Dhuruvan Selvamani, Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) State Youth Wing Coordinator
With Tamil Nadu Assembly elections set to take place on April 6 and electioneering underway in full swing across the state, Tamil Guardian spoke to Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) State Youth Wing Coordinator, Dhuruvan Selvamani. Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK), is a Tamil nationalist party that formed following the genocide that took place in Mullivaikkal in 2009. We asked Selvamani about a number of issues including the NTK’s strategy for the elections, its stance on the intensifying Sinhalisation and colonisation of the Tamil homeland and its views on India-Sri Lanka relations.
Tamil Guardian: The Naam Tamilar Katchi (NTK) is a Tamil Nationalist political party in Tamil Nadu. When one thinks of Tamil nationalism, it is the Eelam liberation struggle that immediately comes to mind. Dravidianism has reigned supreme in Tamil Nadu for many decades now. Tell us what does Tamil nationalism mean for Tamil Nadu?
Dhuruvan Selvamani: Tamil nationalism has existed in Tamil Nadu since before India gained independence. Our forebears, most importantly Thiru. Thozhan. Tamizharasu, Thiru. Ma.Po.Si (M.P. Sivagnanam), Kaliyaperumal and countless other people have spoken about Tamil nationalism. In contemporary times, Maniyarasan ayya is also a Tamil nationalist. However, the ideology took a dimension that made it popular amongst the masses after 2009. At that time, we worked intensely on it alongside chief coordinator Seeman. Tamil nationalism is a capacious ideology and we borrow from a variety of philosophies, including from communism.
"Tamil nationalism has existed in Tamil Nadu since before India gained independence."
TG: You propose the ideology as an alternative to Dravidianism. How does it work in the context of Tamil Nadu?
DS: A linguistic-ethnic group has its own nationalism. They have their own politics, territory, patterns of living, language, literature, history and culture. The politics of such an ethnic group should be one that determines its own politics on the basis of these features. In that way, the politics of the Tamil people can only be Tamil nationalist politics.
Like you said, we are proposing it as an alternative to Dravidianism. If you ask me, Dravidianism is no ideology and I wouldn’t even accept it as a hypothesis. However it has gained some acceptance amongst the people and has ruled the state for the past 50 years.
There has been no real alternative in terms of ideology to Dravidianism so far. They had only given space to personal rivalries. MGR had the same disagreement with Karunanidhi as Karunanidhi did with Vaiko and as Jayalalitha did with Karunanidhi. Indeed, Periyar and Anna had the same problem. No ideological alternative has existed so far. It was always about personal rivalries. Deciding on the fate of a large population based on personal enmities is flawed. We propose Tamil nationalism as a completely alternative ideology and we are fighting against Dravidianism in those terms. Such an ideological struggle would be a healthy political development.
Therefore, these elections are particularly important for NTK. Displacing an ideology from the reins of power and replacing it with a new ideology is a big transformation.
TG: Casteism is deeply rooted in Tamil political culture but you propose Tamil nationalism as an ideology that transcends caste. Do you think it is a practicable political goal? What kind of impact is it making in the populace?
DS: I think it is a very good question! Caste-related difficulties are deeply rooted not just in Tamil society, but across Indian society. There are other states where the caste problem is even worse than in Tamil Nadu. Once, Dravidian parties said they are opposed to caste and called for an independent Dravida Naadu and then for a separate Tamil Nadu and ultimately settled for a doctrine of “self-governance in the state and collective governance in the centre.” But none of what they spoke came to pass. We speak in very similar terms as they did, but we mean what we say.
For instance, they say they derive the term ‘Dravidam’ from Robert Caldwell’s A Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian Languages. Caldwell says he derives the term from Manusmriti. In that text Dravidian is used as a word to describe their (Aryans’) enemies. So, are they defining Dravidianism in terms of territory or landscape or ideology? It cannot be anything!
Tamil has a 2000-year long history with a rich corpus of literature. If Dravidam was a language, there is not a single text to prove that. How can there be an ideology to a putative language that does not have a single book? Jayalalitha, a Brahmin woman, became the head of ADMK, a Dravidian party and became Chief Minister (CM). How can they continue to speak of Dravidianism even after that happened?
TG: What is your view on caste politics now and how do you think Tamil nationalism would approach the issue?
DS: Tamil nationalism attempts to abolish caste mainly through two means; through ideology and through activity. Our very endeavour to bring all Tamils under the label of Tamil nationalism is itself an act against the persistence of caste. In a caste-riven society, the task to transcend divisions and bring everyone together as Tamilan is an act against caste. We emphasise the rights and powers that we have lost as a result of our caste mindedness. Everyone from Annan Seeman stresses upon the importance of getting rid of caste. Tamil nationalism has created the space for such discourse. Because it is an ideology that values unity.
