Remembering Kamaraj, The Kingmaker
A three-time chief minister of Tamil Nadu and a kingmaker on three occasions, Kamaraj’s legacy is far-reaching.
Remembering a tall leader of India on his 116th birth anniversary.
Decades before the non-Congress non-communist opposition joined forces with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to form the National Democratic Alliance or NDA, there was a man in Tamil Nadu who had that vision. He was, as the nationalists in Tamil Nadu then battling the Dravidian forces reverentially called him, ‘karma veerar Kamarajar’ or karma veer Kamaraj.
An uncompromising nationalist, who also knew the pain of ordinary people as he himself shared his roots with them, he rose to become India’s kingmaker. Many considered him a (Jawaharlal) Nehru loyalist. However, in reality, his only loyalty was to the nation. There was always an unspoken tension between Nehru and Kamaraj, but Kamaraj, being a disciplined party soldier would never reveal it. For example, Nehru had dropped Lal Bahadur Shastri out of the cabinet using the ‘Kamaraj Plan’, which was originally created to make it easy for Nehru to oust Krishna Menon. However, Kamaraj soon convinced Nehru to take Shastri back into the cabinet. After Nehru, when there was a talk of Kamaraj himself becoming prime minister, he paved the way for Shastri to occupy the chair.
He also supported Indira Gandhi about which he later regretted. At that time, he wanted a strong alternative to Indira Gandhi inside the cabinet. Kamaraj backed Gulzarilal Nanda for the important home affairs office and he indeed became the home minister. The support of Kamaraj for Nanda is important in its own way because he was one of the openly pro-Hindu Congress men. In 1956, he had helped organise the Bharat Sadhu Samaj and had been active in Hindu Sanghathan work through creating social institutions and goshalas. Indira Gandhi would later ensure that this reason would cause the downfall of Nanda. The unexpected police firing at the unarmed but highly agitated sadhus demonstrating against the government demanding protection for cows led to the sacking of Nanda by Indira Gandhi. Historian Promilla Kalhan explains:
Some people evidently allowed mischief makers, even pehraps goonda elements to become part of the procession consisting mainly of sadhus. These elements forced their way into the precincts of Parliament House. The police naturally took action. Also, it appears, some of the mischievous elements even forced their way into the house of the Congress President. It was in the guise of Sadhus that some mischief makers were able to bring about violence which ultimately created a problem for the Home Ministry which Nanda had to leave. The whole matter appears to have been engineered. Nanda’s enemies won the day.Gulzarilal Nanda: A Life in the Service of the People, 1997, p.58
Interestingly, this episode was twisted into an anti-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) urban legend in Tamil Nadu, which said the RSS tried to kill Kamaraj in Delhi. In reality, it was a diabolically choreographed ploy in which Nanda and Kamaraj were on one side and Indira Gandhi and the leftists on the other. Nanda, who had the support of Kamaraj, was for cow protection.
Kamaraj supported the Indian Army with great pride and passion. During the Chinese war, he travelled the length and breadth of the state collecting war funds. During the India-Pakistan war also he gave rousing speeches and called on the people to sacrifice their comforts and contribute to the war fund. He also led by example. He vividly described the war efforts at the border. “When you see the way our army is moving you will realise how the armies should have moved during the Mahabharata war,” he explained to the people of Tamil Nadu.
In Tamil Nadu, the role of Kamaraj in fighting the Dravidianist politics was principled and uncompromising. For example, when C Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) and Kamaraj had differences, E V Ramasamy (EVR) tried to use it and extended his support to Congress under Kamaraj. However, Kamaraj categorically stated that while in a democracy he could never stop anyone from openly supporting him in public, he would never support the communal and divisive politics and policies of EVR. When he was chief minister, Kamaraj had made changes to the Drama Regulation Act with an aim of stopping and providing stringent punishments to the conducting of ‘Keemayana’ – an obscene and perverted rendering of Ramayan by the Dravidian storm-troopers. Even in his last speech, EVR mocked Kamaraj for his defeat at the hands of atheist Dravida Munnnetra Kazhagam (DMK). Kamaraj had criticised DMK for allowing rallies in which Hindu deities were insulted and yet Kamaraj was defeated in the elections, crowed the Dravidianist EVR, “why could not those gods help Kamaraj get victory?” he asked.
Actually, Tamil Nadu had been retaliating against the pseudo-rationalist attacks on Hinduism in its own way. Cinema directors K S Gopalakrishnan, A P Nagarajan and Chinnappa Devar produced both devotional, mythological and positive social movies, which answered the Dravidianist propaganda. Kamaraj in his own way supported these directors. When Gopalakrishnan released his puranic movie Dasavatharam in 1976, he dedicated it to the memory of Kamaraj, who died on Gandhi Jayanthi in 1975. The movie had some real sharp yet covert political punches against the then political scenario. Devar specialised on movies with devotion to Lord Muruga. Kamaraj gave his consent to use the video footage of himself appearing in the temple yagna in the movie.
At the same time, when Indira Gandhi became increasingly anti-democratic and imposed Emergency on the nation, Kamaraj wanted to create a national alternative to the Indira Congress. In this alliance, he wanted all non-communist, non-Dravidian parties to join. He was also critical of Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) because the latter wanted the DMK to be part of the anti-Congress alliance. Here, Kamaraj differed from JP in the sense, he was not anti-Congress, but he was anti-fascist as Congress was becoming more and more synonymous with dynastic fascism. In this fight against Congress, he wanted the forces which unite to be utterly pro-nationalist. So he had no problem with Jan Sangh. In fact, during the Emergency when the RSS volunteers from the state met him, he received them and had a conversation with them. He cautioned them regarding getting support from all political parties. He told them:
After the advent of independence we have built up our institutions only centering round seats of power. All eyes came to be riveted on membership in Assemblies and Parliament and position in ministries. The parties, the leaders and workers who have come up in this climate of scramble for power are the last ones to be depended upon where suffering and sacrifice are called for.
One of the greatest contributions of Kamaraj not just to Tamil Nadu and India but to entire developing nations fighting illiteracy is the mid-day meals scheme. Before Kamaraj hit upon this scheme, it was implemented in Travancore state by its diwan C P Ramasami Iyer. He introduced compulsory education combined with free mid-day meals for poor students, which resulted in rapid increase in literacy rate of the Kanyakumari district. The first institution to introduce this scheme was a government school in a small village called Vellamadam near Nagercoil. Kamaraj scaled up this scheme for the entire state of Tamil Nadu. If, today, Tamil Nadu is rated high on many human resource indices, this scheme introduced in the state by Kamaraj and then invigorated by Dr M G Ramachandran is one of the major reasons.
Such a great man’s dream remains unfulfilled to this day – the dream of a non-dynastic, non-communist, non-Dravidian government in Tamil Nadu.
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