Freedom of Expression

The rest is silence

Print edition : February 20, 2015

The "peace committee meeting" on January 12 convened by the DRO of Namakkal district. It did not involve a face-to-face interaction between Perumal Murugan and the representatives of the protesting groups. Photo: E. Lakshmi Narayanan

N. Ram, Chairman of Kasturi and Sons Ltd, at The Hindu Lit For Life 2015 session on "Free Speech in Peril: The Issues at Stake". Also on the dais are (from left) A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Justice K. Chandru and Sashi Kumar, chairman, Media Development Foundation. Photo: R. Ravindran

The cover of Perumal Murugan's novel "Madhorubagan".

Bullied and heckled at a "peace committee meeting" by casteist outfits who found his novel Madhorubagan offensive, the writer Perumal Murugan withdraws all his written work from the public sphere despite a wave of support for him from across the world.

Nobody has the right to not be offended. That right doesn't exist in any declaration I have ever read. If you ae offended it is your problem....

--Salman Rushdie



“THE writer Perumal Murugan is dead. He is no God. Hence he will not resurrect. Nor does he have any belief in rebirth. Henceforth a stupid teacher, P. Murugan, will alone live.”

This elegiac note posted by P. Murugan [Perumal Murugan], 48, on his Facebook page an hour before midnight on January 12 described perfectly the state of this writer’s mind in the wake of the protests in Tiruchengode, which he fondly calls in the foreword to his Tamil novel Madhorubagan “a town that has seeped into me” and helped him reach “new understandings”. The town is in Namakkal district in Tamil Nadu.

Madhorubagan is at the centre of a controversy created by a sinister alliance of caste groups and right-wing forces, which took serious objection to the book, accusing the author of “polluting” their culture and temple worship and denigrating Hindu womanhood. Notwithstanding his clarifications, these vociferous elements went to the extreme of forcing this writer and Tamil scholar to withdraw his works from the shop shelves.

Deeply pained, he, an author of six novels (of which three have been translated into English), four short story collections, six non-fiction collections, four anthologies of poetry and a highly acclaimed lexicon on the Kongu language, tradition and land, retreated into the solitude of despair and anguish. Subsequently, he closed his Facebook account too, disappointing literary aficionados who, in a rare show of unity, have been fighting against the right-wing hooliganism with renewed vigour. His silence since then has been painful.

The trouble started on December 26 last year when a few pages of the novel were photocopied and circulated all over Tiruchengode town, along with handbills that accused the writer of demeaning women, especially of the Kongu Vellala community (also called Gounders), a powerful intermediate caste group in Tamil Nadu, and demeaning a tradition attached to the temple. The issue, it was claimed, came to light after a few Tiruchengode natives living in Malaysia read its English translation, One Part Woman, published by Penguin India in 2013. They informed their relatives and friends in the town about the “objectionable” references in the book.

The novel, set in the pre-Independence years of the early 20th century, passionately narrates the pangs of a childless peasant couple, Kali and Ponna, who are portrayed as resorting to a now-defunct practice that sanctions “free consensual union between any man and woman” for childless women to beget sami kozhanthai (God’s child) at the 14-day Vaikasi Vishakam festival of the ancient Sri Arthanareeshwarar temple, around which the life and livelihood of the people of Tiruchengode revolve. The novel, published by Kalachuvadu Pathippagam, Chennai, had its first print in 2010, followed by a corrected second edition in 2011 and a third edition in 2012. Two sequels to the novel were published subsequently.

But, the Sangh Parivar, studiously camouflaging its explicit involvement in the controversy, pursued the matter unabashedly for its own nefarious ends. It mobilised support from about 40 caste-based outfits, including the Kongunadu Makkal Desiya Katchi (KMDK), to proscribe the author, who also belongs to the Gounder caste though he has married outside his caste. A few business-linked vested interests against whose unethical practices Perumal Murugan has been writing and speaking at public forums also joined hands with the protesters.

“He has no evidence whatsoever to back his claims about the ritual that promotes sex with anyone. He has thus put the morality of our women in question, with the sole intention of dishonouring them. This has enraged our people,” said Pon. Govindaraj of Sri Arthanareeshwarar Girivala Nala Sangam, Tiruchengode, which spearheads the agitation against the writer.

“The people of Tiruchengode are educated and business-centric and prefer to keep away from any controversy. This [controversy] is quite surprising. The novel is written in vattara vazhakku (local dialect) and has an imaginary theme. However, the protest seeks to establish a disturbing convention that decides the kind of stories one can write and one cannot,” said Ka. Vai. Palanisamy, a noted writer from the Kongu region and a close friend of Perumal Murugan.