In terms of activity, I do not know of a single leader in India who says “if you vote for me on the basis of caste, I would regard it as theetu (defilement.) Vote only if you see me as a Tamil.” It is Seeman alone who has said that. We don’t field candidates on the basis of caste.
Even in an election that is extremely crucial for us, in which we need victory at all costs, we have not wavered on our stance on caste. Indeed, we explicitly say we don’t need votes that are cast on the basis of caste. That is very important to note.
"I do not know of a single leader in India who says “if you vote for me on the basis of caste, I would regard it as theetu (defilement.) Vote only if you see me as a Tamil.”
Furthermore, we have fielded candidates who have been historically boycotted and discriminated against in Tamil society as a result of their caste. Dravidian parties always nominated members of a dominant caste in particular constituencies, leaving these disfavoured communities in even greater disadvantage. We are deliberately taking actions including fielding candidates in a calculated way to make caste become irrelevant in course of time.
We follow the practice ourselves within the party. We have lakhs of members in Tamil Nadu and across the world. We don’t mingle with each other on the basis of caste. We are making it known that we are a different generation.
TG: NTK is contesting all 234 seats on its own without making alliances with other parties. You have fielded 117 women and 117 men candidates. What is the rationale behind these decisions? What prompted you to undertake these actions?
DS: You will do it if you believe in equality. There is no other reason for it. In the 1952 Indian parliament, only 5% of MPs were women. The rest were all men. Fast forward to 2021. It has been almost 70 years. Still, 90% of MPs in the Indian parliament are men. Only 10% are women.
Let’s take Tamil Nadu. There are around 30.9 million male voters in the state. And female voters number up to 31.9 million. There are a million more female voters. However they will be voting for candidates of whom 80% are male. Therefore, we need to improve the lot of women. Improving them doesn’t mean dispensing free amounts of cash like the other parties are doing. It means, like Ambedkar said, vesting them with the responsibilities of governance. One has to pave the way for them to journey towards the reins of administration. This will be a feature in every civilised society that loves equality.
Someone had to start it in India. It is only the NTK that has initiated this practice in the entire country.
TG: Another important dimension in the ideology of the NTK is the independence of Tamil Eelam. Seeman has raised his voice against the injustices perpetrated against Eelam Tamils by Sri Lanka including the Sinhalisation and colonisation of the Tamil homeland. What kind of approach would the NTK take to curb these atrocities if it comes to power?
DS: Our stance on Tamil Eelam is the same as that of the people who fought to realise it. The end of the war was a product of international conspiracy. Even though the Sinhalese government undertook all activities against us, in the end, it was connivance by countries like India that bolstered Sri Lanka and guided its approach to LTTE. Even after they announced the defeat of the LTTE, their approach towards the Tamil people has been characterised by hostility.
This hostility is rooted in their folklore and culture. Their mythology and legend makes them averse to Tamils. Even after the war has ended, the Sri Lankan government still doesn’t want the Tamils to live with a separate identity. It thinks that even memories of the Tamil struggle and identity must no longer exist. The destruction of the Mullivaikkal memorial statue and the Mullaitivu temple are products of this mindset.
"Our stance on Tamil Eelam is the same as that of the people who fought to realise it."
India is a huge market in South Asia. It has extensive relations with Western countries. Tamil Nadu is an important part of India. A government that truly represents the interests of the Tamils would pressure the central government to adopt policies favourable to its people. The central government needs the support of all states, including Tamil Nadu. We need to exploit the leverage we have and pressure India to adopt a stance favourable to Eelam Tamils.
A campaign song for NTK by Malaysian Tamil artist Kamban, produced by British Tamil production company Nesan Creations
TG: What about India’s abstention from the UNHRC Resolution on Sri Lanka? Every Tamil political party from the DMK to NTK appealed to India to vote against Sri Lanka. But New Delhi rejected those appeals. India has built extensive economic and defence ties with Sri Lanka. Do you think a Tamil nationalist party like NTK could force India to change its fundamental foreign relations with Sri Lanka and prioritise Eelam Tamil welfare?
DS: Countries that aren’t even related to India or the Tamils have voted in favour of the resolution. It is woeful that India hasn’t. You may be right that it is India’s business interests that might have prompted it to vote the way it did. However, can a state pressure the central government to make a decision that satisfies its genuine aspirations? Yes, it can. The fundamental flaw in the Indian political system is the concentration of power in the centre. The Dravidian parties that ruled the state were not able to wrest their rights from the centre.
