On July 9, the Telangana police externed Mahesh Kathi from Hyderabad for six months, just days after booking the Telugu film critic and actor for intending to outrage religious feelings. He was booked after several Hindu groups complained that he had disrespected Hindu deities. Mahesh had described Rama as “dagulbaji”, or a cheat in Telugu, during a debate on TV. A Hindu priest, Paripoornanda, threatened to lead a march to the critic’s home, forcing the police to put the religious leader under house arrest.

Facing public outrage for being much harsher towards the “non-criminal” actor than the priest, who has also made controversial statements, the police doled out the same punishment to Paripoornananda on July 11. This move too was promptly condemned, not least by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Initially, it was reported Mahesh had been escorted to his hometown in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh. It turned out the police received intelligence that he was likely to be under threat there as well, so they allowed him to travel anywhere else. After a brief stay in Bengaluru, Mahesh is now in Kerala, from where he spoke to Scroll.in over the phone. He talked about the case against him, Hindu fundamentalism, the vitriol he has received for being a Dalit criticising the Ramayana, and why he does not think Paripoornanda should have been banished from Hyderabad either. Excerpts:

Did you ever expect it to become such a big controversy when it started in June?
No. Some people did get agitated because of my comments on TV and they did file a lot of cases. But I saw it as more of a political conspiracy than an outburst from Hindu people. Most pious Hindus would essentially be saying, “Okay, let this guy rot in hell.” But filing cases and making an issue of it is something I see as political. I thought the law would take its own course and I was looking forward to a court exonerating me.

This [banishment] came as a shock because the state seems to be acting as the judge, jury and executioner. When I was served the notice, I asked what the grounds were. I am neither a goonda nor am I terrorising people. In fact, it is the people who are terrorising me. But the police said there is a plan for dealing with imminent threats and I should cooperate with them. I said I am a law-abiding citizen and I don’t want anything to happen in my name. I will be a guilty party if the situation escalates.

But I do have a right to respond in court. I wrote on the notice that I don’t accept the charges they are levelling against me. However, I will abide by what you want me to do and will go away from Hyderabad.

This order is unjustified for two reasons. One, I was not given a chance to explain myself. Two, I was sent away from my livelihood. I am a film critic, I survive doing film criticism, I make my living out of it. If I am out of Hyderabad, it essentially means I don’t have a job. The state cannot take away my livelihood in any way. Are they going to compensate me?

The police have also served an externment notice to Paripoornananda. What are your views on this?
I condemn excommunication in any form. The state can’t take away our fundamental right to live as you want to live. There are laws and courts in this country. If the court gives us punishment, we are ready to accept it. But the state on its own cannot decide anyone’s guilt, be it me or Paripoornanda. The law is the same for everyone.

Invoking this law [the Telangana Prevention of Anti-Social and Hazardous Activities Act of 1930, under which Mahesh was told to leave Hyderabad] is a very archaic and feudal way of thinking. I strongly disagree with it. The state cannot do this to anyone without giving them the opportunity to defend themselves.

Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have a long tradition of dissenting with the dominant Hindu narratives and texts. Where do you place yourself in that tradition?
Questioning religion, questioning the very authenticity of god has never been new. The criticism of the Ramayana began the day the Ramayana came into being. Nobody knows which is the authentic version, to begin with. People seem to be obsessed with an imaginary idea of the Ramayana, rather than the Ramayana as a text. Most of the people arguing with me are confused between the Valmiki Ramayana and the Tulsi Ramayana and Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayana [a TV serial first aired in the 1980s].

These days, after the BJP started using Rama as a political symbol, everyone wants to stick to one version of the Ramayana and that is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s version. That is where the problem seems to originate from.

In Telugu language itself, the writer and philosopher Chalam clearly dissents with the Ramayana. He dissects it left, right and centre. If you read BR Ambedkar’s Riddles in Hinduism, he clearly talks about how deceptive the characters of Rama and Krishna are, how they are counterproductive to the society we live in and how they perpetuate casteism. A very profound writing in Telugu is Ramayana Vishavruksham by Muppala Ranganayakamma. She picks the Valmiki Ramayana and talks about how irrelevant and valueless it is. The values of modern India and the world have nothing to do with this Ramayana. Thrusting them upon us as the core values of Hinduism, or India, is unjustifiable.

If you look at the critical tradition of later days, Tripuraneni Ramaswamy wrote Jambhuka Purana and Shambuka Vadha, in which Rama kills a Dalit for doing penance and seeking knowledge. According to “Rajdharma”, he kills the Dalit because he is not supposed to read and write. In Tamil Nadu, we have Periyar Ramasamy vehemently opposing the Ramayana as an ideal text. He actually appreciates Ravana for his values. He looks at Rama as the perpetrator who came into this land and started trying to impose his values, like how the North Indian BJP is doing now.

I come from this kind of a tradition.

