Jan 182015

I write for the @Dna on the 14th of January

I am not Perumal Murugan, but I very well could be. So could you or anyone else, who run afoul of a tiny, vocal, rabid fringe that thinks nothing about hounding people who go against their view of what is right. These are people who are an antithesis to the idea of a plural, diverse, multicultural nation and want this country to embody their narrow view of religion, culture and nationhood. It is important that we pay heed to this now, and stand against it, because this is not just a vague concept of ‘freedom of expression’. If we, the people, let this fester and grow, we will end up with the same kind of restrictions that we see across our borders.

Who is Perumal Murugan and what is Mathorubhagan or One Part Woman about?

Perumal Murugan is a Tamil author, poet and Professor and the author of six books.

Photo posted on the author’s Facebook page

Penguin’s author description of him is:

PERUMAL MURUGAN is a well-known contemporary Tamil writer and poet. He has written six novels, four collections of short stories and four anthologies of poetry. Two of his novels have been translated into English to wide acclaim: Seasons of the Palm, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Kiriyama Award in 2005, and Current Show. He has received awards from the Tamil Nadu government as well as from Katha Books.

The book in question Mathorubhagan, whose English translation is called One Part Woman, narrates the story of a childless couple.

Kali and Ponna’s efforts to conceive a child have been in vain. Hounded by the taunts and insinuations of others, all their hopes come to converge on the chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeswara, the half-female god. Everything hinges on the one night when rules are relaxed and consensual union between any man and woman is sanctioned. This night could end the couple’s suffering and humiliation. But it will also put their marriage to the ultimate test. (blurb from the Kindle edition of the book)

(I purchased the Kindle version of the book yesterday, and read it till late at night and am awestruck by the author’s characterisations, his narrative and his empathy towards humanity).

Who wants the book banned?

Lots of groups. According to the author :

I think, for the first time, caste organisations and Hindu organisations have come together on the same platform. The Hindu Munnani and three other caste organisations are running the campaign. Their objective has nothing to do with the book, since they are not ready to relent even after I promised to change the name of the village in the next edition of the book.

The book has ran afoul of the right wing Hindu organisations including the RSS and the Hindu Munani. They believe that Mathorubhagan offends their religious, cultural and caste sensibilities, in addition to insulting their hometown, women in their hometown, and the temple. In December, the Hindu had reported on this issue :

Alleging that Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s novel, Madhorubhagan, has portrayed the Kailasanathar temple in Tiruchengode and women devotees in bad light, the BJP, RSS and other Hindu outfits have demanded its ban and the arrest of the author. They burnt copies of the book on Friday at Tiruchengode.

What was the impact?

On January 13, after almost a month of protests, which has led the author and his family to flee their home,  Perumal Murugan put out a statement on his Facebook page. This is the translation :

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 a teacher, as he has been.

He thanks all magazines, media, readers, friends, writers, organisations, political parties, leaders, students and anyone else who supported Perumal Murugan and upheld the freedom of expression.

The issue is not going to end with Madhorubagan. Different groups and individuals might pick up any of his books and make it a problem. Therefore, these are the final decisions that Perumal Murugan has taken:

1. Other than those books that Perumal Murugan has compiled and published on his own, he withdraws all the novels, short stories, essays and poetry he has written so far. He says with certainty that none of these books will be on sale again.

2. He requests his publishers – Kalachavadu, Natrinai, Adaiyalam, Malaigal, Kayalkavin not to sell his books. He will compensate them for their loss.

3. All those who have bought his books so far are free to burn them. If anyone feels they have incurred a waste or loss in buying his books, he will offer them a compensation.

4. He requests that he be not invited to any events from now on.

5. Since he is withdrawing all his books, he requests caste, religious, political and other groups not to engage in protests or create problems.

Please leave him alone. Thanks to everyone.

Books by Perumal Murugan posted on his Facebook page

Historically, there is precedence for this kind of recanting under the threat of violence. Galileo, ran afoul of a corrupt, centralised and dogmatic Catholic Church of his era. They objected to his scientific theories that repudiated the scientific vision of the universe laid down in their scriptures.The Church believed that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Galileo showed that the Earth moved around the sun. For this, the Church ordered him to be placed under arrest and face the inquisition. A 70-year-old Galileo recanted.

