The Associational Basis of Vanniyar Organizations in Tamil Nadu

AuthorR. Saravana Raja
Date01 December 2017
Published date01 December 2017
Subject MatterArticles
02INP727958_F.indd Article
The Associational Basis of Vanniyar
Studies in Indian Politics
5(2) 181–192
Organizations in Tamil Nadu
© 2017 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2321023017727958
R. Saravana Raja1
This article presents an understanding of the nature of Vanniyar politics by delineating the workings of
Vanniyar organizations such as the caste associations and the political party in the post-1980s period in
Tamil Nadu. Even though scholarship on caste and politics is concerned with the relationship between
caste associations and political parties, the interface and networking between and among these organiza-
tions, particularly of a political party that has emerged out of the caste movement, need much more atten-
tion. This article, therefore, maps the interrelations between the caste associations and the political party
within the Vanniyars’ politics by outlining the specific issues on which these Vanniyar organizations work.
Caste association, PMK, social movement, Vanniyar, Tamil Nadu
The Vanniyars are believed to be the descendants of Vanni, which in Sanskrit means ‘fire’. According to
the report of the First Tamil Nadu Backward Classes Commission, the Vanniyars (or Vannia Kula
Kshatriya, as described in the report) is perhaps the largest cultivating caste in Tamil Nadu. The density
of their population is held to be the highest in South and North Arcot, while Salem, Dharmapuri,
Tiruchirapalli and Thanjavur districts also have a very heavy concentration of Vanniyars in some taluks.
The Vanniyars can also be seen in some pockets of the southern districts (see Sattanathan, 1970, Vol. 2,
p. 107). The Commission observed that in the written representation presented to it, the community
claimed to comprise about 30–35 per cent of the state population (ibid.), although there are claims
among scholars in recent times that the numerical strength of the caste could be around 12 per cent of the
Tamil Nadu population (see Radhakrishnan, 2002, p. 3316; Vidyasagar, 1988, p. 50). The Commission
also noted that this is perhaps the only major caste grouping which has no effective sub-castes or subdivi-
sions. As is stated, the terms ‘Vanniyar’ and ‘Vannia Kula Kshatriyas’ are known throughout the districts,
although innumerable titles are used by these people. The title most commonly used and accepted in
Chingelput, South Arcot and Thanjavur is ‘Padayachi’ whereas in North Arcot and the city of Madras,
‘Naicker’ or ‘Nayagar’ is said to be more popular. In Salem and Dharmapuri districts, ‘Gounder’ is the
common title, but they set themselves apart from the ‘Vellala Gounder’ by referring to themselves as
‘Vannia Gounder’ or ‘Padayachi Gounder’ (Sattanathan, 1970, Vol. 2, p. 108). The historical trajectory
of the caste points to the emergence of a caste association called Vanniyakula Kshatriya Maha Sangam
1 Department of Sociology, Pondicherry University, Puducherry, India.
Corresponding author:
R. Saravana Raja, Department of Sociology, SSS&IS, Pondicherry University, Puducherry, India.


