Flawed script: Rajinikanth's comments on Periyar's 1971 rally

Print edition : February 14, 2020

Rajinikanth. Photo: B. Jothi Ramalingam

E.V. Ramasamy Periyar. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Actor Rajinikanth’s comments on an anti-superstition rally in 1971, organised by Periyar’s organisation, are criticised as part of a scripted move by the BJP which is desperately looking for a popular personality to help it secure a toehold in Tamil Nadu.

Tamil actor Rajinikanth’s controversial observations on the anti-superstition rally, organised at Salem in 1971 by the Dravidar Kazhagam (D.K.) in which its leader and the social reformer E.V. Ramasamy Periyar participated, has stirred up a hornets’ nest.

The 69-year-old thespian who nurses political ambitions in Tamil Nadu created a controversy by telling the audience at the anniversary celebrations of the Tamil magazine Thuglak on January 14 that portraits of Hindu gods that formed part of the rally were desecrated. Particularly, he said, “the images of Sri Ramachandramurthy and Sita were shown without any clothes” on them.

His comments drew widespread criticism and condemnation from many. Apologies were sought from the actor, but he categorically refused to apologise. Meeting the media near his Poes Garden residence in Chennai after the row erupted, Rajinikanth said that he had not referred to something that had not taken place. He had not said anything new, he said, that had not been reported in the newspapers. “I neither apologise nor express regrets,” he said.

Leaders of the D.K. and those in the know of the happenings at the time of the Salem conference, however, contested the actor’s claims that the gods’ portraits in the rally were in the nude, saying that the images of Rama and Sita, made of plaster of paris, remained robed. Kali Poongundran, vice president of the D.K., said: “It is a lie that the images of Rama and Sita were brought without dress though the processionists burnt Rama’s statue at the end of the rally and desecrated other idols and images with footwear. A few other mythological figures in the tableaux that were taken out as part of the rally were depicted in the way the tales of mythology portray them.”

V. Arasu, former head of the Tamil Department of the University of Madras and a social and political commentator, said: “Why should Rajinikanth broach an incident that was half a century old and long forgotten? The D.K., too, over a period of time has toned down its anti-god rhetoric significantly. Hence, the actor’s casual remark on a revered social reformer needs strong convincing. Periyar stands for rationalism and social justice. The anti-god doctrine was just one among many themes of his social reform campaign. Besides, recalling an event that was mired in legal and political controversies at that time has no relevance now. By raking up this issue, Rajini has willingly fallen into the hands of those who are out to exploit the name and fame he has earned as an actor.”

Political spin-off

The issue has a political spin-off today. Analysts say that the media support he gets and the “illusion of goodness” that surrounds him as an actor have been sought to be exploited by Hindutva forces that are trying to carve a space for themselves in the politics of Tamil Nadu, which has been dominated by the Dravidian parties for over half a century. He is seen as a prop of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) today. “The attempt to appropriate Rajini would lend huge credence to the BJP in the State where leaders like H. Raja have for long remained spokespersons. Falling prey to a fascist force of intolerance is very dangerous for the actor. He has erred in his political judgement,” Arasu said.

Taking on Periyar and his ideology, which no leader in Tamil Nadu, including iconic and god-fearing leaders like M.G. Ramachandran and Jayalalithaa dared to do, could be a script for disaster for the actor’s political ambitions. His critical comments on the Salem rally did not prompt any response from the general public, though netizens went to town with “hate campaign” against both Periyar and Rajinikanth.

A relook at what The Hindu reported on the 1971 Salem rally could provide an idea on the issue and the controversies surrounding it. In its edition dated January 24, 1971, The Hindu covered in detail the “Superstition Eradication Conference” and the rally organised by the D.K. as part of it. The report went under the headline “Demonstration against obscene tableaux”. The report said, “Obscene tableaux depicting Hindu mythological figures and Gods formed part of the procession.”

The report filed by its Salem correspondent claimed that “the tableaux included obscene pictures of the birth of Lord Muruga, penance of sages and Mohini Avatara. A 10-foot image of Lord Rama was carried on a vehicle and dozens of people kept beating it with chappals. The Kazhagam leader Mr. E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker, seated on a tractor, was at the rear of the procession. An image of Lord Rama cut out in wood was set on fire at the end of the procession at the Bose Maidan.” It, however, did not say that the images were in the nude.

