The persecution of writers in a state known for its progressive views has just reached new heights. On August 19, the Tamil Nadu government through a gazette notification banned two books – Venthar kulathin iruppidam ethu? (What Is The Place Of The Kings?) by Senthil Mallar and Madurai Veeran Unmai Varalaaru (The Real History of Madurai Veeran) by Kuzhanthai Royappan – on the premise that the books “contain false, objectionable and distorted facts criticising all communities.”

The ban is not the first of its kind in Tamil Nadu. Neither the almost systematic persecution of writers by caste and communal forces. Another of Mallar’s books, Meendezhum Pandiyar Varalaru (The History Of Pandya’s Resurrection) was banned by the government two years ago for similar reasons.

In the controversy over Perumal Murugan’s novel Madhorubagan (One Part Woman), the district administration forced the writer to sign a one-sided agreement to withdraw the copies of his novel from bookstores and refrain from publishing it again. Earlier, writers like Ma Mu Kannan and Durai Guna  had faced social ostracisation in their villages for the books authored by them.

Different reasons for banning

Interestingly, the two books recently banned by the state government stem from opposite theories. While Mallar’s work seeks to sever the community’s Dalit identity and place it on par with intermediate communities, the Royappan’s book on folk hero Madurai Veeran seeks to reassert his Dalit identity.

“Madurai Veeran has largely remained part of oral history in Tamil Nadu. In the only film on him in which MGR has acted, his Dalit identity is distorted. This book speaks the truth and is backed by thorough research by the author. The ban is a challenge to Dalit literature,” says Athiyaman, founder of Athi Thamizhar Peravai, which published the work.

“Madurai Veeran was progressive in many ways and a true hero. He took on Kallars successfully, married a woman from a dominant caste and demanded right of entry into temples for Dalits. He was killed for being a revolutionary. Madurai Veeran has about 10,000 temples in Tamil Nadu. He is being worshipped not just by Dalits but also by Backward Classes.

“It would naturally irk them and hurt their caste pride to think that he was a Dalit. My book seeks to deconstruct the myth around his caste identity and establishes him as Arunthathiyar (a sect of Dalits). I am not surprised the book has ‘hurt the sentiments’ of those communities that sought to distort his original identity and deny the place due to Arunthathiyars in the history” says Royappan.

Senthil Mallar’s book, however, seeks to shake off the Dalit identity of the Mallars (Thevendira Kula Vellalars). As recently as the first week of August, BJP president Amit Shah took part in a conference in Madurai in which Thevendira Kula Vellalars sought to be excluded from the Scheduled Castes list and demanded that reservation for them be scrapped. Amit saw the meeting as “one to uphold caste honour.”

Mallar explains that his book Meendezhum Pandiyar Varalaaru establishes how the origin of the Mallars can be traced back to the ruling classes of Chera, Cholas and Pandiyas in Tamil Nadu. “This book Venthar Kulathin Iruppidam Ethu? is about how the inclusion of Mallars into the Scheduled Caste list is a historical blunder. I wonder if the Chief Minister is in the know of things. The Centre is willing to heed to our demand to include us in the Most Backward Classes list. The Tamil Nadu government should revoke the ban and consider our demand favourably” he says.

Political move

While asserting that he has problems with Mallar’s books, Madurai based Dalit scholar Stalin Rajangam says the ban is politically motivated. “The book has many problems in its content. It has derogatory remarks about other castes. But a ban can never be a solution. Also the ban is imposed not because it speaks derogatorily of other castes but because it seeks to appropriate the identity of Thevars (dominant caste) who claim to be the kings.

“It is no secret that the Thevar lobby in the government is very powerful. I have strong doubts that the community has flexed its political muscle to get the book banned. Despite the fact that the Mallars want to get rid of their Dalit identity, I see the ban as a challenge to freedom of expression for the Dalits simply because when the dominant communities made similar assertions in the past, they went unchallenged and were even accepted as history.”

In case of Madurai Veeran, Stalin says the problem rise from the fact that what was until now oral folklore has become research-backed and evidence-based authoritative history. “Not many would relish it.”

Athiyaman also attributes political motives to the ban on the book. “Since 1956, when MGR’s Madurai Veeran film was released, Arunthathiyars have remained a faithful vote bank of the present government. This book seeks to demolish the myths about Madurai Veeran created in the film and establish the truth. This would reflect in vote-bank politics.”

Mallar and Athiyaman say that they will approach the court seeking revocation of the ban. Athiyaman has also announced state-wide agitations on September 7 against the ban.