The conflict between respect for faith and freedom of expression has been a hot topic in the aftermath of the Paris terror attacks. But somehow the story of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan hasn’t made much of an impression outside of India.
Earlier this month, Murugan announced on his Facebook page that he was killing off his identity as a writer and asked publishers to stop selling copies of his work. He had been hounded by hardline Hindu groups over his 2010 novel, Mathorubhagan. The book (translated into English as One Part Woman in 2013) tells the story of an early 20th century couple from the Gounder caste community in the town of Thiruchengode. Childless and desperate to conceive, they turn to a temple festival at which extra-marital sex is permitted in the hope that the wife will become pregnant with a “god’s child”.
Although its initial release was met with critical acclaim, there were objections that the book insulted Hinduism in its portrayal of the licentious temple festival (which oral histories suggest was an actual custom). Then the local Gounder community in Thiruchengode got on board, complaining that Murugan made them look bad. In late 2014, their protests escalated into book burnings, calls for Murugan’s arrest, and a bandh (a strike… ish) in the area.
I asked political scientist and friend-of-the-blog Pavi Suryanarayan to link this episode into the broader politics of speech policing in India.
She explained that India’s constitutional guarantee of free speech has been repeatedly amended to incorporate so-called “reasonable restrictions” to protect religious feelings. But, although there have been high profile cases of the state banning books under this logic (Rushdie’s Satanic Verses for one), recently it’s been happening without the state’s involvement. In the case of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus, for instance, “the publishing house voluntarily took the book off the shelves to avoid being taken to court by Hindu groups”.
Similarly, the silencing of Murugan was driven by non-state actors; even though he offered to change the book’s setting to a fictional town, the protesters refused to stand down. Pavi warned that this may be a sign of a things to come in Modi’s India:
“The strategy of book burning and protests has taken on more credibility amongst Hindu right-wing groups after the success of the Doniger case. With a BJP government in power, with [Hindu nationalist NGO] RSS shakhas (units) growing at faster rates than ever before, and with right-wing parties keen to make forays into new electoral territories such as Tamil Nadu, book banning seem like a tactic that will have good payoffs in rallying potential Hindu voters.”
Speech policing is always a divisive political issue. And as long as we’re all thinking about it this month anyway, we should probably pay more attention to how it’s handled in the world’s largest and most diverse democracy.