The report further recorded that over 300 persons staged a black-flag demonstration against the procession near the Salem Police Superintendent’s Office. The processionists, armed with lathis, knives, swords, and so on, rushed towards the demonstrators brandishing their weapons, the report said. “However, the police intervened and prevented untoward incidents. The processionists shouted anti-God slogans and the demonstrators matched them with counter-slogans.” But the report did not identify the demonstrators, though a BJP spokesperson in Salem today has claimed that they belonged to the Jana Sangh.

Explaining what happened at the Salem rally and the conference at a public meeting later, Periyar said that the demonstrators belonged to an outfit called “Devalaya Padugappu Kuzhu” (Temple Protection Committee). He said that a piece of footwear was thrown at the rally by one of the demonstrators. He did not deny the accusations and claims that items of footwear were used to desecrate the portraits of Hindu gods and mythological characters. He even jocularly mentioned that Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi had no other choice but to “feign ignorance and distance himself from it”. “In fact, we did not invite the DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam] to the conference at all. We understood their predicament,” he said.

(The Chief Minister told the press in Madurai a week after the rally that he was not aware of what had happened at the Salem rally. He expressed his regret over the issue and said that it was a conference of the D.K. and not of the DMK. He said the sentiments of no religious group should be dishonoured. “As far as Periyar is concerned, he has the right to think radically. But a government cannot be that powerful to execute all what he thinks,” he pointed out. He said that he had asked the police to look into the matter.)

Another controversy

A more serious controversy too surfaced from the conference. One of the resolutions in Tamil passed at the conference, as reported in The Hindu, said that a request to the government was made (by the conference) to take suitable steps to see that “coveting another man’s wife is not made an offence under the Indian Penal Code [IPC]”.

D.K. members told Frontline that the English translation of the resolution was “distorted” and “defamatory”. What the resolution in Tamil meant, they said, was that a criminal offence should not be made out if a man’s wife loved another man. Among the other resolutions, all in Tamil, were the following: no government should protect religion and god; the IPC section penalising those who denigrate religions should be scrapped; and people should declare themselves as non-Hindus in the Census exercises.

T.V. Chokappa, chairman of the reception committee of the 1971 Salem conference, wrote a letter to The Hindu refuting the translated version of the resolution. The letter was published on February 5, 1971, along with the correspondent’s response. In his response, the correspondent wrote that while moving the resolution, Periyar had said that one should not seduce a minor girl and that it amounted to kidnapping. The correspondent reported Periyar as saying: “But there was nothing wrong in an individual loving intensely another man’s wife who is well grown up and also is a major. If the wife of the man also reciprocates the love, they should be allowed to marry one another. And the husband should not prevent or obstruct their marriage.” The Hindu ran an editorial on February 17, 1971, on the rally, calling it a “blasphemous public show”.

Chokappa filed a case of defamation in the Madras Presidency Magistrate Court against The Hindu and also The Indian Express and Dinamani, which too published reports on the same lines. (Dinamani carried an article on January 25 under the title “DK procession disrespects religious sentiments”.) The court framed defamation charges against the editors and publishers of the three publications. They went on appeal against it before the Madras High Court, which was dismissed. Subsequently, the aggrieved parties approached the Supreme Court seeking its direction to quash the criminal proceedings against them. After a year-long legal battle, the Supreme Court, on September 4, 1972, quashed the criminal proceedings of the Madras Magistrate Court against the dailies, putting an end to the controversy.

Poongundran told Frontline that what Periyar meant in the resolution was that under the ruse of marriage a woman should not be prevented from loving another person of her choice. He pointed out that Periyar, who had been a strong advocate of women’s emancipation, was well ahead of his time in his thoughts and deeds. “By passing that resolution, he made it clear that such acts should not be made criminal offences. Periyar had been saying since 1928 that marriage should not be a binding factor either on a woman or a man. The resolution did not mean ‘coveting another man’s wife’,” he said.

