Perumal Murugan: 'The Limits of Freedom Now Are Exactly as They Were in the Past'

In this excerpt from 'Our Freedoms: Essays and Stories from India’s Best Writers’, the writer discusses the significant roles that caste and hierarchy play in determining an individual's freedom.

In Indian society, freedom is hostage to the caste system. The space that each caste can inhabit and traverse is clearly demarcated. It is impossible to step out of that space and enter another. The ones that do have to pay a great price. Nandanar was one of them.

Born in the Dalit paraiyar caste, Nandanar was a devotee of Shiva. He wanted to travel beyond the confines of his village, the space he was allowed, and enter the Nataraja temple in Chidambaram to worship its deity. Many obstacles stood in his way. In the end, he was set on fire. This is a tale from the Puranas. In every village, there are stories about the cruelties suffered, then and now, by those who tried to cross the limits set for them.

Did we ever have public spaces, those that are open to everyone, in our society? The answer: there have been none or only a very few. The agitation held in 1926 in Vaikom in Kerala, under Mahatma Gandhi’s guidance and Periyar’s leadership, was to demand for Dalits the right to walk on the roads leading to the local temple. Many struggles have been waged demanding the right of temple entry. The fight to enter the sanctum sanctorum, the abode of the deities, continues to this day. These fights have led to some reforms. Yet, many of our temples are not accessible to all even today.

Our Freedoms
Ed. Nilanjana S. Roy
Juggernaut (January 2021)

Barring temples of major deities, now under state control, no significant changes have occurred in smaller temples or temples for clan deities. We have adopted a framework where each community can set up places of worship as needed, strictly within the space allotted to their caste. That is the limit of our freedom.

The Mariyamman temple in our village is called Palapattarai Mariyamman temple. Palapattarai means ‘multi-caste’, that is, people of all castes can go there and offer worship. This Mariyamman temple was built when my village grew into a small town. But in most villages you’ll see that there is more than one Mariyamman temple, because every caste has its own temple. That my village temple is called ‘multi-caste’ indicates a departure from the norm.

A common cremation ground doesn’t exist even today in rural India although you find them, as you do electric crematoriums, in the cities. There is a separate cremation ground for each caste rung. In some cases, there are no proper roads to reach the cremation grounds for some low castes.

Corpses of people belonging to one caste cannot be carried through the colony of another caste. Where humans are allowed to enter, a corpse won’t be allowed to pass.

To this day, there are no public spaces in our villages: only separate temples, separate taps for drinking water and separate cremation grounds. In the cities, there are public spaces like parks, temples for big deities and beaches. But even they are not available in proportion to the size of the population. Increasingly, even in cities, spaces are becoming private. Many parks are under the control of private bodies. City people increasingly stay within gated communities, where everything – parks, playgrounds – is private.

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In Indian villages, there are separate settlements for each caste – barely any land is allotted to the landless castes. Village administrations are adroit at allocating government schemes by caste. The successful central government scheme for providing 100 days of employment to rural households is a good illustration of this phenomenon. Under this scheme, people are divided into caste-based groups and jobs are allocated accordingly.

A caste group will clean only the area where they live, along with the temples and streets in it. They don’t enter areas inhabited by another caste group. If someone from one caste enters the living quarters of another caste group, the whole village will hear of it. Permission is given for entry into the fields only during working hours. In the cities, such restrictions work more subtly. Apartments in many high-rise complexes in Chennai are sold only to people of certain castes. Even houses are given on rent only after inquiring about the prospective tenant’s caste.

Segregation was practised in the dining halls of some restaurants, with a section reserved for ‘Brahmins only’. Even in Shaivite mutts headed and run by non-Brahmins such segregation was observed in dining halls. In many villages, tea stalls followed the two-tumbler system; in some, the practice continues to this day. After it was deemed illegal, the practice has taken a different form. The stall owners now serve tea in single-use disposable plastic cups.

