Ramps to reservations — Karunanidhi’s political legacy includes infrastructure for disabled

In ‘Karunanidhi: A Life’, A.S. Panneerselvan writes about Muthuvel Karunanidhi, the man who became a metaphor for modern Tamil Nadu.

M.Karunanidhi
A DMK supporter displays a poster as he stands with others near the Kauvery Hospital | PTI

Karunanidhi outlived most of his political opponents— Rajaji, Kamaraj, MGR and Jayalalithaa. Whether it was the MGR phenomenon, or the fallout following Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in Tamil Nadu, he rose like a phoenix, mocking his epitaph writers.
From 2004, he had to battle against his declining health as well. After a spinal surgery went wrong, he struggled to stand and became wheelchair dependent. He, however, never permitted his physical discomfort to stop him from either travelling across the state or interacting with his party cadres. In a couple of years, he moved to a powered wheelchair and a customized van, with a hydraulic mechanism to smoothly lift the chair in and out of the vehicle.

As a wheelchair user, Karunanidhi realized the importance of the ramp. He ordered that all new government buildings must have a ramp and an elevator. Even existing buildings needed to build a ramp for wheelchairs. He reserved 3 per cent of seats in government jobs for the physically challenged. That would remain one of his lasting legacies.

He wanted the two modern complexes he created—the Anna Centenary Library and the new secretariat estates—to be people-friendly rather than structures with intimidating surveillance in his public invitation to the inaugural event of the Assembly, Karunanidhi, who conceived the entire Assembly complex project, referred to the Uthiramerur inscription, which testifies to the existence of a highly refined electoral system. Explaining the architectural concept behind the complex, Karunanidhi said the biggest of the four buildings would be the public plaza, to which all people would have free access. An open-air museum was also proposed to be set up there. The plaza was expected to be thrown open to the public when the Legislative Assembly started fully functioning from the new complex. The circular Assembly Hall, where elected representatives of the people debate issues and the problems concerning the state, would be the next biggest structure. The third would be the circular library structure that was essentially to be used by the law department, which could be considered as representing the judiciary.

The smallest of the four circular components would house the chief minister’s office, which is the highest institution of the executive branch. Karunanidhi was particular that the circular building meant for his office should be the smallest, meaning that the executive should be modest. The German architectural firm gmp, founded by Meinhard von Gerkan and Volkwin Marg, was told to take into account the state’s cultural traditions as well as the urban context of the city of Chennai. With its highly visible dome, the design echoes the structural features of Dravidian temple complexes in south india. The geometry of the complex’s structure is derived from the traditional, round chakra or mandala motif, consisting of circles of various sizes inscribed in thirty-six isosceles triangles. These basic shapes make up the design of both the ground plan and elevation. In describing the Anna Centenary Library, the Construction World magazine said that the ‘building’s shape and form, appropriate orientation and integrated shading devices achieved maximum daylight penetration with minimum heat ingress. The environmentally responsive design of the structure uses both passive features and resource-efficient active elements.’

When Jayalalithaa, on returning to power in 2011, decided to convert the new secretariat into a hospital and the library into a wedding hall, Karunanidhi was deeply saddened. He said: ‘it is an instance of wanton political malice. Jayalalithaa should realize the adamant attitude of her government in reviewing all the schemes conceived by the DMK government would only result in wasteful expenditure of taxpayer money but would not cause any damage to the DMK. This has given an opportunity to the people to understand what kind of change has been brought in by the government and the politically vindictive actions of the rulers.’ He was also angry with a section of the press that claimed that he had no objection to converting the new secretariat complex into a hospital, saying his views on the issue were conveniently censored to suit the headlines. ‘What I actually said was that I had offered legislators and ministers considerable space in the new building and wondered how some people could settle for a “sparrow’s nest.” Do these words mean I am not disappointed with the government’s decision?’ he asked.

Karunanidhi, who created some of the major urban infrastructure in Tamil nadu, considered his government’s political resolve to conduct the panchayat elections at the reserved villages of keeripatti, nattarmangalam, Pappapatti and kottakachiyendal a major achievement. For nearly a decade, caste Hindus living in the villages in these panchayats had protested against their reserved status and regularly boycotted elections. They also instilled fear in potential Dalit candidates by threatening to ostracize and even kill those who defied the boycott.

The upper castes were sure that after the passage of a decade, the panchayat would become a general constituency, as the reserved seats in panchayats are subject to rotation every decade. Recollecting the days that led up to these difficult elections, Thol. Thirumavalavan, the president of the VCK, said: ‘Kalaignar saw to it that the elections were conducted in these panchayats by issuing a special notification extending the 10-year rotational system of reservation for another term. He asked me to field candidates. After a bitter battle, Dalit presidents won and assumed power, a historic occasion for the social justice movement. But for him it would not have happened. The VCK conferred the “Samathuva Periyar Kalaignar” title on Karunanidhi.’

