Ravikumar is a strange phenomenon: a poet who is a politician. An incredibly talented and subtle poet with many collections to his credit, a small selection of which was published in the anthology Waking Is Another Dream: Poems on The Genocide in Eelam which he edited for Navayana in 2010), he is also a Dalit activist, a translator, a human rights activist, an education activist (he was co-founder of the Makkal Kalvi Eyakkam (People’s Education Movement), an essayist (an extraordinary selection of his essays is translated into English as Venomous Touch: Notes on Caste, Culture and Politics and published by Samya in 2005), a journal editor, (he edited the journals Nirapirikai, Dalit and Bodhi) an anthologist (he co-edited The Oxford India Anthology of Tamil Dalit Writing in 2012, which also has some of his poems) and a dreamer.
He is also contesting for a seat in the Vanur constituency in Villupuram District for the Vidhuthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) (Liberation Panther Party) party. A large, soft-spoken and thoughtful presence, he is the kind of man who leaves one wondering how he survives the vicious, sick and cut-throat world of Tamil electoral politics. Ashley Tellis tries to find out.
You had said you were giving up politics and going to focus on poetry. What made you change your mind?
I did not want to contest elections. I had told this to my party leader. In fact, they had declared the candidate for the Vanur constituency already. But the people of this constituency did not want that person and wanted me instead. The leader asked me to join and I succumbed to the pressure. Personally, I like writing, especially creative writing. I want to spend the remaining years of my life writing and not in electoral politics. Electoral politics has become very violent in Tamil Nadu. And it has become very, very expensive. We have no space in it. Left to my devices, I would choose the ideological sphere, and write, not the electoral sphere. But it is just a matter of three weeks. Let’s see.
How do you look back at your years with Nirapirikai (a small journal he co-founded which means Separation of Colours)?
That was a very vibrant period. It was a period driven by activism and without social media. We were able to make some impact on the youth and on culture. We can’t do that now. Social media has taken over. People don’t read long form stuff, engage in cultural debates. The 90s were much better. Many people were influenced byNirapirikai. I still meet many young people, now teaching, now in different positions who tell me that they were influenced by the journal. A large percentage of the most exciting new Tamil writers first started in the journal. It can’t be replicated now, but it was an exciting moment.
Are you still associated with The People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL-Puducherry) and do you continue that fact-finding work?
PUCL does not allow for political party members to be part of them so I am no longer officially part of it after I joined the party. The PUCL itself is not so active in Tamil Nadu now. But I maintain very friendly relations with them and I still see myself as addressing human rights issues. I am a human rights activist. A few years ago I released the extraordinary report that they did on death penalty called A Lethal Lottery. It looks at 70 years of cases on the death penalty and is prepared by the PUCL.
What is Vanur Constituency, Villupuram District like?
Vanur is a very backward constituency and Villupuram is also very backward. It is mainly Dalit, MBC, Muslim and Vanniyar populations. Literacy levels are very poor. My goal is to make it a 100% literate constituency. The schools are few and very bad, there are no Govt colleges. The civic amenities are very poor, there is no infrastructure, no roads, no employment. 33% of the voters are Dalit. There are fishing communities too and the fishing villages are rapidly disappearing because of the erosion of the coast. 10% of the population is Muslim. There are no opportunities. People go to Pondicherry to find jobs. It is a very challenging constituency to work in.
What are the VCK’s chances this election, according to you? What are your chances?
We are confident as a party. We are contesting from 25 constituencies. We are sure that we will win in double digits. It is up to the people now. The ruling party is distributing money. We do not do that. We have a mega alliance with six parties, which is the biggest alliance. So let’s see. As for my own chances, I am optimistic too. The ground reaction to me is good. I have an edge and I think I have a good chance.
How do you reconcile poetry and electoral politics?
I last contested parliamentary elections in 2014 and whenever I do, I take shelter in poetry. At that time, I translated Nizar Qabbani, the Arab poet and Langston Hughes, the African American poet. I brought out two volumes of translated Arab and Black American poetry. Those were the products of my election work. This time I am yet to start. My own poetry collection is what I am going to bring out right now. It is called Mounam Thavir(Avoid Silence).
How important do you think is the Dalit question in this election and to the future of Tamil politics?
I see a bright future for Dalit politics. I see a very mature approach from our leader. I think we have forged a good and strong alliance. Casteist parties want to politically isolate us but it is they who have been isolated. PMK is fighting elections alone whereas we are part of a large alliance. We are getting a good response. I am hopeful about the future of Dalit politics in Tami Nadu.