Pride & prejudice

A Dalit writer’s book about his caste group in Tamil Nadu evokes as much sharp criticism as the State government’s ban on it.

Published : Jul 10, 2013 12:30 IST

At a meeting of writers and academics and others on the book in Chennai recently.

At a meeting of writers and academics and others on the book in Chennai recently.

FOR the Dalit writer K. Senthil Mallar, bouquets and brickbats have come in equal measure with the publication of his book in Tamil, Meendezhum Pandiyar Varalaru (History of Pandiyar Resurgence). The book’s attempts to trace the roots of Pallars, the suppressed caste group he belongs to in Tamil Nadu, only ended up igniting a controversy that eventually resulted in the government banning the book and charging the writer with sedition. Academics and activists, while differing sharply over the “authenticity” of the contents of the book, have risen in one voice against the ban.

The Tamil Nadu government termed the book “teasingly provocative” and said it liberally employed expressions of slander against other communities and castes. These “demeaning expressions”, it claimed, would cause disharmony in society.

The so-called facts in the book, say historians, are not beyond dispute despite the author banking heavily on quotes from literary and historical sources. His primary objective, they say, seems to be to prove that Pallars were originally called Mallars, who once ruled the southern parts of present-day Tamil Nadu and were known as Pandiyars.

The claim that Pallars were once the rulers has not offended anyone. However, his use of extravagant invectives against other caste groups has come as a shock. The police denied permission for a formal function to launch the book at Sattur in Virudhunagar district on April 25, surprisingly a year after its publication and the sale of a few thousand copies.

A small group of caste Hindu leaders raised objections to the book, and the Tamil Nadu government apparently obliged them by banning it on the grounds that it contained “material of false, objectionable and distorted facts criticising all communities in mala fide remarks that would affect public peace and tranquillity and cause caste disharmony, hatred and ill-will among various castes”.

A motley group of academics and activists called the ban a “gross violation of fundamental rights” and opined that a bureaucratic transgression into the domain of freedom of expression enshrined in Article 19 of the Constitution should not be encouraged at any cost.

The State, however, justified the ban through a two-page Gazette Extraordinary (May 30, 2013). Referring specifically to nine paragraphs in the book, it stated that the content and language clearly revealed the writer’s “intention to spread hatred and disharmony among communities in the guise of research”.

The State contended that the matters and assertions contained in the book were certain to cause disharmony and a feeling of enmity among different castes and communities and promote communal tension.

“It has comfortably taken refuge under the term ‘certain restrictions’ [in Article 19],” said P. Vijendran, advocate for Senthil. While bringing the charge of sedition (Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code) against the author, the State also declared that the book and its contents were punishable under Sections 153A and 153B of the IPC. It ordered the “forfeiture of the book, its copies and reprints, translation and such other documents containing its extracts” under Section 95(1)(a) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.

While Senthil evaded arrest and was on the run, his father-in-law, Perumalsamy, was arrested under the same charges.

“The ban and the sedition charges are against the basic tenets of the Constitution. Our contention is that it curtails one’s right of thinking. In an identical case in 2010, the Maharashtra government had banned a book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India , written by Prof. James W. Laine, and the Supreme Court repealed the ban. The State has erred,” claimed Vijendran. Another group of rights activists, social scientists and litterateurs organised debates and discussions in “isolated pockets”, including in Coimbatore and Chennai, and questioned the constitutional validity of the ban. They claimed that a decision on the rejection or otherwise of the contents should be left to academics and not to bureaucrats.

“Knee-jerk reaction”

While condemning the ban as a knee-jerk reaction, they refused to defend the “disputable contents” of the book. They said the writer, by making a few “blatant accusations” after employing “improper methodologies”, had failed to achieve the objective of his work.

V. Arasu, Professor and Head of Department of Tamil Literature, University of Madras, said:

“There is no methodology in this work. After the 18th century British Census, the first of its kind, it had become the practice for all caste groups to project their respective castes as ‘superior’. Nearly 250 caste-based books similar to Senthil’s were published between late 18th century and earlier 19th century. They preferred to identify themselves with the four-caste ‘Varnashramam’ classification. But after 1990, caste-based politics took centre stage where each group is jostling for space to enhance its bargaining power. This work should also be viewed in that context, with the primary objective being electoral politics.”

The reconstruction of the Dalit identity as that of Mallars is a recent phenomenon, especially among Pallars. Many works of literature claim that Pallars were once Mallars, a farming community that lived in Marutham, one of the four land classifications in Tamil literature where farm and farm-based activities thrived. They claim “rice civilisation” is theirs and they are also called Devendrakula Velalars since they worship Indra.

The book’s aim seems to be to link Mallars alias Pallars to Pandiyars, the rulers of southern Tamil Nadu. To underscore the point that Pallars should not be clubbed with those who are being discriminated against on the basis of their birth, the writer has quoted profusely from Sangam literature and from the works of Dr Gustav Oppert, N.C. Kandiah Pillai, G. Devanaya Pavanar, K.R. Anumanthan and T.K. Velupillai, besides referring to a few stone and copper inscriptions.

