Free speech: How Hindutva forces are oppressing Tamil Nadu

Murali Shanmugavelan
Murali ShanmugavelanApr 07, 2015 | 15:36

Free speech: How Hindutva forces are oppressing Tamil Nadu

"At the (Periyar's Superstition Eradication) conference a large number of rather earthy posters were taken out in procession. They ridiculed various Vedic and puranic stories about the gods. For example, Murugan in the form of Shiva's son Skanda or Kartikeya, is said in the Puranas to have been produced by Shiva's 'seed' which was cast into fire. A Salem poster portrayed Brahmin priests standing around Shiva, looking as though they were masturbating him while Parvati, Shiva's wife, held her hand out."

- Charles Ryerson (1988): Regionalism and Religion: The Tamil Renaissance and Popular Hinduism. First edition. Madras: Christian Literary Society. Page 176. quoted in MSS Pandian (2007): Brahmins and Non-Brahmins: New Delhi: Permanent Black.

This "hyper-literal reading" at the Salem procession predictably generated heated conversations and debates. But cadres were neither threatened nor physically attacked. Tamil Nadu, in 1971, was at least willing to engage with such provocative counter-readings.

With 45 years of Dravidian rule and the recent revival of Hindutva project or modernising brahmanical dharma in Tamil Nadu, intolerance has seen a meteoric rise. Rights to free speech are either compromised or individuals (and their families) who speak their minds are threatened in order to restore the provincial cultural pride which fundamentally defends caste identity and discriminatory practices.

Tamil Nadu which was once home to social reform movement based on irreverent-rationalism, anti-Hindu-atheism and self-respect movement is now in a fervent state of loving Iyyappan (vegetarian-exclusive-ritual to men) and obsessing over Vinayagarsathurthi - virtually non-existent about 20 years ago - that is blatantly brahmanical.

Recently, intermediary upper caste youths from Krishnagiri urinated in a Dalit youth's mouth and civic-minded elders have been passionate about building roadside temples to stop public urination in Tamil Nadu.

Television channels owned by self-respecting Dravidian political parties have programmes on astrology; progressive newspapers advertise Brahmin-only classifieds and vegetarians progressives are forever obsessed with the problems of the other and not of their own practices.

In Tamil Nadu, the politics of intolerance is supported by all groups: Caste Hindus, media and broadcasting houses, political parties, progressives and intellectuals.

Perumal Murugan's poignant text on his literary death as one of his books has allegedly offended members of his community, has deservedly revived debates on free speech and freedom of expression in Tamil Nadu. But this support cannot be seen as a unanimous voice for free speech but a generous support extended to an individual author by a few sympathisers.

Perumal Murugan and his family is threatened for the book he had originally published in 2010 in Tamil and just before the launch of its English edition which is now freely available online for sale. But the Tamil edition is withdrawn from the shelf.

In fact, Murugan was lucky to have received support from several others who have either remained selectively-silent or actively voiced against free speech in the past.

Almost every social and political group which has raised its voice in support of Perumal Murugan, have practised intolerance and stood against free speech in different instances (see Table).

Dalit writer, Durai Guna, was forced to leave his residence after publishing Oorar Varaintha Oviyam and his family has been subjected to social boycott. Another writer Ma Mu Kannan remained calm when arsonists burnt his entire library into ashes.

In another incident, a Tamil Muslim research scholar HG Rasool was threatened for his views on Tamil Muslim cultures (as opposed to pan-Islamic practices). Literary figures remained silent, partial and were conscious of not hurting the sensibilities of minority groups.

Later, Sahitya Akademi winner Joe D'Cruz's work on the coastal and fisher folks' lives - one of the most marginalised subjects in contemporary Tamil literature - was withdrawn by both author-translator V Geetha and the publishing house Navayana in protest against Cruz's pro-Modi sentiments (Navayana published Namedeo Dhasal's poetry after he had joined the RSS).

Employing self-censorship, Tamil literary figures took an exception to Cruz's pro-Modi comment and silently killed the wider distribution of his text which is about one of the marginalised communities in Tamil Nadu.

But Tamil progressives and literary figures did not bat an eye lid when Ashokamithiran, an influential figure in the post-independent Tamil literature, notoriously compared the Brahmins' situation in Tamil Nadu with the state of 1930s Jews.