After an injunction had been judicially intimated to me by this Holy Office, to the effect that I must altogether abandon the false opinion that the sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center of the world, and moves, and that I must not hold, defend, or teach in any way whatsoever, verbally or in writing, the said false doctrine, and after it had been notified to me that the said doctrine was contrary to Holy Scripture — I wrote and printed a book in which I discuss this new doctrine already condemned, and adduce arguments of great cogency in its favor, without presenting any solution of these, and for this reason I have been pronounced by the Holy Office to be vehemently suspected of heresy, that is to say, of having held and believed that the Sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center and moves:

Protesting against a book, a painting, a cartoon, a caricature is par for the course, in a vibrant, diverse democratic republic. But, what is not acceptable, is hounding of artists, writers, and those who dissent against a unified view of a religion or culture.  People have the right to profess their faith and follow their cultural norms. What is dictatorial and intolerant is not just to expect that everyone else does the same, but also threaten to cause a law and order issue until such time that the offending piece of expression is banned.

History tells us that Galileo was right. The Church finally apologised to him in 1992.

What is the role of the State ?

The state has one very important role – to protect the rights of the individual citizen and ensure that politically motivated groups do not impinge on our constitutional rights. The Tamil Nadu state administration has failed miserably in protecting the rights of Perumal Murugan. They have allowed fringe elements to bully, harass and finally exile a writer from his mode of expression. They need to collectively hang their heads in shame.

Do people have the right to protest against books, films and other forms of expression?

Yes, unambiguously so. They have the right to show their ire and objection, it is part of their right to free expression. But, and this is an important caveat, this stops short of violence, threats of violence, threats to life, livelihood and hounding of people till they flee the country or stop writing. Freedoms are not just for people and causes that you like and support, they better be present for everyone. Every time the State fails to protect the right of expression, the right of the individual and allows fringe groups to gain victory, each individual in India loses a little bit of their freedom. This is not about Perumal Murugan alone, it is about all of us and our right to express without fear.

Finally – what is this about? 

An author hounded till he gives up writing. This is not what my religion or culture or nation is supposed to stand for – this is not in my name. As a culture, dissent is a part of our civilisational ethos, as is questioning everything around us. Offence or even blasphemy is not a good enough reason to stifle and strangle expression of ideas and views. We have always been a culture that respected dissent. When Tulsidas wrote the Ramayan in a language people could understand, he ran afoul of the orthodoxy who bayed for his blood; when Dnyaneshwar wrote the Dnyaneshwari (a commentary on the Bhagwad Gita in Marathi) that every one could understand, he faced the same problems. Today, no one remembers the names of those who opposed these great men. All we do, is imbibe from the Ramcharitramanas and the Dnyaneshwari.

Today, we are facing one more push back from the orthodox and those who wish to interfere in our right to religion and free expression (which is both a constitutional right and a civilizational one), it is time we took a stand and asked our government to be steadfast in protecting our rights.

Jan 182015

My blog on Charlie Hebdo shootings, in DNA on 8th January 2015

Is the price of offending nutcases, death? How far do you hold your silence? Who all are you supposed to be scared of? Can you really blaspheme against a religion you don’t follow?  If you don’t believe in God, or you don’t believe in the story of the origin of the universe in terms of religious reference points, if you don’t believe in a ‘One God’ theory and are joyfully polytheistic, if you like beef, if you laugh at idols, if you question the Virgin Birth, if you don’t believe that Prophet Mohammed is the last prophet— are you committing blasphemy or going against religious beliefs?  What if they are not your religious beliefs? Are you supposed to follow the religious dogma of religions you don’t follow? And why?

There is this extreme religious fundamentalist arrogance that looks at the world and expects it to be reordered as per the dictates of someone’s interpretation of a ‘holy book’. And the reason the term holy book is in quotes is that there is no one holy book for all the people, and there never will. Every time, we give in to any section of population whose sentiments are ‘hurt’ by some depiction or the other, we are not just giving up on the essence of religion, but the essence of a Secular Democratic Republic. The job of the State is not to assuage offended egos, and self appointed guardians of morality, religion and God, but to protect the rights of the individual whose right to express and expression is threatened.



Some of the illustrations in Charlie Hebdo

The ruling against the representation of the Prophet was to prevent idolatry (which is considered to be taboo in Islam).  However, when people, who are neither followers ofIslam nor of any religion, are killed by terrorists for physically depicting the Prophet, this is the most primitive form of idolatry behaviour possible. A human sacrifice to an angry God.  No God, no religion asked for this. Self appointed guardians of religion, who are possibly borderline psychopaths, are setting the agenda and expect the rest of the universe to follow out of fear.

Expecting people who do not follow a faith to follow the taboos of a faith is not just nonsensical, it also interferes with other people’s freedom to religion of their choice. I have been hearing voices on social media, op-ed pieces in respected newspapers on how restraint is needed in expression. This piece from the Financial Times especially hit hard–

Financial Times later changed this to a version that did not include the word stupid. Actually, Charlie Hebdo is not being stupid. They are exercising their freedoms.

