Proud to be a southerner, and not just because of one man

By Allan Jacob

Are you from the South? Yes. Madras? That’s what they asked me when I visited the North of India some years ago. There’s so much happening in the South… damn…these folks don’t get it, I thought. Up North, they preferred to call the lower half of the peninsula, Madras, for many decades after Independence till the city had enough and changed its name to Chennai in the nineties.

People from the region were often branded Madrasi, a derogatory term for southerners who are mostly dark-skinned. It had racist undertones but Indians prefer the more respectable “caste” and wear it with pride on their sleeve when they protest for reservations in government jobs and educational institutions.

Race is flaunted when people hit the streets to damage property and bring life to a standstill. Despite the churning in the North, the Indian South has mostly stayed calm and carried on by giving creative and technological vent to their feelings, unperturbed by the geographical disadvantage from the centre of power in New Delhi.

For the millions who live in the South, there is comfort in all things southern, the comfort coming from the territory because you don’t need to speak Hindi (spoken mostly in the North) in the five states that form the region to eke out a living. I can say with a fair degree of certainty because I lived or worked in four of the five states. The people are nice and you can find your bit of paradise if you pick up some slang and are willing to integrate into the community. The folks look familiar — like true blue natives — who will let you live your life without getting your goat or having a beef with you. They are fond of software and dream American dreams while living simple lives. High thinking, low living is perfectly suited to these parts.

The South recently took centre-stage following the demise of a politician by the name of M. Karunanidhi. Media anchors in the North struggled to pronounce South Indian names which prompted a senior journalist to pose the question: “Our news anchors who take such trouble to pronounce European, African, Latin American names can’t pronounce Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)? After 50 years?” Karunanidhi was the leader of the DMK who left behind a strong legacy of southerness which I have grown to admire.

Before I continue, the DMK, with its strong Tamil language links, has been a forum for the progress of the Dravida people, or those who inhabit South India which comprises five states or provinces — Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Telangana and Andhra. They share strains of a common culture but are different political, linguistic and geographical entities. Let’s say they are united for the Dravidian cause but prefer to stay divided for the sake of language (the five states speak four different languages). Complicated, yet true.

But it was in Tamil Nadu that Dravidian politics reared its head with the Self Respect Movement that waged civil disobedience movements against the higher castes, the Brahmins, a minority who controlled places of worship, finance and the economy till the 1920s. The movement was premised on human rights long before the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, gave it a nationalist spin with his non-violence chant, which united the country against Britain, a foreign power, and drove them out in 1947.

The Self Respect Movement later became the Justice Party, parts of which broke away to form the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, a political force that flaunted its southern uniqueness against what it felt was the intrusion of the Hindi language and Hindu politics that the then nationalist Congress tried to push down southern throats after Independence.

Southernness gained political clout under C.N Annadurai and Karunanidhi who went on to become chief ministers of Tamil Nadu state. It was a potent force, a push-back against perceived Northern cultural and linguistic dominance, or what many call Aryan culture. In the sixties, the DMK won its first state election. Dravidian politics was not going away. Today, it’s a splintered political movement (like most movements) but holds sway in the South and resonates with millions of Indians culturally while greatly influencing the workings of the central government in New Delhi.

Other states like Andhra and Telangana have adopted the Dravidian model and have their own versions which suit the aspirations of their people. What I’d like to state here is that leaders like Karunanidhi made the North sit up and take the South seriously — this was modern, secular India. The Dravidian movement stonewalled the imposition of Hindi as the official language in the country from the fifties. Today, thanks to their efforts, 22 regional languages and English have been granted official status. Dravidian Tamil Nadu resisted the Sanskritisation (another ancient language) of India, which the current ruling dispensation at the centre in New Delhi is again attempting with its Hindutva experiment but is bound to fail.

Finally, the Indian Dravidian movement spearheaded by leaders like Karunanidhi made the South (of the Vindhya mountain ranges) a fashionable destination. Resistance here remains through art, politics and software. It has brewed a cultural movement over steaming cups of filter kaafi (coffee). What you get at Starbucks is not a patch on it.  I suggest you sip it at the Tamil restaurant near you. Southern dark skin is in vogue – though some call us dusky. And who said the sun doesn’t rise in the South?

allan@khaleejtimes.com

Allan’s a news junkie and history buff

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