The timing couldn’t have been more ironic.

In January last year, Perumal Murugan had announced his death as a writer, after he was advised to leave his Namakkal home over protests against his book, Madhorubagan. At the time, Chennai was in the midst of its annual book fair – the only time it gets to celebrate its writers.

On Friday, as the book festival was once again underway, Dalit writer Durai Guna was arrested in an attempt to murder case. His arrest came as a shock to festival goers and dampened the spirit of the literary event, while his family alleged that this was just vindictiveness.

Ostracised and harassed

Controversies are not new for Guna.

The Dalit writer, from Kulanthiranpatti in Pudukottai district, faced social ostracisation after his novella Ooorar Varaintha Oviyam (The Painting Done by Villagers) ruffled a few feathers as it was open about caste atrocities.

Guna’s painfully evocative portrayal of agricultural labourer Sankaran brings out the ignominies that Dalits continue to suffer in his village. When the book came out in 2014, Guna was forced to leave his village, his family was boycotted, and when he attempted to return for Diwali two years ago, he was brutally beaten up. This despite the Madras High Court directing the police to provide protection for Guna and his family.

Guna’s family alleges that the policemen who detained him early on Friday morning, without even giving him time to put on his shirt, were the same men who had turned a blind eye to his complaint about his father being assaulted a couple of years ago.

His family is certain the case is just a ruse to get back at Guna. “The book was published in 2014 and since then, he has constantly been facing problems,” Guna’s wife, Kokila, told “The local police station has been very hostile throughout and they were waiting for an opportunity to get back at him for writing the novel.”

They alleged that neither Guna nor Kokila were told why the police were arresting the writer.

When contacted, Pudukottai SP Santhosh Hadimani said the author was arrested over a monetary dispute. “There is some financial transaction between him, [and two others named] Karthikeyan and Jeevanandam,” said Hadimani. “Jeevanandam is now admitted in the government hospital and has complained that Guna and Karthikeyan had stabbed him." The SP was quick to add that Jeevanandam was also from the Scheduled Caste community.

However, Kokila said she did not know anyone named Jeevanandam and neither did her husband. “This is clearly an attempt to settle scores with him,” she said. “My husband was never involved in any monetary dispute and we have never heard of this person.”

A Kathir of Evidence, an organisation for Dalit rights in Madurai, said the local police station at Karambakkudi is notorious for its upper-caste leanings. “There are several examples from the recent past where they clearly took a stand in support of caste Hindus, including a case relating to an inter-caste marriage,” Kathir said. “Guna and Karthikeyan, a local activist, on the other hand, have supported Dalits in various cases, including the same inter-caste marriage.”

Kathir said that it was a “clever ploy” to have a Dalit file a complaint against the Dalit writer. “Otherwise this would become a caste issue,” he said.

Writers, meanwhile, have decided to stage a protest at the book fair venue in Chennai condemning the arbitrary way in which Guna was arrested.

Arrest is condemned

“The way he was arrested is clearly unacceptable,” said C Lakshmanan of Madras Institute of Development Studies. “He was picked up from his home at 5.30 in the morning and his family has been denied permission to meet him. Compare this with the arrest of Yuvaraj – who was accused of a cold-blooded murder – and you will know the kind of treatment Dalits are being subjected to by the administration.”

Yuvaraj, from the dominant Gounder community in Western Tamil Nadu, was wanted for the murder of Dalit youth Gokulraj in June last year and had surrendered only in October. Even while absconding, he kept sending messages on WhatsApp that were made public and gave interviews to television channels. When he finally surrendered, he did so in style. At least 2,000 members from his community had gathered in front of the police station. He got a hero’s welcome once again when he was released on bail recently.

“He was giving interviews outside the police station,” Lakshmanan said. “That would not be possible without the cooperation of the police. He is an offender with more than one case filed against him. And he has been treated so well by the police. The way Guna was arrested is unjust, to put it mildly.”