There was an inexplicable quote by a woman I really admired as a school girl, Kiran Bedi –

Why provoke is a good question but maybe a better question is why do some people get provoked while most of the world doesn’t. And, why are we supposed to give up our freedoms for these whiny, attention grabbing types? And how long do we live in fear, and for what all?

We live in a world where anything can cause offense. The fact that you eat meat can cause offense to a vegetarian; the fact that you as a woman demand control on your body may cause offense to an orthodox religious type; the fact that you interpret the scriptures can cause offense to those who believe in a comic book version of the religion. There is no end to those who get offended and throw a hissy fit that says ‘pay attention to me and my views, I am important’.

Every time we give in to buy peace, we forget one thing – peace cannot be purchased. And peace purchased to assuage the anger of a psychopath carrying a gun, is temporary fragile peace. You will do something else tomorrow to offend him and cause him to raise the gun again. This is not about religion. This is about domination of all spaces in society and making them comply with a twisted vision of reality.

It needs to stop now. Peshawar and Paris are the clarion calls to stop appeasing bigots of all shades.  And, finally I will end with a quote attributed to Charab – the cartoonist who was murdered yesterday by terrorists-

“I am not afraid of retaliation. I have no kids, no wife, no car, no credit. It perhaps sounds a bit pompous, but I prefer to die standing than living on my knees.”

Jan 182015

My column in the DNA on the 29th of December,

It is that time of the year when publicity hungry groups go chasing movies they want to ban. Two years ago, it was those who wanted Vishwaroopam to be bannedbecause it affected their sensibility and hurt their sentiments, now it is another set of groups who want PK to be banned because it hurts their sensibility and sentiments. At a very fundamental level, the two sets of groups, despite their affiliations, are similar. What do they want – they want the world to be re-imagined in their own narrow, humourless, intolerant, uniform, black and white view of what is acceptable and what is not. Furthermore, there is this deep rooted arrogance that they are God’s spokespeople and God, for some unknown reason, requires their intervention. If anyone even remotely believes that this is linked to faith or devotion, they would be mistaken. This is linked to piggy backing on a more famous brand name (God, Religion, Stardom) for interested parties to make a name for themselves and establish themselves as a source of unelected power and influence.

Do people have the right to protest – indeed they do. Can people protest about a film that they dislike? Of course. But do people or groups have the right to prevent others from watching a film – a very emphatic no.  A film bothers you – don’t watch it. A book bothers you, don’t read it. A piece of music offends you, don’t hear it. There is nothing and no one forcing someone to consume any artistic product. On the other hand, the groups that protest, try and force the State to ban a film; or prevent an author from a public gathering; or prevent the performance of a play; or ask for a book ban; thereby depriving others of consumption, by threat of creating a law and order situation – do try and force the rest of the world to accede to their wishes. This is intrinsically undemocratic and also goes against a civilizational ethos of not just pluralism, but also dissent. People have the right to express their creativity and their point of view, without threat from outraged hordes.

Protest against PK in Jammu. PTI

Last year, while writing about the outrage over multiple things (including Vishwaroopam), I had written this:

Goethe, the German author, poet and dramatist, observed that the “There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance.” It is a quote that comes to mind every time there are protests about books, authors, paintings, films, music – in short ideas and concepts. Most who protest have neither read, nor seen, nor experienced the object of their outrage. They believe that the idea has profaned what they hold in great esteem. And, they think, therefore, that they have the right to silence this ‘offending’ view so that no one gets to experience it. John Stuart Mill, in his seminal work “On Liberty” (1859), termed this behaviour of wanting to silence a particular view, as evil. He said “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”.

The government must send out a stern message to all those who are protesting against the film (or any other work of expression). You have the right to protest and the government will defend it. But break the law, and you will go to jail. Vandalism, threats, and trying to shout down the rest of the population will not be tolerated. The message needs to go out loud and clear, for the more these groups are emboldened by inaction, the more they will thrive.

Jul 132014

There has been a fair amount of traffic on my twitter TL on an article that was taken down in the DNA . People have, rightly, asked for an explanation.

Fact checking, misrepresentation of facts etc all good excuses/explanation to give when u pull down an article. However, they all sound rather silly – especially given that you have published it.   Sometimes silence is better than a hastily cobbled together justification. And, everything doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theory. Nor does everything have to be high drama. Sometimes there are simpler explanations.

