The silencing of Murugan

How the Hindu far right conspired with caste-based assertion to break his spirit.

Written by V Geetha | Updated: January 20, 2015 3:53 am
perugal murugan, dmk The DMK upheld Murugan’s right to speech, invoking a long history of Tamil “tolerance”

It has been a week now since writer Perumal Murugan chose silence and literary death. Protests continue in Tamil Nadu — some directed at local government officials and the police — for allowing organisations of the intermediate Kongu Vellala or Gounder caste to threaten and intimidate Murugan into silence. Some protests are directed at Hindu ideologues of the far right, including the local RSS functionaries who started it all. Left groups, Dalit groups, anti-caste groups, writers, journalists, teachers and lawyers have been at the forefront of these protests. Rather late in the day, the DMK upheld Murugan’s right to speech, invoking a long history of Tamil “tolerance”, a virtue that is in short supply at the moment for a host of reasons.

For the past decade and more, caste organisations claiming to serve the interests of Gounders have been active in the Tamil political context. They speak to economic anxiety and discontent in the countryside and to the aspirational and disgruntled classes in small towns. Dryland peasant farmers have borne the brunt of the crisis in agriculture, now in its third decade, and they are easily persuaded to view their problems in terms of what is owed to their caste. M. Vijayabaskar, noted social scientist, points out that caste organisations set out to transcend class divides in two ways. They express a “politics of neglect” and amelioration, focused on peasant wrongs, quotas in education, and better employment prospects. They also use a rhetoric of caste that takes issue with state “appeasement” of Dalits through reservation and welfare schemes, and which expresses itself in calls for a repeal of the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, on the grounds that Dalits “misuse” its provisions.

Incidentally, Murugan’s novel, Kanganam, is an apt fable of the alienated small peasant. It is about a peasant’s search for a bride he does not ever find. Increasingly disenchanted with the harsh conditions that define peasant life, Gounder women and Dalit men flee that universe. The Gounder peasant is left bereft of productive labour and conjugal certainty.

In this context, it is worth comparing the fortunes of the Gounders with that of the Vanniyars, the chief victims of the crisis in agriculture in northern Tamil Nadu, who also have recourse to a mixed politics of grievance and aggression. S. Ramadoss and his son, Anbumani, of the Vanniyar-based PMK, are vociferous critics of love marriages across caste divides and have declared that they intend to keep Vanniyar women “safe” from young Dalit men bent on enticing them. Their demands to repeal the prevention of atrocities act are often accompanied by hate speech directed at Dalit men and “protective” paternalist talk addressed to women of their caste. Unsurprisingly, opposition to Murugan’s Mathorubagan was couched in a rhetoric of protection: the book, it was claimed, insulted Gounder women and Murugan’s supporters were told that should they hold public demonstrations, they would have to countenance hordes of angry Gounder women.

S. Ramadoss’s hate speeches, repeated by his followers, are believed to have led to the Dharmapuri violence of 2013, when the homes of hardworking, upwardly mobile Dalits were torched. The violence broke out after a Vanniyar woman married a Dalit man. The Gounder caste groups’ moral vigilantism has led to the silencing of a writer who was also a relentless critic of his own community. In a sense, the campaign against Murugan may be seen as muscle-flexing by Gounder caste groups, just as the torching of Dalit neighbourhoods in 2013 demonstrated the Vanniyars’ will to assert caste power. Murugan even wrote a novel called Pookuzhi, a finely crafted tale that portrays the impending tragedy that awaits a spunky Dalit bride who is brought into her husband’s peasant household. He dedicated the book to the now sadly deceased Dalit, Ilavarasan, and his Vanniyar bride, Divya.

For over two decades, Dalit groups and intellectuals have pointed to how the anti-caste radical traditions of Tamil Nadu are being compromised daily. Some among them have suggested that even Periyar remained, at best, a “Shudra” leader. While this last claim is historically untrue, Dalit criticisms of the Dravidian present are acute and irrefutable. Unfortunately, in the Tamil cultural sphere, criticism of intermediate castes has been neither consistent nor forthcoming. For instance, there are fine novels that deal with artisanal, peasant and fishing lives, showing how intermediate caste worlds are also worlds of labour. But these novels have not all been as critical of caste relations. Murugan’s fiction is distinctive in this regard. He has consistently taken a reflective critical stance towards the Gounders, while being mindful of their hard labour and their ability to make the drylands bloom.

