Dissent in South India Survived and Thrived in 2017, Despite Attempts to Suppress It

From Prakash Raj to Kausalya Shankar, several individuals and organisations raised their voices against the state and status quo.

From Prakash Raj to Kausalya Shankar, several individuals and organisations raised their voices against the state and status quo.

A protest march in Kerala against the murder of Gauri Lankesh. Credit: PTI

A protest march in Kerala against the murder of Gauri Lankesh. Credit: PTI

As we bid farewell to 2017, The Wire looks back at some of the markers of disruption that affected different spheres, from politics and economics to technology and films.

Before journalist Gauri Lankesh was killed in Bengaluru in September, Prakash Raj was just another actor – someone who did routine roles and walked away with accolades. The murder changed everything for him. Since then, Raj has turned into a firm dissenting voice. In interview after interview, the actor has made it clear that Lankesh’s murder gave him a voice. “I was indifferent till death came to my doorstep,” he said. Lankesh was a family friend.

With the murder of Lankesh in 2017, India joined the long list of countries with a growing culture of suppressing dissent. For many dissenting voices in south India, the murder of Lankesh was a chilling, powerful message – that being a south Indian offered no immunity from suppression, and that death could still be at their doorstep.

Yet south India – a large part of which has its roots entrenched in progressive movements – responded to the suppression of dissent with remarkable tenacity. Raj spoke, and not just on Lankesh’s murder. From demonetisation to the Goods and Services Tax and Padmavati, the actor had an opinion on every issue and he expressed it, when actors keen on testing political waters in Tamil Nadu remained conspicuously silent on many issues. After initially supporting demonetisation, actor Kamal Haasan later retracted this support; he also expressed solidarity with Deepika Padukone on the Padmavati row. Rajinikanth – who incidentally is set to announce his decision on entering politics on December 31 – has maintained a silence that perhaps speaks more than his words would on many issues.

2017 also witnessed the assertive revival of the writer in Perumal Murugan. After over a year of hiatus, Murugan made an authoritative re-entry with a brilliant collection of poetry and short stories. While his poetry – Kozhaiyin Paadalgal (songs of a coward) – was published in 2016 soon after the Madras high court judgment urging that the author be “resurrected to what he is best at”, Murugan perhaps fully regained his confidence and courage to assert himself fully as a writer in 2017. His poetry and short stories were translated and published into English this year. “It was like some kind of commandment, the Madras high court judgment that urged me to write. I felt compelled to abide,” he once told this writer on his comeback. Firmly putting the dark days behind him, Murugan hopes the experiences from those times will help enrich his literature. Expectedly, Murugan admits that his language has undergone a huge transformation after the hiatus.

Also read: The India Outside Delhi That Is Quietly Defending the Values of the Constitution

What played out in the case of Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd was in many ways reminiscent of the Murugan episode. In September 2017, Shepherd faced the wrath of right-wing forces for his book Samajika Smuggluru Komottulu. The book was only an excerpt from a larger book originally published in 2009. Upset over the book dubbing Vysyas as “social smugglers”, death threats were issued to the scholar. Telugu Desam Party MP T.G. Venkatesh sought the public hanging of Shepherd and a ban on the book. Not feeling safe, Shepherd placed himself in house arrest and declared that the state should be blamed if he died. The Supreme Court later refused to ban the book, stating that a book was the writer’s “freedom of expression”.

Yet in Telangana, writers were denied that fundamental right. Ahead of the World Telugu Conference on December 15, the police arrested at least 18 members of the Revolutionary Writers Association, including poet Varavara Rao, for giving a call to boycott the conference. The police also took N. Venugopal, editor of Veekshanam magazine, into preventive custody. Rao had accused the government of organising the conference to promote Brahmanical ideology and to encourage capitalists. Earlier in October, several activists of the separate Telangana movement were taken into preventive custody before the inauguration of collector’s office in Sircilla district. Telangana police had also arrested student activist Mahesh and separate Telangana activist Kranthi, prompting civil liberty activists to point to the spate in such “arbitrary” arrests.

In Kerala, filmmaker Sanal Kumar Sasidharan refused to be cowed down by the state’s threat to his film S Durga. After the film was dropped from being screened at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), the filmmaker went to the Kerala high court, which overruled the decision of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to drop the film. Yet the Central Board of Film Certification refused to allow the film to be screened, citing ‘violations’.

A still from S Durga.

A still from S Durga.

When G. Bala was arrested in Chennai for a cartoon, Tamil Nadu witnessed a groundswell of support for the cartoonist, almost forcing the state to pause and check itself. Bala’s was not the first act of suppressing dissent in a state that famously filed over 100 defamation cases against journalists. Interestingly, there has been no defamation case since J. Jayalalithaa’s death last year.

Still, in resisting suppression, Tamil Nadu perhaps showed the way. In a protest meet against the arrest of Bala, the Chennai Press Club put up a blown up poster of the alleged controversial cartoon and in the process invited police cases. Tamil Nadu had also witnessed a series of meetings in support of Hadiya, who has been in the public eye ever since her decision to convert to Islam and later marry a Muslim man.

Also read: ‘Love Will Triumph When Honour Killings Are Prevented. Caste Will Be Annihilated When Love Triumphs’

Caste forces in Tamil Nadu perhaps derived vicarious courage from the state impunity offered to Hindutva forces in their suppression of dissent. Soon after a trial court sentenced to death the perpetrators of honour killing in Udumalaipettai Sankar’s case, caste forces went on a rampage on social media and off it – raising money to pursue appeals and vilifying his wife Kausalya Shankar for ‘letting her family down’. But Kausalya took them on with admirable courage, vowing to fight for justice and a law against ‘honour’ killings.

The decision of late poet Inquilab’s family to decline the Sahitya Academy award, in keeping with his life and work, also came as a glimmering ray of hope from a state that seemed to be constantly reeling under the suppression of dissent.

In a first, Carnatic singer and Magsaysay award winner T.M. Krishna performed along with Vikku Vinayakaram at Afghan Church in Mumbai on December 17, and in the process invited criticisms for ‘polluting’ Carnatic music. Krishna admirably responded to such criticism by singing an invocation to Allah at the church.

From Inquilab to Krishna to Sasidharan, the south of India continues to offer examples of hope and promise in an otherwise dark climate of fear.

Kavitha Muralidharan is an independent journalist.

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