Chennai: On Tuesday evening, DMK Youth Wing Secretary Udhayanidhi Stalin pointed out what he said was a factual error in the newly-released Tamil movie Karnan, adding that the makers had now promised to rectify it.
“In the film, the 1995 Kodiyankulam violence that happened in the ADMK reign has been portrayed as if it had happened in the 1997 DMK regime,” he tweeted. “I have conveyed this to the producer and the director who have promised to rectify it in two days.”
The tweet also had a consolatory message that the movie should be celebrated for bringing out the agony of those oppressed.
1995 அதிமுக ஆட்சியில் நடந்த கொடியன்குளம் கலவரத்தை மையமாக வைத்து எடுக்கப்பட்டுள்ள இப்படத்தில் அச்சம்பவம் 1997ல் கழக ஆட்சியில் நடந்ததாக காட்டப்பட்டுள்ளது. இதனை தயாரிப்பாளர், இயக்குநரிடம் சுட்டிக்காட்டினேன். அந்தத் தவறை இரு தினங்களில் சரிசெய்துவிடுகிறோம்’ என உறுதியளித்தனர். நன்றி.
— Udhay (@Udhaystalin) April 13, 2021
Despite the tweet by Udhayanidhi, the son of DMK chief M.K. Stalin, the Dhanush-starrer has had party backers up in arms over its portrayal of caste violence in Southern Tamil Nadu, particularly the date of incidents that the movie is loosely based on.
“Soon as he came to power in 1996, Kalaignar (former CM Karunanidhi) ensured mini-buses and compensation for those affected in the Kodiyankulam violence,” tweeted one user. “So why should we not question the slander of the DMK regime?”
96ல் ஆட்சிக்கு வந்தவுடன் கொடியன்குளம் கொடூரத்தின் மூலகாரணத்தை கண்டறிந்து அனைத்து குக்கிராமங்களுக்கும் மினிபஸ் வசதி செய்து கலவரத்தில் பாதிக்கபட்ட மக்களுக்கு நஷ்டஈடு கொடுத்தவர் கலைஞர். ஆனால் திமுக ஆட்சியில் கலவரம் நடந்ததுபோல் காட்டும் அவதூறை கேள்வி கேட்காமல் எப்படி இருக்கமுடியும்?
— Surya Born To Win (@Surya_BornToWin) April 12, 2021
“Reason why DMK is angry with @mari_selvaraj is not because of the excellent art he made in Karnan,” tweeted another user. “We only differ in his misrepresentation of history. Since in future this will be seen as reality. But in a different timeline.”
Reason why DMK angry on @mari_selvaraj is not because of the excellent art he made in Karnan. We only differ in his misrepresentation of history. Since in future this will be seen as reality. But in a different timeline. https://t.co/vG3DSgdUbB
— Manohar 🇮🇳 (@NanbanElaiya) April 13, 2021
What the film is about
The film, directed by Pariyerum Perumal fame Mari Selvaraj, has chronicled a Dalit community’s fight against caste oppression and subsequent state-sponsored violence.
The movie subtly depicts the struggles of the Devendrakula Vellalars, who are Dalits, against the caste Hindu Mukkulathors or Thevars, as they are known.
While Selvaraj has insisted that the movie is not based on real incidents, it is loosely based on the 1995 caste riots at Kodiyankulam village in Tirunelveli district.
The riots, sparked by an altercation between a bus driver and a student, had left 18 people dead, both Thevars and Devendrakula Vellalars. This was followed by a 600-strong police force ransacking the mainly Dalit village of Kodiyankulam.
It is this brutal police action, which lasted for almost six hours, that has become a bone of contention.
While this incident happened during late Chief Minister Dr. J. Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK regime, the film starts with a card that says 1997.
The DMK is contesting this as its late chief minister Dr. M. Karunanidhi took over in the state in 1996.
Why the DMK isn’t too happy
Experts say that there are the other reasons that may have irked the DMK.
The Pallars or Devendrakula Vellalars are traditional DMK voters but the party has never really yielded to any of their demands. In fact, it took the Modi government in March this year to classify them as Devendrakula Vellalars, a long standing demand.
The Devendrakula Vellalars constitute large numbers in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu, alongside the dominant Thevars, and form a significant vote-bank comprising 20.01 per cent of the population (as per the 2011 census).
Independent researcher Karthikeyan told ThePrint that even though the Kodiyankulam incident occurred in 1995, the DMK fared no better on this front.
“The state-sponsored Kodiyankulam incident may have happened in 1995 but this issue extended until 1997-98,” he said. “In fact, the whole DMK regime of 1996-2001 saw more such caste-based outbreaks of violence. DMK is also culpable of whatever happened then.”
Karthikeyan was referring to the 1997 Melavalavu massacre, in which Thevars hacked to death a panchayat president and six other Devendrakula Vellalars, and the 1999 Manjolai massacre, in which police action resulted in the death of 17 Dalits protesting low wages.
Karthikeyan also pointed out that there was a trend in the 1990s to name transport corporations after historical and fictional leaders of several castes but successive governments ensured none were named after Dalit leaders.
“When there were such demands from the Thevars, the governments that ruled Tamil Nadu never had a problem implementing them as it was perceived that no one would question them,” he said.
“But when Dalits demand the same thing, the governments have always had a problem thinking about the repercussions from the Thevar community. While they would do it, they would also undo it subsequently thereby never fulfilling a promise offered to the Dalit community”.
The inquiry commission set up to probe the Kodiyankulam violence, submitted its report in 1999, under the DMK regime, and justified the police action. It also stated that terming the incident as ‘caste violence’ was a misnomer.
‘Date doesn’t matter’
Experts also claim that the DMK opposition is part of an effort to take away criticism of the Dravidian movement.
“There is a conspiracy going on to establish a censureless Dravidian history, in fact, for the last 10 years on all fronts — in research, cinema, and journalism among others,” writer and researcher Stalin Rajangam said. “The biggest claim of the Dravidian movement and particularly DMK is their social justice cause and Tamil nationalism.”
He added that the date showcased in the movie was irrelevant.
“Firstly, this movie is set in the context of southern Tamil Nadu and is fiction inspired by real incidents. Secondly, this is a movie laid out in the 1990s,” he said.
“This period is crucial for the southern districts because it was during this decade that people often took to the streets for their civil society rights. Protests and subsequent violence for access to ‘bus’ facilities happened not just in Kodiyankulam but in a lot of other places. Whether it happened before or after 1997, it doesn’t matter when these elements are just the symbols.”