An incident in the Ramayana is eerily similar to what had happened in Kozhikode. According to Valmiki, Rama beheads Shambuka when a Brahmin complains that he practises penance and recites Vedas – things forbidden to Shudras like him.

Only because he was a Muslim, Dr MM Basheer was stopped from publishing his series on the Ramayana in the Malayalam paper, Mathrubhumi, by an obscure Hindu fundamentalist group called the Hanuman Sena. Dr Basheer had doubly sinned; he had undertaken a Haj pilgrimage too. “A Haji shouldn't write about the Ramayana” was the Sena’s ominous prescription.

Both Indian ithihasas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are unique in the sense that their authors, Valmiki and Vyasa respectively, are also part of the dramatis personae of the epics, making themselves contemporaries to godly heroes. This device freed the writers from a need to constantly justify their protagonists. The pictures they presented were often warts and all.

No interpretations

Dr Basheer followed Valmiki faithfully. His columns were sprinkled with quote marks, taking care not to intrude into the original. Since there was nothing to “offend” in the writing, Hanuman Sena went beyond the text and invoked religion.

The Hanuman Sena is a motley crowd of religious fanatics, out of sync with Kerala’s demographics, which demand harmonious coexistence for smooth civic life.  They are also not new to mischief; their attack on a restaurant  for the alleged presence of lip-locking couples met a response from a section of the youth in Kerala in the form of Kiss of Love protests that went beyond the state’s borders.

The twelfth month of Malayalam calendar, Karkitakam, is called the month of the Ramayana in Kerala, and newspapers routinely carry features on the epic. When Dr Basheer’s first column, in a series of six, appeared in Mathrubhumi, the Hanuman Sena started acting up. It is another matter that last year too the same paper had run a series by the same author.

The fringe group, without much popular support, resorted to abusive calls both to the newspaper and the author as their main weapon. Sticking offensively worded bills on walls and taking out thinly attended rallies were their other strategies. The writer gave in just before his last column could appear, and chose silence over abuse.

Mathrubhumi, to their credit, determinedly went ahead with publishing the series even after Sena’s persistent toxic calls. But what is to the shame of the entire mainstream media in Kerala is their silence about the incident. Finally it took a journalist, sitting in Delhi, to break the story in the Indian Express. Even after that report had gone viral, the Kerala media is still in denial, barring a couple of TV channels. We haven't heard a word from its elected leaders, all of them wearing secular badges.

No support for writers

A fringe outfit like the Hanuman Sena shouldn't normally be able to challenge the wits of a largely sanguine Kerala society. What is worrisome is the utter loneliness of the writer under attack. Whom does he turn to? Why is he forced to call it quits in face of uncalled for violence.

The answer probably lies in the slow decay of institutions in Kerala. A state with the worst record in casteism, that made Vivekananda call it a madhouse, had evolved through a series of social movements in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, collectively called the Renaissance, into a largely tolerant society.

A few decades ago, a writer, or for that matter, an individual, in distress could have gone to local Communist or any other party leader or to the parish priest or to a leader of his or her community with these life-threatening grievances. More often than not these institutions used to act on their own.

Civil society in Kerala is no longer as forthcoming as before. It is more insular, and probably allowing decadence to set in. The Renaissance values are giving way to fundamentalism of all hues. How much the decline of the Left is responsible for this is altogether another topic of discussion. The achhe din for this outwardly egalitarian and largely peaceful state seem to be running out.

NS Madhavan is an acclaimed and popular contemporary Malayalam writer of novels, short stories, and essays.