No symbolic end can be more devastating than a writer who announces his own "death" and severs his relationship with words. For a writer, what does it mean to not write? To not let the imagination run free, to observe and recount fears, joys, anguish and pain? Can a writer surrender (voluntarily or otherwise) his or her ideas and words?
In the last few weeks, however, we have learnt that the state in collusion with a few fanatics did give a writer such a death. We know little about Perumal Murugan himself except that he is a Tamil Nadu-based writer of some repute, now hounded by Hindu fanatics for his novel Madhorubhagan. The book is a sensitive story about a loving but childless couple, and explores the oppression that communities and social conventions can inflict on relationships. Under enormous pressure to conceive, the female protagonist ends up seeking the child as a blessing from God by allowing a stranger to attempt to impregnate her during a temple festival. This act eventually destroys their marriage. While this practice may be long dead, to certain caste and religious leaders, however, any real or even imaginary events set in a story a few hundred years ago are objectionable and degrading to their temple, their caste and to Hinduism.
As fundamentalists targeted Murugan, few were there to support him. The district administration where Perumal lived instead of protecting him colluded with these fanatics to intimidate and coerce him. Eventually he gave in and under pressure from the administration signed an absurd and illegal agreement where he apologised not just for this book but for his entire body of work, voluntarily withdrew it from circulation and committed never to write again. A writer could not meet a worse fate. Perumal's facebook status reflected his anguish "Author Perumal Murugan has died," it read.
This incident is just one among several example of the increasing cultural fascism unleashed by extremists in India. Over years of state-sanctioned repression, they feel emboldened to attack any idea or artistic work that they term offensive or objectionable whether it be a film, a book or a painting. Of late, these are Hindu extremists, encouraged by the ascent of the Hindu right. While they are often pegged as "fringe elements", they are still a part of the hate and intolerance nurtured by our political establishment - across parties. These so-called fringe elements help our leaders win elections and consequently remain powerful, unrestrained and unafraid. They are also well organised and able to deftly manipulate the system to their advantage.
Over the last two decades, under various governments, we have made it a habit to violate every form of artistic and academic freedom and many have suffered as a result. Salman Rushdie, MF Husain, Wendy Doniger, and now Perumal Murugan are just some high-profile casualties. In the last decade this cultural fascism has become extremely well organised, frequent and deeply internalised in our fabric. So much that we no longer protest.
A society where the truth cannot even be told in stories must surely be an uncivilised one. A nation where fanatics can control a writer's imagination signals the end of our imagination as a people. An administration that voluntarily participates and colludes to violate and illegally suppress the freedom of speech of a well-known writer is no different from the ISIS. All you need to say is the word "anti-religion", throw in a few protests and the state bends to please. Freedom is our first and easiest casualty.
Those in power must recognise that staying silent on issues of freedom undermines the mandate they received. India voted for a government that would deliver development, not watch mutely as our freedoms are attacked by fringe elements. Moreover, what will this development be without freedom either of thoughts or words?
In this entire incident, what is inexcusable is the role of the state. It's unclear why they chose to accommodate these extremists and illegally coerce a writer. What we need is an independent investigation into this matter and severest punishment for those involved, especially officials of this administration.
Who is to determine who can write what? Who will ensure that a book, or a film, or piece of art remains safe-guarded by our right to freedom? In today's India, these questions remain troubling but without answers. We need to restart a discussion on tolerance and the freedom of expression - it must begin as protest and continue until this government or any other is forced to respond.
For the self-appointed saviours of Hinduism - a little advice. Hinduism is too large, diverse and contradictory a body of beliefs to be offended by any book, painting or film. To argue so is to insult Hinduism itself. There is enough diversity in its history to celebrate differing and often contradictory ideas and life values.
And to the ordinary Indian - you must understand that there is a psychosis being created by political leaders and their "fringe" to make you believe that Hinduism or any other religion is under threat. This is entirely fictional, misleading and divisive. No faith needs these intolerant, ignorant and extremist "saviours". These extremists, however, do need religion (yours or mine) to keep their business of violence and intimidation going.
Defending religion is one thing, but it's time we defended our ethos as a nation and a people. Our freedoms and diversity, our words and ideas are under greater threat than ever before. If we don't protest now our society won't need new books or ideas. Writers will die and words will eventually disappear, because in this new intolerant India we will know everything. And everything we know will be the absolute truth.