TN is as Hindu as it comes, despite BRF definitions of "south TN" and all its connotations. It's the same "south TN" that celebrates Jallikattu with such vigour and houses the revered Meenakshi temple in Madurai. But events of the past 100 years have taken their toll, let me explain how.
I may ramble about a bit as there are so many events that influenced each other, but I hope it will give enough perspective. Other TN folks, please jump in as you see fit in case I am wrong or didn't explain something correctly. It's a long post, so please bear with me.
Starting with the late 19th/early 20th century, EJ, DK ideologies started trying to spread (back then, it was less EJ, more RC, but in this post, I will use EJ to represent both). It was a time of many new discoveries that we ought to be proud of: the re-discovery of ancient Tamil literature, Indus/Saraswathi valley civilization, Sanskrit studies, etc. But the same time was witness to the utter destruction of Indic education, caste discrimination, and wide spread of colonial English education. These factors provided easy crutches for the colonial admins and EJ types to foster the Dravidian ideology. As we all know, this ideology wasn't of desi origin. But what many don't know is that this ideology actually found less takers in what today is TN than the other southern states (of today). A who's who of the Justice Party roster will show what I am talking about. I am not blaming the other southern states, but stating a fact. The EJ plan was to spread this ideology across the south and break it apart from the motherland.
However, as events played out, only the DK was left of the old Justice party and the movement slowly died out in the other states. In TN, it had gained strength, thanks to some genuine reforms like the struggle against untouchability and caste discrimination. Coupled with the spread of cinema, whose medium was strategically used by the DK/EJ types to spread their message, the Dravidian ideology gained more currency closer to independence. Also, I think it took root more in TN due to the revival of native pride based on the ancient-ness of Tamil. But at the same time, the Congress with its stalwarts like Rajaji, Kamaraj dominated Tamil politics with a very nationalist message. The DK ideology didn't take to politics though they tried - but the seeds were sown and tools like cinema continued to spread the message. Remember, this was restricted to TN now, as the interest died out in the other states. At the same, I would be remiss not to mention that a lot of excellent Hindu mythological and historical films were also made during this time period, and many were huge hits. And lots of people didn't take kindly to Periyar's open insult of Hindu symbols (chappal garland to gods, etc.). So it was not as if the DK ideology had a total monopoly. Hindu dharma was still very strong, though the fraying had started very slowly at the edges.
The first decade after independence saw the linguistic reorganization of states in 1953, which I maintain was a blow against our multilingual societies. This event brought up walls between states that had never existed in history, making a single language monopolize a state. Prior to this, it was common for people to be bilingual or multi-lingual, with knowledge of various languages considered as wealth, and one's mother tongue given pride of place in an emotional sense. Sort of hard to agree with today, but ask your grandparents if possible. My own used to speak various levels of Telugu, since we were based around Madras/Arcot belt, though our mother tongue was Tamil. One branch of the family had Kukke Subramanya (in KA) as the "kula-deivam". But with the state based on language, the education policies were revised to teach only one language in the main, which started acting slowly against multilingual ideas. Naturally, when one cannot understand a language, it's easy to feed false facts, misconceptions, etc. Is it not a coincidence that we're reflecting the same thing on this forum today?
It was the Hindi imposition move of JLN that gave them the next stool to stand on, and the DK (now split into the political DMK, which in '62 under Anna had dropped the separatist plank as well) seized the opportunity. Ironically, the Madras representatives in the Constituent assembly of 1948/49 that had wanted Sanskrit as GoI's official language, which would have made this issue redundant, but events turned out otherwise. It was perhaps the last time south Indians of all linguistic groups (Madras spread across all the southern states back then) had stood together on one issue.
By now, it was well established that Tamil was an ancient language with a wealth of literature, and the DK ideology, while not politically useful, was also quite widespread. And as I mentioned above, the one state one language policy was also established by now, along with the emotional attachment we all have our mother tongues. So when the Hindi rule was supposed to come about, the DMK's protest struck a chord and gained immediate and widespread support. The end result was to retain English, from which all of us are benefitting today in ITvity, etc., but also turned an entire generation of Tamilians against Hindi. It was not Hindi's fault that the politicians chose to play politics, but that's what happened. At the same time, parties like BJS with their "Hindi, Hindu, Hindustan" message didn't help. Note that Sanskrit was no where in the picture back then.