Studies in Indian Politics 5(2)
in 1888 with the initiative of Vanniyar members such as Chellappa Nayagar, Annasamy Nayagar, Gopal
Nayagar and others (see Kuppusamy Varma (2004[1917]), p. 51). The Maha Sangam, with its active
district Sangams, took up the role of social reform as well as political participation during the early
decades of the twentieth century up until the formation of two distinct Vanniyar political parties, the
‘Tamil Nadu Toilers Party’ (TTP) and ‘Commonweal Party’ (CWP) in the early 1950s, which made a
major impression in the elections of that decade. However, both these political organizations folded up
as the Vanniyar leaders representing these parties were co-opted into different political organizations
during the late 1950s and early 1960s (see Arun, 2007; Rudolph, 1965). After two decades of silence, the
Vanniyar mobilization re-emerged in the 1980s with the formation of three important organizations
under a new Vanniyar leadership—Vanniyar Sangam (VS), Samooga Munnetra Sangam (Social
Improvement Society [SIS]) and Pattali Makkal Katchi (Toiling Peoples’ Party [PMK]). While VS is the
caste association of the Vanniyars, the SIS is the organization that accommodates government and non-
government employees from the Vanniyar caste. The aim of these two organizations is to work for the
progress of the Vanniyars. However, the PMK, which is the political party that came out of the efforts of
the Vanniyar leadership, claims to work for the larger Tamil populous. All these organizations were
founded by Dr S. Ramadoss, a medical practitioner from Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu.
The present article seeks to highlight the organizational dynamics of these three organizations in the
post-1980s period without resorting to a historical narration but, attempting to look at ways in which
these organizations work in relation to each other on various issues of socio-political importance. Before
delineating the dynamics of the interrelations among these organizations, a survey of the literature on
caste and politics has been attempted. This would help understand the context in which Vanniyar politics
is reviving itself in recent times.
Recounting Scholarship on Caste, Caste Association and Politics
It is well known that caste has demonstrated the tenacity to survive through time and the interventions of
modern institutions. The ability of caste to thrive, particularly in its encounter with politics has been well
documented in the scholarship that deals with caste and politics (e.g., Beteille, 2012; Kaviraj, 1997;
Kothari, 2010; Srinivas, 1962, 1979). Importantly, scholars, while looking at the relationship between
the two, were preoccupied with the questions of what form does caste take under the impact of politics
and how do political processes get transformed in a caste-oriented society, rather than asking whether
caste was disappearing or not (see Desai & Singh, 1970). To be sure, this has led to a growing interest
among scholars on the importance of caste associations, the medium through which castes have been
increasingly negotiating politics. Various studies have sought to focus on the associational basis of caste
by looking at the working of caste associations and the means by which the latter have advanced the
claims of the groups they represent across both sacred and secular terrains.
If one were to look at the trajectory of the scholarship on caste and politics, the focus has been on the
relationship between the two in varied contexts and scenarios over the decades. While some scholars
were concerned with the colonial context (see Arnold, Jeffrey, & Manor, 1976; Carroll, 1978; Conlon,
1974; Hardgrave, 1969; Washbrook, 1975), there were others who were invested in the post-independence
scenario (see e.g., Hardgrave, 1969; Kothari & Maru, 1965; L. I. Rudolph & S. H. Rudolph, 1960, 1967;
Shah, 1975). All these scholars, apart from pointing to the process of fusion and fission, have attempted
to study how caste has skilfully encountered modern institutional structures and survived over the decades.
One must remember that the decades following the 1960s saw an upsurge in the political participation of
various groups. The arrival of the new groups onto the political platform meant a significant change in

Raja 183
the terms of politics (see Yadav, 1999). The scenario of the post-1980s is important as it witnessed a
renewed force in the visibility of caste, particularly in politics, and scholars have pointed to such a ten-
dency in Indian politics in relation to the idea of deepening of democracy (see e.g., Jaffrelot, 2000;
Michelutti, 2004, 2008; Pai, 2002; Waghmore, 2013; Yadav, 1999). Similar interest is evident among
scholars investigating caste and politics in the post-1980s period in the south of India, particularly Tamil
Nadu. The study on Dalit articulation in contemporary Tamil Nadu by Gorringe (2005) is important as it
maps the ways in which Dalit politics has been strategically moving from non-electoral mobilization to
that of engaging in electoral politics. Even so, the studies on the politics of single backward castes are a
significant addition to the literature on caste and politics in Tamil Nadu. For instance, a recent study on
the political ventures of backward castes like the Kongu Vellala Gounder was undertaken by scholars
such as Vijayabaskar and Wyatt (2013). They explicate the initiatives taken by the leadership of the caste
among its constituents through the formation of a political party called Kongu Nadu Munnetra Kazhagam
(KNMK), the origin of which can be traced to the caste association of ‘Kongu Vellala Goundergal
Peravai’ (KVGP). They also point to the significance of this mobilization which unlike other backward
caste mobilizations is not solely anchored on the issue of reservations (Vijayabaskar & Wyatt, 2013,
pp. 103–111). Scholars have also made observations into the political mobilization of Vanniyars in recent
times. In fact, Wyatt (2014) highlights the ways in which the Vanniyar leadership uses different strategies
in trying to forge PMK’s alliance with other political parties in the context of a bipolar multiparty system
(Wyatt, 2014). However, it is important to address the question of the...

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