“The writer Perumal Murugan is dead,” read the dramatic statement on Tuesday.
But this was no ordinary obituary. The writer himself, perhaps the finest craftsman of his generation of Tamil writers, posted it on his Facebook page. Hundreds of commenters expressed everything from sorrow and solidarity (“Sir, pls dont stop writing, we are with you sir”) to disbelief (“I hope this is by hackers”).
Hackers were not to blame; religious fundamentalists were. Murugan was the target of 18 consecutive days of book burnings and threats of violence from right-wing Hindus who virtually shut down his hometown of Tiruchengode, in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu. On Monday he ended the siege with a terse apology after enduring a four-hour meeting with government officials.
The controversy concerns Murugan’s 2010 historical novel, “Madhorubagan.” Its protagonist, a Hindu woman, participates against her husband’s wishes in a local temple bacchanal in which she beds any man she chooses. The English translation, with the title “One Part Woman,” is in its second printing from Penguin India.
In Tuesday’s status update — written entirely in the third person, as if disassociated — Murugan wrote that he will withdraw all 14 of his books from circulation, cease public appearances and compensate his publishers for their losses.
“All those who have bought his books so far are free to burn them,” he wrote. “Please leave him alone.”
Murugan’s case is reminiscent of that of another Penguin India writer, Salman Rushdie, whose 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” incurred international death threats and the wrath of Iran’s leader. Rushdie spent nearly a decade in hiding before issuing a careful statement that regretted “the distress the publication has occasioned to the sincere followers of Islam,” putting an end to his exile.
Whereas condemnation of Rushdie inspired worldwide outrage, concern over the suppression of Murugan’s voice has thus far remained confined mostly to southern India.
This neglect is due in part to the nation’s persistent north-south divide and the marginalization of literature in regional languages. A writers’ association in Tamil Nadu staged a counterdemonstration, and the Bangalore-based writers’ residency Sangam House, which once hosted Murugan, issued a statement. His Indian publisher said last week it would not bow to the protesters.
But Penguin India has yet to issue a statement; last year it was widely criticized for withdrawing scholar Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus” under threat from right-wingers. Opposition political parties have also remained silent.
Internationally, Murugan’s case has caused nary a ripple, with free-speech outrage wholly focused on last week’s massacre at the Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Yet the “death” of Murugan, though metaphorical rather than bloody, can be blamed on the same murderer: religious extremism.
Another reason the case has been overlooked is the West’s obliviousness to Hinduism’s far-right wing; its extremist tendencies have flown under the radar, especially in comparison to radical Islam. But in India it is a dangerous and, at present, virtually unchallenged force. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party in power, extremists have been emboldened to suppress free expression and dissent.
Murugan’s virtual vow of silence points — as perhaps the writer hoped — to a deeper problem that threatens the foundation of the world’s largest democracy. India’s Constitution enshrines the principle of freedom of expression, but the penal code criminalizes offending the sensibilities of any community. Religious extremists have aggressively asserted affronts, staging mass protests and even riots and driving writers, painters and intellectuals into silence or exile.
In recent months the government has tightened the noose on freedom of speech. On Dec. 30, India’s government peremptorily blocked 32 Web domains that it alleged were housing terrorist or otherwise offensive activity. They included the design platform Weebly and the video-sharing site Vimeo — both of which were soon reversed — but 28 domains remain blocked.
On Monday a lawyer for the executive branch urged the Supreme Court to prohibit Internet posts that might “outrageously and directly offend” religious sentiments — notwithstanding the impracticality of any digital ban in a nation where nearly everyone knows how to circumvent Web protocols in order to pirate movies and books.
In August the tech-industry-dominated southern state of Karnataka classified all press and speech violations, along with digital piracy and other such crimes, under what is called the Goonda Act. Roughly equivalent to the United States’ Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act used to crack down on the Mafia, the Goonda Act was originally designed to prosecute organized crime and gangs. It limits the rights of the accused and allows for long-term imprisonment while cases are pending. In India that can mean decades behind bars, as defendants have no right to a speedy trial or a government-paid defense lawyer.
Given the political climate, one can hardly blame a lone writer for being unwilling to face arrest and prosecution, not to mention vandalism and violence from the mobs besieging his home. Unlike Rushdie, Murugan has no international passport and no access to an international network of safehouses.
He has only the power of his silence.