Today, such caste-based discrimination in shops, eateries and commercial complexes has receded to a great extent; however, the implicit understanding that certain caste groups cannot own and run shops or eateries persists. When they do, people of other castes don’t patronise those establishments.

The dynamics of caste plays out everywhere. Even public transport. In rural buses, if a person from a dominant caste gets on board, there is an expectation that a lower-caste person should give up his seat for him.

This is considered a sign of respect. When a student gives up his seat for a teacher, or a person gives up their seat for someone in a slightly higher position, is it really a mark of respect? The person who boarded first is sitting comfortably. Why should he give up his seat to make way for someone else?

I know a teacher who was bent on taking revenge on a student who didn’t get up for him. What kind of attitude is this? Though this practice is generally considered as ‘showing respect’, what’s behind it is a casteist disposition. The inclination to see everything on a high-low scale and to deal with others solely on that basis couldn’t have come from anywhere else.

As always, we deal with these inequalities by building walls around ourselves. Those who can afford it prefer to use private transport. Many cover even a distance of 200 kilometres daily on their two-wheelers, while anyone who is somewhat well off prioritises travelling by car. The desire for ‘private’ is far greater than that for ‘public’. Movie theatres used to be a public space open to everyone. No longer. Rural ‘tent’ cinemas were closed a long time ago. Even in small towns and big cities, most single-screen cinema halls have shut down. Now only expensive multiplexes, where ordinary people cannot enter, are left.

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It is true that both education and employment opportunities have expanded the scope of public spaces. Government colleges have reservation, though in private universities this is not the case. Educational scholarships, too, are provided on the basis of caste, and it’s the same in the case of job opportunities. Nonetheless they remain public spaces, open for all. Similarly, in the unorganised sector, people from different castes end up working together.

As a result, at universities and workplaces there are more opportunities now for men and women to meet and interact. Naturally, there are more instances of couples falling in love.

But the acceptance of love and love marriages hasn’t evolved. Here too caste stands in the way. In fact caste-related honour killings have increased today. It is now possible to commit such killings easily, even in busy places like public thoroughfares and residential colonies. Our society has provided no safe spaces for lovers. Love allows people to transcend barriers. But our caste system won’t allow crossing over.

Perumal Murugan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/ Sreejithkoiloth CC BY-SA 4.0

Caste mentality affects the way we work. Take an ordinary office set-up. This is usually very hierarchical. In a sense, it is comparable to the different rungs of caste hierarchy. Even chairs are allotted by hierarchy. Starting from high-back chairs to shorter ones and plastic chairs, the shape and quality of your chair change with your position in the company. In all offices, the attendant is given nothing to sit on. They are expected to stand or move around the whole day.

Even freedom of expression at work is permitted strictly by hierarchy. In most offices, the practice is to receive instructions from above and implement them. Consultation meetings are held only in name. In those meetings, what the superiors say must be politely accepted by the subordinates.

One may express agreement with one’s superiors, but contradicting them will be interpreted as crossing one’s limit. Subordinates don’t have any right to contradict an idea or to propose an alternative.

Those who do so will be considered suspect and the authorities will henceforth keep an eye on them. Therefore, those who have different ideas do not speak about them; they become silent and listen passively to what they are told. The tendency within caste hierarchy to think of dissenters as adversaries and mavericks is manifested in the same way within this power hierarchy too.

What about an individual’s freedom of expression in art or literature or cinema? By the old measure, an individual was allowed to speak or not in accordance with the position allotted to him in the caste hierarchy. The same measure is in effect in a different form today.

We can express our agreement with ideas that have been accepted by the public. We can propound them as well. We have the freedom to do so. But we cannot contradict those ideas, nor put forth alternative ideas. We cannot criticise religion or express an opinion about a particular caste. We can’t even start a minor debate around religion. We cannot write about language. We cannot write about a character who pursues a particular occupation. We cannot write anything about the customs and rituals followed in our society. This is who we are today.