The D.K. leader also cited the Supreme Court’s verdict on adultery (2018), which proved what Periyar had been consistently advocating. (India’s top court decriminalised adultery, upholding the right to equality and freedom, scrapping the British colonial law of 1860. “Adultery cannot and should not be a crime. It can be a ground for a civil offence, a ground for divorce,” said Chief Justice Dipak Misra, while delivering the unanimous verdict of a five-judge bench. “Physicality is an individual choice. Husband is not the master of wife. Women should be treated with equality along with men,” he said. Justice Rohinton Nariman said that “ancient notions of man being perpetrator and woman being victim no longer hold good”.)

Senior journalist S. Vaidyanathan, who served in both The Hindu and The Indian Express in Salem and in other centres from the late 1970s, told Frontline that The Hindu was the only English newspaper that had a correspondent in Salem then, leaving other English publications to depend on secondary sources for news gathering. Thuglak, being a magazine in Tamil, carried the photographs of gods and mythological figures that were paraded at the Salem rally after a week or so, he said. “Only after the Salem incident did many leading publications appoint their correspondents in Salem,” he recalled.

Yet another controversy erupted when the Karunanidhi-led DMK government confiscated copies of the Thuglak magazine issue dated February 15, 1971, which published the rally’s photographs. This incident was recalled in an English magazine in its issue in 2017, citing it as one of the many cases to show how State governments used to gag the media. The printout of the report was what Rajinikanth showed at the press meeting in which he refused to apologise.

‘Calculative attempt’

Said Poongundran: “In fact, the row Rajinikanth flagged is a calculative attempt of the Hindutva brigade which has been attempting to construct a narrative around the main opposition political party, the DMK, as anti-Hindu. They attempted a similar strategy during the last general elections too. It backfired. The DMK, barring one seat, swept the polls. This time around, they are trying to propel the actor as their mascot.” The attempt to portray the DMK as “anti-Hindu” and dub it an extended version of the D.K. in order to consolidate Hindu votes has remained the main agenda of the right-wing forces for long. Even in the 1971 elections, opposition parties used the Salem conference to portray the DMK as anti-Hindu. But the people did not buy those claims and gave the DMK and its allies a resounding victory. In fact, realising the sinister plan of Hindutva forces, C.N. Annadurai, the founder leader of the DMK, a political formation that broke off the D.K. of Periyar in 1949, had proclaimed “One community, one God” as its policy.

A senior Dravidian commentator-cum-journalist pointed out that Annadurai had “foreseen that atheism would make no political sense in a country where the majority of the people are steeped in religious beliefs, though it chose to retain its commitment to Periyar’s social justice theory”. He said the people of Tamil Nadu were able to distinguish between the political and religious domains as two different spheres and make their political choices accordingly. “That is why the attempt to paint the DMK as Periyar’s anti-Hindu party and polarise opinions on religious lines has not succeeded so far in the State,” he said.

With the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam remaining a subservient partner in the alliance including the BJP, the Pattali Makkal Katchi and the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam, though senior AIADMK ministers like O. Paneerselvam and D. Jayakumar condemned the actor for his comments, the BJP is well aware that it is the DMK that is standing between it and power in Tamil Nadu. The BJP’s main strategy is to project the DMK as anti-Hindu, destroy its ideological moorings, and alienate it from the masses.

The BJP attempted to vilify Periyar on his death anniversary in 2019 by posting a derogatory tweet on his personal life in its official Twitter handle. However, public outrage forced it to pull it out immediately. The BJP today is desperately in need of a strong and popular personality to execute its strategies and to dispel the popular perception that the party is anti-Tamil. Hence Rajinikanth has become a political prop for it today, though the actor in the past had claimed that neither he nor Tiruvalluvar could be “saffronised”. He even condemned the desecration of Periyar’s statue last year as “barbaric”. Said Arasu: “But it is not an unexpected metamorphosis [of the actor]. We should not take his earlier stance seriously. He needs them [BJP] and they need him now.”

Realising this, the DMK is playing it safe. Its president M.K. Stalin issued a statement which was more of an advice to the actor asking him to be cautious while touching upon Periyar. It has been left to the splinter groups of the D.K. and other activists to sustain the resentment across the State through protests, demonstrations and meetings. Complaints have been filed against the actor seeking the police to register cases under Sections 153A and 505 of the IPC.

Thuglak editor S. Gurumurthy recently said that the magazine would reprint what it published in 1971 on the Salem rally. On the other hand, the D.K. is contemplating approaching the court.

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