Sanatana Dharma row and its impact on Tamil Nadu politics

It is striking even for a casual observer, a reluctant speaker in comparison to the array of firebrand orators of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), Udayanidhi Stalin raised a storm that refuses to calm the nerves of parties and cadres in opposite camps of both the Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) and the DMK. The rest of the political parties are wondering the potential of implications of Udayanidhi Stalin’s teasing speeches and steel nerves to convert the momentum into an unequivocal challenge to the Sanatana Dharma and the call for eradicating the same like dengue disease caused by the bite of an infected Aedes mosquito or corona.

Udhayanidhi Stalin (ANI)

Given the current trends in Tamil cinema and Udayanidhi’s movie background, it was meant as a punch dialogue that incidentally knocked open the ideological interiors of the DMK and provoked the BJP to the extent that the party found itself in a hysterical mood of joy and desperation to convert Udayanidhi’s statement into an election issue in the near future and even in the parliamentary elections-2024. The first question that comes to one’s mind is whether BJP is run out of steam to pick this up as the battle point before the next parliamentary elections or is it trying to run away from other pressing issues facing the country? The real desperation of BJP is revealed from the charges of genocidal violence raised by the party and its leaders against Udayanidhi. All said and done without any amicable settlement of this rage and controversy, this is potentially one of the most creative conflicts in Indian politics in the last two decades that belongs to the category of public debate, at least in Tamil Nadu.

It requires us all to revisit Sanatana Dharma and the reality check over the eternal law of Hinduism or the Hindu way of life. In the process, the DMK appears to be more engaging and revitalised than in the last few months and even pushed aside the hop and jump padayatra by the BJP state unit president Annamalai into obscurity.

Sanatana Dharma is understood in other parts of the country as Hindu Dharma – Universal or Eternal Law as well as a way of life. In Tamil Nadu the same is seen from an anti-caste pedagogy, Dravidians see themselves outside the Hindu Sanatana Dharma which advocates/practices the Varna system (oppressive and discriminatory caste structure). Manusmriti is often cited as the core reflection of this caste structure by the DMK and the Dravidian Movement leaders. There are several quotes cited from Ambedkar, Phule and Periyar to justifiy the remarks of Udayanidhi Stalin.

This controversy is likely to have both a negative and creative impact on Tamil Nadu and for the DMK. It will continue to isolate the party and government from a section of the Hindu community and at the same time will serve the creative function of uniting others behind the DMK party. This creative component, will also generate a positive response of mobilising the anti-caste politics consistent with the history and objectives of the Dravidian movement, especially the anti-caste movements in the state. The BJP’s leaders and cadres including the prime minister, defence minister and the party chief have joined this debate, in one way or the other to portray the DMK as an anti-Hindu party and the opposition alliance of I.N.D.I. A, especially the Congress, as complicit to the position stoutly defended by the DMK party. At the same time neither BJP nor DMK are likely to withdraw from this all-out ideological battle and political dividends linked to this controversy.

Caste divides the people and the nation. But how the I.N.D.I.A bloc views this division without challenging the Sanatana Dharma and how the DMK resists the Sanatana Dharma as a discriminatory way of life are different. Major political parties in the north, west, east are not likely to support DMK’s position because of the nature of religious and political discourse prevailing in other parts of the country. They may not approve of the DMK’s position because of the fear of Hindu backlash orchestrated by the BJP. Yet there are political elements within these parties that are deeply aware that this controversy can unsettle BJP even in Hindi heartland with potential alignment and realignments of caste politics.

BJP cannot undermine the impact of this debate in the south and the resurfacing of this debate through a backstroke by political parties like Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Samajwadi Party (SP), Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and even Trinamool Congress in Bengal. BJP had something to project in the Mandir vs Mandal debate in the north. It will be stretching itself beyond its potential to defend the Sanatana Dharma without engaging itself to advocate and defend social justice.

Neither DMK nor Udayanidhi had anticipated the virulent response from the BJP. At the same time DMK is not wary or hesitant to stay in the political-ideological fight. BJP is unlikely to travel with this debate beyond the electioneering and may even gain certain traction. But DMK and its allies will continue to keep this ideological debate alive.

This is why it is important to consider this controversy as one of the most creative conflicts in Indian politics in the recent period. BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevek Sangh (RSS) may deny the ideological contents and social narratives hidden in this debate but not long without addressing them in other parts of the country, outside Tamil Nadu.

It needs to be mentioned here that this entire debate on “Sanatana Dharma Versus Social Justice” is taking place in the country and, particularly, in Tamil Nadu coinciding with the groundbreaking progress of three non-Brahmin women who have completed training to be priests under the “All Caste Archakas” scheme (All Caste Hindu Priests Scheme) in Tamil Nadu, even as 15 others have been enrolled for the course conducted by the Department of Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR & CE).

In Tamil Nadu, there are priests from Scheduled Castes, Most Backward Classes, Backward Classes, Brahmin and non-Brahmin forward caste communities. It may be useful to recall the 26th July, 2023 ruling of the Madras High Court that caste-based pedigree won’t play a role in appointment of archakas (priests) as long as the candidates are qualified on all parameters. The times are changing and along with it our metaphors and minds also must change.


(Prof. Ramu Manivannan is a scholar-academic-social activist in areas of education, human rights and sustainable development through an initiative “Multiversity.” He is currently the Visiting Professor at the Global South Institute, Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, Colorado, USA).

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