Why #JeSuisCharlie Means Nothing In A Country That Just Killed A Writer

Posted on January 19, 2015 in Society, Staff Picks

By Devang Pathak:

You can change your display picture now. You are no Charlie. You should even go ahead and delete your statuses and tweets which supported freedom of speech and expression in light of the Paris attacks. It doesn’t mean anything in the country you live in; a country which just killed a writer.

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Perumal Murugan is a professor of Tamil since 17 years. He pursued MPhil in Tamil Studies from Madras University and went on to earn a PhD. And until 13th January, 2015, he was one of the most celebrated Tamil writers of the country.

Mr. Murugan was born in a family of marginal farmers in a village near Tiruchengode, a temple town in Northern Kongunadu. He took up writing at a very early age. The passion for literature was infused with the observation and knowledge of the region where he was bought up- Kongunadu. The region and the stories they harboured became the subjects of his work. He has published six novels, four short story collections, four poetry collections and six non-fiction books and was tipped to be nominated for the Sahitya Akademi Award this year.

But on Monday night, his Facebook profile declaredAuthor Perumal Murugan has died’. The post was written by the author himself and it was no impulsive, emotional statement, but a painfully descriptive post which enumerated in vivid details the death of a living writer.

His fictional novel- “Madhurubagan” had become a subject of controversy for the depiction of a century old tradition in Kongu at the Ardhanareeswarar Temple. Mr. Murugan’s own investigations revealed that for centuries, an annual festival in the temple had a particular evening where childless married women could indulge in sex with any stranger of their choice. If a child was born as a result of this act, they would be welcomed by all, including the husband of the woman. These children would be called “Ardhanari” (Half-Woman) or Sami Pillai (God-given child). The tradition has not been in practice for 50 years now.

Madhurubagan was published in 2010 and though it met with few sporadic protests initially, the intensity only increased in the end of 2014. Perumal and his family were forced to leave Namakkal on the advice of the police officers of the region. On 12th January, he signed an agreement whereby he issued an unconditional apology for the book and agreed to withdraw the book from all stores and with a Facebook post, he announced his death as a writer. He decided to withdraw all his previous works and compensate the publishers and readers.

I have been writing passionately for close to 20 months only and I can never imagine a situation where I could stand all my work in the public space being taken down and deleted by anyone, much less me. Then imagine how a writer, who has been writing for 17 years, whose works have been translated into English and hailed critically in all languages, decided to withdraw all his works and declare death as a writer. What makes it even more heart-breaking is when we delve deeper into the story of this demise.

Mr. G.R. Swaminathan, a lawyer who accompanied Mr. Murugan for the peace talks with the protestors, told the media of the callousness of the district administration and the police officers in handling the issue. When Mr. Murugan came to Namakkal for peace talks, he was instructed to change “sincere regret” in his statement to “unconditional apology”. The District Revenue Officer even showed him an earlier statement made under a different threat and asked him to sign and release it. The statement promised a change in the name in the book, taking back of unsold copies and deleting the offensive portions in the next edition. Mr Swaminathan pleaded for empathy from the officers and the DRO to see the matter from the writer’s perspective. The DRO started arguing with the lawyer, even asking him to leave after a heated exchange. A strong desire to return to his hometown of Namakkal and the sheer helplessness of his situation made Mr. Murugan accept all the conditions before him. (Source)

Who exactly protested? The answer to this question is still a mystery. All regional leaders have denied any responsibility in the agitation. It is suspected that non-state actors are responsible for the incitement of the agitation as Mr. Murugan could not identify the Gounders who had signed the petition of protest, despite being from the Gounder caste himself. The Hindu Munnani and RSS have denied involvement though people associated with these organisations are a part of the protest. The Kongu Vellalar, a decisive vote group in the region, is said to be a key stakeholder behind the protests. Experts point out that Mr. Murugan’s anti-caste system writing might have been a factor too.

The situation we have witnessed over the last couple of days was imminent; a country which begins by indulging in book burning, bans on books and death threats which force writers into exile, ends with no literature at all. Mr Perumal Murugan was hounded for writing a fictional book about a real life event which was prevalent in a part of India half a century ago. Is that enough to sum up the ludicrousness of the situation?

Ludicrousness doesn’t begin to describe the situation in this country. When I started blogging, I would receive generous feedback. I misconstrued it as proof of being a good writer. I soon realised that the cause for the intrigue was the fact that I was mildly honest in a world comfortable with lies. If someone disagreed with my point of view or version of truth, they would engage in healthy debate using facts and reasonable arguments. I love those conversations at any time of the day.

But now, I feel akin to the Ferguson protesters. I feel like raising my hand and pen and saying “Don’t Shoot Me I. I Am Just A Writer!” This doesn’t come out of any misplaced sense of self-worth. It comes out of fear for saying anything which might be religiously, socially or politically different from the norm.

Every person who protested against Mr Murugan or any writer in India, could have written articles, organised protests and sought intellectual debates with the writer. But the truth is, that most of the protesters are aware that they have a weak argument for their discontent. Thus, they seek disruption and violence to achieve their means.

“The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame” – Oscar Wilde