The southern state has a rich history of protests. Some of Tamil Nadu’s tallest leaders forged their political careers in protests. Government data shows that in the past decade, the state has topped the list of most protests held.

The farmers of Tamil Nadu on Monday ate grass as a symbol of their deteriorating plight, at Jantar Mantar in the national capital. (Sonu Mehta/HT PHOTO)

In every conference of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the tone is inevitably set by propaganda songs in playback singer Isaimurasu Nagoor Hanifa’s shrill permeating voice. It’s difficult to find a DMK cadre not overwhelmed to tears when Hanifa sings ‘Kallakudi konda Karunanidhi Vaazhgave’ (Long live Karunanidhi who conquered Kallakudi) in his inimitable style. Through these songs, the late Hanifa passes down to younger generations the story of legendary protests that made an ordinary Karunanidhi into Tamil Nadu’s grand old man — Kalaignar.One of the protests that Hanifa sings about dates back to 1953. Back then when the DMK launched an agitation to change the name of a railway station in a small town near Tiruchi from Dalmiapuram (named after a North Indian industrialist) to Kallakudi (the original Tamil name), Karunanidhi did the unexpected. When protestors were pasting papers carrying the name Kallakudi all around, 29-year-old Karunanidhi and four others laid themselves on the tracks, just when a train was approaching. They were eventually arrested and remanded to jail and the protests were a defining moment in Karunanidhi’s political career.

For political bards, it isn’t that Tamil Nadu is exactly short of material these days.

Tamil Nadu farmers, protesting at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar pressing for various demands, had recently resorted to dramatic steps from eating dead rats and drinking urine to running nude, all to attract the attention of the Centre.

In 2015, Tamil Nadu recorded the highest number of protests among all states. In that one year, the State recorded 20,450 protests while Punjab came a distant second with a little over 13,000 protests. (This is according to the data released early this year by Bureau of Police Research and Development, Ministry of Home Affairs.)

The two states that are conventionally considered as hotbeds of agitations don’t even feature in the top 10 — Kerala registered 3,371 protests and West Bengal registered 3,089. Tamil Nadu has topped the list since 2009, when the ongoing anti-Sri Lankan protests rocked the state.

So what’s keeping Tamil Nadu on boil?

A wee bit of backstory

On Chennai’s Marina Beach, home to every manner of protest from the independence movement to Jallikattu in 2017, stands a statue of the woman who is arguably Tamil Nadu’s most famous protester. Silappadikaram, one of the five great Tamil epics, is a testimony to the unfairness of rulers and the rebellion of Tamils. When its heroine Kannagi hears that her husband was wrongly accused of stealing the queen’s anklets and is awarded the death sentence, she doesn’t take it lying down. After proving her husband’s innocence, she avenges him by burning down the city of Madurai.

More recently, Tamil Nadu’s establishment that ruled the state for five decades is rooted strongly in the anti-establishment protests of the Dravidian movement, when Periyar started the 1925 self-respect movement against the oppressive Brahmin hegemony in the State. When his Justice Party launched a protest against then chief minister C Rajagopalachari’s move to make Hindi compulsory in 1937, the protests (consisting of students conferences and rallies) lasted three years until compulsory Hindi was withdrawn. Not having learnt their lesson, the state made efforts to make Hindi the sole official language in 1965; the DMK led another round of anti-Hindi agitations in the State. The agitations which lasted for two months ended only after an assurance from then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri that English would continue as the preferred language for Centre-state and intrastate communications. The anti-Hindi agitations of 1965 were to the DMK what the Kallakudi protest was to Karunanidhi. In two years, the party came to power ending the Congress rule in the state.

DMK spokesperson KS Radhakrishnan is expansive on the subject. “Unlike in north India, the environment in the southern states are more conducive for people who wanted to step out on the roads and claim their rights. Tamil Nadu’s character was essentially restive. Farmers protest in the state date back to the British era. The Vellore mutiny is one of the earliest examples. Periyar’s defining influence has only added to the state’s character. Our struggles are bigger than in any other state and in most struggles, we have managed to achieve some degree of success.”

To others, even those who are not the political heirs of the Dravidian movement, the culture that the Dravidian movement created is what continues to keep dissent alive in Tamil Nadu. “I believe the Dravidian movement nurtures protests. Protests indicate an increased political awareness in the state and it is personally very heartening for me to know that Tamil Nadu protests more than any other state,” says acclaimed writer and activist Salma. “Women leaders of the Dravidian movement also took active part in these protests. Leaders like Sathyavani Muthu (who used to carry her baby to meetings), Muthulakshmi and Moovalur Ramamirutham Ammaiyar has paved the way for us to follow.”

But C Lakshmanan, professor with the Madras Institute of Development Studies has a more skeptical take. “Tamil Nadu is a highly fragmented society with many identity-based associations. For example, there are many caste associations and there are many protests by these organisations. Tamil Nadu is a depoliticised state, but protests happen sporadically and aren’t consolidated enough; they largely have a negative impact (as caste-based organisations protests are seen as polarising the State).”

Salma contests this and says not all protests are identity-based. “Many protests are against the government and are an articulation of the frustration of the state’s inefficiency to meet their demands or protect their interests.”