The assembly polls in Tamil Nadu are months away, but political parties in the state have already drawn battlelines, bringing their ideologies to the centre of this fight. The latest controversy to erupt has been over remarks made by Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) chief Thol Thirumavalavan on the Manusmriti, an ancient text that he argues still dictates socio-cultural practices amongst Hindus.
On September 27, during a webinar organised by European Periyar Ambedkar Comrades’ Federation on ‘Periyar and Indian Politics’, the Chidambaram MP stated that Manusmriti denigrated women and portrayed them as 'prostitutes. The Tamil Nadu BJP, led by its new entrant Khushboo, has now begun protests alleging that his statement 'hurt Hindu sentiments' and are derogatory to women. The MP was even booked by the Chennai police for the same. But in an interview to TNM, he says these protests against him are merely part of the pattern adopted by the BJP to stir communal hatred ahead of the Assembly polls.
He further explains why the Manusmriti is still relevant in today's society, his stance on Khushboo's 'pre-marital sex' remarks and why he acknowledged the support of alleged sexual predatory Vairamuthu on social media.
Did you expect this backlash for your speech on the Manusmriti? What do you make of it?
I expected them to create a controversy but they have actually twisted what I said. I am not someone who makes derogatory comments on women. Ours is a movement that fights for women. We have in fact fought for 50% reservation for women (the Women's Reservation Bill seeks 35%) and are actively looking to hear out problems and demands from women in order to enable their empowerment. But the BJP is looking to portray us as enemies of women.
The cause for this is the upcoming Assembly Elections. They want to weaken the DMK alliance. But we are not concerned about this propaganda against us.
What do you think the agenda of the BJP was in stirring this controversy?
The BJP is doing cheap politics. They keep trying to instigate caste and religious hatred in every state and gain political advantage through this. As far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, if you look at their politics, the main message is- Hindus have been hurt. They are targeting different people with this statement and protesting this issue. They did the same against actor Suriya and his wife (Thanjavur big temple controversy), against Vairamuthu (not given doctorate), against Vijay Sethupathi (alleged Christian conversion movement) and several others. In the last two years, all their protests have been on the same lines.
Have they even considered other issues? Have they ever protested caste killings? Have they fought for reservation? Did they say anything when an order was passed slashing reservations for OBCs (Other Backward Communities) in banks? We protested for this across Tamil Nadu. They didn't even make statements on this. They don't conduct any protests for positive change. They only instigate communal hatred and look to politicise it.
Several people have argued that the Manusmriti is an ancient text with no relevance in today’s society.
This is either complete ignorance or cheap politics. Manusmriti is practiced in all walks of life. From the time a child is born, they are fed caste identity and taught their caste rituals. From what they wear to what they eat, from their relationships to marriage and finally their last rites, it is Manusmriti that is being practiced. How can you say it is not relevant?
They use the Constitution only for political administration, elections and the judicial system. But in a socio-cultural context, it is the Manusmriti that is still in force. On what basis are same caste marriages done? On what basis do Brahmins conduct last rites? Even within the Hindu religion, every caste has different practices and rituals. Look at the differences in marriage ceremonies conducted by Brahmins and Chettiars. Aren't they both Hindus? Everything is as per the Varna system and Hindus are still following this. Even today, non Brahmins accept that only Brahmins can enter the altar of God in a temple. On what basis have they accepted this? Why don't they protest this? In the Sankara madam, only a Brahmin can run the administration, don't all Hindus accept this? Has a Mudhaliar or Pillai said that they will follow vegetarianism and other practices and asked to be made the Jagadguru? They don't ask because they have accepted Manusmriti. All Hindu cultural practices are based on Manusmriti.
The BJP has pointed out that you are highlighting this ahead of elections.
Not at all. I spoke at an event for European Periyar Ambedkar Comrades’ Federation on ‘Periyar and Indian Politics’. They asked me to speak about social justice and I made an extempore speech at the event. In my three decades of public life, I have spoken about Manusmriti multiple times. Ambedkar has even burnt a copy of Manusmriti. Ambedkar and Periyar's entire ideology was anti-Manu dharma. Ambedkar embraced Buddhism because of Manusmriti. So, this is not a sudden development.
