by Malarvizhi Jayanth
We call for all those who support democracy and free speech to express solidarity with Thirumavalavan, Meena Kandasamy and Samya (now Stree-Samya).
Kathavarayan and Madurai Veeran are among the gods who are acknowledged to be Dalit and are worshipped by many castes. Clearly, in the oral history of the people, the gods have castes and these castes are not determined by who worships them.
The twin brothers Ponnar Shankar inhabit the realm between hero and deity. They have been fictionalised, recreated for the silver screen, and are worshipped across communities. Their origin myth remains contested territory – it is variously read as symbolic of the conflict between agriculturists/warriors and hunters, as part of founding tale of the land-owning agriculturist Kongu Vellala Gounder sub-caste and, in a textbook example of how Hindutva functions, have recently been claimed as reincarnations of the Pandavas. Like other deities of the people, they are firmly located in a historical imagination among a society of human beings, and not in a mythos of gods.
In a footnote in Uproot Hindutva: The Fiery Voice of the Liberation Panthers by Thirmavalavan, Meena Kandasamy describes Ponnar Shankar as Dalit. M Loganathan, an advocate from Nanje Goundanpudur and Students Wing Convenor of the Kongu Nadu Munnetra Kazhagam (KMK), has been quoted in news reports as saying that there is evidence proving that Ponnar and Shankar are Kongu Vellala Gounders and claiming that depicting them as Dalits will lead to caste tension.
Dragging cultural contestations into the legal domain threatens the various, creative ways in which people innovate cultural practices and the equally creative ways in which research tries to make sense of them. Criminalising cultural expression and innovation is an attempt to freeze culture.
Locking up gods within castes is a tactic used by dominant castes to maintain status quo. This is an open threat against dalit belief, expression and right to self-determination. Like the repeated physical atrocities against Dalits, attempts to suppress their cultural and intellectual autonomy and self-assertion are part of a wider onslaught on democracy. This case is part of the drive to reconstruct India as a religious and cultural monolith, which it has never been.
The litigant had earlier complained that the film based on the Ponnar Shankar story, scripted by M. Karunanidhi, is misrepresenting deities but had contented himself with writing a letter to the censor board then. It is the leader of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal, a well-known Dalit poet and translator and a publishing house that have been singled out for filing a case.
We are secretly pleased that a footnote* is believed to have such power. Academics in our ranks are even now rejoicing at the thought of how they may change the world, one footnote at a time. But, mostly, we are offended.
We are offended that a deity being named dalit can even be called an offensive act. We are offended at how legal backing is available for openly-casteist harassment. We are offended at news reports that present this case as a quaint little example of caste quibbling, without pointing to the long history of violence, without pointing to the continued conspiracy to maintain the status quo and culture of violence that this case is an outcome of.
Our histories are deeply marked by caste. We seek to emancipate our present by reclaiming these histories for the marginalised.
Re-writing history from the perspective of the marginalised is necessary and vital for the self-determination of dalit communities. Now, such an effort is being criminalised. This is a threat to democracy and the pluralist ethos. This is an offence against free speech. We stand in solidarity with Thirumavalavan, Meena Kandasamy and Samya, in support of the subaltern perspective and assertion they stand for.
*Here are some inflammatory footnotes about violence against Dalits:
Dalits have been denied temple entry, forced to work with hazardous material, treated as bonded labour and attacked for attempting to buy their way out of their bondage (subhead: Dalit Family Attacked over Land, September 2002).
In Kalapatti village, sustained violence against dalits, has lead to many of them to fleeing their homes. “On 16 May 2004, a Dalit settlement in the village of Kalapatti in Tamil Nadu was attacked by upper-caste members (Country Reports 2004 28 Feb. 2005; UN 23 Feb. 2005; DHRM n.d.; Frontline 19 June – 2 July 2004). According to the sources, approximately 100 houses were burnt down by a group of 200 people and Dalits trying to escape were assaulted, including reports of sexual assault of women (Country Reports 2004 28 Feb. 2005; UN 23 Feb. 2005; DHRM n.d.; Frontline 19 June – 2 July 2004),” notes the UN Refugee Agency website.
Ajith Kumar A.S.
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