Wake-up call: Read the writing in the Kolams

Chennai has never been afraid to stand up for what it feels is right. Eminent writer and heritage activist V Sriram decries the strong-arm tactics against peaceful, artistic expressions of dissent in the city, such as the recent one against Kolams carrying a message.

Enough and more has been said on the subject of stifling dissent and readers must be wondering as to whether yet another article on the subject is at all warranted. But even if we were to wish away what is happening elsewhere in the country, and we certainly cannot do that, the recent occurrences in Chennai have taken us by surprise and it is time we feel necessary to speak out on what the city stands for.

But for those who are not aware, a brief recap is necessary. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 is the current subject of discussion and enough and more has been written, spoken and shouted about, for and against it. There have been protests of various kinds across the country, some led by political parties and the majority by activists and students. In Chennai, too, we have seen some protests though the intensity is a lot less here, which by the way, cannot be construed as assent for the Act. In the midst of all this, some people came up with a novel way to register disapproval. They wove the message in to kolam-s – the traditional patterns of rice flour drawn on the threshold of any Hindu household in South India.

It was a unique protest and fairly innocuous. But the level of retribution that descended on those who came up with this idea was inordinate. Eight of them were rounded up, one of whom was denounced as a person with Pakistani leanings – all this in our city where we have prided ourselves on our tolerance.

Chennai has much to be proud of by way of its history of secular thought. This is where inclusion became a way of governance way back in the 1920s, long before Indian independence. This is where a temple’s tank is located on land given by Muslims and a cave associated with the Pandavas has been used as a mosque for centuries. Like all settlements in India, we have seen displacements of one community by another, as evident in some of our shrines, but we have accepted these and moved on. So can we not accept dissent also as part of life and deal with it through discussions, debates and dialogue instead of making the State’s law-enforcing machinery descend on a few individuals? What hope does the latter have against the former and is it at all warranted?

That Chennai is a city with a fierce pride all of its own is well known. Which was the metro that protested against income tax in the 1860s? Where was there a movement to remove the statue of a hated colonizer even in the 1930s (and we succeeded in it by the way)? Where was language pride an issue that merited defending even in the 1930s and once again in the 1960s? Which city was the heartland of a separatist movement in the 1940s and which was given up in the 1960s? Where was federalism as a concept for governing India first mooted? True, much of all this has acquired political colour and posturing over the years but that Chennai has been in the vanguard of free thought cannot be denied.

The protests by way of Kolam-s are to be treated similarly. It is a colourful and highly artistic way of showing disagreement, one that becomes a city that is part of UNESCO’s cultural network. And it is a peaceful form of protest. So how can it merit such draconian action as rounding up people? Such strong arm tactics do not form part of our ethos. And if by indulging in it, the law thought it could coerce people into obedience, then it was a remarkable error in judgement about Chennai’s people.

This story was first published on Madras Musings and has been republished with permission. The original article can be found here.

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