By Meena Kandasamy
“Caste is a state of mind. It is a disease of mind.” (Revolutionary Dr. BR Ambedkar)
Last week, I was shocked to learn that a judicial magistrate court in India has issued summons to me under Sections 153, 153 (A) and 505(2) of the Indian Penal Code, stringent provisions of the law that seek to punish those “wantonly giving provocation with intent to cause riot”, “promoting enmity between different groups” and “creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill-will between classes.” As the English translator of Uproot Hindutva: The Fiery Voice of the Liberation Panthers, I was accused, along with its author Thol. Thirumavalavan (Member of Parliament and President of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi party) and publisher Mandira Sen (of Stree-Samya Books, Kolkata) of creating communal disharmony. What was our crime? We had portrayed two Tamil folk deities, Ponnar and Sankar, as “Dalit brothers.” A non-Indian parallel might illustrate this story better: An African-American leader says Jesus Christ was Black, and a White man takes him to court for causing communal disharmony. Would we not readily label the White man a racist and a supremacist?
Back to the Tamil context and its intolerance. Advocate M. Loganathan, the 38-year-old litigant in this case belongs to the Kongu Vellala Gounder community, a feudal, upper caste that became ‘backward’ after petitioning the state government in 1975, and works as the Student Wing Convenor of the Kongunadu Munnetra Kazhagam, a party that was formed to counter the new pressure exerted by Dalit politics from parties such as the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi.
The petitioner held that he was offended by the following endnote: “Annanmar Kathai is the most significant and lengthy oral epic in the history of Tamil Nadu. Two Dalit brothers, Ponnar and Sankar, who saved their people from invasion are worshipped” (p.160 of the book). This endnote occurs with reference to Thol. Thirumavalavan’s speech on 14 April 2003, emphasizing how he sought to implement Dr. Ambedkar’s ideology reflected in his party’s slogan “We shall Uproot Hindutva. We shall retrieve our lost identity.” (p.143) Neither the original Tamil speech, nor my translation and endnote had a deliberate intent to offend any community. For seven years since its publication in 2004, Uproot Hindutva has not caused any communal discord.
Loganathan claims that Ponnar and Sankar belong to a Kongu Vellala Gounder subcaste, and the alleged misinformation in our book (calling them Dalit) was a premeditated act by which we have sought to incite the Dalit people of the region to militate for their rights of worship towards these Gods and revolt against the Kongu Vellala Gounders. He seems to want to appropriate the deity to his own caste group, and is effectively saying that it is insulting to call the deity a Dalit. This litigation is an interesting case of a wolf in sheep’s clothing crying wolf! In truth, western Tamil Nadu stands witness to the gruesome flesh-and-blood reality of an oppressive caste system that humiliates, subjugates, rapes and murders Dalits, most notably the Arundhatiyars, on an everyday basis. In a process of reverse transference, this fanatical cruelty sometimes seeps in from the real world to the realm of myth and make-believe, and that is why caste Hindus like the petitioner Loganathan experience “extreme mental trauma, irreparable hardship and grievous emotional hurt” when two folk deities are called Dalit.
The co-opting and appropriation process of Hindutvaization/ Brahminization/Sansritization swallowed a lot of our village/regional/folk deities into the burgeoning Hindu pantheon, and Dalit deities were ascribed caste-Hindu origins because the casteist mindset could not accept the Dalit in the role of a valiant hero. The oral nature of the epic in which Ponnar-Sankar appears makes it almost impossible to ascertain either their exact caste origins, or even if they really existed historically. The present case filed against us does not arise out of the petitioner’s faithfulness to history: it clearly springs out of his intolerance, that refuses to treat Dalit heroes as worthy of deification. Such a litigation reflects a worldview that if heroes have to retain godhood, they have to maintain caste-Hindu credentials. That is why, the litigant claims to be hurt when his ancestral deities are said to be Dalit.
I am outraged that a caste-Hindu is able to misuse a court of law by filing such a patently abusive and absurd case that disgraces the history and experience of being Dalit. The real offence in this instance is the litigant’s act of taking offence when something holy and venerable is identified as Dalit. I only hope that the real crime here—rampant and rabid anti-Dalit hatred—gets its due punishment.
I am in the UK now, and I will have to abandon my activities here and hurry back home to face the case because I have been asked to appear before the magistrate court on 1 July 2011. I will fight this casteist absurdity and publicity-seeking harassment that masquerades as a court case. Such a frivolous petition only displays the loathsome, supremacist caste-Hindu mentality as to who is worthy of worship in our society: in this telling, a hero can never be Dalit, and conversely, a Dalit can never be a hero.
Meena Kandasamy is a poet, writer and translator. Her latest collection of poetry is Ms Militancy (2010). She is a Visiting Fellow with the School of English, Newcastle University. She blogs at http://meenu.wordpress.com