But the agitation continued despite Murugan’s assurance that the contentious portions would be withdrawn in future editions. The disruptive forces wanted nothing but a ban on the novel. The most vociferous opposition came from E.R. Eswaran of the KMDK, a self-styled custodian of the Kongu people and culture, who openly criticised the book. The Hindu Munnani’s Rama Gopalan chimed in saying that works degrading culture and religion would not be tolerated.

The Hindutva forces seem to have achieved their objective of alienating the writer from his own people, portraying him as a “culture contaminator”. These forces, unfortunately, wield considerable influence in the town though very few have read the novel in full. This was also stridently evident from the inexplicable silence of Tamil Nadu’s mainstream political parties, especially the Dravidian majors (the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or DMK, and the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or AIADMK), barring the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), the Communist Party of India (CPI), the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) and Puthiya Thamilagam.

Thol. Thirumavalavan, leader of the VCK, while addressing a meeting organised by the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association in Chennai on January 20, said the campaign against Perumal Murugan had more to it than met the eye. “It has caste hatred that is ingrained in society. The protagonist Kali says that he would not favour his wife attending the controversial festival since Dalit youths would be coming to it. This is the moot point that has triggered a protest among caste Hindus,” the Dalit leader claimed.

After the silence of the Dravidian parties was highlighted and debated in various forums, the DMK’s treasurer, M.K. Stalin, came out with a statement calling the protest against the writer “a repulsive act”. “It is not surprising that Stalin issued a statement belatedly. The issue has assumed a casteist colour. None would invite trouble by supporting a writer who defames caste and culture. And Dravidian parties especially view [issues] from the point of view of vote- bank politics,” says Arasu, the Tamil scholar and former professor in the Department of Tamil Literature, University of Madras.

However, DMK leader M. Karunanidhi, himself a novelist and writer who has used his powerful pen to lash out against repressive social practices, remains silent on this issue. The silence of the AIADMK, given its clear departure from Dravidian social reformation agenda, is not surprising.

DRO meeting

Notwithstanding the spontaneous support to the author in many forums, Tiruchengode town observed a total shutdown on January 9, condemning his work and forcing the district administration to adopt a knee-jerk reaction fearing a serious law and order problem. District Revenue Officer (DRO) V.R. Subbulakshmi convened a “peace committee meeting” on January 12, which Justice K. Chandru, retired Madras High Court judge, called farcical, illegal and “against the provisions of Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution”, which ensures the fundamental right of free expression.

The DRO virtually extracted a statement of “unconditional apology” from the writer. Justice Chandru, participating in the special panel discussion on “Free speech in peril: The issues at stake”, with specific reference to Perumal Murugan, on January 16, the opening day of the three-day “The Hindu Lit for Life” Literary festival held in Chennai, said that the “peace” brokered by the district administration was illegal and “none can extract any statement from any party under the ruse of law and order”. N. Ram, chairman, Kasturi and Sons, who spoke on the occasion, said: “It is time to review and discuss the practice of filing criminal defamation cases on the claims of prima facie admissibility in lower courts.”

Activists claimed that the “agreement” was lopsided, pushing the writer against the wall. He, it was claimed, had agreed to all its conditions and said he would recall the unsold copies of the present edition. Perumal Murugan also accepted the demand that he would neither give any interview nor publish articles that would offend people. On the other hand, the public were told not to resort to any protest. The agreement was signed by the writer and seven people representing 30 protest groups, including two women, before the DRO, the Revenue Divisional Officer and the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Tiruchengode.

Perumal Murugan’s lawyer, an Additional Solicitor General at the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court, G.R. Damodharan, who accompanied the writer to the peace meeting, said that the DRO did not arrange a one-to-one meeting between the protesters and the writer. “It was not a tripartite meeting as claimed. It was a meeting between the protesters and the district administration. Murugan was not invited to put forth his views to the protesters. The decision arrived at the meeting was just conveyed to the writer, who was detained in the DRO’s chamber. It was thrust on him,” he said.

The DRO, talking to Frontline, said the issue was subjudice. However, she said that as Additional District Magistrate, she took steps to “defuse the prevailing situation” that could otherwise have degenerated into a serious law and order situation. “We treated the writer with respect and allowed just five members of the 30 protesting groups that took part in the peace meeting to talk to him, mainly to prevent any unpleasantness to the writer. It took place in my chamber. The agreement was finalised after getting his approval,” she said. She, however, refused to comment on why the agreement contained a statement that the book had “hurt the sentiments of Tiruchengode people”.

These developments have hurt Perumal Murugan deeply. He announced that he would withdraw his other works, including novels, short stories, essays and poetry too. “With assurance I say that none of this will be on sale.” He said he was ready to compensate the publishers of his works. “Please leave me alone,” he passionately appealed. Subsequently, he went into a self-imposed exile.