One of the characters of a film was a lawyer. Immediately, there was opposition from lawyers claiming that the film demeaned lawyers and their profession. If the character is a doctor, doctors would rise in protest. There will be a demand to ban the film, threats to shut down its screening, then a compromise will be reached – that’s how it works.

People in the film industry have a strategy to get around this problem. If the film has a lead character who is a police officer who cheats, it also has a junior police officer who is honest. The minor character exists to show that there are good people too in the police department.

In our country, caste informs the identity of each and every individual. Yet, caste mostly doesn’t find a place in our films. Caste identity is present only when a character is to be exalted. In other circumstances, it might be hinted at, but the tendency is to avoid mentioning caste and generalise it instead. Film-makers do this because the use of caste names could invite problems.

Take the recent controversy in Tamil Nadu over a prayer song called ‘Kanda Sashti Kavacham’, composed in celebration of the Tamil god Murugan. The song seeks Murugan’s protection for every part of the body:

May the iron spear guard the penis and vagina
May the grand spear guard both buttocks
May the shapely spear guard the round rectum
May the heavenly spear guard both sturdy thighs

Finding the reference to body parts like penis, vagina, buttocks and rectum obscene, a group called Karuppar Koottam (Throng of Blacks) released a video mocking the song and posted it online. For this, members from the group were arrested and cases were registered against them. People also wrote against the group’s stance – by maintaining that it was not obscene to mention penis and vagina since they were no different from other body parts like hands and feet.

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Some resorted to more violent methods like hate speech and agitation. Karuppar Koottam, who released the video, were non-believers. “How could non-believers dare to speak about god? They have demeaned god and thereby hurt the sentiments of believers,” the protesters claimed.

The case of ‘Kanda Sashti Kavacham’ could have led to a healthy debate about the definition of obscenity. Instead, people were busy pointing at the caste, religion and ideology of their interlocutors.

What can we say or write in such an environment? If we speak of only those ideas that have popular acceptance in our society, no problem is likely to arise. If we speak or write against the grain, cases will leap at us, threats of violence will hail down and there may be actual violence. The limits of freedom now are exactly as they were in the past. We can say that only their form has changed, or they have shrunk even further.

In everything that has to do with freedom, a casteist attitude is clearly present. Most people from the dominant castes articulate ideas that reflect popular wisdom and remain its ardent supporters. Because it’s the ideas related to popular wisdom that help them to consolidate their caste-based dominance. Even the few individuals from the dominant castes who speak against popular wisdom are protected by their caste; they are allowed to get away with their dissent and handled gently.

At the same time, those who speak against popular wisdom are mostly from the depressed castes. They are compelled to speak that way in order to rid themselves of the stigma of caste. Such people mostly do not have any protection. Even people of their own caste do not offer them protection, because people from the depressed castes too have minds that are imprinted with ideas derived from popular wisdom. They are imprinted over and over again. Periyar had spoken relentlessly about god and the superstitions followed in his name. His speeches were savage, sardonic. But the world in which he could speak so openly does not exist today.

Translated from the Tamil by N. Kalyan Raman.

Excerpted with permission from Perumal Murugan’s piece Crossing Over from the anthology Our Freedoms: Essays and Stories from India’s Best Writers, edited by Nilanjana Roy. In this book, India’s top literary voices write on freedom and what it means to them. All the proceeds of this book will go to Harsh Mander’s Karwan-e-Mohabbat, started in response to escalated hate crimes and lynchings across India. 

Some of the top contributors to the book include Romila Thapar, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, T.M. Krishna, Rana Ayyub, Roshan Ali, Aanchal Malhotra, Snigdha Poonam, Vivek Shanbhag, Raghu Karnad, Annie Zaidi, Akhil Katyal, Perumal Murugan, Vivek Shanbhag, Akhil Katyal, Aatish Taseer, Suketu Mehta and Amitabha Bagchi.