The Ravana Leela of 2016 in Chennai might have been a low-profile event. But the Ravana Leela of 1974 was a much talked about event, evoking response from the masses as well as the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It is worth going through the pages of history to understand the politics behind what is happening today.
In 1974, a year after Periyar's death, Tamil Nadu witnessed its first Ravana Leela.
It took place in the grounds of Periyar Thidal, the headquarters of Dravidar Kazhagam, founded by Periyar, situated at Vepery, Chennai. Ravana Leela was presided over by Maniyammai, Periayar's wife who had taken over as the leader of Dravidar Kazhagam. There were incidents of burning Ramayana and Rama on a smaller scale in the state earlier.
The decision to conduct Ravana Leela was not a spontaneous one. In 1973, before his death, Periyar had mentioned in his personal notes that in response to the Ram Leela being conducted every year, a Ravana Leela in a similar fashion needs to be held in Tamil Nadu.
Later in 1974, before the Dussehra festival, letters from Maniyammai and K.Veeramani, general secretary of Dravidar Kazhagam were written to Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India asking her to stop the Ram Leela events.
“Your participation in the Ramlila burning the effigy of the great Dravidian hero Ravanan, is against all canons of secularism and highly provoking and insulting to millions of Davidians hence requesting you to desist from this dastardly act. Otherwise we Dravidians would be burning the effigies of Rama and you, on mass level throughout the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu,” said the letter written by Maniyammai.
Since the letter mentioned burning the effigies of the Prime Minister as well, the word 'you' was removed by the Telegram department while sending it to Delhi, DK leader K.Veermani mentions later in one of his texts.
Indira Gandhi replied to the letters of Maniyammai and Veeramani. “Ramayana is one of the great stories of the world. Over the years, countless Indian children, including the distinguished founder of your party, have been named after Rama. There is no racial connotation whatever in the Ramlila celebrations in North India. Some modern scholars on the Ramayana even question the traditionally accepted geographical identification of the places in the epic. Any attempt to politicize the significance of these celebrations is unfortunate. The energy of our people should be mobilized for the removal of economic injustice and people's hardships and not spent on issues that arouse sectarian passions. I would urge you to give up the course of action at which you have hinted.”
Indira Gandhi then went ahead to participate in the Ram Leela celebrations that happened in Delhi.
Dravidar Kazhagam thus decided to go ahead with the Ravana Leela as announced earlier. There was a two-day conference organised at Periyar Thidal to commemorate the first death anniversary of Periyar on December 24 and the Ravana Leela to be held on December 25.
Sixty-nine-year-old advocate Duraisamy of Thanthai Periyar Dravidar Kazhagam, who took part in the event remembers vividly how Ravana Leela unfolded at Periyar Thidal, Chennai. “On the day of the event, December 25, we had placed small effigies of Ram, Lakshman and Seetha on the stage and hid the bigger effigies behind Periyar statue. The police came in and confiscated the smaller effigies and left the place. After they left we burnt the well decorated bigger effigies of Ram which was 18 feet tall, 17-feet Lakshman and 16-feet Seetha ,” chuckles Duraisamy.
Soon after the event, Maniyammai, Duraisamy and 12 others were arrested and booked by the police. Though the lower court convicted all 12 of them, the sessions court acquitted them in 1976. The verdict established that, those involved in the event are not part of a banned organisation. It is proven that they did not perform Ravana Leela to hurt the sentiments of any community. Had anyone's sentiment been hurt, there would have been untoward incidents.
“Later during a Ravana Leela even in the 90s, we told the police that arresting us would amount to contempt of court. And the police respected the court judgement. In fact, the judge Somasundaram, who acquitted us, was himself a staunch Saivite. But now, the police won't bother about contempt of court, nor do we find honest judges like Somasundaram,” laments Duraisamy.