Frontline caught up with him over phone after a marathon effort, immediately after he made his “death as a writer” statement. He sounded distraught. Why should he surrender meekly to fascist forces? He should have, as a few writers pointed out, faced it with grit and determination. He replied in a feeble voice that he did not want to comment on it as he was “in a state of shock and deep anguish”.

“My mind is not in a position to either deny or clarify anything,” he said. While conveying his gratitude for the spontaneous support he received across the country, he said he would soon come out of his exile to answer queries and dispel doubts. “Please allow me to regain my peace. Leave me your email address,” he said and switched off his mobile phone.

Through various interviews to the media and in his Facebook account, he took enormous pain to convince people, explaining to them that it was not his objective to distort culture. In an interview on January 7, which he posted on his Facebook page, he pointed out that it was a story revolving around a childless couple, their trauma and turmoil.

“It is a piece of fiction on a ritual practice that is a century old. It is not intended to defile any temple or god. In fact, each one has a god in him or her. That is what I have conveyed in my story,” he said. Such practices were in vogue in different parts of Tamil Nadu and the rest of India, he said, citing the anthropologist Edgar Thurston’s work Castes and Tribes of Southern India. But it did not yield the desired result.

Murugan’s work talks about a ritual practised by a community in the distant past. Based on sociological research carried out with support from the Bangalore-based Indian Art Foundation, the novel weaves the story in a simple but powerful narrative in the local dialect. The critic Leon Anderson, in his scholarly essay “Analytic Auto ethnography”, says this evokes “emotional resonance with readers”. His novels resemble the powerful ethnographical works of the Afro-American writer of the 1950s, Zora Neale Hurston.

The writer and novelist Se. Ganesalingan pointed out that it was classified as a novel of naturalism and that it is constructed around a liberal fertility tradition that is said to have existed in the past. “In fact, Murugan in his foreword to the novel has said that he did a critical analysis of the practice, which was in vogue till the earlier part of the 20th century,” he said. This reliance on ethnographical interpretations makes the novel engrossing.

“We sold nearly 2,500 copies before it got embroiled in the controversy,” said Kannan Sundaram of Kalachuvadu. The response to the novel before the controversy broke out was lukewarm. But it became a rage among readers after the row and with Kalachuvadu refraining from putting it on sale. This double impact has jacked up the demand for the novel. While responding to pleas that his publishing house should continue to sell his books, Kannan said that he had given a commitment to his writer-friend that he would keep his books off the shelf. “I cannot go back now. But I will not be against those who download e-version,” he said. This option, however, has not had an impact on the demand for the print edition.

However, the incidents have wrecked the writer, who has a doctorate in Tamil Literature and Language and is a professor in the Government Arts College, Namakkal. With the state tacitly supporting the influential fanatical groups, Perumal Murugan had no other option but to withdraw into a shell.

Tamil scholars and writers feel that all these restrictions imposed on him will dampen his creative urge. He has been crudely told to keep his creativity in suspension. “Whenever he takes his pen, he has to be wary of the faceless multiple forces that might arraign against him for one reason or other. This sort of ‘sub-conscious subjugation’ will fray any creativity,” Arasu points out.

Reactions

But what the caste groups least expected was the almost united resistance from writers, thinkers, intellectuals, activists and others from across the country and abroad. The Hindu initiated the cause through its exhaustive coverage while its “Lit for Life” festival took the issue to the centre stage at the national level. During the panel discussion at the festival, N. Ram called the developments “shameful” and wanted a strong forum to be formed to defend writers and artists from such fascist attacks. “Free speech and expression are under tremendous pressure. The writer, who has been isolated, could have handled the issue differently [instead of withdrawing]. But the right to dissent needs to be strengthened,” he said.

At the discussion, the media personality and columnist Sashi Kumar called the peace meeting a sort of “ katta panchayat” in which the state was a willing accomplice. “Like the poor agrarian labourers of Keelavenmani who courageously stood with the Left in their fight against the atrocities of landlords, Perumal Murugan should come out of his exile and rally behind us. This creeping fanaticism in the field of creativity should be firmly opposed,” he said.

The historian A.R. Venkatachalapathy, who moderated the discussion, said that after the state had disowned its responsibility, Hindu outfits were working behind the scenes [protesting against the writer]. “Faceless mobs are creating an intimidating atmosphere for the writer,” he said. Justice Chandru said that since the anti-caste self-respect movement had failed, casteist and religious groups had formed a deadly alliance in Tamil Nadu. “These self-appointed Nazi groups decide what people should not read and write,” he said.

The festival passed a resolution pointing out that “literature and society become poorer every time the forces of intimidation and censorship are allowed to prevail against the forces of creative utterance”. It urged the State and Central authorities, political parties and civil society “to respect and protect freedom of expression as an inalienable fundamental right”.

