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New Delhi: The Madurai bench of the Madras high court recently quashed a first information report (FIR) that was filed against filmmaker Pa. Ranjith after he criticised the Chola dynasty, saying Dalits were oppressed under the empire’s reign.
Speaking at an event to commemorate the death anniversary of anti-caste leader T.M. Umar Faroqq, the filmmaker – who has made films like Madras, Kabali and Kaala – had on June 5, 2019 criticised Raja Raja Cholan, saying the caste system was prevalent during his rule, during which time lands of Dalits were seized and the Devadasi system was also introduced.
Subsequently, the Thanjavur police had registered a suo motu case against Ranjith for creating ‘caste enmity’. The complaint also noted that Ranjith had said that he consumes meat from cattle, which is ‘revered’ by other sections of society.
Hearing a petition filed by Ranjith, a single-judge bench of Justice G. Ilangovan said that the filmmaker’s views “shows only a grievance over the [caste] system and beyond that, it cannot be stretched to drag him to face the criminal prosecution”. Ranjith’s views were also based on historical accounts, the order said.
According to LiveLaw, the judge noted in his order, “[The] voice of the oppressed is not meant to be oppressed and criminalised. But to be listened [to], discussed, addressed and remedied. The caste system, its formation, effects and ill-effects are one of the most discussed topics, which has been spoken ever since its inception in history.”
The judge said that history shows that the caste system paved the way for the suppression of one group of the society and “creating a society consisting of landless poor making them as ‘class’ of themselves”.
After independence, India took remedial measures in the form of socio-economic and political reforms, the judge said, and the constitution assures all citizens the right to live with dignity.
“By going through the history of [the] Chola era as found in the stones inscriptions, copper plates etc, views have been made by historians that casteism was prevailing during Chola era. Police cannot take action against those historians for having made such comments. The main purpose of history is to take lessons from the society of yesteryears for reforming the present-day society,” Justice Ilangovan said, according to LiveLaw.
However, the judge also said that beyond this, there is no point in going back in history to criticise erstwhile monarchs and kings. “But at the time, the views that have been made by the petitioner, it is seen that those facts were only gathered from the history books and he has not made any research on his own. So making criticism upon Chola era for the present day, though may not be proper, but it does not exceed the limit and right that has been conferred upon him under Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution of India. It was not aimed at creating enmity between two groups of people,” the order reads.
The judge said that according to the complaint, the next “offending word” used by Ranjith is that “a section of the society reveres cattle as Gods but they [Dalits] are feeding [on] them”. To this, the judge said, “This is the order of Indian society, varied culture, food habits etc… beyond that he cannot be visited with [a] criminal prosecution for having delivered this sort of speech.”
After citing a few Supreme Court orders, the judge concluded:
“Without any hesitation, we can come to the conclusion that absolutely there was no intention on the part of the petitioner to promote enmity between two groups of people as the context, meaning, purpose, message that he wanted to pass, will show and demonstrate.”
The judge concluded that the continuation of criminal proceedings against Ranjith would be an “abuse of [the] process of law”, accepting the petition to quash the FIR.
What did Ranjith say?
During the June 2019 even, Ranjith said, “Lands from the Thanjavur Delta regions that belonged to us were grabbed during his rule by conspiracy. Caste oppression was started during his rule, 400 women were turned into sex workers to work in ‘Mangala Vilas’ during his rule. The devadasi system was implemented during his rule. Around 26 people were sold to the Kolar Gold Field during his rule. So caste discrimination had begun from back then, it isn’t a new problem.”
The event was taking place in the delta region and T.M. Umar Farooq was an advocate for the land rights of Dalits in the region.
A number of artists, supporting Ranjith’s right to criticise the Chola dynasty, noted that the filmmaker’s arguments were not new. “While we have the liberty to celebrate the art and architectural developments of Raja Raja Chozhan’s period, it is important to extend the same liberty to question, debate and comment on the living conditions of common people during his rule or pay attention to less introspected details like the land rights of oppressed groups,” they said in a statement.