning alternately with the two major parties have furthered this wholesome rejection of political parties. Recurring incidents of protestors refusing to allow politicians to take the dais in their protests and meetings is a visible sign of this apathy.
  4. The mode of organization is lateral, diverging from the established vertical mode of political organization. In fact, there is no organization, in the usual sense of an organization. No hierarchical leadership – not to mention a “charismatic” leader, no centralization in decision making and initiating an action. This does not mean, that this new mode of activism is “spontaneous”, without any deliberation, or meanders without any direction. To the contrary, deliberations are made on the spot, out in the open, collectively, and concretely appraising differing points of view among the participants. This process was discernible in the Jallikkattu uprising at Alanganallur, Madurai and Chennai and now at Neduvasal.
  5. The ongoing struggles are distinct from those of the previous decades in their firm anti – corporate stance, and rejection of the developmental model pursued by the central government. Tamilnadu has a long history of resisting unilateral policy thrusts of the North. In the mid – 1930s, imposition of Hindi by the tactful and powerful patriarch C. Rajagopalachari was forestalled by a mass movement lead by Periyar. The mid – 60s again saw the eruption of a massive anti – Hindi struggle which installed the DMK in power. With the Dravidian movement stalwarts firmly entrenched in power, the struggle took a “diplomatic turn” into the realms of power sharing expressed in terms of devolution of powers to State governments. After a lull of nearly five decades, in the emerging post globalization scenario, Tamilnadu is once again in the forefront of struggles, now against predatory corporate interests and a developmental model blind to the destruction of environment and deaf to long term sustainable growth models.

The Jallikkattu uprising and the anti – hydro carbon struggle, have issued their statement point blank to multi – national corporates. In response to the vociferous call issued by the youngsters during the Jallikkattu uprising, the Tamilnadu trader’s association (TNVS) a federal body of around 6000 trader’s association with a membership of around 15 lakh traders, has announced a boycott on the sale of Coke and Pepsi from 1st of March throughout the state. This is certainly a political statement from the South, again setting a precedent for other states to pick up sooner or later, like the anti – Hindi struggle of the 1960s.

While these new manifestations are worth mentioning, a few downsides also need be taken into cognizance. These struggles based exclusively on information and its dissemination through internet and its social media avatars lack incisive analysis necessary for translating them into a dialogue with power. Unless a discursive formation effective enough to alter the “ways of seeing” of the policy makers and think tanks of the state, no decisive change is ever possible.

The disillusionment with the existing parties has a long way to go to create meaningful alternatives in electoral politics. Ultimately, all these energies need to be channelized through some political formation, that could effect change through participation in democratic legislation and governance. But, no visible alternative is yet on the horizon.

The ideology that dominated the political discourse – Dravidian politics was the dominant discourse in Tamilnadu – though stifled effective political action in the later decades, was perceptive enough to mount a critique on the evil of caste. It’s inadequacies in turn, were countered and surpassed by the radical critique of Dalit politics. The younger generation robustly active in the present struggles is mostly oblivious to the hard won achievements and the enduring relevance of such anti – caste movements and political thought. In a positive vein, the sprouting struggles can be seen as garnering forces cross – cutting caste, but it remains to be seen what transpires when the ugly face of caste prejudice and discrimination stares straight into their eyes.

These observations notwithstanding, the present stirrings have much to do with disenchantment not only towards the outworn Dravidian political discourse, but also has a strong sense of disenfranchisement and dissatisfaction towards the policy thrusts of the government at the center. One could only hope that sagacious minds prevail to dissipate them through positive measures, before they transform into resentment.



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