As the old adage goes “ all is fair in love and war ”. While this might be true of political parties and politicians, especially during elections, in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections we have witnessed nastiness that encompasses a large spectrum of society. Hate speech is now not the sole property of politicians, it is worn as a badge of honour by many.

Just scroll down any Twitter account or Facebook post and you will be obliged to consume venom. It has reached such a shrill decibel that the difference between hate and criticism has been lost. The lines are getting blurred every day, which means our right to make observations, evaluations and question is shrinking. The compounding increase in hate mongering is seriously undermining our ability as citizens to participate in our democracy. Therefore, this is not just about maintaining decorum and decency, it is as much about defending the freedom to truly express and question with earnestness.

Unpardonable comments

The Dravidar Kazhagam is a political outfit no doubt, but it does not contest elections and has very little or no significant role in helping the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (an offshoot of the Dravidar Kazhagam) garner votes.

Its leader K Veeramani, on March 27, made a series of observations on the Hindu deity Krishna that can only be described as gross and unbecoming. He seems to have used Krishna as a target for a retaliatory statement. Apparently, he was responding to an article published in the Tamil magazine Thuglak where it was stated that the culture of Tamil Nadu dipped after the emergence of the social reformer Periyar EV Ramasamy, who founded the Dravidar Kazhagam in the 1920s.

Veeramani’s comments calling Krishna an eve teaser were tasteless. What was also unpardonable was his comparison of Krishna with those accused of abusing numerous women in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu. We should collectively make sure that such incidents do not ever happen, that people do not take pot shots at the faithful at the expense of survivors of sexual harassment or abuse.

Trivialising serious debates

There are many portions of Hindu mythological stories including the Shrimad Bhagavatham and Mahabharata that many find problematic, and in Tamil Nadu, the progressives have directed our attention towards a need to re-evaluate these narratives that we have internalised and regurgitate without thought.

But there was absolutely nothing in that portion of Veeramani’s speech that can even remotely be considered critical thinking or serious criticism. If he intended to point at patriarchy or issues of sexual rights, agency, power and inequality, then the words he used should have been different. Such disengaged comments destroy all the important contributions of the Dravidian movement.

Veeramani trivialised and diminished serious debates on Hindu myths and religious practices. There is also context and time to a discourse. If some of Periyar’s words were meant to provoke, stir and were harsh to the devout it was then done with a need to awaken people from social slumber at that specific period of time.

But in Veeramani’s words there was absolutely no political purpose. If anything, he only provided more fodder for the fanatics on the other side. A person of rationality would not speak with such callousness.

Over the years we have seen Thol Thirumavalavan, leader of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi, emerge as a serious thinker and speaker on issues of religion and caste. He speaks with acumen and equanimity, yet in a manner that is direct. This is the tone we need in today’s times. In the world of cinema Pa Ranjith, both as a director and producer, is providing a similar strong, on the face serious dialogue not to forget young writers such as Stalin Rajangam.

Persecution complex

A few days later, I was sent a speech by a lady whom I do not recognise. I can say with some surety that she is a middle-class upper caste (most likely Brahmin) lady. Her thoughts and articulation were scary. She claimed proudly that India is a Hindu country, secularism is bullshit, the Hindu and Indian are inseparable, inferring that people who are Indian are Hindu. Somewhere in between was thrown in the phrase “dash fact”.

You can of course fill in the dash! She went on to say that we are a Hindutva country and called for a coming together of the Hindu vote. Then the vitriol got worse. She referred to the people of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam/Dravidar Kazhagam as pigs and their father figure EV Ramasamy Naicker (Periyar) as EV Ramasamy Rascal, the one who married a woman who grew up in his house. This is not a verbatim translation but broadly covers her violent diatribe.

Whether this was a speech after Veeramani’s comments I am not sure, but the fact that this was the level of discourse among citizens and was being enthusiastically applauded and shared on social media was worrisome. While this lady spoke about Hindus being non-violent and accommodative of other religions, she delivered what is an abusive speech. She will claim that now the Hindus have awakened and may even use the expression “enough is enough”.

Of course she completely forgets all the violence unleashed on Dalits, Muslims, Christians, rationalists and the continuing caste oppression practised in so many subtle and not so subtle ways by upper castes.

For all the talk of being docile and peaceful, what we witnessed in the lady’s outburst was the unraveling of the upper caste inner self. This is how many feel and now they are proud to wear it on their sleeve. And this does not come from what they claim they have been through, which is “persecution” by non-Brahmins. This is actually casteism finding a loud voice thanks to the present political climate.

We upper castes love to portray ourselves as victims by quoting examples of wrong deeds directed towards us. Though comparing violence is ugly I am forced to here, only to drive home the point that this voice we are hearing today is actually a result of the loss of political power for so many decades. This is the bitter truth that we find unacceptable. We believe that we have and are being governed by uncouth, unqualified non-Brahmin rowdies. I have heard derogatory comments being passed on state government ministers purely based on how they look with absolutely no knowledge of the individual’s work. We do believe that we are superior and things were a lot better when we had a say in matters of politics.

The upper castes will any day prefer J Jayalalithaa to M Karunanidhi, and the reason is obvious. Her misdeeds are seen as being “disproportionate”, his as being disgraceful. He is after all not “one of us”. The false notion that Brahmins in Tamil Nadu are an oppressed class needs to be busted. This is just not the truth. No socio-cultural-religious or economic parameter backs this sentiment. This is a rumour that is being further established by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and BJP.

Atmosphere of spite

Nobody can deny the fact that the powerful Other Backward Classes lobbies within the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam are no saints and they need to be condemned for their blatant casteism and caste violence. They have used the very Brahminism that they reject to oppress those below them in the hierarchy. But that cannot and should not be used as an angle by Brahmins and other upper castes to paint themselves as cleaner or casteless, because this is simply not true.

But how does one bring about a conversation that is truthful, honest and serious? The atmosphere is so filled with spite, malice, frustration and toxicity that everybody sees red within seconds. I am sure this piece will be treated exactly the same way both by Dravidian supporters and upper caste Tamilians, each taking offence to my critique of their ilk. But will we ever stop taking offence to criticism or feeling puffed from an attack on the other?