The DMK government in Tamil Nadu is mulling over constructing a statue of a pen on the Marina beach to honour and commemorate the scholarly contributions of its patriarch M. Karunanidhi. Though the government is yet to disclose the details of the project -- its cost, location, size, etc. -- the proposal has provoked considerable discussion in political circles and in the media. Especially, leaders of Hindutva and Tamil nationalist parties have expressed their dissention and resolved to fight against such a move. On the other hand, there also emerges a substantive consensus that, if built, the statue of the pen will symbolize the long-cherished Tamil tradition of valuing knowledge, reason, and argumentation, and, of course, the quest for self-respect.
Moreover, in a broader context, the idea of having a pen statue itself would represent the Tamils’ way of alternative thinking within the contemporary ‘statue politics’ of India. Historically, the Tamil intellectual tradition evolved out of a rationalist path of not being subservient to any hegemonic or ideological leanings of the subcontinent. While there has been mutually beneficial cultural interaction and peaceful co-existence, there has also existed a strong and long tradition of intellectual dissent in Tamil South. Many individuals, known and unknown, have contributed and nourished this tradition. Not just that of M. Karunanidhi, the proposed pen statue should be taken as symbolizing the ‘pen’ of the ancient rationalist poet Thiruvalluvar, early medieval Bhakti poets and saints including Nandanar and Sakkiliya Swamikal, and modern thinkers such as Iyothee Thassar, Subramaniya Bharathiyar, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, C.N. Annadurai and many more.
As much as it will help to recount the glorious past of Tamil intellectual tradition, the pen statue will also serve as a symbol to enlighten future generations. Especially, in today’s political context, there is a pressing need to remember the ‘pen’ which evolved from afore mentioned intellectual tradition. Nonetheless, it should be done not merely by constructing a statue, but by making constructive efforts to diffuse scientific knowledge and modern values. Seen from this perspective, does the Tamil Nadu government plan to use the pen statue just for its vote-bank politics? Or does it intend to work productively and proactively towards creating a knowledge-based society, to which the pen can be ‘passed over’ safely?
Some of the schemes initiated during the first one-year tenure of the present government adequately indicate that it is more serious in safeguarding the ethos of the ‘pen’ than calculating how such initiatives can be converted into votes. Here, I will briefly discuss various impressive schemes of the Tamil Nadu government towards (a) promoting reading habits of people by enhancing and enriching the public library system, both physical and digital; (b) strengthening the functioning of government schools through various means including the breakfast scheme, special efforts to teach English, and the promotion of higher and professional education through special scholarships and fee waiver; and (c) capacity building and sourcing talent through the Naan Mudhalvan scheme.
Revival of Library Movement
There is a revival of the library movement in a most impressive way in recent times. Tamil Nadu is known for its spacious, well-maintained, and well-stocked public libraries. While each district has a central library, the target, set several decades ago, to build libraries in villages has been largely realized. The government, in the past, adopted private libraries and protected their book collections (for example Saraswathi Mahal library and U.Ve. Swaminatha Iyer library). Keeping up with the times, all district libraries and other major public libraries now maintain online catalogue system. There are also the Tamil Virtual Academy and Tamil Digital Library run by the government. Both these sites contain an impressive record of digitalized Tamil texts of different genres and they can be freely downloaded.
With the formation of the new government last year, substantial funds have been allocated to improve the infrastructure of public libraries, which include installing high-speed Wi-Fi and internet. Similarly, the digitalization process to enhance virtual libraries continues in full swing. For the benefit of students, the government has also announced a new scheme known as Meinigar Noolakam (Virtual Reality Library). With a budgetary allocation of Rs. 57.20 lakhs, 76 libraries will be inaugurated under this scheme to benefit one lakh students every year. Similarly, to promote reading habits, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. K. Stalin recently launched three bimonthly and bilingual (Tamil & English) magazines specifically meant for Elementary and Higher School students and their teachers. These magazines are named as Ooncal (Swing), Tencittu (Sunbird) and Kanavu Aaciriyar (Dream Teacher). An approximate amount of Rs. 7 crore has been allocated for this scheme.
The Kannimara Library in Chennai is widely known, yet people from outside the state are rarely aware of its Anna Centenary Library (ACL). Inaugurated in 2010, on the 102nd birth anniversary of C. N. Annadurai, this eight-storey library is undoubtedly one of the largest libraries in South Asia. Its recent high-profile visitor, P. Chidambaram, tweeted in excitement, “a library, as we have in the capitals of the world’s countries, that we can be proud of”. As soon as the current DMK government came to power, construction of a library of similar size and stature in the southern city of Madurai was announced. To be named as Kalangar Library, its construction is being carried out with astonishing speed; it will be open to the public soon.
