M. Karunanidhi, Indian political icon, dies at 94

Muthuvel Karunanidhi, one of India's longest serving politicians, died Tuesday at the age of 94.Karun...

Posted: Aug 7, 2018 3:22 PM
Updated: Aug 7, 2018 3:22 PM

Muthuvel Karunanidhi, one of India's longest serving politicians, died Tuesday at the age of 94.

Karunanidhi, chief of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party in southern Tamil Nadu state, was admitted into hospital on July 28 after a drop in his blood pressure.

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A statement released by the hospital said that "despite the best possible efforts of our team of doctors and nurses to resuscitate him, he failed to respond".

"We have lost a deep-rooted mass leader, prolific thinker, accomplished writer and a stalwart whose life was devoted to the welfare of the poor and the marginalized," tweeted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Thousands gathered outside Kauvery hospital in the city of Chennai to offer their condolences.

Karunanidhi, a former scriptwriter in the Tamil film industry, has served as the state's chief minister five times in the past.

Early years

Born June 3, 1924 in Tamil Nadu's Tiruvarur district, Karunanidhi took to social activism during his early teens.

He was a follower of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, a social activist and politician who started the Self-Respect Movement that fought to end discrimination against the lower castes.

As a high school student, Karunanidhi founded the Tamil Nadu Tamil Manavar Mandram, the first student wing of the Dravidian Movement, which campaigned against the notion that Brahmins, the highest caste in Hinduism, in Tamil Nadu and Hindi speakers from northern India were considered superior.

Karunanidhi also started a school newspaper that mushroomed into the 'Murasoli', now known as the DMK's official newspaper.

After dropping out of high school, he went on to work as a scriptwriter.

He soon became close to fellow screenwriter C.N. Annadurai, who also happened to be the founder of the DMK and later went on to become the first chief minister of Tamil Nadu.

Changing minds through movies

Through their work, the pair began to use film to push their political agenda.

"In the early years of the party, film was used to promote the message of social reform and Dravidian "self-respect", themes arising out of the earlier non-Brahmin movement and especially from the Self-Respect Movement, with whom the DMK leaders had been associated before breaking away to form the political party. Of these early films, Karunanidhi's "Parasakthi" ("The Goddess") stunned Tamil audiences," Robert L. Hardgrave Jr., Temple Professor Emeritus of the Humanities in Government and Asian Studies at the University of Texas, told CNN.

Several DMK figures were involved in the film industry before venturing into politics.

Actors S.S. Rajendran won a seat in local elections in 1962 and M.G. Ramachandran became chief minister after he left the DMK to set up his own party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), following differences with Karunanidhi.

"Film artists brought glamor and electoral support to the DMK. Fan clubs mobilized support for the party and voter turnout during elections," according to Hardgrave Jr.

"As the DMK began to engage in electoral politics, the hard edge of social reform in its films was softened and the films increasingly became vehicles for promoting the party as such rather than reform ideology."

Political rise

Popularly known as "Kalaignar", Tamil for artist, Karunanidhi made his foray into politics in 1957 when he was elected to the legislative assembly of what was then known as Madras state.

In 1961, he was made treasurer of the DMK and deputy leader of the opposition when the party made its debut in the state assembly the following year.

Karunanidhi swiftly rose up the ranks. Following the death of Annadurai in 1969, he took over as leader of the DMK and as chief minister, a post he would hold for nearly 18 years over five separate terms.

In the years that followed, the state government alternated between Karunanidhi and its main political rival, the AIADMK.

The DMK will now be led by M.K. Stalin, Karunanidhi's son and successor.

He is survived by four sons and two daughters.

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