While the belligerence displayed by intermediate caste groups has grabbed and held public and political attention, the crisis in the agrarian worlds they occupy has not been addressed, leaving them open to being exploited by hate speech and increasingly mobilised by ideologues of the Hindu right. This is what we witnessed in the campaign against Murugan: while the Hindu right denies responsibility for what happened, it is evident that they spearheaded and continue to direct the protests. Their speaking in many tongues fools no one; they are acting in concert. How else could 10,000 copies of the “offensive” portions of the book be burned, a hartal called and observed overnight and the district administration rendered complicit in a brazen abuse of constitutional fundamental rights?

For its part, the district administration declared that it did not want a law and order problem to emerge. It therefore invited Murugan and his detractors to “peace” talks. If truth be told, those who broke the peace set the terms for these talks, which were then “brokered” by the revenue and police officials in Tiruchengode, Murugan’s hometown. Articles 14-19 may as well have not existed as officials forced Murugan to sign statements that broke his spirit. It is noteworthy that, for several decades now, the police and revenue administration in Tamil Nadu have been impatient of and hostile to democratic protests. The police seldom grants permission for street gatherings of any kind or for meetings on what they consider “sensitive” matters, including those that address poverty, exploitation and hate speech.

The Kongu region was Periyar country once. Coimbatore, Tiruppur and the plantations in that part of Tamil Nadu have witnessed radical strikes and mobilisations by the left in the past. The Hindu right has made so bold as to take a swipe at this legacy and for this they targeted a writer from the region, someone who has no obvious political affiliations (though he is decidedly opposed to caste and, in his youth, wrote for a radical left magazine) and no immediate political constituency that would challenge their caste ranks. As has become increasingly evident, intolerance in India is hydra-headed. It comes in several guises and, most importantly, takes its cue from the particularities of local history even as it heeds a national agenda of division, hatred, violence and exploitation.

The writer, a social historian and activist, has translated two of Perumal Murugan’s novels into English.

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  1. B
    Jan 20, 2015 at 11:02 am
    How the Muslim fundamentalists targeted and attacked Taslima Nasreen, Salman Rushdie and Danish cartoonists is still fresh in the minds of people. For these sickulars, anyone insulting Hinduism is to be protected and praised in the name of "freedom of expression " and "right to artistic liberty". Anyone else even remotely writing about Christian or Islamic atrocities can be killed for blasphemy! Different sets of discriminatory rules on basis of religion is glaringly obvious.
    1. Aditya Gaiha
      Jan 20, 2015 at 8:56 am
      This is how a simple law and order problem can be given such twists and turns. Our Government machinery (State and Central and no matter which party rules) is indecisive and does not act on simple law and order problems. If the miscreants had been brought to book immediately things would have been settled and no one would have dared to silence anyone. Our administrative service and police officers have failed to do their duty and that is why after 68 years of independence also more than 200 districts out of approx.600 in India are naxalite or terrorist affected (there is no rule of law and rule of the gun only) . Where is the accountability of the officials in these districts who made such a mess that things are in such a mess?
      1. D
        Jan 20, 2015 at 3:29 pm
        The author talks about hate speech by RSS and Hindu right while extolling Periyar. i would like to ask if what Periyar preached and DMK has practiced all these years against Brahmins of TamilNadu "Love speech"? Where were all these "free speech" activists then? She takes umbrage at Hindu right having "made bold to take a swipe ate Periyar's and left legacy"? Why is that a problem ? Are they "sacred cows" ? This is the problem with activists like these. They don't stand for free speech. They stand for free speech only from their side.That said, what has happened to Mururgan is deable, but is par for the course in India. there is scarcely any rule of law, it is only "Might is right"
        1. Anil Maheshwari
          Jan 20, 2015 at 8:56 am
          It seems to be fashionable to drag the name of the RSS and Hindu organisations in each and every controversy. What is the strength of the RSS in Tamilnadu and the town, having a potion of only one lakh, where the residents rose to oppose the book in question? The RSS has become a whipping boy.
          1. Arun Murthy
            Jan 20, 2015 at 7:56 am
            Where were you all commies when Taslima was banned from Bangladesh or when Jospeh's hands were chopped off in Kerala? Don't hide your conscience in your when it is inconvenient for you.
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