Superstar Rajinikanth, at an event to celebrate Tamil magazine Thuglak’s 50th-anniversary recently, made a statement about Periyar. It sparked a debate across India, one that has almost set the stage for his political debut – or debacle.
On January 14, actor-turned-politician Rajinikanth told the gathering that Periyar EV Ramaswamy, who is considered as the Father of the Dravidian Movement, had taken out a rally against superstition in Salem, Tamil Nadu, in 1971. At the rally, Rajinikanth said, “undressed images of Lord Sri Ramachandramoorthy and Sita – with a garland of sandal – featured and no news outlet published it”. The veteran actor added that nobody except Cho Ramaswamy, the founder-editor of Thuglak, published the news about Periyar’s rally and criticised the incident.
His statement and what followed struck at the heart of carefully nurtured decades-old Dravidian politics of Tamil Nadu.
This is why Rajinikanth is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
A huge risk
Rajinikanth’s remarks go against every political playbook in Tamil Nadu. For an aspiring politician to venture to say anything against Periyar is not just risky but perhaps suicidal too. What’s even more controversial than Rajinikanth’s remark is his refusal to apologise. But how it unfolds will definitely signal if Tamil Nadu’s politics is ready to move to the next phase yet.
For his statement, Rajinikanth has invited sharp criticism across Tamil Nadu, faced protests, been massively trolled online and offline, and had a case filed against him, which the Madras High Court has since dismissed.
Journalism of courage. pic.twitter.com/W02YzZhjRr
— Ramesh जय श्रीरामं (@71Ramesh1818) January 24, 2020
Rajinikanth said that the incident involving Periyar was not a “figment of his imagination”, and produced copies of published articles – in Outlook and The Hindu – to substantiate his statement. He also claimed that then-DMK government had issued orders to seize copies of the edition of Thuglak that had mentioned the incident, but a few copies survived and reached the stands.
Some on social media blamed Rajinikanth for the desecration of a statue of Periyar near Chengalpattu in Tamil Nadu Friday.
— Savukku_Shankar (@savukku) January 24, 2020
An audio clip of Periyar has also gone viral since Rajinikanth’s statement, in which it is being alleged that Periyar recounted that day’s events and admitted exposing the ‘obscenity of the Gods’.
Dravidian party leaders have sought a public apology from Rajinikanth for his comments, which they claim is “false propaganda”.
But Rajinikanth has refused to apologise. “There is no question of an apology or regret. There is a debate on an issue I spoke on and which happened in 1971. I didn’t make up what I said. People are saying I made it up but I didn’t. Sorry, I won’t apologise,” he told reporters.
Not all are critics
But Rajinikanth is also receiving a lot of support. Beyond hashtags like ‘#RajiniNotSorry’ and ‘#SanghiRajini’, Twitter was also abuzz with hashtag in his support, #IStandWithRAJINIKANTH.
Moreoever, Thuglak’s current editor S. Gurumurthy said in a tweet that the publication was considering republishing relevant parts of the 1971 edition, which reported on the Salem rally.
See K Veeramani saying with pride that because Periyar beat Rama with chappals DMK which got 138 seats in 1967 got 183 seats in 1971 is now crying "we did not beat Rama with chappals" someone from the crowd threw it on Rama. This itself shows the change in Tamil Nadu from 1971 pic.twitter.com/UnEPonTg0r
— S Gurumurthy (@sgurumurthy) January 23, 2020
Clearly, Rajinikanth has gone beyond just stirring a hornet’s nest. Considering his political aspirations, his statement on Tamil Nadu’s revered Dravidian icon appears to be a calculated risk that he strategically planned to take. By pitchforking the Periyar issue, he may end up creating a niche for himself between the two Dravidian parties, the DMK and the AIADMK. With the support of the BJP, he has cleared the deck for his political launch. But was it worth the risk? Only Rajinikanth can tell.