In order to appease religious outfits and casteist forces, the state government behaves like khap panchayat and frequently bans texts, films and other forms of contents.

To use Baudrillard's phrase, "the perfect crime" against free speech in Tamil Nadu is being executed in full public view without any evidence: Because the entire society is the perpetrator.

The philistinic-pride of Tamil culture is omnipresent and growing. Even Dalit parties have to rebrand themselves as guardians of Tamil culture. Continuous degeneration of rationalism and normalising caste with culture are the real problems.

At the everyday level, casteism is being normalised in Tamil Nadu in the name of cultural identity, natural affinity for those who are alike. Incidences of endogamy are strikingly higher amongst Tamil progressives.

Another growing multiculturalistic view, often adopted by cultural custodians, is that one should aspire to respect and tolerate each other's caste as cultural rather than challenging caste as a source of fundamental problem in the society. In such an environment, all texts by Periyar could be classified as hate speech materials.

In a society like Tamil Nadu, where caste, class, religion and gender are sources for feeding inequality, freedom of speech should be absolute and be placed above cultural relativism. In other words, tolerating fierce debate and discussions should be the basis for cultural sensitivity.

If Hindutva forces are going to find a new home in this Dravidian state, it is due to - not in spite of - today's politics in Tamil Nadu.

Select incidences of intolerance in Tamil Nadu in the last ten years

Who and what?Why?Who found it offensive?Forms of intoleranceWhen?

Kushboo (actress) For her sensible remark on safe pre-marital sex practices 

Threat to Tamil culture


Threatened by mobs Mass protests were organised Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) strategy was deployed to intimidate and silence Kushboo.



HG Rasool (researcher)

Published a research article on Tamil Muslim cultures.

Offensive to believers of Islam

Fellow community members 

Excommunicated: Family was threatened and fatwa issued.

Deafening silence from the progressives, intellectuals and in the media.



Thushara Peiris (Sri Lankan film director) 

Director of a film called Pirabhakaran

Tamil pride and sentiments hurt All major political parties and select members of Tamil cinema industryPhysically attacked; copies of his film were allegedly seized from the lab.2008


Dam 999 (film)

Story about the massive loss of lives and destruction of property due to the sudden collapse of a dam.

Allegedly insinuated public panic and opinion over the safety of Mullaperiyaar damAIDMK, DMK, PMK, VCK, Tamil nationalism protest groups, members from Tamil cinema industryFilm banned in Tamil Nadu.2011


Ma Mu Kannan

Author of Kaana -inaavin Kanini and Karuvatturatham

Offensive to his own community membersFellow community members

Personal library torched. Hut vandalised and photo studio damaged.

Feared for his life, Kannan has been living away from his village in Pudukkottai since 2012.

Sri Lankan pilgrimsSupport to Sri Lankan TamilsVarious random Tamil nationalist outfitsPhysically attacked and threatened.2012



(Tamil film)

Offensive portrayal of Tamil Muslims as terrorists and other communitiesTamil Nadu Progressive Muslim Federation (TMMK) Hindu MakkalKatchi Tamil Nadu Brahmins Association ADMK justified the ban to maintain law and order. VCK objected to the content and sympathised with muslims that they have been forced to seek a ban.Initially banned but after negotiations the state permitted screening of the film with bleep-outs.2013


Prasanna Vithanage

(Film director With You, Without You)

(Sri Lankan) Tamil politics and sensibilities hurtVarious random Tamil nationalist outfits Commercial release banned. Private viewing organised.2014

Joe D Cruz


Aazhisoolulagu (Ocean ringed earth)

Portrayal of fisher folks offensive to his own community members Self-censorship by literary figures after Cruz’s support to ModiMembers from his community, leftists, progressives and intellectuals from Tamil NaduEx-communicated by his own villagers and from the local church. Self-censorship by a publishing house and literary figures.2014

Perumal Murugan (Author) for his novel Maadhurobhagan

Cultural sensibilities of the region hurtPeople from Thiruchengodu, caste groups and Hindu religious groupsState mediated out of court withdrawal of the text.2015

Durai Guna (Dalit writer) author of the novel Oorar Varaintha Oviyam

Sensibilities of caste Hindus hurtUpper caste membersSocially boycotted, excommunicated and physically attacked by his own community.2015

Last updated: April 07, 2015 | 15:36
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