“The dilution of Periyarist ideology has encouraged Hindutva forces to exploit the ‘collective casteist complex’ that is widely prevalent in Tamil Nadu to achieve their ominous objective. The Sangh Parivar wants to take these issues to the common people at the grass-roots level primarily to whip up frenzied caste identity for a larger agenda,” Arasu said.

“It is a fiction that happens in a creative world where the writer never justifies the action of his characters. Any fiction needs to be seen as a work of art. But when one attempts to weave in a certain degree of exactness for credibility into the plot, the trouble starts. This has happened in Perumal Murugan’s case too,” Palanisamy said. “But that is not an excuse for an unruly attitude. If such intolerance persists, what will be the future of the Tamil literary world?” he asked.

Writers view this overwhelmingly spontaneous beyond-the-border solidarity and support to the writer as exceptional and unique. Newspapers across the globe, including The Nation, The Guardian, and The New York Times, ran editorials and special articles while the Indian media rose in one voice in support of the author. Mathrubhumi and other leading language papers in the country carried editorials, while protests were staged in Kochi, Madurai, Chennai, Bangalore and Delhi. The issue echoed at the Jaipur Literature Festival too.

The Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association, the literary wing of the CPI(M), in association with writers and thinkers, organised a meeting in Chennai to condemn the “cultural policing”. Besides Thirumavalavan, the veteran CPI leader R. Nallakannu, VCK general secretary Ravikumar, poet Salma and others spoke. The association has filed a case in this connection in the Madras High Court.

All is not well

But all is not well in the Kongu region after the onset of the controversy. A teacher from Namakkal who is Perumal Murugan’s friend says that a sustained hate campaign against the writer accusing him of bringing disrepute to women has been going on for sometime at the grass-roots level in the western region where Gounders are dominant. “It has moved away from Tiruchengode to other towns and villages in adjoining districts too. We are told that late-evening meetings are being organised in villages in which the photocopied extracts of the book are distributed, especially to women. They are being indoctrinated,” he said. At a recent meeting held in support of the writer in Coimbatore, a group of women raised objections, asking the organisers not to support him. “It shows how far intolerance has seeped into society,” he said. “The caste structure is vicious in the region, which once practised female infanticide and foeticide. It has monopolised business. And now it revolves around the temple,” he pointed out.

Economy

But what many have missed in this explosive issue is the growing economics of a sleepy temple town. The Gounders, primarily agriculturists, have forayed successfully into various business activities, including building rigs, transport, automotive body-building, poultry farming and education. The entire economy of the Kongu belt, a highly industrialised region compared with other parts of Tamil Nadu, depends on these enterprises.

And Tiruchengode, with its hill temple, is located in the heart of this region. Of late, the temple has become a favoured destination, with Hindus from all over the country thronging it. Pon. Govindaraj said that “girivalam” (circumambulation of the temple) as in Tiruvannamalai, once in a month, was catching up fast. “More than one lakh people come to this once sleepy town on full moon days and nearly three lakh people on Chitra Pournami days, making the town throb with commercial activity. Along with it all, small trade has started flourishing.

“Traders see the temple as a major revenue churner. There were 100 petty shops near the foothill of the temple in the past. Today, there are more than 400. These traders fear that novels such as Madhorubagan could discourage devotees from coming to the town, which might harm their business prospects.” A. Murugesan, president of the Tamil Nadu Rig Association, who took part in the peace meeting, said that they were not against the author personally.

“But we will not permit anyone who attempts to demean our culture and rituals. The temple has been important to us for generations and it will be so in future. Can you ask the writer to prove it? It is a sheer sacrilege. Portraying a ritual of our town [in a bad light] affects not only our self esteem, but all our other interests,” he said.

Pon. Govindaraj denied the involvement of Hindutva groups in the protests. “The people of the town, cutting across affiliations of caste, religion and politics, have joined the agitation against the writer in which a few forces which you mentioned could have participated,” he claimed. He, however, warned that such writings from any writer would not be accepted in future too. R.K. Matheshwaran, a native of Tiruchengode town, said people like Govindaraj were exploiting the situation. “Otherwise, the people here love peace and harmony,” he said.

Many people claim that the author had incurred the wrath of a few rich and powerful educationists who happen to be Gounders by openly opposing the rote system of learning practised in their schools. “These schools just manufacture mark-scoring children similar to the broiler chicken they grow in the poultry industry. Children would be transformed into machines,” said a professor in a college in Namakkal. “This is one of the reasons for the protest. Besides, his book on U. Sagayam, the then Collector of Namakkal, complimenting him for his bold initiatives against the unethical practices of many business-oriented institutions in the district, provides yet another reason for his adversaries to wage a war against him,” he said.

And Madhorubagan is perhaps just an excuse.

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