Further, through a scheme known as ‘TN Talk’, the government has proposed to give Rs.37.50 lakhs to ACL to organize special talks by experts on different subjects. It will be done through off-line and online meetings, so that the Tamils who live in different parts of the world can benefit from it. The government Presses have got financial support to reprint various works of Tamil intellectuals. Book Fairs are conducted in every district headquarters periodically and the new government has made it compulsory for all state-run schools to take their students to Book Fairs, whenever they are conducted.
Public Educational Institutions
Yet another heartening trend is the attempts of the government to enhance the infrastructure facilities of schools and other educational institutions. Simultaneously, steps have been initiated to ensure a large-scale inflow of students to these institutions. Tamil Nadu is one of the pioneering states to implement successfully the mid-day-meal scheme and improve its quality consistently. In addition, for several decades now, it runs free hostels system for school, college and university students. Such hostels, separately for boys and girls, can be seen even in small towns. In the nineteenth century, Protestant missionaries introduced these free hostels in their schools in order to promote social interaction among students from different caste and community background. These free hostels play the same social function even now. They now get spacious new buildings and those meant for college students get e-library facility.
Continuing this momentum, last week, the government introduced a Free Breakfast Scheme for government school students of 1st to 5th standard. At a cost of Rs. 33.56 core, breakfast will be served to 1.14 lakh students. The scheme will not only bring more children to government schools, it also will address the rampant malnutrition issue among them. The government has taken up seriously the teaching of English in schools and made considerable progress in this direction. With an estimated cost of Rs. 30 crore, English Language Labs will be set up in 6029 High and Higher Secondary schools. The government has already signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Google to assist government school students to learn, speak, and write English more easily. Through the scheme of Illam Thedi Kalvi, to compensate the loss of learning during the pandemic, the government sent volunteer teachers to the house of students. Similar initiative has also been introduced to educate children suffering from multiple disabilities.
Another remarkable initiative of the government, meant to promote government schools and help students who have studied in such schools, is the Moovalur Ramamirtham Ammaiyar Higher Education Assurance Scheme. Named after Ramamirtham Ammaiyar who made a remarkable contribution to women empowerment, including abolition of the Devadasi system, this scheme will encourage women students, who have studied in government schools from the 6th to 12th standard, to join government run higher education institutions such as colleges, universities and ITIs. During the entire period of their higher education, they will receive a stipend of Rs.1000 every month. The government has also made provisions for a special reservation of 7.5 per cent for government school students in professional courses like engineering, agricultural sciences, etc., in both government and private colleges and universities. The government bears the cost of tuition and hostel fees of such students. Both these schemes have become functional.
In Search of Talent
All the schemes discussed above are an integral part of what is called Naan Mudhalvan (I am the leader), a dream project of the Chief Minister. With an objective to identify and nurture talented young minds, success of this scheme would greatly depend upon the efficient functioning of government educational institutions. Though highly ambitious, it aims at creating a highly talented pool of 10 lakh youngsters from different fields every year. It will be achieved through developing communication skills in English, facilitating exposure to other foreign languages, nurturing a scientific temper, providing technical assistance, established computer labs and school of excellence, and other such ways. With the help of subject specialists, there will be summer classes and knowledge and skill development training classes at district, college and university levels. Special arrangements will be made to give career counselling to students and to ensure talented individuals get employed.
The other meaning of the phrase Naan Mudhalvan is ‘I am the Chief Minister’. M. K. Stalin acts with great courage and perseverance to meet the needs and expectations of our time and shows extraordinary commitment in realising his dream of social justice. He interacts with all stakeholders and never hesitates to consult experts. All the schemes he has introduced are the outcome of such commitment. Moreover, he personally inculcates and promotes aspirations for knowledge among people. Though he was humble enough to accept that he nowhere matches the reading and writing skills of his father M. Karunanidhi, he has managed to write the first part of his autobiography -- Unkalil Oruvan (One Among You). Stalin has the laudable habit of gifting books whenever he meets Central leaders in Delhi or when he receives them in Chennai. A book titled Dravidian Model, published just before the last assembly election, is apparently one of his favourite gifts to others. When the Prime Minister visited Chennai, he presented him the ancient Tamil text, Cilappatikaram. The book narrates the struggle of a woman and conveys the moral message that araciyal pizhaittorukku aram koorrakum (Dharma will become the God of Death to kings who swerve from the path of righteousness).
Coming back to the statue of the pen, it needs to be seen from the perspective of revived interest in creating a truly knowledge-based society. M. Karunanidhi was one the modern thinkers who laid a strong foundation in this direction. His pen has made indubitable contribution to the idea of social justice. Through his various visionary schemes, he lifted a generation of students to gain the fruits of modern education. As discussed, a pen statue, if built, would not just remind us of M. Karunanidhi and his works, but also of the extensive and vibrant intellectual tradition of the Tamils. It will also be a true symbol of social justice. As, in the 1980s and 90s, I ate mid-day meals served in school, stayed in government-run free hostels to complete my higher school and college education, I personally feel extra emotional about these schemes and about the pen statue to come.
(The writer is with the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)