As intolerance grows, India needs a brand of secularism that keeps a distance from religion, caste

Today, majoritarian fundamentalism is the biggest threat to a writer and an artist’s free expression.

Our intellectuals have long been concerned with maintaining an appropriate distance from power. The great Tamil seer Thiruvalluvar has devoted a chapter of 10 couplets, titled “Dangers of the Palace”, that offers sensible advice on being the king’s favourite. I am especially fond of two couplets.

Kural 691:

“The warming fire soothes; too close, it scorches
A king’s glance now warms, now scorches.”

Kural 694:

“Whisper not nor exchange smiles with friends before the kings
Royalty misconstrues such normal, harmless things.”

In Perumal Murugan’s novel Poonachi or The Story of a Black Goat, his first novel after his literary resurrection, he has added a short, cheeky prefatory note that takes on the regime and caste that want to control his writings:

“How long can an untold story rest in deep slumber within the dormant seed? I am fearful of writing about humans; even more fearful of writing about gods. I can write about demons, perhaps. I am even used to a bit of the demonic life…

“There are only five species of animals with which I am deeply familiar. Of them, dogs and cats are meant for poetry. It is forbidden to write about cows or pigs. That leaves only goats and sheep…”

In the novel, Murugan speaks of power from the common man’s point of view. He writes:

“Everyone was well versed in how they were expected to behave towards the regime. They had mouths only to keep shut, hands only to make obeisance, knees only to bend and kneel, backs only to bend, and bodies only to shrink before the authorities.”

In 1993, delivering the BBC’s Reith Lectures, Edward Said discussed the role of intellectuals in the 20th century. Said defined the role of intellectuals as being “embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant”. But in the India of the 21st century, regime and caste want writers to follow Thiruvalluvar rather than Edward Said. Thirukural is supposed to be a timeless classic and seeing how aptly it fits into today’s mindset, we have to agree.

Growing intolerance

We now live in an age of growing intolerance. Not just people in power, almost everyone feels hurt when they read a different point of view, when they see a different culinary preference, when they witness a different way of dressing, a different interpretation of conduct, ethics and morality.

In a free democratic society, there is no safeguard from anyone’s sentiments being hurt. When our prime minister speaks, my sentiments are almost always hurt. He seems to talk down to me and he seeks to exploit the baser instincts of my self. Does that give me the right to attempt to obstruct his expressions in any way? No. But I do have the right to counter his exploitative, inflammatory expressions. A group of us can protest his actions if we feel the need to do so. We can decide to vote against him and campaign against him. Such are the limits to freedom of expression our Constitution and courts provide for us.

If one truly believes in freedom of expression, one has to fight to preserve the right of expression for ideas that one cannot stomach. For many people who consider themselves progressives, freedom of expression is often about fighting for the right to express only ideas they believe in. Some argue that freedom of expression is allowed only for rational thought. For ideas they consider regressive, they demand a ban and prosecution by the state. This strain of thought we know has led to the imprisonment and murder of writers throughout modern history by various regimes claiming to be revolutionary. Fascism can come from the right, left or centre of the ideological spectrum. It may come from any ideology or even from an ideological vacuum if people blindly and reverentially follow a demagogue.

In today’s context, majoritarian fundamentalism is the biggest threat to a writer and an artist’s free expression. If the Bharatiya Janata Party rules for another term, with full majority, it is sure to cause untold harm to the idea of India.

But let us look back at the history of independent India.

During the Emergency, a few Tamil writers hired a small hotel room in my town Nagercoil and decided to discuss new poetry. There was no public notice. Only postcards were sent as invitations. However, a Criminal Investigation Department policeman came to the meeting and accused the writers of treason. He claimed the term “new poetry” – which he was hearing for the first time – was a code word against the government. We should recall that it was the “left of centre government” of Indira Gandhi, supported solidly by one Left party, the Communist Party of India, that imposed the Emergency.

