"Until the lions have their own historians the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter...."
- Chinua Achebe

2015, ഫെബ്രുവരി 12, വ്യാഴാഴ്‌ച

Perumal Murugan's Right To Freedom Of Expression: A Tip Of The Iceberg - By Maharathi



“I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.’’ - Voltaire
It may sound a cliché to say history is replete with scores of instances of freedom of expression being trampled upon by religious fanaticism. But when a writer is hounded by religious fundamentalism, the cliché turns nightmarishly fresh.

Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, was taught a lesson by Islamist gunmen who killed 12 persons including eight journalists counting its editor, on January 7, 2015. The reason: it profaned Prophet Mohammed. 

Back in our home State, Tamil Nadu in India, writer Perumal Murugan was driven to the extent of declaring in his Facebook account that “he is dead’’, implying that he has renounced writing and will recall all of his works from bookstalls. The reason: he was driven up the wall by a few Hindutva and communal outfits for what they said was a mudslinging on a temple ritual.

These two instances that have happened in the dawn of 2015 are just part of a continuum from centuries ago in the human history that looks like a titan dripping with blood dug and sucked out of intellectuals, rationalists and creative writers who chose to be anti-establishmentarian.

How the fatwa issued by the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 for the novel, “The Satanic Verses’’ drove Salman Rushdie, Indian-British novelist, into hiding and how the spectre of religious fundamentalism tailed him, crying for his pound of flesh is still inerasable from the nightmarish memory of the modern literary world!

The hound of religious bigotry, which in the 17th century put the father of modern physics, Galileo Galilei, under house arrest, for his heliocentrism is still up and about, centuries on, cutting across barriers of language, race, creed and geography and jutting its tongue out for more prey across the globe. However, free expression has so far managed to survive onslaughts from religious intolerance.

In the French case, the attack has come as a shot in the arm, so to speak, for the magazine editor-in-chief, Gerard Biard, who said, “It is we who forgive, not Muhammad,’’ and his fellows to stick to their guns. It has jacked up its circulation from the customary 60,000 copies to one million to three million to five million. Common people queued, waiting for kiosks in Paris to open for buying the latest issue of “Charlie Hebdo’’ with its cover showing Prophet Mohammed saying tearfully, “Je suis Charlie’’ and containing words, “All is forgiven.’’ The latest issue was called “survivors’ issue’ to drive home the message: we will not bow to terror.

How support has been swelling around the world for the magazine (rallies are conducted on Parisian streets and the problem cartoon was re-published in famous newspapers and journals including “Washington Post’’) is a straw in the wind suggesting bright prospects for the anti-terror and pro-free expression tendencies. The President of France, Francois Hollande, the face of establishment, has thrown his weight behind the democratic concept of freedom to expression. His words, “Charlie Hebdo is alive and will live on… You can assassinate men and women but you will never kill their ideas" were morally inspiring for freedom-lovers.

How we wish such words had come from our rulers on our home turf!
Back in Tamil Nadu, India, the literary and intellectual world, let alone the common people’s world, leaves much to be desired. When Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s novel, “Madhorubhagan’’ which has been translated into English as “One-part Woman’’, was initially branded as vulgar and disgusting, the whole issue was just presumed as one more literary controversy, a la the one involving D. H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover’’. But over the days, it started taking on the colours of an offensive from some caste and Hindutva forces. It must have dawned on the author himself, (who is below 50 and working as a professor in a college in Namakkal in Tamil Nadu) that the outfits have a fundamentalist edge; they don’t give a damn about the intellectual exercise of Jacques Derridian deconstruction of the text and they are bent upon eliminating any anti-Hindu portraits.
The mere storyline of the novel (which the detractors must have understood, only by word of mouth, not from a scrupulous reading) that it was customary for a childless woman in olden days to have sex with a man other than her husband during the ‘car festival’ of a Hindu temple in Tiruchengode (author’s home town) at night has angered the so-called cultural custodians or saviors to the point of threatening the author with dire consequences. The Lord Siva is called ‘arthanareeswarar’ meaning a combination of man and woman, that is, he is the sole symbol of the powers of man and woman. That sex is described as a clandestine affair in the temple precincts in the novel is branded as repugnantly offensive. (According to the Hindu mythology, the ‘linga’, the form of Lord Siva itself, is interpreted as a symbol of reproductive organ; there is nothing sexy about it; it is a sort of sexually spiritual theory.)
Protests, rallies and threats of physical annihilation followed, turning intenser day in, day out. The babus and netas worked hand in gloves with the Hindutva and caste outfits and eventually forced the author to sign under duress a peace agreement at the Collectorate in Namakkal on January 13, 2015.

