Freedom of expression

An insider's report of the official meeting that persuaded Tamil writer Perumal to withdraw his books

'Perumal Murugan was simply thrown to the wolves,' says his lawyer.

Days after Tamil writer Perumal Murugan declared his literary self dead and said that he would withdraw all his published work, questions are being raised about the peace meeting held in Namakkal that led to this announcement.

In a statement released to the press on Thursday morning, GR Swaminathan, a lawyer who accompanied Murugan to the meeting on Monday, has claimed that the writer was bullied by the police and the district revenue officer who presided over the meeting. This seems to have led to his subsequent announcement.

“[Murugan and his wife] just couldn’t stand the thought and reality that the entire town could go against them,” wrote Swaminathan. “The hartal was total and complete. In such circumstances, we had virtually no options. Perumal Murugan did not have the inner wherewithal to brave things out. MF Husain could travel all over the world. But even he had to exile himself from the place of contention.”

Claiming offence

Murugan has been at the centre of controversy since the end of December, when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Gounder caste groups publicly burned his book Madhorubagan for allegedly insulting Hindu women and the god Ardhanarishwara.

Since then, Tiruchengode, where Madhorubagan is set, and Namakkal, where Murugan lives with his wife Ezhil , have seen constant unrest and threats of strikes. On January 10, the police even advised Murugan to leave his home for a while for his own safety.

On Monday, VR Subbulakshmi, District Revenue Officer, brokered a peace meeting between four protesting groups and Murugan, who was accompanied only by Swaminathan. Murugan, however, was not allowed to meet the protestors directly. The meeting was instead mediated by Subbulakshmi, who then coerced him to release a stronger statement than the one drafted by Swaminathan.

According to him, Subbulakshmi first asked Murugan to change his declaration of “sincere regret” to “unconditional apology”.

“I could not stomach it,” Swaminathan wrote. “I could see that Perumal Murugan was in real agony. I therefore told him to call up his wife and take a decision. […] She anxiously enquired if it would not break his spirit.”

After agreeing to this condition, the police and the revenue officer asked Murugan 15 minutes later to add to the statement that he would change the name of Tiruchengode and delete offending portions in subsequent editions of the novel, as he had earlier tentatively declared.

Swaminathan strongly objected to this, but the revenue officer told him that this was the only way Murugan would be able to stay peacefully in Namakkal.

“The police did not support Perumal Murugan even a wee bit,” Swaminathan added. “The District Administration totally let him down. According to them it was a pure law and order issue. Literary freedom and Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution were remote concerns.”

Sustained pressure

This sustained pressure at the meeting seems to have been the final straw that led to Murugan’s dramatic announcement of his complete withdrawal from writing hours after the meeting.

Swaminathan, who is a special public prosecutor with the Central Bureau of Investigation in Madurai, met Murugan only because of the controversy. Kannan Sundaram, Murugan’s publisher at Kalachavadu, had asked him to intervene in Murugan’s favour. When Swaminathan approached leaders responsible , they said that they had nothing to do with the protest. He asserts that none of the signatories of Murugan’s statement had any organisational backing.

“Perumal Murugan was simply thrown to the wolves,” he wrote. “Casting pearls before the swine is a futile exercise. But to deadlier beasts, creative freedom is an easy meat.”

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