The removal of a short story about Dalit women in the 1930′s by the University of Madras from its undergraduate syllabus is the latest in a series of regional and academic repression of free speech and expression.
The University of Madras on Saturday removed a short story written in 1933 from its Tamil syllabus after it received complaints about the story and its message. The story “Thunbakenni” translated as “The Well of Misery” written by Tamil writer Puthumaipithan is a story about the repression and sexual exploitation of Dalit women in Sri Lankan plantations run by the British. The decision by a group of academics to change the syllabus without any due process or a larger consultation has been derided and the move has been challenged.
The action is not without precedence though. Tamil Nadu has over the past few years, become a state pandering to people confined to their “narrow domestic walls” . Cliched protests and mindless activism against books, literature and movies has become the norm of the day. Even worse is the shameless compliance with these elements by politicians and academics who have with time become false prophets of liberalism – extolling the virtues of free speech and expression but doing precious little to uphold them.
The controversial decision by the Madras University Vice chancellor is not an outlier. The Tamil Nadu government and public officials have in the past few years taken steps to clamp down on books, arts and movies after admonitions by fringe groups allied with minor political parties. The ban on Da Vinci Code, Vishwaroopam, Madras Cafe, Dam999, a book on Pandiyar history released last year, a biography of J. Jayalilithaa and canceling a lecture by Islamic scholar Amina Wadud, are just a few examples.
The move by an academic institute to implement a ban on books voluntarily without a court order is telling of the climate of fear and repression that has taken over the state. Any form of expression that is seen as a threat to exaggerated regional allegiances or fringe group interests is immediately clamped down upon. Universities, especially the ones of Madras university stature were established as bastions of liberal education emphasizing the greater idea of learning to think, assess and argue over blind following. These cornerstones of liberalism have now, set aside their principles and are continuing to become slaves to misguided notions of civility in society.
The move to ban Puthumaipithan masterly work is ironic at many levels. Here was a man who had the audacity to defy convention, question societal discrimination and openly criticise traditional values and literature. His work was one of debates, poetic arguments and scathing take down of the popular political beliefs of his time. Coming after Bharathi who stood up for the upliftment of women, Puthumaipithan’s work called for the greater recognition of the ‘others” in society. A. R Venkatachalapathy writes
When a puerile nationalism was the lot of much of Tamil writing, he provided stark, realistic portrayals of society. Marked by a deep empathy for lower castes and classes, and anger at upper caste and class hypocrisy, Pudumaippithan, employed the as-yet-new (to Tamil) techniques of sarcasm, irony and understatement to portray the plight of lower caste Tamil labour in the brutal tea estates.
Set in the times of the Great Depression of the early 1930s, ‘Thunba Keni’ is a searing picture of caste and social inequities in the Tirunelveli hinterland that impel Maruthi, arguably the earliest of dalit woman protagonists in Tamil fiction, to seek her fortunes in the tea estates. The plantation economy is marked by not only economic and social, but also sexual, exploitation. Yet, even in this dehumanizing world, Maruthi holds her own and gives a resounding slap to the face of upper-caste doublespeak and apathy.
An entire generation of students are being denied the values of a liberal education, and worse are taught that knowing, arguing, thinking freely is not the intention of education. This censoring indiscriminately of ideas and expressions that a few don’t agree with results in a kind of education that never lets students challenge existing notions of rights and wrongs. It continues to teach that the other, whatever it is, can never be talked or read about.
The culture of fear that this perpetrates and the narrow, future of intolerance that it develops is going to challenge our republic in more ways than one. We are seeing an absolute lack of political will, lack of action from a greater network of people and politicians in standing up against this mindless censoring of words, thoughts and ideas. The erosion of ideas at the local level continues to go unnoticed and is also becoming increasingly brazen.
If academic freedom and liberal education cannot be upheld, then there is very little left to fight for.