Over the last few weeks, the celebrated poet and lyricist Vairamuthu has had to endure protests and threats of violence from Hindutva and Brahmin caste groups in Tamil Nadu. The Bharatiya Janata Party leader H Raja called him a “son of a prostitute” while Raja’s party colleague Nainar Nagendran publicly called for him to be murdered. Vairamuthu’s fault: delivering a speech extolling the greatness of Aandal, an 8th century mystic poet who is one of the 12 Alwars, or supreme devotees of Vishnu, in the Tamil Vaishnavite tradition. An edited version of the speech appeared in the Tamil daily Dinamani on January 9. The next day, the newspaper removed the piece from its website.

In his speech, Vairmuthu portrayed Aandal as perhaps the first feminist poet in Tamil, who penned the poems Nachiar Tirumozhi and Tiruppavai inspired by her love for Vishnu. Tradition holds that she eventually merged with the deity at Sri Ranganathaswamy temple in Srirangam, the holiest of temples dedicated to Vishnu in South India.

Vairamuthu quoted a research work saying Aandal was a devadasi. Fanatical Hindu and Brahmin groups in Tamil Nadu interpreted this as a slur on Aandal, given that devadasi has come to mean a prostitute. The poet’s clarification that he did not mean it as a slur did not help. Cases were registered against him for hurting the sentiments of Hindus. Though the Madras High Court stayed the cases on Friday, the demand for Vairamuthu to apologise before the deity in Srivilliputhur, the birthplace of Aandal, has persisted.

Underlying the attack on Vairamuthu is a clear attempt by the BJP to communalise the matter. That the poet is seen as close to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has added fuel to the fire. In scenes that Tamil Nadu has rarely witnessed over the last few decades, Brahmin groups led by heads of various mutts took to the streets, provoking strong reactions from members of the Thevar community, to which Vairamuthu belongs. Periyarists, leftist intellectuals and writers have also condemned the attacks on Vairamuthu as an assault on freedom of expression.

The protests led to a public apology from Dinamani editor K Vaidyanathan at Srivilliputhur on Tuesday. He prostrated before the temple deity and also met Sadagopa Ramanuja Jeer, a Vaishnavite pontiff who has been at the forefront of the agitation.

Aandal and Vairamuthu

Vairamuthu has never hidden his appreciation for Nalayira Divyaprabhandham, a set of 4,000 Tamil hymns sung by the 12 Alwars of the Vaishnavite tradition. A seven-time national award winning lyricist, Vairamuthu has used ideas from these works in his songs. For example, in the movie Kandukonden Kandukonden, the smash hit Kannamuchi Yenada heavily borrows from Tirumangai Alwar’s imagery of Krishna saving cowherds from Indra’s ire by lifting the Govardhana hill.

The title of his speech published in Dinamani was “Tamizhai Aandal”, or the one who ruled Tamil. In it, Vairamuthu hailed the beauty of Aandal’s verses. Given the expression of sensuality in the poems, uncommon for a woman to do in the highly conservative society of the 8th century, Vairamuthu wondered if Aandal could be termed a feminist. She also challenged tradition by asserting her choice for husband, who was the deity of the temple in Srirangam.

What really sparked the controversy was a citation in the article. Vairamuthu quoted a research paper arguing that Aandal could have been a devasasi. In the Vaishnavite tradition, it is believed that she merged with the deity in the Srirangam temple. This story is taken by some as an euphemism for Aandal dedicating herself to the temple, which was what devadasis used to do. Indeed, the term “devadasi” means female servant of god.

The furore over this claim was primarily because the context in which Aandal was called a devadasi was misrepresented. The devadasi system degenerated over the centuries and led to sexual exploitation of women. The word “dasi” is now used to refer to prostitutes in modern Tamil.

Vairamuthu has twice clarified that he used the term devadasi in the positive sense of a servant of the divine. But this explanation did not cut much ice with those agitating against him. BJP leaders in Tamil Nadu have claimed that even the authors of the research paper that Vairamuthu cited have disowned their findings and said they had no evidence to back their argument that Aandal could have been a devadasi. It was thus necessary, the BJP leader said, that Vairamuthu expressly apologise for his comment before the deity in Srivilliputhur.

Caste and religion

Caste has also contributed significantly to how the controversy has played out. First, most of the agitations against Vairamuthu have been organised by Brahmin groups and Vaishnavite mutts headed by Brahmin pontiffs. Some believe the protests were supported by the BJP and other Hindutva groups such as the Hindu Makkal Katchi and the Hindu Munnani. Rarely have Brahmin groups successfully organised protests of this scale in Tamil Nadu in the last few decades.

The controversy quickly took on a Brahmin versus non-Brahmin tone, with Periyarists such as Su Ba Veerapandian rejecting the idea that the matter concerns all Hindus.

When it was pointed out to him that many of the BJP leaders who condemned Vairamuthu were non-Brahmins, Veerapandian said this was because of the politics of the saffron party. “The BJP is a Brahminical party,” he said. “What can you expect from those who associate themselves with it?”

The writer added that leaders such as Nagendran, originally from the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, practise patronage politics. “Some of them feel the more strongly they hold Hindutva up, the more benefits they will get in the party,” he said.

That Vairamuthu is being asked to apologise in a specific way despite twice expressing regret for hurting sentiments has shocked progressive people in Tamil Nadu. The Brahmin groups have insisted that for their agitations against the poet to end he must prostrate before the deity in Srivilliputhur. “This idea of humiliating someone in public is casteist and feudal in its make,” said Veerapandian. “Such public humiliation is what was done to Dalits and backward classes through history for violating caste norms.”

On the other hand, the responses to protests against Vairamuthu have also lacked dignity. The director Bharathiraja warned the protesting groups of serious repercussions. Bharathiraja and Vairamuthu both belong to the Kallar community, a sub-sect of the Thevars. In the 19th century, this community was categorised as a criminal tribe by the British. Bharathiraja asked the agitators not to prove the British right by forcing the Kallars to become a criminal tribe yet again. “Do not make us take up weapons again,” he said.

The activist and writer A Shankar said Bharathiraja’s statement was irresponsible and showed the director lacked a sense of history. “The community suffered torture at the hands of the British,” he pointed out. “A tool used to victimise a community has unfortunately been turned into a matter of pride by him.”

Some observers have also pointed to the difference in the response to the hounding of Vairamuthu and the lackluster response from political parties and activists when the writer Perumal Murugan was targeted by the Gounder community in 2014 for his book Madhorubagan. This reinforces the notion that it is easier to take on religion in Tamil Nadu than caste. The Gounders, a powerful caste, eventually forced an apology from Murugan.

The writer D Ravikumar, however, argued the two cases were fundamentally similar as both Murugan and Vairamuthu have been accused of profanity. But the latest controversy is symptomatic of the fact that Tamil Nadu politics is taking a communal turn. “If you look at the response of most parties, they say since Vairamuthu has regretted, the matter should end,” he said, adding that no one really asserted that the poet had the right to say what he did, possibly fearing the ire of the majority religious community. “H Raja and other BJP leaders have used the most foul language and have called for violence. No cases have been booked against them.”