So, the author tendered an unconditional apology. With a week-long hairy shrub on the chin, brows knit in weariness and pepper-and-salt face with sorrow writ large on it, he bid an adieu to writing.

As he has said in his FB post, he is just a writer; not a God to get resurrected. The sub-text behind his post is he has got no god’s supernatural power to withstand the terror from the religious fanaticism and emerge unscathed out of the controversy. The powers-that-be watched it simply as mute spectators; the literary world is already too riven with rivalries to stand by him and hoist him on to its shoulders too high for the violently inclined forces to touch and the hoi polloi are too engrossed in their livelihood problems to pay any attention to the author.

Unlike the French President who rallied behind the Charlie Hebdo, the powerful politicians in Tamil Nadu chose to be tight-lipped, fearing a backlash from the castes in question, if they threw in their lot with the writer. It is votebank, not the freedom to expression, that counts for them. The place (Tamil Nadu) is very holy that satiated its materialistic hunger, sacrificing its greatest poet, Bharathi, at the pedestal of its total indifference. (The Tamil Bard was humiliated, tortured and left in harrowing poverty till his premature death.)
Writer Perumal Murugan must have learnt a lesson from what happened to that great poet. He knows pretty well that the cultural environment being what it is, no one will dare to protect him. That was why he preferred personal peace to literary fame.

It was in this southern State of India that decades ago, atheism, anti-religious thought, literary thirst, pro-poor movement, protection of low caste people from the cruelty of upper castes, rational thinking and tolerance were the hallmarks of the culture, all thanks to the famous social reformer, E. V. Ramasamy, fondly called “Periyar’’ (meaning ‘great man’), the South Indian answer to B. R. Ambedkar. He was the fountainhead of what is known in the Tamil history as “Dravidian Movement” which was carried on further to its greater heights by C. N Annadurai, disciple of Periyar and founder of another party, “Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’’. It was Annadurai who taught his disciples and also the people who came under his oratory, literary and political spell to read a lot, debate, and use intellect, not weapons.
It is an irony that the descendants and disciples of such tolerant and intellectually inspiring Dravidian leaders are keeping a deliberate and intentional silence on the anti-Perumal witch-hunt, caught as they are in the vortex of political machinations, money and muscle power, and caste-oriented electoral compulsions.

The whole episode is just a small symptom of a larger syndrome; the name of the syndrome is Hindutva. Already saffronisation seems to be having a free run across the country. It butchers anything and anyone that turns anti-Hindu.

It is this Hindutva lobby which ensured finally that Wendy Donigar’s book, “The Hindus: An Alternative History’’ published in 2009 was banned. The publishing bellwether Penguin had to agree to stop publishing and pulp the American Jewish Indologist’s book, saying, “a publishing company has the same obligation as any other organisation to respect the laws of the land in which it operates, however intolerant and restrictive those laws may be. We also have a moral responsibility to protect our employees against threats and harassment where we can. The settlement reached… brings to a close a four-year legal process in which Penguin has defended the publication of the Indian edition of The Hindus by Wendy Doniger’’.
The Hindutva ideology seems to be, of late, ruling the roost in the country, informing reconversions, saffronisation, promotion of Sanskrit and eulogy of the Gandhi assassin, Godse. It is turning intolerant of and frowns upon any critical reaction.

After all, the Tamil writer episode is just a tip of the larger iceberg. The name of the iceberg is Hindutva.

(Maharathi is a Tamil poet and commentator on social and political issues, based in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. He has a collection of Tamil poems, ‘Mazhai Iravugal’ (Rainy Nights) to his credit. He can be reached through lakshmison62@gmail.com)

10 February, 2015
Countercurrents.org