A Silenced Writer in the Land of Periyar

Dinamalar, a popular Tamil daily, carried a news item on January 13 titled ‘Perumal Murugan, the controversial writer, apologised’. During peace talks held, Perumal Murugan tendered an unconditional apology for his novel Madhorubagan, said the news item. ‘Even after the talks were over the writer looked worried. However, on the very day of peace talks the people of the village said that the struggle of Tiruchengode people has won’. The news story ends with these words.

Perumal Murugan found himself in a situation where he cannot live in his native place, cannot continue his teaching job, felt compelled to announce his death as a writer. Why did Perumal Murugan feel forsaken in the land of Periyar?

Perumal Murugan

Perumal Murugan, who is also a college lecturer in Tamil, is a writer from the Kongu region, which was brought to life in R. Shanmugasundaram’s novel Nagammal a few decades ago. He compiled the lexicon of dialects in the Kongu region which spreads over the districts of Coimbatore, Tirupur, Erode, Salem, and Karur. His Shit Stories revolves around subjects which have not been dealt so far and challenge the existing stifling social order. His collection of 32 articles titled Caste and Myself intensified the discourse on casteism.

His novel Pookuzhi deals with deeply entrenched casteism. The mother of a backward caste youth is bitterly opposed to his marriage with a woman from another caste. This mother is a widow whose entire life has been a struggle. And yet the mother and the caste Hindu peasantry and rural society play a role in burning the bride. By dedicating this novel to Ilavarasan (a Dalit youth who fell in love with and married Divya, a young woman from Vanniar caste. The two were separated and Ilavarasan died under mysterious circumstances), Perumal Murugan, who brilliantly portrays the relations between private property, patriarchy, and caste in his works, refuses to be neutral and expresses his concern for the cause of the oppressed. He also exposed the private educational institutions in Tiruchencode as factories producing machines which are only expected to score well in examinations. He wrote against rote learning in these schools, which he believes will only stunt the growth of young minds. It is his categorical espousal of the cause of the dispossessed that has brought communal and casteist forces and the education barons to rally against Perumal Murugan.


In Tiruchencode people believe that Lord Shiva is part woman (the reference is to the Ardhanareeshwara form). Perumal Murugan wrote Madhorubagan in 2010, where he deals with peasant society and human reproduction in their relation to a temple in Tiruchencode, visited by childless couples, where the women are portrayed as having intercourse with the deity during a festival in that temple.

Ponna and Kali of Madhorubagan are hard working peasants. They are a very loving couple. They are childless despite rituals. Being childless and therefore unable to bear an heir for the land invites humiliation and disparagement from their peers. Kali stands by his wife and refuses to marry another woman. With the help of Ponna’s mother and brother, Kali’s mother prepare Ponna for the ‘child given by god’ event. They also convince Ponna by saying that Kali’s consent will be obtained for the ritual. The protesters themselves agree that in the novel with 32 chapters in 190 pages, only 16 pages talk about this ‘child giving god’ ritual.

Madhorubagan was published in 2010. Sales of the novel have reached a thousand copies so far. Serious quality novels in Tamil do not receive readership in many thousands immediately. Aniruddhan Vasudevan, a student in the US, translated this novel in 2013 with the title ‘One Part Woman’. In July 2014 he was conferred the V T Ratnam Translation Award by the Tamil Literary Garden, Canada. In 2014 May, the BJP came to power in the country, and the Sangh strove to increase its footfall in states like Tamilnadu. The RSS began to look for pretexts to make its presence felt in Tiruchencode in Namakkal district of TN. The campaign against Perumal Murugan, selectively distributing pages from Madhorubagan ripped from the context, was part of this Sangh strategy, aided and abetted by the local education barons that Murugan had taken on.

The RSS and the BJP claim they have nothing to do with the ongoing protest against Madhorubagan. The protest began with a pamphlet which did not have any name or address of any outfit. 10,000 copies of 16 pages from the novel, which were in fact excerpts cut and pasted from various parts of the novel – were distributed with the sole purpose of misrepresenting the content of the novel along with the anonymous pamphlet. The readership that may have actually read the novel, though possibly small, was not at the forefront of this whipping up of frenzy. But the pamphlet, which had the sole purpose of arousing public sentiment for its divisive ends, was widely circulated. It saw a measure of success in arousing vicious sentiments around women’s bodies and caste purity.

