When MK Stalin took oath of office as Tamil Nadu Chief Minister on Friday, a minor change to the text of his oath was picked up by political observers in Tamil Nadu and beyond. Some were surprised, others, not so much. "I, Muthuvel Karunanidhi Stalin, do solemnly swear by my conscience," Stalin said in Tamil, choosing to consciously and conspicuously remove "swear in the name of God" from his oath.
While many who followed the swearing-in from North of the Vindhyas were taken aback by the staunch atheism in Stalin's oath, journalists and political commentators in Tamil Nadu did not bat an eyelid.
After all, the atheism of the DMK and the Dravidian movement at large is probably its most well-known feature. Its reputation for shunning religion and rigorous upholding of secularism goes before it. Stalin made it clear that as the 11th Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and as a member of the "Dravidian stock" — his updated Twitter bio carries that claim — he was going to carry that flame.
EVR Periyar, Tamil Nadu's most famous atheist
Atheism in Tamil Nadu began with EV Ramasamy (more commonly known as Periyar), the founder of the self-respect movement which would go on to form the tenets of the Dravidian ideology. "He who created god is a fool, he who propagates god is a scoundrel, and he who worships god is a barbarian," said Periyar, who was the first known advocate of atheism in the Dravidian movement.
Periyar's outright rejection of 'God', though, must be seen from the prism of his rejection of religion in the context of caste hegemony. Periyar held the view that caste hierarchies were a product of exclusionist religions, which saw upper castes stomp down on marginalised communities owing to religious endorsements. He would go on to advocate destruction of idols and religious iconography, in the attempt to rid society of religion.
History books hold that Periyar's self-respect movement was a watershed movement in Tamil Nadu's political history. And although he never became the state's chief minister himself, Periyar's movement was the precursor to Dravidian politics, which birthed names like CN Annadurai, M Karunanidhi, MG Ramachandran, J Jayalalithaa and now, Stalin.
Ever since the DMK won its first election in the erstwhile Madras state back in 1967, religious abhorrence was par for the course. However, a relatively moderate stance (when compared to Periyar's strong views on religion) was consciously adopted by Tamil Nadu state's first chief minister, and DMK founder, CN Annadurai.
Annadurai's moderate atheism
"I am a Hindu sans the sacred ash, a Christian minus the Holy Cross and a Muslim without the prayer cap," Annadurai said while upholding his secular credentials, even as he came down heavily on religious superstitions, casteist exclusions and exploitation along caste fault lines.
Annadurai also legalised self-respect marriages in Tamil Nadu, first propagated by Periyar, which solemnised a wedding without the presence of an upper-caste priest to preside over the ceremony.
"I don't break coconuts to make an offering to Ganesh, nor do I break his idols," Annadurai has said in Tamil (loosely translated to English here), upholding a brand of secularism that did not hurt religious sentiment, as opposed to Periyar's extremist practices.
The 50s and 60s saw Tamil Nadu's figureheads, Periyar and Annadurai, as the yin and yang of a political environment that was still fiercely secular and atheist. However, things took a turn for the bold and brazen, when Karunanidhi assumed charge of the DMK.
Karunanidhi contends with Lord Ram
One of Karunanidhi's most brazen displays of his atheism came in 2007, when he held that faith and religious belief was getting in the way of development in Tamil Nadu.
Karunanidhi was addressing concerns that the much-vaunted Sethusamudram project would have to be shelved since it involved dredging the Adam's Bridge, connecting India and Sri Lanka. Hindus believe that the partly submerged limestone structures near Rameshwaram in Tamil Nadu were built by Lord Ram.
"Who is this Ram? In which engineering college did he study and become a civil engineer? When did he build this bridge? Is there any evidence for this?" Karunanidhi asked out aloud, while addressing a public gathering in Erode, one that would later go on to be steeped in controversy, for its alleged attempt to hurt religious sentiments.
Badgered for clarifications on his remarks, and his flagrant anti-faith outbursts, Karunanidhi later said, in a television interview: "I'm not against Ram, my conscience is my God."
Neither opposed to nor believe in religion: MK Stalin
What was admirable about the Dravidian political movement from Annadurai and Karunanidhi to Stalin is that personal and socio-political atheism notwithstanding, the party and political establishment have stoically refused to come in the way of religious ceremonies, processions and expressions of personal faith.
Karunanidhi himself, for all his rigorous atheism has participated in religious ceremonies of multiple faiths. Durga Stalin -- MK Stalin's wife -- known to be a devout temple-goer, has often prompted questions from journalists and observers as to how a party that has been stoically atheist is seeing families of its top leaders visit temples and perform rituals.
"I am not opposed to religion, but I don't believe in it," said Stalin in a television interview, on the recently concluded campaign trail for the 2021 Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections. "My wife goes to temples, and I don't stop her."
However, religious belief, endorsement and tolerance aside, MK Stalin chose to be stoically atheist on his big day, as he took the Chief Minister's oath of office, choosing to use his father's 'God' — conscience. Given the Dravidian movement's stoic upholding of atheistic values, you can't help but feel that this atheism is not only par for the course, but also much needed in a socio-political environment torn apart by religious discrimination and exclusion.
Note: The views expressed in this article are that of the author.
(Edited by: By Jerome)