ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Age of Hurt Sentiments

Attack on Puliyur Murugesan

The attack on Tamil author Puliyur Murugesan, like the one on Perumal Murugan, prove that groups that play divisive politics of caste are gaining ground in Tamil Nadu.

The author acknowledges A R Venkatachalapathy’s help in revising this note.


Tamil writer Puliyur Murugesan was attacked in Karur on 25 February 2015 for “offending the Kongu Vellala Gounder community”—the same community that was “offended” by Perumal Murugan’s writings, especially the novel, Mathorubhagan (translated in English as One Part Woman).  Murugesan recently self-published a short story collection titled Balachandran Endroru Peyarum Enakku Undu (“I am also named Balachandran”). It is alleged that one of the stories, “I wear heavy makeup”, about the transgender community, hurt the sentiments of the Gounders.

Attack After Demanding Apology

There were several incidents of lawlessness in the town in protest against the book: blocking the Karur-Trichy road in Puliyur, stone-throwing, etc. According to press reports a leading light of the Gounders approached the writer and demanded an apology. He also demanded that the writer should publicly apologise before the Kaliyamman temple gathering. The writer reasoned that the story was not intended to hurt anyone; however he agreed to apologise. Even after this he was attacked by goons. A police complaint has been filed against him because the Superintendent of Police (Karur) Joshy Nirmal Kumar had read the text and deemed the book very “offensive”! No action has so far been taken against anyone for physically assaulting Murugesan.

At the peak of the Perumal Murugan affair I had noted that what was happening in Thiruchengode, the temple town that has now gained notoriety, thanks to the protest against Mathorubhagan, is a new beginning. Several fascist groups across the country yearn for the power to decide what others should read and what they should watch. With Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, these groups understandably feel empowered.  What happened in Thiruchengode is likely to be replicated elsewhere. The attack on Murugesan in Karur therefore did not come as a surprise. It is needless to add that it is cause for concern and deep introspection.

The Gounder Community

There is an intense power struggle among several players for leadership of the Kongu Vellala Gounder community—one of the major, upcoming and highly aspirational castes of Tamil Nadu.  Kovai Easwaran, leader of the Kongu Vellalar Thesiya Katchi (incidentally this party was in alliance with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Lok Sabha elections of May 2014), is in the forefront of the agitation against Perumal Murugan. The member of the legislative assembly (MLA) of the Paramathi Velur constituency (Namakal district) Thaniyarasu is a strongman and the leader of the rival Kongu Vellalar Peravai. He was elected under AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) symbol from Karur. Not to be left behind in this game, it is alleged that it was a group of people owing allegiance to Thaniyarasu who abducted Murugesan and beat him up.

Murugesan, a left-leaning writer hails from another major caste, the Nadars. The Nadars are however an insignificant minority in the Gounder-dominated Kongu region. It is said that when some prominent members of the Nadar community people approached Murugesan he turned down their support. Murugesan is said to have close associations with the Pallar, a scheduled caste, perceived as a rival to the Gounders.

Both writers from Kongu Nadu chose not to precipitate matters, preferring to settle it “amicably”. In early January 2015, when Perumal Murugan first heard that people were planning to call for a bandh to protest against his work, he called for a press meet where he explained his creative intentions, and expressed regret to those who may have been hurt by their reading of the novel. He even offered to remove references to Thiruchengode in subsequent editions. Despite this the opposite party boycotted the peace initiative of the district administration the day before the bandh, and enforced a successful bandh. Likewise, in Murugesan’s case, he was attacked after agreeing to a peace formula. As I write this his bail application has been challenged by a caste formation.

While the attackers claimed to be offended by the writings, by creating a controversy they ensured that the writings reached a far larger audience than would have been normally possible. And even as the writers addressed their demands with an open heart the adversaries quickly shifted the goalposts and indulged in violence. Evidently, the intention of the groups advancing such undemocratic demands is to whip up passions in the local community and gain maximum mileage even as the town and the community gain notoriety in the eyes of the world.

While Hindutva groups were directly involved in the opposition to Perumal Murugan there has so far been no reaction from the Sangh Parivar to the Murugesan issue. It is possible that they do not want to be caught between two major castes of Tamil Nadu. It is worth noting that Nadars form the bedrock of the BJP in Tamil Nadu, especially in the southern parts. The state president of the BJP, Tamilisai Soundarrajan is from a powerful Nadar family, as is the lone BJP MP from Tamilnadu, Pon. Radhakrishnan.

However some majoritarian Tamil intellectuals, eager as always to play up the Hindutva card and soft-pedal caste, allege the BJP’s involvement in this controversy as well. Another tactics employed by these intellectuals—in the case of both Murugesan and Perumal Murugan—is to “prove” that the texts are indeed “offensive”; this is little more than a not-too-subtle attempt to justify the attack while paying lip-service to freedom of expression. Blaming the victim while maintaining silence on the role of the state is a self-defeating exercise.

Critique, But No Ban

Undoubtedly, a work of fiction cannot be above political readings. Fictional texts can be condemned, protested against, perhaps even be burnt, and countered by all legal means. But to justify threats, violence, arrests and bans on the basis of one’s reading of the overt and covert aspects of the text will only kill the realist dimension of fiction. Critique of a text must be independent of the freedom of expression debate. A writer allegedly writing to defame a community or settle scores using fiction as a camouflage cannot be denied the freedom to indulge in it even as one feels compelled to expose or condemn the text.  

Freedom of expression is paramount and it includes the right to offend. And if policemen were to decide which text or art is offensive (or not) in this country, then writers and artists may well exile themselves. Such actions emerging from the civil society can explosively mix with all of the present day governments, both secular and communal, motto of “ban and be damned” to irrevocably damage arts and ideas, even the very fabric of India’s socialist secular state.

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