It is being said that Perumal Murugan has offended the people of Tiruchencode by raising questions about the purity of the lineage of their ancestors and thus that of the present and future generations. It also demanded that he should be dismissed from his teaching job and that criminal action should be taken against him. Copies of his novel were burnt. A bandh was organized. Perumal Murugan offered to remove the name of Tiruchencode from the novel. But the controversy did not subside. The protesters continued their efforts to stifle freedom of expression.

Abdication of Responsibility by Government

The TN government did not come forward to protect the rights of Perumal Murugan. The local police and district administration chose to stand by the protesters and failed to act against the threats faced by Perumal Murugan and against the freedom of expression.

The New Indian Express reported that, after 18 days of aggressive protests, ‘peace talks’ were held and an ‘agreement’ reached in the presence of the RDO and Deputy Superintendent of Police and that the copies of the agreement were distributed. Perumal Murugan tendered an unconditional apology, agreed to withdraw unsold copies of the book, to remove references of Tiruchencode in the novel, after which protests came to an end, it added. Along with this came the disturbing announcement from Perumal Murugan that he would withdraw all his short stories, poems, and articles and that he would compensate the publishers and distributors. The writer announced his own ‘death’.

Not the First or Last Attack

Mob violence was the mode by which the freedom of expression of Perumal Murugan was stifled. But the TN government itself has banned many books by Dalit writers. The University of Madras had withdrawn the stories of Pudumaipithan such as ‘Thunbakeni’ (Well of Misery) and ‘Ponnagaram’ (Golden City) from its curriculum last year on the pretext that they offended the sentiments of Dalit students.

‘Thunbakeni’ talks about a Dalit woman worker who is exploited sexually too. ‘Ponnagaram’ is an extraordinary short story in the history of short stories from Tamil Nadu. A poverty stricken Ammalu, the protagonist of the story, is forced to resort to sex work in order to seek treatment for her seriously sick husband. Pudhumaipithan ridicules the stereotype of subjugating women in the name of chastity in his single sentence in the story that reads: ‘hey, you are talking about chastity… see… this is the golden city…’

Dalit writer and former VCK (Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, the party led by Thol Thirumavalavan) MLA Ravikumar said, ‘Removal of these stories from the curriculum cannot be justified at all. We have to see them as literature. We have to take into account the period in which they were written and interpret them. Casteism has spread everywhere, and has now seeped into the university also.’

We wonder how these protesters will react if somebody suggests that they protest against the mythological tale of a god turning into a woman and having sex with another god of the same sex to give birth to a child? Would they consider that mythological tale of Harihara as obscene and demand action against the epic under Section 377? Would they demand a ban on the Mahabharata where Kunti gives birth to the Pandavas and Karna not through her husband Pandu, but through other gods? What about the actual historical practice of niyoga (sexual relations with a surrogate husband), still practiced even today by some Hindu communities in the case of death or impotence of the husband? Are these very different from the practice that Mathorubagan describes?

But there are two warnings also for the moral police. Supreme Court Judges, acquitting Khushboo in the case against her for speaking on safe sex before marriage, asked the complainants what they have to say about Radha and Krishna who, according to mythology, had an extra-marital relationship that is celebrated in sacred and secular literature. In Rangarajan’s case, the Supreme Court has ruled that everyone has the right to express a view which others may not like or accept, and that freedom of expression cannot be curtailed in the name of a perceived threat to law and order.

Why Has This Happened In The Land Of Periyar?

Dravidian parties like DMK, MDMK, AIADMK, or DMDK cannot claim the legacy of Periyar. All these parties have been instrumental in helping Hindutva forces to gain a foothold in TN at various junctures. Ramadoss of the PMK openly advocates the need for a political equation of caste Hindus against Dalits. At the altar of opportunist politics, all these parties have sacrificed the legacy of Periyar, a legacy which is a bold resistance against caste hierarchy, superstitious beliefs, patriarchy, and for women’s complete social, economic, and sexual emancipation. None of these parties has come forward in support of Perumal Murugan and Madhorubagan. Instead of upholding and propagating the values of reason that shines through in Periyar’s life and writings, they instead stoke the fires of unreason to fashion chauvinistic constituencies among politically influential and numerically dominant backward castes.