“In fact, it cannot be interpreted as a seminal work of an enduring quality since many writers in the past, including one Guruswamy Siddhar, whose material he has sourced heavily, have claimed the same,” said A. Marx, an activist-cum-writer and president of the People’s Union for Human Rights. He pointed out that the works of historians, including Edward Balfour, Edgar Thurston and M. Srinivasa Iyengar, corroborate the theory of linking Pallars with Mallars.

The 624-page hardbound book, priced at Rs.1,500, claims to be an ethnographical ( Kudimarabiyal ) study on an oppressed caste, but the writer pointedly talks about “Vaduga Vantherigal” (migrant settlers-cum-rulers such as Nayaks), who, he says, decimated Tamils and their culture.

A.V.K. Mallar, a member in the Coimbatore unit of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and a functionary of Thamizhar Varalatru Aaivu Naduvam (Centre for Research in Tamils’ History), says he does not endorse the “bad content” of the book. “But we oppose the ban and the sedition charge since they stifle the democratic rights of an individual,” he said and urged that the work should not be viewed from the narrow confines of the caste structure.

Oppose the ban

Supporters of the book, especially those outside the academic circle, backed the writer’s surmise that the Dravidian movement had obliterated Tamil identity. At a meeting organised by Karuthurimai Padukappu Maiyam (Centre for Right to Protect Opinions) in Chennai recently, a host of speakers claimed that only Tamil nationalism could retrieve Tamil identity. They unhesitatingly identified Senthil and his work with that concept.

The noted writer Manushyaputhiran, who spoke at the meeting, said he wanted the intellectually active Tamil society to oppose the ban. However, he added that while recording a piece of history one should not wound others. “He sadly has faltered in his responsibility as a writer,” Manushyaputhiran said.

Selva, one of the organisers of the Chennai meeting, said the writer had bared his mental scars caused by the social discrimination he faced as an untouchable. “The flames of anger have manifested themselves in his language, which others call unrefined,” he said. Marx said, “Senthil’s primary flaw in indulging in naive insinuations with secondary sources has unfortunately rendered his work a haphazard exercise in futility.”

Some activist groups saw in the book a “hazy attempt” by the writer to identify his caste with “oppressors” (Pandiyars) and termed it illogical. “We have been fighting to retrieve our identity from the oppressors from time immemorial. Pallars are landed gentry who were divested of their land by kings, the rulers,” said Dr K. Krishnaswamy, Dalit leader and founder-president of Puthiya Thamizhagam.

“Polemical approach”

That the book fails miserably in comparison with enduring works such as Henry Louis Gates Junior’s In Search of Our Roots is glaringly explicit. Gates carried out a painstaking genealogical study with DNA samples of top African Americans, in the absence of creditable and recorded evidence, to trace their roots. Historians allege that the banned book lacks sophistication. M. Lakshmanan, Associate Professor in the Department of History, Presidency College, Chennai, called it an “unhistorical study”. “This kind of polemical approach will create unnecessary hatred in the multi-caste society of Tamil Nadu,” he said.

Any work on an intricate subject such as this one needed to be analytical and mature, said writers that Frontline spoke to. “The book, released a year back remained confined to one particular caste group but has now become a sought-after piece of work across the State thanks to the ban,” said Arutko, a writer present at the meeting in Chennai.

The book, Dr Krishnaswamy conceded, would have gone unnoticed but for the ban. “Neither will it have any kind of decisive influence. It is constructed on half-facts and wild speculation,” he said. The attempts to project Pallars as rulers, oppressors, went against social history, he added.

Marx said it was unfortunate that the writer had denigrated other castes, including Paraiyars, a subcaste of Dalits, and Chinna melam, a Telugu subcaste, which have faced discrimination along with Pallars. “The justification that he has quoted from works that have been published is unconvincing,” he said.

Senthil calls the Dravidian movement “anti-Tamil”. Instead of targeting migrant settlers such as Telugus and Kannadigas, the Dravidian movement, he alleges, pitted Tamils against Brahmins, who were not invaders. “The war for Tamil identity should have been fought between Tamils and non-Tamils,” he contends.

Historians, reacting to the accusations that Telugu and Kannadiga migrant settlers had decimated Tamil identity, point out that the Nayaks in fact built a bulwark against Muslim invaders. “Constructing or shaping a history requires authenticity and documentation. Otherwise it will be a lot of hyperbole and exaggeration,” Lakshmanan said.

D. Ravikumar, writer and former MLA of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), pointed out that Senthil’s claims were far-fetched. “Coloured views should not be encouraged. Anyone can trace the cultural, social and anthropological aspect of a race,” he said and called Senthil’s work a “Sisyphean attempt on a race’s history”.

Marx saw the book as an offshoot of identity politics for which Tamil Nadu is well known. “The discriminated have to establish their identity since they have been rendered historically irrelevant. Of course, almost all accept the fact that there is a historical necessity to reconstruct the identity of Dalit castes,” he said.

But what the writer has lost in his lofty but hasty pursuit to establish his claims that Pallars alias Mallars are Pandiyars is the pedagogic balance. The Nigerian writer Gabriel Okara says: “A person who does not cast a shadow of course does not exist.” Senthil’s work is but just a shadow in the world of Tamil literature. And he himself is, in the end, more read about than perhaps read.

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