If vendetta politics led to his arrest in 2001, it took a different turn in 2011—silencing his voice in the legislature. The Legislative Assembly secretariat allotted Karunanidhi a seat in the second row of the Assembly, which was not only disrespectful to the veteran leader but was impossible for him to access, owing to the wheelchair. While the DMK lost both the 2011 and 2016 elections, Karunanidhi had won his Assembly seats by record margins in both these elections from his home town Thiruvarur—68,366 in 2016 and 50,249 in 2011.
In 2014, when Karunanidhi returned after signing the register but without taking part in the Assembly proceedings, he was visibly hurt. He told waiting journalists: ‘There is no place for a disabled [person] like me in the Assembly. I’m sad they act in a way to ensure that I leave. I’ve served as an MLA for more than 50 years. Today I’m unable to serve. I did not expect this kind of disrespect.’

In 2017, I was asked to write a piece for Frontline magazine on Karunanidhi’s contribution to the body politic of the country during his six decades as a legislator. My concluding lines for that essay titled ‘Relentless legislator’ were: ‘It is rather disturbing that a person of his stature was denied a special seating arrangement in the Legislative Assembly after he became wheelchair-bound in his last two terms. The Legislative Assembly Speakers, who invoke sky-high powers using uncodified privileges when it comes to penalizing journalists, did not even try to assert their basic sense of democracy to enable a veteran to be part of the debate in shaping the destiny of the State. It is an irreparable loss to the entire state, which history may not forgive, and should not forgive.’

One area that Karunanidhi and the DMK seemed to have overlooked is the digital world and its sway on the public. Karunanidhi’s last creative effort was to script a television series on Ramanuja, the eleventh-century proponent of the Visishtadvaita philosophy, in 2015, a year after Narendra Modi’s ascension as the prime minister. Karunanidhi chose Ramanuja because he transcended religion and caste and wanted all communities to be treated equally. The idea of using a religious philosopher, with a large following, to counter Hindutva was a sharp move, but surprisingly, its expression was in an analog rather than digital format. It is revealing that the movement which came up with its own version of theatre, literature, public oratory, cinema and journalism, was at a complete loss when it came to digital intervention and its impact on democracy.

The DMK joined the government led by Manmohan Singh in 2004, the year Facebook was launched in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Karunanidhi was sworn in as the chief minister for the fifth time in 2006, the year Twitter was launched in San Francisco. Journalist Pamela Philipose, in her book, Media’s Shifting Terrain has documented the three conundrums that were to define our information ecology and thus define our democracy between 2010 and 2015. They were: the asymmetrical nature of access, because it had become easier to achieve technological inclusion rather than social inclusion; digital have-nots were not protected from the dangers of the internet world, such as disinformation and fake news; and the audiences were controlled by a range of actors through various technological devices and strategies. I went through numerous documents that dealt with the DMK’s policy approach to technology and what I managed to find was ironical. Karunanidhi came up with a comprehensive IT policy and set up a task force that gave a huge push to digitization. These initiatives, however, were about technology rather than the content that would be transmitted through it. Karunanidhi created an information infrastructure that was used by activists of the ‘politics of anti-politics’ (the growing middle-class position to take an anti-politics stance); but the party was left defending its position with an outdated idiom.

In 2012, Karunanidhi wanted to be active on the micro-blogging site Twitter and Facebook. The DMK also announced an exclusive webpage dedicated to Karunanidhi— www.kalaignarkarunanidhi.com to reach those who were adept in the digital sphere. He wrote a short essay in Murasoli in 2014 about the possibilities offered by the internet and about social networking sites. He wrote: ‘Internet is a good invention. There are crores of people who are citizens of the web world.’ These initiatives somehow lacked the creative energy that shaped his earlier writings. He was impressed by the initiative of the founder of the internet, Tim Berners-Lee to keep the internet as an open-source solid platform. Karunanidhi was particularly moved by a specific statement of Berners-Lee: ‘With the Law of Sea and the Outer Space Treaty, we have preserved new frontiers for the common good. Now too, as the web reshapes our world, we have a responsibility to make sure it is recognized as a human right and built for the public good.’ He said he would think in terms of progressive legislation when he returned to power. Though he never returned to power again, he has left his protégés with enough ammunition to carry on the battle for social justice.

This excerpt of Karunanidhi: A Life has been published with special permission from Penguin Random House India.