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CN Annadurai: The southern separatist-turned-nationalist

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Former Tamil Nadu CM C.N. Annadurai started his career as an English teacher and went on to create his own political party, the DMK.

New Delhi: In an over three-decade political career, C.N. Annadurai went from being a separatist, demanding a separate Tamil country, to serving the state as chief minister, while reconciling for greater autonomy to the states.

The former chief minister was instrumental in ending Congress rule in Tamil Nadu and was at the vanguard of the social and political movement that continues to dominate the southern state, some 50 years after his death.

Annadurai had founded the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1949.

On his 109th birth anniversary, ThePrint looks back at his legacy.

Early life and entry into politics

Known for betel leaf-stained teeth, a wide forehead, gleaming eyes and a radiant smile, Conjeevaram (Kancheepuram) Natraj Annadurai was born in a weaver’s family on 15 September, 1909.

Due to his family’s economic condition, he dropped out of school to work as a clerk at the Kancheepuram district collectorate. But he went on to finish his degree from Pachaiyappa’s College in Chennai.

Annadurai began his career as an English teacher in Pachaiyappa’s School.

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He entered politics in 1935 as the thalapathi (Lieutenant) of the social reformer E.V. Ramaswamy Periyar, who was then heading the Justice Party.

Periyar had noticed Annadurai during a public meeting at Tiruppur. The young political upstart had mesmerised the renowned reformer with his oratory skills. He would later come to be known as Anna.

Periyar appointed Anna as the assistant editor of his Kudiyarasu magazine. They rallied together for atheism, rationalism and annihilation of caste.

In its Salem conclave, Anna brought in a resolution to rename the Justice Party as the Dravida Kazhagam; it was accepted after 35 hours of discussion.

The two leaders, however, fell out with Anna going on to form his political party – the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) — in 1949. 

The demand for a separate country

In the 1940s, Annadurai began to promote the notion that India was a continent that should be fractioned into different countries.

He famously brought the demand into Parliament while serving as a Rajya Sabha member between 1962 and 1967.

A strong advocate for a separate Tamil country, Annadurai’s debut Rajya Sabha speech centred on the demand in 1962.

“I claim sir, to come from a country, a part in India now, but which I think is of a different stock… I belong to the Dravidian stock. I am proud to call myself a Dravidian. That does not mean that I am against a Bengali or a Maharashtrian or a Gujarati,” the Scroll pieces quotes him as having said. “I say that I belong to the Dravidian stock and that is only because I consider that the Dravidians have got something concrete, something distinct, something different to offer to the nation at large. Therefore, it is that we want self-determination.”

But the Chinese aggression in 1962 made him give up his separatist notions. Post the Indo-China war, Annadurai, while addressing a public meeting at Marina beach, said, “When the country is in danger, for us to advocate separatism would be to give way to the foreigner.”

With this, the DMK shifted its focus to greater autonomy for states, leaving behind its demands for a separate country. 

The anti-Hindi agitation

Although his tenure as chief minister barely lasted two years, Annadurai left his mark on the state’s politics. He was at the heart of the anti-Hindi agitation, which rocked the state in 1965.

In 1967, in the then Madras legislative assembly elections, the DMK under Anna defeated Congress, ending the party’s rule in the state for good. It was Annadurai as chief minister who then renamed the Madras state as Tamil Nadu. He was a purveyor of social justice and rationalism, once ordering that no religious portraits be displayed in government offices.

His welfare schemes were taken forward by his prodigy, M. Karunanidhi, the former CM who recently passed away.

Also read: Oath to uphold the sovereignty and integrity of India was invented because of DMK in 1963

Demagogue and wordsmith

Annadurai had a reputation of being a brilliant orator and a prolific writer, who wrote short stories, essays and script for theatre.

He also wrote for magazines such as Dravida Nadu and Periyar’s Kudiyarasu. His first short story Kokkarokko’ was published in the Ananda Vikatan magazine in 1934. Much of his writing revolved around social justice themes.

His writings had earned him the moniker Arignar (scholar) Anna.

Latter-day critics, however, deem his significant works as propaganda literature.

The former chief minister also had a reputation of being a voracious reader. An apocryphal tale goes that Anna, battling last-stage cancer, wanted his surgery postponed as he was engrossed in reading.

“I am reading Marie Corelli’s Master Christian. I shall finish it by tomorrow. So, can we have this surgery postponed to the day after tomorrow?” he reportedly told his doctor.

The Dravidian leader succumbed to cancer, while still holding the CM post, in February 1969.

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