He showed a rare political acumen and the uncanny ability to grasp social and political realities from the grass roots level upwards. A hard core political realist, his political life was never governed by any high theories or fancy jargon. Accredited with the capacity to be at ease with cliques, groups, factions and castes, Kamaraj applied his energies in favour of common people. Endowed with an extraordinary memory, his minimal formal schooling! was never a serious impediment. In fact rarely could a man from such a humble origin possess such knowledge about Tamil Nadu, be it geography or ethnography, which is beyond most intellectuals and academicians.
Kamaraj rose from the lowest Congress ranks during the freedom struggle to become the president of the Tamil Nadu Congress Party for over 20 years (1940-1963) interspersed by short intervals, the chief minister of Madras (1954-1963) for nine years; and, as the president of the Indian National Congress (1964-1967), he assumed the crucial role of 'kingmaker'. Kamaraj's ascendancy is all the more significant because he belonged to the low caste Nadar community,1 which had a long history of struggle against social oppression and economic deprivation.
The Nadars, originally known as Shanars, were found principally in the two southern districts of Tirunelveli and Kanyakumari. Palmyra climbing and toddy tapping were their traditional occupations. In the Hindu caste hierarchy the Nadars were ranked very low just above the untouchables and were forbidden entry into temples because of their association with alcohol. Mercantilism and Christianity played crucial roles in facilitating their upward mobility. Within a span of two centuries, they rose from near untouchability to a position of social and economic power. Though Kamaraj typified the Nadar success story he never was a leader of his community2 and transcended the bounds of Nadar caste identity3 dropping the caste title early in his political career.
Hailing from Virudhupatti (now Virudhunagar), one of the early settlements of migrant Nadars, Kamaraj, born in 1903 into an ordinary small scale Nadar business family, was a school dropout at the age of 11 and for a number of years never had steady and proper employment. Kumaraswamy Kamaraj evinced interest in politics at the age of 15 when the news of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre reached his ears. Responding to the call of Gandhiji's Non-Cooperation Movement, Kamaraj entered the freedom struggle as a Congress volunteer organising meetings, processions and demonstrations. He soon found an abiding place for himself in the Congress ranks as a gritty grass roots level, full-time worker and mass leader of the Congress; and he was imprisoned a number of times for actively participating in the freedom struggle. He spent a total of eight years in British Indian jails during six spells of imprisonment.
When the Brahmin dominance in the Tamil Nadu Congress leadership4 was firmly entrenched and the rivalry between the two key Brahmin leaders, C Rajagopalachari and S Satyamurthi, was brewing, Kamaraj wove his way into the top echelons of the Tamil Nadu Congress organisation as the representative of the non-Brahmin enclave. The 'Brahmin image'5 of the Congress found its affirmation at the hands of Rajaji when he introduced compulsory Hindi in schools in 1938 when he was the chief minister.
This move was met with resentment and brought about an open confrontation between...