Ray of Hope

Against the politics of stoking hatred against weaker communities or against dissenting voices, we need a progressive politics that can unite people against all kinds of exploitative and repressive social and economic policies and practices.

It is extremely heartening, therefore, that there has been a range of protests against this muzzling of a progressive literary figure. A score of writers, intellectuals, artists, students, filmmakers, civil rights activists, and common people have since protested in support of Murugan. They have signed a statement calling upon the Tamil Nadu government to step forward and protect Murugan’s constitutionally guaranteed rights. Readers have held protest meetings, asking him to come alive again and take up his pen once more.

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Convention in Coimbatore in support of Perumal Murugan

CPI(ML)’s Coimbatore city unit organised a convention on 11 January 2015 in Goundampalayam, Coimbatore, against the attacks on Tamil novelist Perumal Murugan and against the growing dangers of fascism. Speakers at the convention included CPI(ML) Politburo member comrade Kumarasamy, PUCL Tamil Nadu's general secretary comrade Balamurugan (who is also the author of the Tamil novel "Solagar Thotti" describing police atrocities on tribal people), author of the Tamil novel "Milirkal" comrade Murugavel, district executive committee members of CPI and CPI(M) comrades Subramanian and Arumugam, as well as state committee members of CPI(ML) comrades N.K. Natarajan and Chandramohan. The convention strongly condemned the call for a ban on Perumal Murugan's Tamil novel "Madhorubagan" (One Part Woman in English) by communal castiest forces and barons of private educational institutions.

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Censors and Sangh Mobs

Mob censorship by the RSS outfit, ABVP, prevented a public meeting from taking place in Lucknow University. In a college in Pune, similarly, the threat of RSS mob violence prevented Anand Patwardhan’s Raam ke Naam from being screened. Just as the threat of ABVP mob violence prevented Sheetal Sathe of Kabir Kala Manch from speaking at St Xaviers’ College. Sangh mobs have vandalized theatres showing the film PK.

In Raam ke Naam, Patwardhan documented the Ram Mandir campaign that, two years after the film’s completion, culminated in the Babri Masjid demolition of 1992. One of the highlights of the film is the interview with Mahant Laldas, the priest in the Ram Janmbhoomi temple who predicts that he will be killed because of his staunch opposition to the Sangh’s Ram Mandir campaign. Three years later, in 1993, Laldas was killed. Laldas was physically eliminated, but thanks to Raam ke Naam, he was never entirely silenced. But Patwardhan had to wage a seven-year long battle in the courts before the national broadcaster Doordarshan was ordered to screen his film. And now, 24 years later, mob violence again sought to silence Laldas and Raam ke Naam. To counter it, Patwardhan had released the film on YouTube.

Patwardhan’s other films too, and documentary films of other filmmakers too, have faced similar battles with censors, fighting to prevent the censors from mutilating their films. One such filmmaker, Pankaj Butalia, who refused to allow censors to cut scenes from his film Textures of Loss, has gone to court challenging the Censorship guidelines of 1992 that allow the Censor Board sweeping powers to maim films. Hearing his petition in the Supreme Court, the judges asked of the part of his film dealing with state terror in Kashmir, “Why is it one-sided? Where is the alternate picture?” and commented that it has “become fashionable” to show only the “human rights” side of the story. The fact is that documentaries like Butalia’s are rare, lone voices showing the testimonies of people who have lose loved ones to custodial killings! The State’s ‘side of the story’, in contrast, is amply represented in a huge volume of popular films as well as mainstream media. After one of the SC judges recused himself from the case, Butalia withdrew the petition from the SC and filed it in the Delhi High Court. The Government has tried to oppose the writ at the admission stage itself!

In 2015, the Modi-era Censor Board itself is beginning to look indistinguishable from the Sangh mob. The newly appointed chief of the Censor Board, Pahlaj Nihalani, openly sings the ‘Har har Modi Ghar Ghar Modi’ paean composed by him for the Prime Minister, on television. Other members of the Censor Board are all, in one way or another, former members of the Bharatiya Janata Party or RSS.

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