G Babu Jayakumar
Desecration of statues is nothing new to Tamil Nadu. However, when such a distasteful dishonour is bestowed on Thiruvalluvar, the saint poet who gave Tamil one of its best literary treatises, it only points to the advent of a new kind of political play.
More than the smearing of cow dung, under cover of darkness, on the statue at Pillaiaripatti near Thanjavur in southern Tamil Nadu, it is the draping of the same statue in saffron by leader of a fringe Hindu outfit Arjun Sampath that turned the scenario sinister. This also revealed the desperation of Hindutva forces to enter the political discourse of Tamil Nadu.
Before Sampath picked up the saffron shawl, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) acolytes digitally dressed the cultural icon of Tamil Nadu in saffron and circulated the image, triggering the present controversy in the state, where successive governments have popularised Thiruvalluvar.
Though he had no religious identity, he was known to everyone as his couplets are taught in schools and colleges and displayed in government buses, along with his photograph, since 1968. Former Chief Minister, late M Karunanidhi envisaged Valluvar Kottam, a memorial for the poet, which is now a landmark in Chennai, and also raised a 133-feet tall statue for him in the sea, off the Kanyakumari coast.
Thirukural couplets, 1,330 of them, classified under 133 chapters, strictly adhere to literary rules of syntax for its poetic genre (Venba in Tamil) and profess a lofty universal ideal. To put it otherwise, not only is it a challenge to write the seven-word verse in high-sounding poetic language, but it is also not easy to read and understand it. That simple literary skills in Tamil would be inadequate to appreciate a couplet and that pedantic literary knowledge or an interpretative explanation by a scholar will be required kept it away from the common people for long.
It was Periyar EV Ramasamy, the founder of the Dravidian movement, who literally yanked the literary tome out of the shelves of Tamil scholars and pundits, despite the fact that he did not approve of verses that denigrated women. Periyar organised seminars and meeting on Thirukural at various places since 1949 for he saw in it a general universality where there was an emphasis on equality and no praise for god.
The image of a poet was constructed by scholars based on his explicit philosophy, evidenced from his writing, which was primarily secular. So the painting by Venugopal Sharma, in which Thiruvalluvar is draped in white with no sacred thread, was used in the postal stamp released in his memory and for the portrait adorning the assembly walls. This was also accepted by all.
Given this, it was but natural that a hullaballoo was raised when he was portrayed in saffron attire, triggering an acrimonious debate on social media and TV news debates over his religious identity. Hitherto he was seen as a secular person or a Jain, some even claim that he was a Christian.
Be that as it may, the present move by the BJP is opposed vehemently because it is seen as a bid to appropriate Thiruvalluvar, a quintessentially Tamil icon, for political gain. Of course, there was an earlier attempt by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) leader Tarun Vijay, who briefly eulogised the Tamil poet and tried to install a 12-feet statue of him on the banks of the Ganges at Haridwar, Uttarakhand. Sadhus were aghast at the idea of Thiruvalluvar standing at Har Ki Pauri area, where the crowds gather for the Kumbh Mela.
Then attempts to install the statue at Dam Kothi and also at the Sankaracharya Chowk were thwarted by religious leaders and finally after about six months it was given space at the Mela Bhawan premises at Haridwar.
Apart from religious leaders, the BJP itself had shown antipathy towards Thiruvalluvar when Doordarshan refused to telecast the opening of the 133-feet tall statue in Kanyakumari even though the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) was part of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) then.
So, the sudden admiration for the man who was not seen fit to stand near the statue of Adi Sankara at Haridwar in 2016, seems to be an attempt by the BJP to enter Tamil Nadu’s political discourse. The image of Thiruvalluvar in saffron was first circulated when Prime Minister Narendra Modi released a Thai translation of Thirukural in Thailand. Unwittingly the other parties fell for the bait, starting the debate.
Now one can expect the Right-wing groups to put forth contestable claims that do not square with the fact and findings by Tamil scholars. Already a book has been written saying that Thirukural is just an off take of Manu Dharma, while the philosophy and ideals enunciated in the Tamil work are diametrically opposed to the preaching of any Hindu scripture.
In that way, the BJP has succeeded in luring Tamil Nadu into a debate with it, perhaps believing that it could be the first step to capture the imagination of the voters, who have so far spurned it.G Babu Jayakumar is a Chennai-based senior journalist. Views are personal.