For instance, whilst war was underway in 2009, Congress was in power with solid support from the DMK. If they (DMK MPs) had resigned office in protest against the massacre, it would’ve sent a big message to the world. It would’ve forced India to take action. But, they did no such thing. They prioritised getting plum positions in government ministries and protecting themselves from allegations of scam with their administrative powers. They had the opportunity to pressure India to secure their goals, but they chose not to make use of it.
"A time will come when India would intensely pursue the interests of Eelam Tamils."
If a party that truly prioritises its aspirations over personal gain comes to power, there are opportunities to make that happen (pressure India to take a pro-Eelam stance). A time will come when India would intensely pursue the interests (of Eelam Tamils) and Tamils would exert great pressure to make that happen.
TG: With regards to the fishermen issue, the Sri Lankan navy has killed scores of Tamil Nadu fishermen and it continues to do so. Seeman has said he would establish a Tamil Nadu neythal padai (naval force) to counter it. However, how does it address the genuine concerns of Eelam Tamil fishermen. There are complaints from Mannar and Jaffna fishermen that Tamil Nadu fishermen use trawlers depriving them of their catch and endangering their livelihood. How would the naval force address the grievances of Eelam Tamil fishermen?
DS: If Eelam Tamil fishermen have genuine grievance, they will be considered 100 percent. The Sri Lankan navy has killed, by one estimate, around 900 Tamil Nadu fishermen so far. The same problem occurred in 2013 between Taiwan and the Philippines. A Taiwanese fisherman crossed the nautical boundary and undertook fishing in the territory of the Philippines. The Philippines shot dead the fisherman. Taiwan took the stance that even though it was only one person, he was a valued citizen of their state. It went on to impose seven different types of economic sanctions against the Philippines. They also conducted a war rehearsal in the sea. If Taiwan could do so much for a single fisherman, why can’t India show a similar respect for Tamil fishermen? The Sri Lankan military continues to murder Tamil Nadu fishermen whilst India keeps quiet. Does India want this to continue?
The Sri Lankan army not just kills Tamil fishermen, it brutalises them. It steals their catch, damages their equipment, drains their fuel into the sea. Look at a Tamil fisherman’s body, it is full of scars of bruises that the Sri Lankan navy inflicted upon him. If a government that is supposed to protect us does not fulfil its duty, it is our basic right to protect ourselves. That is why we say we will construct a neythal padai.
TG: Despite several attacks by the Sri Lankan navy on Tamil Indian citizens, Indian High Commission in Sri Lanka gave a 20 million rupees grant to the Sri Lankan navy in March. What is your take on that?
DS: It is worrying that India prioritises economic relations with other countries over the welfare of a people who pay their tax to and toil for the development of India. Also, this is not a new development. They gave arms to Sri Lanka whilst the war was going on and even sent their troops there. What else can we expect of them?
TG: Sri Lanka has given permission to some Chinese corporate companies to construct renewable projects in the islands outlying Jaffna including Analaitivu and Neduntheevu, which are close to Tamil Nadu. India was ejected from the construction of the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port. How do you see this pro-China attitude of Sri Lanka?
DS: It is the sort of move that every developing country makes to improve its economy. Many countries have done it in the past. The maritime aspiration of China is also an important factor. Sri Lanka is trying to make itself the centre of economic opportunities. This move is only an act toward that end.
TG: There are concerns that all authority within the party has been concentrated in the hands of Seeman. There is no else within or without NTK to carry forward Tamil nationalist politics with the same vigour. Do you think this excessive focus on Seeman is beneficial to the Tamil movement? What are your views on this brand of leadership which is constructed only around a single man?
DS: Firstly, the office-bearers and members of the party are being educated in our ideology and no one is here as a fan of Annan Seeman. The reason why Seeman is prominent is because of the period in which he spoke about Tamil nationalism. Like I said, the ideology was discussed earlier behind closed doors. But it was developed into a potent political force by Seeman. So, he is definitely a very important political leader in contemporary times.
Secondly, I believe leadership by a single person is necessary. We need someone to implement the ideas that grow out of discussions with the party members. Personality-based leadership is sometimes misunderstood as being one that is constructed around a leader who doesn’t listen to other members, takes decisions without consulting his subordinates and acts at his own will. If that is their conception of one-person leadership, it doesn’t exist in the NTK. NTK is a notable democractic establishment in modern times.
*The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.*