I could say editorial prerogative. But, that would be arrogance.  I could blame the author, but that would be cowardice. I could blame the government or my ‘bosses’ but that would be a lie. I could say i didn’t know it went up, but that would be cop out. Fact remains, I should have caught onto something that was in the piece, but I didn’t. I did exactly what I have ranted about, and outraged about for the last decade – that is in the need for speed, the desire to be first,  to put out a piece, I didn’t look at it with the attention that it deserved. We have run far more scathing pieces by the author on Mr.Shah and they are still on-line. If I pulled down this one, it was for a good reason, and that reason is not fear.

I can understand readers ire on this, and appreciate the author’s anger  – i would have felt the same way if i was in her place. If I had the time on the day to make a call and sort it out, I would have. Unfortunately, I didn’t.  I was in a very long conference, where our phones were tucked safely away in our bags. Which is also the reason why I couldn’t respond to newslaundry.

Now to something else – when other TV editors/websites write about this, they obviously suffer from selective amnesia.  they have pulled out, pulled back, changed tack on issues. Was it fear, favor or fickleness? Or all three – that made them do this? And i am not even going into other areas of breach of ethics such as the cash for votes sting, or radia tapes, I am simply looking at spiked stories, and stories that disappeared. Seriously, i can appreciate reader ire, I can’t figure the hypocrisy of other media professionals. They know exactly what they had suppressed in their entire career Am sure if you follow any good news monitoring website you will know some of what has been taken off, what they have changed tack on, and where they have spiked their own stories.

I have not responded to this on twitter as  there are no 140 character explanations for things like this. Hence, this  blog.

And finally, far as the ToI piece is concerned – cute, very cute. Must be the first time that the ToI has run a piece naming a competitor without routing it through medianet.


Feb 082013

My blog for Tehelka

Photo: facebook.com/kamalhaasan.theofficialpage

Photo: facebook.com/kamalhaasan.theofficialpage

When stars collide, there is a tremendous amount of destruction, energy release and new beginnings. It is the law of nature.

When maverick superstar – actor, director, producer, dancer, iconoclast – Kamal Haasan, got on the wrong side of the Tamil Nadu State Chief Minister, Puratchi Thalaivi Dr Jayalalitha Jayaraman – it had implications beyond a normal spat. At stake, is the future of the 100 crore film Vishwaroopam, and release in the key market of Tamil Nadu. Some Muslim organisations in Tamil Nadu, have been protesting against the release of the film, which they claim offends them. The State of Tamil Nadu, instead of backing Kamal Haasan and his right to free expression, has been throwing its might behind preventing the film from releasing.

Kamal Haasan feels targeted and lashed back.

“When MF Hussain can do it, Kamal Haasan will do it…

I am fed up. I am an artiste. After that, I will have to seek a secular state for my stay… Secular state from Kashmir to Kerala, excluding Tamil Nadu… Tamil Nadu wants me out”

Presumably he meant a state where an artist could exhibit his/her artistry without any threats of violence – either to the artist, or the art or the venue. So here is a glance at the 27 other states where he could live – and their record on upholding artistic freedom

