The death of the author

“D o not treat me in this fashion. Don’t leave me out,

Have I not

Always spoken the truth

in my books? And now

You treat me like a liar! I order you:

Burn me!

Poet and playwright, Bertolt Brecht wrote these lines in response to Nazi censorship and book burning in 1933. Living in disquieting times, he wrote in anguish, demanding to be burnt. Decades later, in another tragedy, writer Perumal Murugan wrote, “Author Perumal Murugan has died. He is no god, so he is not going to resurrect himself. Nor does he believe in reincarnation. From now on, Perumal Murugan will survive merely as the teacher he has been.”

The public statement followed after Mr. Murugan was hounded by caste-based groups and Hindu groups about a book he wrote in 2010, Madhorubhagan, set about a century ago near the author’s native town of Tiruchengode in Tamil Nadu. Four years after its publication, local groups led protests arguing that consensual sexual rituals, at the centre of the plot, insulted the town, its temple and its women. Copies of the novel were burnt, and a petition was sought for the arrest of the author.

An unreasonable silence

In the face of this violence, the State apparatus and political parties stood in unreasonable silence. Rather than protecting the rights of the writer, Perumal Murugan, the district administration organised a “peace meeting” with the caste and religious outfits, extracting from him an unconditional apology, deletion of portions in the book, withdrawal of unsold copies and a promise not to write on “controversial subjects hurting sentiments of people”.

Forcing a writer to recant his words, making him apologise for his imaginary feat, and extracting from him his dignity as a writer, is an act of tyranny and unacceptable violence. It is precisely this violence that was wrought on Perumal Murugan.

A society that allows for its storytellers to be supervised and silenced is a society that is in need of critical ethical and political introspection. When we only allow space for literature that is dangerously precise, it becomes used in the service of politics. The travesty of this incident is not just a matter of freedom of expression. It is the imposition of narrative tyranny; pandering to caste and religious bigotry; and the state’s abdication of its responsibility to protect its citizen’s fundamental rights.

Exercising and critiquing power

It was poet Stéphane Mallarmé who said that everything in the world exists to end up in a book. The book is the primary mode of preserving memory, our imagination and our source of knowledge. It creates and challenges ideologies, it questions the state, and, above all, it is the means to exercise power and a method to critique it. Soviet dissident Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote that “when truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie.” Silencing an author’s voice is nothing short of barbarism. Book burning becomes an extreme ritualistic form of censorship, symbolic of putting the book and its attendant ideas to death. It is an imposition of a narrative tyranny that decrees what is and what is not acceptable or permissible. It is the categorical attempt to eradicate ideas, the end of discourse and a death blow to the free mind. It is both a spectacle and a ritual signifier of the purge about to come.

When the Nazis organised book burnings across Germany in 1933, the participants of this public spectacle justified their acts with pronouncements like, “to assure respect for the family” and “to restore the integrity of the German language”. Today, we heard similar cries justifying the burning of Perumal Murugan’s book — “women are degraded”, “He intentionally hurt the feelings of the community” or “he wrote about things that did not actually take place”. We have our own list of condemned ideas, curated by men with no moral or political imagination, who cannot discern the meaning of fiction and destroy it in the name of virtue. If these narrow interpretations continue to prevail, some of Tamil literature’s greatest works steeped in a complex emotional-erotic-political universe, dating back to antiquity would become censored.

The late Prof. M.S.S. Pandian wrote, “Secularism may claim itself to be a universal idea; yet ‘its’ local manifestations alone will tell us what political work it does and how.” To understand the events that unfolded, one needs to understand the men who acted as the willing executioners and what brought us to this moment. With the Hindu Munnani at the helm, three other caste organisations ran the campaign to silence Perumal Murugan. The manufactured outrage should be understood in the context of political mobilisation of right-wing groups and electoral competition in Tamil Nadu.

Tamil Nadu’s political landscape

Tamil Nadu’s political landscape is an interesting conjecture of many historical forces. For most parts it is a deeply religious society, where caste cleavages, along with Brahmanical traditions have continued to play an important role. Simultaneously, it was also a society that incubated the Dravidian movement and its political offshoots that were originally based on the principles of rationalism, atheism and anti-brahminism. The state has been ruled predominantly by two political parties, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, both coming out of this rationalist, atheist tradition, but which have over the years ideologically compromised their positions for electoral victories. Both parties have regularly forsaken constitutional governance for short-term political gains

Their biggest ideological deceit is the retreat from the once proclaimed ideals of rationalism, secularism and the fight for social justice. The Dravidian politics of Annadurai, former Chief Minister, that spoke of Tamil secularism, soon gave way to caste-based politics as the prime mode of electoral victory since the 1970s. Over the years, caste-based politics and patronage became further institutionalised into government functioning. It was in this climate that the Hindu Munnani party started its assent to prominence in the 1990s. With the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Munnani has become the main Hindu nationalist and communalist party in Tamil Nadu, playing a political-religious-moral policing role similar to that of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in north India. For the past decade, the Hindu Right has failed to carve a meaningful political space for itself in Tamil Nadu. With the Perumal Murugan incident, the dangerous triumvirate of hate, bigotry and ideological deceit has come to roost. Caste wars and aggressive Hindu nationalism have joined hands for the first time, setting a dangerous precedent.

Right-wing Hinduism, mostly alien to Tamil Nadu, has become increasingly normalised. Liberal freedoms are under threat, in the guise of language marchers, the morality police, religious rioters and the many-headed mobs. Ironically, the state that is meant to protect has remained a mute spectator allowing Perumal Murugan’s constitutionally protected right to become subverted. At the same time, with exemplary zeal, the government has passed laws like the Tamil Nadu Entry into Public Places (Removal of Restriction of Dress) Act, 2014, that unconstitutionally legislate on issues relating to private bodies purely with an intention to expand its voter’s base. The State government no longer governs in furtherance of the Constitution, but in the perusal of votes at the cost of subverting fundamental rights.

As a society we stand in shame today. We have devolved in the hand of a morally bankrupt political leadership, which has mortgaged our intellectual future and our literary past. Our arguments are increasingly being shaded in caste antagonism and our resistance depoliticised. On this sad day we have nothing else to find comfort in except for history’s long march where censors, inquisitors and men with petty minds have always lost. We can seek solace in the hope that the silenced writer remains an author even if he never writes again. Let this not be a eulogy for the death of a living writer. Let this be our rallying call.

(Suchitra Vijayan is a barrister, political theorist and a writer.)

The manufactured outrage should be understood in the context of political mobilisation of right-wing groups and electoral competition in Tamil Nadu.

A society that allows for its storytellers to be silenced is one in need of ethical and political introspection. The travesty of the Perumal Murugan incident is not only about the freedom of expression but also about the imposition of a narrative tyranny and the state’s abdication of its responsibility to protect our rights

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