The word they are objecting to highly is “dagulbaji”. Dagulbaji means cheat. I also explained why Rama is a cheat in the Ramayana. Now they are blowing this out of proportion and adding new meanings to the word and calling it an abuse. If you Google “dagulbaji”, I am sure every politician has called another one dugalbaji. It has been used a number of times in the Assembly itself. Nowhere is this an abuse.

If you are estimating a character and saying he is a bundle of deceit and cheating, you call it “dagulbaji”. People might not consider this word acceptable in criticism. If I am writing, I would think about such words. But when I am talking about the character, it is different. My clear sentence was, “Ramayana is a story for me. Rama might be a great guy for you, but for me, he is also a cheat.” What is so objectionable about this? If this word is used as a curse or abuse in Telugu, show it to me. These people do not want to engage in any sensible conversation.

They told me [during the now-controversial TV debate] that RR Babu Gogineni [a contestant in Bigg Boss, a reality TV show that requires participants to stay together in a house without contact with the outside world] was of the opinion that Sita would have been better off with Ravana. See the plight of Sita after she came out of the clutches of Ravana. The first thing Rama asked her to do was to walk into a fire to prove her chastity, or whatever it was. Even after that, when some random guy in the state questions how pure she might be, this guy [Rama] leaves the pregnant woman in a jungle. If you look at these two instances, I have every right to feel, as a feminist and a humanist, that maybe Sita was better off with Ravana because Ravana never touched her without her permission.

In the Valmiki Ramayana itself, when Rama asks Sita to get into the fire, he says he fought the war to safeguard his name and the pride of his clan. He tells her go with whoever she chooses. I can’t take you, he says. When Rama himself in the so-called authentic Ramayana says this, how do I value him?

Most people have not read the Ramayana but they sit in judgement on my analysis and my language, which was not as they portray it to be. They perceive my standing up for my rights as arrogance, and I am not supposed to be arrogant. This is more about the BJP, RSS and VHP looking for an opportunity to break out [of their rather limited presence in Telangana].

'I am a Hindu Dalit and Paripoornananda does not represent me. I disown him.' Photo credit: Facebook/Paripoornananda

Is this your first run-in with Paripoornananda?
For him, it is political vendetta. He wants to champion the cause of, according to his estimate, 120 crore Hindus. I don’t know where he got that number. Unfortunately, I am a Hindu Dalit and he does not represent me. I disown him. They want to safeguard Hinduism from people like me.

Do you feel you were particularly targeted because of your caste?
Largely, most of the people who talk about religion are either Brahmin or from some other upper caste. In one of the TV debates, one guy said, “I can’t speak to this kind of people. He doesn’t have the qualifications to talk to me.” Naga Babu [Konidela Nagendra Babu, brother of the actor and politician Chiranjeevi] called me “neechudu”, which is a caste slur. He said, “I can’t even take the name of this neechudu.”

These people cannot tolerate reformist Dalits talking against Hinduism. I never brought up my Hindu upbringing because I am now an atheist. When they accused me of being a Christian funded by foreign agencies to ransack Hinduism, I read out the Gayatri Mantra and said, “I am more Hindu than you are. You may not even know the Gayatri Mantra. And I have read more texts than you might have heard of.”

I have read Sripada Subramanya Sharma translation of the Valmiki Ramayana. And there was an easier version in Telugu on radio. That is how I started my reading of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. I went on to critical versions also, whether it is SL Bhyrappa’s Parva, Irawati Karve’s Yuganta. There is also a lot of feminist criticism about Draupadi and Sita. I love all these texts as a cultural tradition. For me, Hindu culture is different from Hindu religion, which I don’t accept. I don’t believe in puja or blind practices, but there is a rich cultural aspect of Hinduism which we need to learn. These people promote a monolithic religion, which they want to sanctify and purify, and I don’t accept that.

So far, whoever has questioned the Ramayana has been from the upper castes. You have so much tolerance for them and you hail them as being progressive. But when a Dalit questions it, suddenly it is anti-social and anti-national. How can this be acceptable to me? I am the one who has suffered because of your texts. There is so much abuse in all your texts against the caste I belong to. How much pain have I gone through all these years? They are talking about me hurting their sentiments. They have been hurting my sentiments for centuries. Do you have an answer for this? Instead of accommodating my point of view, they want to victimise me. We must learn to engage in a constitutional manner.

Now, there are two questions. One, why is the state acting the way it is? Is the state becoming more religious and moving towards a Manu Smriti version of democracy instead of standing on a constitutional base? We need to ask the states where they are going.

Second, the self-styled Hindutva groups, the BJP, RSS and VHP, are essentially going against Dalits in this nation. They are bringing in the concept of Shri Rama in such a violent way that is eroding the fundamentals of democracy and constitutional rights. This essentially goes against the slogan of Jai Bhim that we believe in. Is this a clash of ideologies between Jai Shri Ram and Jai Bhim? That is something we need to look at now that the BJP is on a downside and wants to bring up Rama again.