Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi once again paid tribute to the Tamil language this month, as he spoke to Tamil Nadu hairdresser on Sunday speaking to him in Tamil and praising Thirukurral, on his monthly radio program “Maan Ki Baat.”
Modi began his conversation in Tamil saying, “vanakkam” (hello) and “nalla irukkeengala” (how are you) as he applauded salon owner, Pon Mariyappan, for encouraging reading by converting a portion of his salon into a library. Mariyappan went on to say explain that he did not have the opportunity to continue his studies so he wanted to establish a library for the benefit of the community.
The prime minister went on praise the Tamil Thirukkural, stating “today, Tirukkural is available in all languages of India". "Given an opportunity, one must read it. In a way, it is a guide for life," he said.
This praise is only one in a string of occasions of Modi demonstrating his penchant for quoting the ancient texts. In July 2020, on the morrow of a bloody scrimmage between the Indian Army and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China in the Ladakh region, he visited the area and quoted a couplet by Thiruvalluvar on the values of an efficient army as he addressed the soldiers.
However, this move was seen as an attempt to appropriate the legacy of Thiruvalluvar from the Tamils and portray him as a Hindu sage. The Tamil Nadu state unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also provoked the wrath of Tamils by releasing an image of Thiruvalluvar covered in a saffron piece of cloth (the color being a totem of Hindu supremacy) in contrast to the secular white he has always been depicted in.
Furthermore, whilst Modi praised the Thirukkural, reports indicate that chapters on Periyar, the Chola king Rajaraja Cholan and the Sangam text Silappathikaram have been removed from the textbooks of the Central Board of Secondary Education so as to reduce the ‘burden of students’ studying during the coronavirus pandemic.
In October 2019, Modi praised Tamil culture and language during a speech at the UN General Assembly, following a proposed controversial bill which would have imposed Hindi as a mandatory language which was received with strong opposition from Tamil Nadu causing protests to erupt.
In response to Modi’s visit to the US where he gave the speech, grass-roots activists launched a social media campaign against Modi. On Twitter users posted the hashtag #GoBackModi which became a trending post and reached at least 76,300 tweets.
However, BJP leaders insisted his statements were not political, with Former Union Minister Pon. Radhakrishnan stating, “The Tamil Nadu government should take this forward without politicizing it.”
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