Three-and-half years after caste outfits forced Tamil writer Perumal Murugan into silence, a similar incident has been reported from neighbouring Kerala. Last week, S Hareesh, who won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi award for short story in 2016, announced that he was withdrawing a novel that was being serialised in a Malayalam magazine after right-wing groups threatened him and his family for allegedly defaming Hindus. Various outfits, including the BJP Mahila Morcha, had staged protests and marches against the novel, Meesha (Moustache), three chapters of which had appeared in the leading literary magazine, the Mathrubhumi Weekly. Earlier, protestors also vandalised a fair of spiritual books organised by Mathrubhumi near Ernakulam.
The cause of unease is a piece of dialogue uttered by a character in the novel set in mid 20th century Kerala, that suggests sexual liaisons between female devotees visiting temples and priests. Outfits that claim to be custodians of Hindu sentiments, seem to confuse fiction with historical truth and generalise the subjective comment of a minor character as the novelist’s vision of social relations. The dialogue, revealing the misogynist mindset of the character, has been deliberately read out of context and publicised in a bid to project the work as offensive and polarise society on communal lines. A large section of Kerala’s civil society, major political parties barring the BJP and senior ministers in the state government have come out in support of the writer. While this is welcome, it is not enough. The administration needs to proceed against the persons who threatened the writer and his family and the mob that vandalised the book stall. The message must go out that intimidation and abuse of individuals, whatever be the reason, will not go unpunished.
Hareesh is not the first victim of the “hurt sentiments” industry in Kerala — the most infamous case of social censorship was when members of an Islamist political outfit chopped off the hand of a college professor for allegedly insulting the Prophet. Some months ago, a section of the Christian clergy and a caste organisation took offence to an illustration and a cover visual in a magazine and forced the publishers to apologise and withdraw the controversial issue. Publishers, wary of losing market share, prefer to pander to interest groups rather than fight them. Political parties, too, are selective in supporting beleaguered authors and rarely rise above sectarian interests to uphold the right to free speech. The indifference and timidity of the state and the political class have emboldened caste and communal interest groups to attack hapless artists.