Knocking Down the Doors of Reason: The Attack on Malayalam Writer MT Vasudevan Nair

Well known Malayalam writer, director and Jnanpith awardee, MT Vasudevan Nair, has been attacked by the Bharatiya Janta Party for airing his views on demonetisation. In Malappuram on 27th December, while releasing a book on demonetisation written by Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac, MT spoke of the agony India’s poor have been facing the past month and a half. He invoked the 14th century ruler Muhammad bin Tughlaq, reminding the audience that the medieval ruler’s infamous policies were not merely a whim. Time after time, rulers adopt policies without considering the socio-economic condition of the country. When dissent knocks on the palace doors, MT quipped, those rulers steamroll high-pitched programmes without a care for the people’s condition.

Predictably, MT’s warning singed the thin skin of the ruling dispensation. He was attacked for daring to speak against demonetisation by BJP Kerala State Secretary A.N. Radhakrishnan.

It appears that a path-breaking octogenarian writer, who has contributed to the Malayalam literary world for five decades, must be “qualified” to comment on society. If he dares speak about the living consequences of an economic policy adopted by the state, the qualifications acceptable to the BJP include degrees in Economics or a background in the banking sector. AN Radhakrishnan invoked writers such as A. Sethumadhavan to illustrate the point. He said, “He (Nair) is no economist to react to the growing need for a cashless currency in the country. It could be understood if A. Sethumadhavan, another writer who is a retired bank man, had given his opinion about demonetisation.” Days later, Sethumadhavan publicly joined MT in condemning demonetisation.

Rather than accepting that people can express opinions contrary to those of the government, BJP leaders have intensified the attack on MT and any writer who dares to speak against the Central government, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In what seemed a half hearted attempt to diffuse the situation, BJP Kerala unit President Kummanom Rajasekharan spoke of the Constitutional right to freedom of expression. But he quickly added a caveat: persons of stature, he felt, should refrain from commenting on public policy. Today, in a state like Kerala, the right to express opinions freely is knocking down doors and demanding “qualifications” from each household.

In 2015, in neighbouring Karnataka, Professor M.M. Kalburgi was killed at his home by assailants who felt his views on Basavanna, a 12th Century saint from the Lingayat community, were ‘anti-Hindu’. Now, well known writers in Kerala are being publicly hounded for voicing their disagreement with the policy of the Central government. And once again, it appears that criticising the policy of the ruling government is akin to sedition. This is backed by violent intimidation, open threats, or cold-blooded assassination.

Meanwhile, cultural and political groups in Kerala have joined stood firmly by MT. Leaders across the political spectrum, cultural organisations, writers, artists, historians and environmentalists have condemned the actions of the leaders of the BJP. This targeted attack on MT is reflective of the continuing politics of intolerance taking root all over the country. Citizens, cultural activists, literary persons and any voice of dissent, with a democratic vision for the country, need to unite in exposing and fighting this Tughlaqian dispensation.