Chennai, India – Rajinikanth, one of India‘s biggest film stars, has faced protests over a controversial remark about Periyar EV Ramaswamy, an anti-caste icon known for his work among lower caste Hindus in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
Periyar, born in 1879, is considered the father of the Dravidian Movement, which called for social reforms to end upper caste domination of Hinduism, thereby opening the door for the socially disadvantaged sections of the society.
Even in the early 20th century, Periyar was a controversial figure and was frequently attacked for his positions such as campaigns against idols, the entry of Dalits into temples, and a movement against the imposition of Hindi language largely spoken in the north.
Last week, Rajinikanth, 69, said a “portrait of Hindu Gods – Rama and Sita – was paraded naked and garlanded with slippers” at a 1971 rally organised by Periyar.
The Dravidian parties and scholars have contested the accuracy of the event and accused the film star of indulging in a “blatant lie” to gain political mileage. But Rajinikanth insists the incident was reported by Tamil weekly magazine, Tughlak.
According to The Hindu, an English-language newspaper published from Chennai, in its 1971 report, the rally taken out by Periyar did have obscene images of some of the Hindu Gods but Rama and Sita were not paraded naked.
Kolathur Mani, founder of Dravidar Viduthalai Kazhagam (DVK), a local political party, said Rajinikanth was pressured to speak “half-truths”.
“I suspect this pressure is coming from the right-wing or BJP. They must have written the script for him,” he told Al Jazeera. “We don’t understand why he should lie so blatantly.”
“Who is Rajinikanth?” asked Manuraj Shunmugasundaram, spokesman for Tamil Nadu state’s main opposition party, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).
“Just having ambitions doesn’t make [Rajinikanth] a politician.”
Rajinikanth’s apology sought
Tamil Nadu’s politics has for decades been dominated by Dravidian parties and no mainstream party generally takes the risk of going against Periyar and his legacy of Tamil pride.
In 1955, Periyar was arrested for burning pictures of the Hindu god, Rama, in public places, said V Geetha, a scholar on Periyar and the Dravidian movement.
“But Tamil society did not mind it then,” she explained. “Believers did find him problematic, but many of them understood the socially critical role he played.
“After all, all the non-Brahmins who supported Periyar were believers. Not all of them were non-believers. Rajinikanth is selling a blatant lie by saying the Gods were paraded naked,” she said.
Dravidian party leaders have sought an apology from Rajnikanth for his comments, with police complaints filed against him for indulging in a “false propaganda”.
Security at the actor’s residence in the state capital, Chennai, has been increased in the wake of protests.
But Rajinikanth has refused to apologise while his nearly six million supporters on Twitter have trended hashtags such as #TamilNaduWithRajinikanth and #IStandWithRAJINIKANTH over the past two days.
“There is no question of an apology or regret,” Rajinikanth said while speaking to media earlier this week.
Filmmaker and supporter of Rajinikanth, Pravin Gandhi, accused the protesters especially the youth, of being “arrogant” owing to the influence of Periyar. “We have to change that, and this is a good war that Rajini sir has started.
“He wants to do something for this society and Tamil Nadu so all this opposition is nothing for him.”
BJP trying to make inroads into state politics
Analysts say the current controversy suits Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which could exploit Periyar’s vocal stand against caste discrimination and his criticism of Hinduism to its advantage.
The Hindu nationalist BJP has been trying to make inroads into Tamil Nadu politics and is believed to be wooing Rajinikanth, hoping to ride on his popularity in the next state elections slated to be held in 2021.
With a fan following that transcends barriers of language, age and nationality, Rajinikanth, who enjoys a massive popularity in Tamil Nadu, has constantly been a winner at the box office.
He was the highest-earning Asian actor next only to Jackie Chan in 2007, and last year his movies together earned $142m at the box office.
Rajinikanth announced his formal entry to politics in 2017 in a state where several film stars rose to become its top politicians, including MG Ramachandran, popularly known as MGR, and Jayaram Jayalalitha, whose AIADMK currently runs the state government.
Jayalalitha, who served as Tamil Nadu’s chief minister for six terms, died in 2016 while she was still in office.
But Rajinikanth has stayed away from joining any political front so far, despite his consistent praise for Modi. In November, the star said attempts to “colour him as a BJP man” were not correct.
Rumours say the 69-year-old actor will be launching his long-awaited political party in the coming days.
Writer and politician Tamilaruvi Manian believes the protests are part of conspiracy to stop the film star from entering politics.
“Rajinikanth has lot of regard for Periyar. The people who dream of becoming chief minister in future, are trying their best to stop him from coming to politics,” Manian told Al Jazeera.
Periyar was a rationalist and a prominent political figure of southern India, who started the Self-Respect Movement, advocating equal human rights for lower castes and abolishment of the caste system altogether.
He established the Dravidar Kazhakam, a political party, in 1944. Born into a merchant family on September 17, 1879, he advocated for an independent Dravida land to express his strong opposition to the domination of the northern parties and issues on Indian politics.
The DMK, one of Tamil Nadu’s major local political parties, was born in 1949 following a split in Periyar’s party, but still adheres to its principles.
DMK has often considered itself the true follower of the Dravida movement and has been credited for working among the poor and the marginalised people.
Even at the peak of Modi’s charisma in 2019, the BJP being a north Indian party failed to make a mark on Tamil Nadu politics. In the 2019 parliamentary elections, the DMK alliance won 38 of the 39 seats in the state.
It is in this backdrop that V Geetha thinks Rajinikanth is looking to build a political career by courting a controversy.
But she said he is unlikely to succeed. “Rajinikanth has nothing but his fan club,” she told Al Jazeera.
Karthikeyan Hemalatha contributed to this report from Chennai