How are ideological issues such as Manusmriti going to play out during the upcoming elections? Do you think that issues of Brahminism and religion are going to take centre stage during the polls?
No matter what the BJP does, their agenda will not succeed in Tamil Nadu. They are planning to instigate caste and communal hatred. They are speaking with the confidence that some OBC leaders including the AIADMK are in alliance with them. But the public is not like this. People will not give space for communal politics in Tamil Nadu. They will reject the BJP. And even if they continue to make issues of Brahminism and religion ahead of the polls, it will backfire and not benefit them.
The Manusmriti aims to remove any agency from women. But in your effort to point this out, you are comparing that to sex work, which ultimately leads to shaming women who do sex work. Your use of the word prostitute is problematic. Would you agree to that?
In Tamil they use the term 'Vibachara dosham'. That is what I had said in English as well. It is merely an interpretation. I was not quoting directly. I didn't take a verse from Manusmriti directly and quote it as such. I was interpreting the overall gist of Manusmriti and how the text looks at women.
The ninth chapter deals with women like this. I was explaining how they described the nature of women - as people who seduced men. In Tamil they have translated as 'Vibachara dosham'. This is there in official government translations of the Manusmriti.
What do you think about the AIADMK's silence on this issue?
AIADMK is under compulsion to remain silent. They are forced to support the BJP as they have to save the party and their symbol. They have to keep the alliance intact and contest elections. To contest, they need the Centre's support. So they remain spectators and dance to their tunes.
Coming to Khushboo - When she commented on pre-marital sex in 2005, you were amongst the first to condemn this. Do you still take the same stand as you did then?
This is a wrong statement. I never condemned Khushboo on any platform. When she spoke about pre-marital sex, several organisations protested. About five or six women from VCK also protested in North Chennai. When I came to know this, I strictly told them not to participate in such protests and not make comments on this issue. I was on tour in south Tamil Nadu and spoke to the district secretary and even told them not to protest anywhere else. I said we can't encourage such protests, that Khushboo has the right to express her opinions and told party members we can't interfere. I spoke in support of Khushboo's comments.
But people used that one protest and made it seem like that was my view on the matter. People are still saying this and even Khushboo believes the same. I have clarified this on several stages, YouTube channels and platforms. I have explained this several times and never condemned her. I never said what she said was wrong. My party members did protest but I chastised them.
If Khushboo made the same statement today, how would you react?
This is a hypothetical question and I can't give a hypothetical answer. This is an unnecessary matter. Everyone has the right to express their opinion. Whether pre-marital sex is right or wrong is not a debate. So, I believe this is a non-issue and shouldn't be debated.
You are fighting for women empowerment but do you think your credibility is affected by your public association with someone like Vairamuthu whom nine women have accused of sexual harassment?
He tweeted in my favour and I thanked him. That is all that was.
But he is someone who has been accused of sexual harassment. And this is an issue regarding women. Do you think you should be publicly associating with him?
When it comes to this issue, there is an effort to isolate me and my party. They are spreading defamatory statements against me. At this time, it is my duty to respond to anyone who sends me supportive messages.
There is a culture of misogyny in Tamil Nadu and Indian politics. How will you address this larger problem, and do you think leaders like you are doing enough?
VCK has been taking up such problems and continuously protesting. We have been asking for various kinds of protection and rights for women. We have never given support or space to politicians or anyone who speaks against women. We believe in women’s empowerment- work on the ground for this and ally with women's groups for the same.
VCK has asked for 50% reservation for women in education and employment. In our party, we compulsorily have women in important positions such as district and state secretaries.
But what about your allies like the DMK and Congress?
I don't know about this. This is their internal party matter. How can I comment on this? I can't comment on what they are doing or how much they are doing. As far as VCK is concerned, we are constantly evolving and including more women in leadership roles and encouraging them.