M Karunanidhi: An atheist who ruled even as religion ruled politics

Karunanidhi Tamil Nadu

Muthuvel Karunanidhi was known not just for his mastery of Tamil and his political acumen, but also for his outspoken atheism.

Karunanidhi, who died on August 7, aged 94, once asked where the Hindu god Ram studied engineering; he was asking for proof of the bridge many Hindus believe helped the exiled prince lead an army of vaanars to Lanka.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s (DMK) supremo also once said Valmiki, the author of the Ramayan, had called the epic’s hero a “drunkard”.

Karunanidhi’s party has its roots in the Dravidian movement, most closely associated with the rationalist EV Ramasamy (1879 – 1973) — also simply known as Periyar.

In Makers of Modern India, the historian Ramachandra Guha writes that Ramasamy’s message “is nicely captured in a statue of his in Tiruchirappalli [Trichy] which carries this inscription: ‘God does not exist. The inventor of God is a fool. The propagator of God is a scoundrel. The worshipper of God is a barbarian’.”


Did Karunanidhi’s commitment to atheism ever flag?

TS Sudhir, a leading political analyst, says it’s difficult to say if it did on a personal level, but adds that there’s been a dilution in the DMK’s atheism.

He also says that while Karunanidhi (and his son MK Stalin, to some extent) wore his atheism on his sleeves, members of his extended family aren’t hardcore non-believers.

For example, a 2011 India Today report observed how the family of Karunanidhi, “who often likes to claim the mantle of rationalist leader EV Ramasamy Periyar, has recently been spotted seeking divine intervention at temples”.


TS Sudhir says that the Dravidian anti-God, anti-Brahminism and anti-Hindi slogans aren’t as seductive today as they were in the 1950s or 1960s.

The DMK “will try to hold on to what Karunanidhi spoke about”, he explains, but whether they do it with the same conviction remains to be seen.

As well, he adds, only time will tell whether the Dravidian template will gain traction with younger voters.