  1. Jammu and Kashmir – Between the Government blocking mobile phones and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) – that can severely curtail civil liberties there isn’t much scope for freedom. Furthermore, it is a State where local writers who call for a ban on literature festivals and opposition leaders, like Geelani, question the need for cinema theaters and declare it being against Muslim culture
  2. Himachal Pradesh – Banned the film Traffic Signal, because the word kinnar was used to describe eunuchs. People from Kinnaur took objection to that. HP had banned the film Kohram, a decade earlier, because the villain shared a name with the Chief Minister
  3. Uttarakhand – Banned the film Jodhaa Akbar, following protests by Rajput Groups, and it took an order from an apex court to reverse that.
  4. Punjab – Sikh groups in Punjab agitated over Son of Sardar, threatening to prevent its release. In 2011, the Prakash Jha film Aarakshan was banned by the State Government because they thought it would lead to trouble. The Mahila Congress protested against OMG saying it was against Hindu Gods.
  5. Haryana – Home to the khap panchayats. Enough said.
  6. Delhi/NCR – They may not ban films here, but the Central Government sits here. Do you really, as an unapologetic creative person want to be so close to the seat of power ? This is the place from which Emergency was imposed.
  7. Rajasthan – There are khaps in Rajasthan too, who believe that the world can be sorted out by banning girls from using mobile phones, set women – they believe to be witches, on fire. Jodhaa Akbar faced a ban here, Zubeida was banned in just one city – Jodhpur – because it offended the erstwhile Royal family.
  8. Uttar Pradesh – UP is an equal opportunities protest state – every group protests here, effectively. If they spent the time that they spent protesting on fruitful things, the State GDP would go up. Films in trouble – Jodhaa Akbar – for offending Rajputs, , Aarakshan & Aaja Nachle – for offending Dalits, Hindu groups had an issue with the film Shudra the Rising, and now Vishwaroopam is in trouble for offending Muslims.
  9. Bihar -The Bihar and Jharkhand Motion Pictures Association (BJMPA), in a dispute with the Mumbai based film Federation banned movies starring Bhojpuri Actor Ravi Kishan. Additionally movies such as Aarakshan have run afoul of groups, and some panchayats have just banned ‘obscene songs and film’.
  10. Jharkhand -An under the radar state, but Aarakshan faced a ban here. Like Bihar, it too banned films starring Ravi Kishan.
  11. Sikkim – Doesn’t seem to be any ban on any film in the state. Though a film called Sikkim (a documentary) made by Satyajit Raj was banned for many decades.
  12. West Bengal – Kamal Haasan ji, do you really want to run away from a state run by Jaya Amma to a state run by Mamata didi ? Seriously ? Oh, yes they ban films and free speech here too.
  13. Assam – Apart from ULFA wanting a ban on Hindi films, there have been sporadic demands to ban specific films. For example, the Bodos wanted the film Tango Charlie banned because they objected to the depiction of their community; there were calls to ban Jism because it starred a porn star.
  14. Manipur – Bollywood films are banned in the state to maintain cultural integrity.
  15. Meghalaya – Seems slightly more open, though the The DaVinci Code was banned here.
  16. Tripura – Doesn’t seem to have banned a film yet. At least none that shows up on Google.
  17. Mizoram – Generally chilled out, but moved the center to ban The Da Vinci Code.
  18. Nagaland – Generally chilled out, but banned The Da Vinci Code.
  19. Arunachal Pradesh – Doesn’t seem to be any ban on any film.
  20. Odisha – The last time a film got taken off here was when the ABVP had issues with the Isha Koppikar and Amrita Arora starrer Girlfriend. They were worried about the impact of the film on ‘morality’.
  21. Chhattisgarh – There don’t seem to be any films banned, but the State of Chattisgarh had some serious issues with citizens exhibiting freedoms. Case in point being Binayak Sen.
  22. Madhya Pradesh – Despite being the largest state in India, it manages to just be under the radar. Yes, they do ban films here – but rather more quietly. It was one of the states that saw a flurry of activity against artist MF Hussain, including a bounty of 20,000 Euros for chopping off his hands.
  23. GujaratParzania, Fanaa, Chand Bujh Gaya have had serious issues in the state from various organisations. At various points of time, to maintain law and order, bans on films, and plays have been imposed. Plus, it is a dry state.
  24. Maharashtra – The home of the Shiv Sena and the MNS. The state is soft on groups that want to prohibit freedom of expression. have vandalised libraries, dug up pitches, attacks icons, threatens to prevent movies from being released. Movies like Deshdrohi have been banned because they may cause trouble. The film Bombay could not be released, after censor certification, until Shiv Sena demanded cuts were made. Most of it may be posturing, but the losses made are real.
  25. Karnataka – Kannadiga sentiments were hurt with Singham, and release in the state was held up until an offending dialogue was removed. Plus, every time there are issues with Tamil Nadu on the Cauvery water issue, Tamil films get banned.
  26. Andhra Pradesh – Films such as Aarakshan and The Da Vinci Code have been banned to prevent ‘sentiments from being hurt’. But, the bigger fight is not on Hindi or Hollywood films but Telugu films. Cameraman Gangatho Rambabu invited the ire of Telangana activists, another film A Woman in Brahminism was the focal point of protests calling for its ban.
  27. KeralaThe Da Vinci Code was banned in the state. But, in the four southern states and Maharashtra, the link between political parties, film stars, film and TV unions is so strong that censorship works differently. Actor Nithya Menon faced a ban from the Kerala Film Producers Association after refusing to meet producers who went to meet her on a shoot floor. Also accusations of blasphemy, by rising power of extreme right wing Muslim parties, have devastating consequences on not just Freedom of Speech but Freedom.
  28. Goa – Land of the beaches, and beach parties – not so free when it comes to films. The Da Vinci Code was banned in the state, and the local Congress party wanted a ban on Kyaa Super Kool Hain Hum.

In short, Kamal Haasan could live in Tripura or Arunachal Pradesh – the question to be asked is if Tamil films have a market there. Or if the market in these States is big enough to support a Kamal Haasan film. The better thing to do is to stay and fight. Despotism has to be challenged, and the challenge cannot be outsourced.