What happened next? In the 1967 elections, the DMK romped into power, and TN was Congress mukht. The Dravidian ideology had won. Tamil got a pride of place, but displaced all other languages, especially Hindi (which I think was as wrong as its imposition). At the same time, people from various states had called TN home, and continued to do so and speak their native languages without issues. In that respect, the Dravidian movement stayed true to its pan-southern ethos, and extended it to linguistic groups from elsewhere in north too. "Vandhavarai vazhavaikkam Tamizhnadu" gained currency (TN provides a livelihood to those who come), Rajinikant being the best example. But Hindi was needlessly demonized. At the same time, the people in the north (of Vindhyas) probably took this as an insult. I may be wrong here, but many folks from the north I have casually spoken to first remark on the anti-Hindi issue when they hear I am from TN. This includes some of my very best friends. No issues with it, but such repeated instances gave me an indication of how TN was perceived up north. Of course, under Madrasis, all southerners had a label attached, but TN was the only state that actually agitated against Hindi, though the feeling was there in other states to varying degrees. Even last month, my cab driver in BLR was complaining how folks speak to him only in Hindi, which he does not understand (no, he is not Tamil).
Anyway, a strong undercurrent was developing against the open atheism of DK and DMK, which included insulting Hindu symbols. MGR probably first sensed it, eventually paving the way for his exit and form the ADMK. The latter made no pretensions of rationalism and atheism, though it claimed Dravidian lineage. Basically, the ADMK sought to bring the Dravidian ideology towards the Indic centre. This was rewarded by the public in the first post-emergency election, when MGR romped home to the CM's chair, and continued to stay there till he died ten years later.
This was also the time of the SL problem, where there was a genuine institutional attack on Tamil speaking people. These Tamils were mostly practising Hindus, and are to this day, but were also prey to the same EJ gang. That the entire SL problem was a manifestation of the EJ ideology (specifically AIT) is another point to keep in mind. But, thanks to the anti-Hindi agitation earlier, the fact that Hindus in SL were being killed were not given much importance in the national mainstream. At best, it was a "Tamil issue" in SL. Indira Gandhi, to her credit, saw it for what it was, and how it would inflame passions in TN. If GoI didn't do anything, it could make things worse, considering how we had intervened in '71. So GoI acted swiftly by arming resistance groups in northern SL, like in '70-71. MGR, having been born in SL, was also emotionally invested in the issue, though he was technically Malayali by birth. But he lent his voice in strong support, and demand that GoI do something about it. Of course, powers larger than us eventually intervened to make the LTTE kill every moderate Tamil outfit and force India to act, again. That was the IPKF debacle, which RG undertook half-heartedly. Perhaps he was afraid of collateral damage given the LTTE's tendency to use women and children in combat, and the resulting protests in TN. Or perhaps he just felt dharmic about attacking women and children from air - at least one could exercise some restraint on the ground. Anyway, we'd never know.
But the DMK saw this as an opportunity to come back to political relevance, and asserted the Tamil identity again. Politicians began to openly hobnob with LTTE in the streets of Madras, much to the fear of the locals. At that time, most SL Tamils began to be looked at with suspicion, as no one knew who belonged to LTTE and who didn't. A few such people were arrested from respectable middle class areas in Madras cementing the fear further. I personally know of one such incident. There were periodic sounds of gunfire in Madras when someone settled scores with someone else. Hard to believe today, but it was quite scary back then. And the fact that our own Army was fighting these people across the sea, with the original SL problem still remaining confused most people. The welcome, or lack of, accorded to the Army when it returned to Madras is still something many of us remember with sadness. It was in this climate that MGR died, and AIADMK split with instability all around. The TINA factor and the Tamil card brought the DMK back into power in '89. Probably the worst period in TN politics, not to mention for the country at large, given the instability in the centre, followed by the BoP crisis.
