Cho Ramaswamy, writer, playwright and editor, who died in Chennai on Wednesday morning, started his political life as a satirist, a relentless critic of power and its misdeeds. His Thuglak, a political weekly in Tamil, was founded in 1970 – it came into its own in 1975, with its implacable opposition to the Emergency. Subsequently, Cho remained active in the civil rights movement in the state: he was the formal President of a campaign against Tamil Nadu’s first so-called encounter death – the murder of Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) activist Sreelan, by the police under MG Ramachandran, who was chief minister at the time. He also took up cudgels against the attempt by MGR’s government to rein in journalists by declaring “objectionable and scurrilous writing” a cognisable offence.
Cho’s defence of civil rights, however, was hemmed in by a particular understanding of democracy. For one, it had more to do with ensuring good governance, rather than supporting rights and liberties. Good governance often meant corruption-free rule, and not bending in to popular demands. Secondly, Cho’s democracy came up against his sense of sovereignty – identified, unsurprisingly with the state, rather than the people. In the 1980s, he fell out with the People’s Union of Civil Liberties over the question of violence by what we today refer to as “non-state” actors. His resolution which sought to condemn Naxalite violence, proposed at the National Council meeting of the PUCL, was roundly defeated.
Thirdly, Cho’s democratic sensibility was rather scornful of the demotic. Apart from satirising the corrupt minister, or the sincere politician who turned authoritarian, Cho reserved his ready wit for the plebeians, the everyday actors in a democracy: the panchayat-level, taluk-level political actor, opportunist and fixer. By that token, his acerbic wit appealed to an urban largely Tamil Brahmin middle class, frustrated with the ills of government, unsure of their place in the public sphere, and uneasy with the plebeian support enjoyed by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Cho’s novel, Koovam Nadi Karaiyinele (On the Banks of the Cooum River), was rather telling in the manner it identified bad governance and corruption with the DMK and its constituency. Interestingly, he never failed to include in his writing the figure of the well-meaning and zealous Brahmin who turns bad, on account of ambition and greed.
Unpredictable but funny
But this must be conceded: Cho could be rip-roaringly funny, both as an actor and writer. He wrote as if he was cartooning; in a manner that made you laugh, easily. His satire was obvious, in that sense, and answered to the righteous ire that many of us feel at the wickedness of those in power and the ways of government. Cho was also appealing in that he made a virtue of his self-mockery: since he did not spare himself, he was seen as “objective”. His choice of title for his magazine reflected this: like the great Muhammad bin Tughlak, he could prove unpredictable, he cautioned his readers, and they ought not to take him for granted. He also invited conversation in the yearly meetings he organised for his readers – and these became occasions for him to play a ludic political sage, adding to his appeal.
He could also be seen as deliberately providing a counter to that other great performer and satirist from modern Tamil Nadu, the actor MR Radha, closely identified with Periyar EV Ramasamy and his movement. Radha often scripted his own role, that of a malcontent who stood at the edge of the social order and ripped apart the pieties of faith, caste and social authority. Where Cho’s self-mockery belied a gigantic ego, Radha’s malcontent embodied what was to be satirised.
The exasperated insider
Couched in the language of the “moral majority”, Cho’s politics was conservative, to start with. From the late 1980s onwards, it started shifting towards the right. By the late 1990s, the rightward shift was resolute and Hindu (never mind that he protested the destruction of the Babri Masjid; he remained the Sangh Parivar’s political man in Chennai).
Yet, for all that, Cho’s Hindu nationalism remained bound to its Tamil context, just as his journalism did. It is possible to read his political satire in the context of a brand of writing that goes back to the early 20th century. This was a time when Brahmin publicists emerged as the vox populi – see the pages of Annie Besant’s New India, for instance – and arraigned and argued with the public on a range of topics, from the state of municipal roads to the travails of poor Brahmin students in a colonial education system; from the spiritual significance of the varna order to the eternal relevance of the upanishads.
This sensibility carried over into the nationalist press of the 1920s and after. Much of this writing was informed by a dread of bad governance, as well as of the “masses”. It could prove witty or not, but it was resolutely parochial. It used anecdote and rumour to speak out its concerns, but it never looked to appeal beyond what it considered legitimately, the populi; in this instance, a constituency bound by ties of caste and culture.
Cho’s world was not dissimilar: his satire was cosy, and even when he pulled up the Tamil Brahmin community, you knew that it was a sympathetic and exasperated insider that was doing this. Further, he was clear on other matters of import to the community: opposed to reservation, the Dravidian movement and women’s rights. Unsurprisingly, Cho was a sustained supporter of J Jayalalitha. Never mind her prevarication on the question of aligning with the BJP. She was right-wing and Hindu in a manner that appealed to his worldview, seemingly accommodative of all points of view, and yet committed to the interests of the castes and classes that matter; democratic, without actually heeding the people; appealing, in that she condescended to be “munificent” towards her voters.
Perhaps Cho’s mockery stopped here.