Intolerance is not a Hindutva creation. All ideologies, and political, religious movements and political parties in India have contributed to increasing intolerance. There is not one political party in India that has ever endorsed freedom of expression except mouthing it when it suits them. It is part of no political party’s manifesto. This soil was nurtured by intolerance over the decades by all political formations. Now, Hindutva has sown its seeds, watering it with blood and reaping it electorally. Yet, few have learnt the lesson. Hindutva intolerance cannot be met by anti-Hindutva intolerance. The real counter is to meet it with tolerance, discussion, debate, peaceful demonstration and campaigns – which are all, of course, relatively tougher options. We have to draw on the positive aspects of our tradition that have nurtured strong unifying points for different milieus and cultures.

Writers have always faced intolerance from family, neighbourhood, religion and caste. No government or party has ever supported their right to write. What is different now is that Hindutva organisations have been able to knit together multiple castes under their platform and launch major campaigns against writers or simply bump them off with hired killers.

In January 2015, Yuvaraj, a casteist thug, threatened Perumal Murugan publicly during the agitation against Murugan’s novel Madhorubhagan. The backlash drove the writer to go on a 19-month, self-imposed literary exile. A few months later, a Dalit boy, Gokulraj, and his girlfriend from the Gounder community came to worship at the Madhorubhagan temple in Tiruchengodu. Yuvaraj kidnapped them in the last week of June 2015. He sent the girl home with a stern warning. Gokulraj was beheaded, and his head was found on the railway track.

Never before has death breathed so close to freethinkers and activists. It can visit them any time, like it visited MM Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh.

Writer Perumal Murugan went on a self-imposed literary exile following the backlash to his novel Madhorubhagan in 2015.
Writer Perumal Murugan went on a self-imposed literary exile following the backlash to his novel Madhorubhagan in 2015.

What is secularism?

How do we act now?

In my view, we have to redefine secularism. The existing framework, political terminology, logic and propaganda have become rather ineffective to encounter the Hindutva onslaught. The new generation does not understand our outdated paradigm. The present framework of secularism sounds dubious to many common people who are not communal. An alliance that includes parties that pander to minority religious fundamentalism claims to be a secular group. This plays right into the Hindutva propaganda of discrediting the very concept of secularism itself.

In Europe, secularism was defined with reference to religion and the Church since that was the primary source of non-political power, an alternative power structure to the state. In India, it is not only religion but caste structures that exercise power at every level.

Some 15 years ago, caste groups were scuttling the election process in certain panchayats reserved for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe candidates in the Madurai region. The dominant caste group was unwilling to work with elected leaders who were Dalits. Some of us were invited by the human rights group People’s Union for Civil Liberties to visit those areas. At a discussion with the dominant caste group, a member of the delegation asked why they could not accept a Dalit as panchayat leader when a Dalit was then the president of India. The immediate response was that it may be possible in India but not in our country – referring here to the sub-region that was controlled by the majoritarian caste group.

We know that caste-based panchayats defy the Constitution in many parts of the country. However, our concept of secularism does not include the idea that it be equidistant from all castes. Caste-based political parties, typically backed by a majority caste constituency, often act against the minority castes and the oppressed castes. However, such caste-based political formations are considered secular in the existing political context.

A new definition of secularism in India has to define secularism as maintaining equidistance from all religious and caste formations.

The next important thing is to prepare a policy paper on freedom of expression and convince all secular parties to discuss and accept it.

The first amendment to the American constitution gave its people complete freedom of expression. Unfortunately, the first amendment to the Indian Constitution in 1951 restricted freedom of expression. It may be argued that India was a budding nation then and needed such restraints. But that excuse does not hold any more.

The third point is for every one of us to develop inward tolerance to ideas and expressions that we cannot tolerate. The progressive forces of this country are often quick to demand arrests, bans and prosecution of expressions they consider regressive. This is playing into the hands of the state, which uses such demands to amass more power and then act against all expressions it finds threatening. Nobody should have the power to decide for others what is progressive and what is rational thought.

Kannan Sundaram is publisher at Kalachuvadu Publications. This article is a version of his talk at the May Sahitya Mela in Dharwad, Karnataka, on May 26. Translation of the Thirukural by Gopalkrishna Gandhi.

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