Then, suddenly, RG was assassinated, right outside Madras. That was the straw that broke the camel's back - RG was well regarded in TN, as he was across the country. Bofors aside, he was seen to be young and dynamic, and had been on good terms with MGR for a long time. His efforts resolve the SL problem also brought him a lot of positive support. And he was killed on TN soil. That one incident ended the LTTE nonsense. Jayalalitha was massively voted into power - she won 225 out of 234 seats, and the DMK itself got 2. That's right, 2. And the rest is history regarding the LTTE in TN. The dreaded 'Q' branch of the TN police went after them with a vengeance and threw them out. Does it mean all such elements were thrown out? No - there will always be some sympathisers, but they were not in the mainstream anymore. The DMK was sent to political wilderness and dropped its open stance. Some elements like Vaiko continued to support the 'Eelam' demand, but in '02 Jaya ensured a long 18 month spell in jail for him under POTA. Ironically, he was part of the ruling NDA then and an MP. No protests, no one cared, beyond the occasional joke: "POTA-la ulla pottuta" (she put him inside under POTA).
During all this time, caste discrimination didn't stop, though it had reduced significantly. But there was now enough literature to support EJ activities, which continued unabated. Except IG in the '70s and RG to an extent in the '80s, and Modi now, GoI has been ambivalent about foreign funding for religious activities. So funds weren't a problem, and the Dravidian ideological political climate provided a cover for these forces to continue to operate. The emotional nature of Tamil people also made them easy targets for manipulation. But at the same time, the majority of people fought back to retain traditions. By fight back, I am not saying andolans or morchas, but simply sticking to our traditions and festivals - which are sufficient to retain the identity. But the political climate made that identity a Tamil identity and not an openly Hindu identity. It was an acceptable compromise as we (the nationalist Tamilians) got to keep our traditions intact, and also due to the fact they were not really mutually exclusive. In fact, these traditions have gained in strength - the Sabarimalai pilgrimage wasn't as big in the '70s as it is today. The crowds at Kumbakonam during Mahamaham have only increased. Visit any city in TN and see how the temples are patronised. Jallikattu and similar sports always start at the local temple. Till 2004. Since then, the EJ problem has "thalaviruchi adirikku", which means has gone out of control. It's a grim fight, but fight we have and will. Jallikattu was attempted to be hijacked, but the good people fought, and won for their customs, however interim it may be. But at least now, the NGO/EJ cat is out of the bag. Hopefully, it will bring some good outcomes regarding the insiduous connections across the NGO/EJ ecosystem. That press conference about Jallikattu and the vested interests behind it SwamyG saar had linked a while ago is instructive. It will get transmitted in the local media. Tughlak, a nationalist-right-of-centre magazine started by Cho in '70, will continue to write about such things from an Indic PoV.
Why am I saying all this? I am saying this to explain away misconceptions about the so-called separatist Tamil, which folks keep writing against, thanks to an agitation against language imposition we did a long time ago. But we are as Indian as anybody else, and bloody proud of it. Else, one would not have seen the following (not exhaustive by any means, just a few examples), who stay unforgotten till date:
1. Veerapandiya Kattabomman - killed by the British in 1799, probably one of the most inspirational legends in recent Tamil history
2. Marudu Pandiya, declaring independence of Jamboo dwipa from English domination
3. The mutiny by our Army in Vellore
4. Subramaniya Bharati -Muppadhu kodi mugamudayal,
Enil maipuram ondrudayal,
Ival Seppumozhi padhinetudayal,
Enil Sindhanai ondrudayal
- "This Bharatmaata has thirty crores of faces! But her body is one. She speaks eighteen languages! But her thought is one."
4. Netaji, outside of WB, is perhaps best known in TN
. Please read up on the locals who supported the INA and its formation in Malaya - they were plantation labourers who were taken from TN.
I hope I don't have to cite folks like a certain Mr. Kalam to buttress my point further.
Overall, many TN folks are tired of having to defend our culture from EJ types and brainwashed Dravidian ideologues, but when they see MSM focussing only on the extremists (which are there in any society - ask me about BLR's goons from 2 months ago) or more of the same from a different angle, i.e. language, the response becomes, "Give me a break. I will fight for my culture with or without your help". That's what has got the chaddis of many people in a twist - they can't seem to understand this aspect. Modi got a lot of support as he showed some understanding of this underlying issue - hence his tacit support to the GoTN where needed. It hasn't gone unnoticed. But for once, if GoI were to openly step up and provide a narrative (think of covering fire for an analogy), it will help nationalist folks in TN get more organised. This is the same picture elsewhere in the country, but thanks to 10 years of UPA, TN is under greater pressure from EJ elements.
Lastly, and I will stop here, this song captures how we view ourselves in the Indian context: The Indian identity and Tamil identity are one and the same. Tamizha Tamizha From Roja - Lyrics and English Translation