Rajinikanth's statements at the 50th anniversary celebrations of Thuglaq magazine have created a political furore in Tamil Nadu, with the DMK and DK accusing the actor-politician of presenting incorrect facts. At the event, Rajinikanth said, "In Salem in 1971, Sri Ramachandra Murthy and Seethai's idols were taken naked and wearing a garland of chappals in a procession conducted by Periyar. None of the newspapers at the time published this news but Cho (Ramasamy) sir put it on the cover of the magazine and criticised it harshly. The DMK government at that time got a very bad name because of it. They seized the magazine so that nobody would get a copy. But he published it again and it was sold in black." (Cho Ramasamy was the editor of the magazine Thuglak).
Rajinikanth's claim has become a hotly contested debate in the state. While an anti-superstition rally was indeed carried out by Periyar and his followers in Salem in 1971, the DMK and Periyarists have a different version of events.
According to them, the idol was not naked and neither was it wearing a garland of chappals. Speaking to BBC Tamil, Kali Poongundran, who was present at the procession and is currently the General Secretary of the Dravidar Kazhagam, said, "In this procession, Periyar was also coming in one of the trucks. The Jan Sangh had taken permission to show him black flags. While they were showing black flags, there was one man in the crowd who threw a chappal at Periyar. But Periyar's vehicle went past it. The Dravidar Kazhagam workers who were angered by this incident, took the same chappal and hit the picture of Rama which was being carried in a truck in the procession. This is what happened."
Periyar himself spoke about the incident. In an audio clip recorded after the procession and the surrounding controversy, he can be heard saying:
"We conducted an anti-superstition rally in Salem. I did not invite the DMK to participate in the rally. If the DMK participates they will have trouble, hence I conducted the event without their involvement. There was huge support from the public for the rally. In that rally, I exposed the obscenity of the gods. We decided to condemn the gods. They burnt the effigy of Ravana, so we decided to burn the effigy of Rama in the rally. We explained the reasons for doing so, saying he is a fraud and we had put out the information on display on boards and cloth. I did not make up anything, whatever is there in the puranam, we had put out the facts. Whatever is there in the puranam will be embarrassing for them for sure. It was a big rally, lakhs of people participated and I was at the end of the rally.
People were walking in front of me with a band and people were carrying these pictures. At that time, there was a Brahmin group in the area, they had named themselves as Temple Protection Movement. They were holding a black flag protest against us. Police came to me and said that there was going to be trouble. There are lakhs of people with you and only hundreds are protesting on the other side, and they said this is going to be a problem. I told them that we wonâ€™t do anything and you please protect them and I will ensure that our people are kept under control. We organised the rally in a proper manner, we did not want any trouble. They (right wing) were coming along with us, protesting and holding black flags. There were some 300-400 people in between us as a wall. We were marching and they were raising derogatory slogans. Our people were raising slogans saying â€˜Rama down downâ€™, they were taking my name and abusing me. Then our people started arguing with them and raising slogans against them.
In the melee, one scoundrel removed his slipper from the other side and it was thrown at our crowd. One of our people took that same slipper and started beating Ramaâ€™s picture. One person started hitting and all the others joined in. No one was there to question them and the police were mute spectators. This got over and we burnt the Rama effigy. The Congress picked up this issue, including Kamaraj, and they started the propaganda that Ramaâ€™s picture was slippered; they started a magazine which is running till now. Cho or whatever his name is, they displayed 3 lakh wall posters across the state, of me holding a slipper, a picture of Rama and Karunanidhi's picture saying "Sabash!". This is what made this incident famous to the entire world and it was their foolishness. They went to town campaigning saying Periyar slippered Rama and this is what happened."
Poongundran's and Periyar's versions match closely, but to bolster his argument, Rajinikanth had cited a news report from Outlook magazine on the censorship of the press in Tamil Nadu. This 2017 news report by GC Shekhar, titled 'The Tamil Gag Raj', says, "The first stone was thrown by the DMK and its leader Karunanidhi in February 1971 when Thuglak, edited by Cho Ramaswamy, came under fire for publishing photographs of a Dravidar Kazhagamâ€™s procession in Salem that had depicted Hindu gods Rama and Sita in the nude with a garland of slippers around their neck. Karunanidhi had initially denied that any such denigration had happened at Salem, but Thuglak countered his claim with photographic evidence. Even as the police came to the Ananda Vikatan press to seize the copies, bundles of the fortnightly were flung over the compound wall and found their way to the market, where they were sold at a premium. The irrepressible Cho published a cartoon in the next edition that showed Karunanidhi as the circulation-cum-advertising agent for Thuglak for having created a demand for his fledgling magazine."
There is a crucial difference between this version and what Periyar said.
While Periyar said that they'd indeed exposed the "obscenity" of gods, he did not say that the Rama idol was stripped. The rationalist leader had said that they'd visually depicted the "obscenity" that's part of mythological stories, and that he'd not made up any of these. The Thuglak story on the incident has a visual with naked figures but this is of Lord Shiva and Mohini (Lord Vishnu in the form of a woman), not Rama (who is another avatar of Vishnu). The caption below the visual reads, "Ayyappa who was born of the union of two male gods". In Hindu mythology, Ayyappa was indeed born of such a union.
Commenting on the controversy, Thuglak's chief reporter Ramesh, a long-time associate of Cho, has said in an interview to Behindwoods that Rajinikanth's statement is not entirely true but that gods were indeed insulted at the procession.
"Were Rama and Sita's pictures naked - if that is the question, then no. The Sriramachandrar who is worshiped by the people was insulted. These pictures of insult were published by Thuglak. Because of this reason, Thuglak was seized. Due to this, Cho's graph went up. Thuglak's graph went up. This was the continuation of his (Rajini's) speech." "But if the Dravidar Kazhagam or anyone else says none of the gods were depicted as naked in the procession, Thughlak is ready to counter them. I can show you the pictures we published," he said.
Regarding the chappal incident, a copy of Thuglak published in 1971 has the photograph of a Rama idol with the caption, "A garland of chappals for Rama's idol in the procession". However, the image is too grainy to make out if the idol is actually wearing such a garland.
In its latest edition, Thuglak presents KN Lakshamanan, a former BJP leader from Salem, as witness to the events. "Many have confirmed what KN Lakshamanan is firmly stating that images of many gods, including Ramar, had been disrespectfully depicted in that rally," states the report.
It goes on to say, "According to the story that they (DK leaders) have told reporters, Kali Poongundran of the Dravidar Kazhagam has said that someone threw a slipper at those who came to that rally. He has admitted and given testimony that his party members beat Ramar's image with slipper."
This does not provide clarity on the chappal incident since the DK has agreed that the image was beaten; however, the latter's claim is that it happened because the workers were provoked by the chappal that was allegedly thrown by the right wing. A garland of chappals, on the other hand, would imply that it was planned ahead of the procession.
(With inputs from Manasa Rao)