FIR against Viduthalai Sigappi for Satirical Poem on Manual Scavenging Draws Criticism from Various Quarters

The poem 'Malakuzhi Maranam' concerns the issue of death by manual scavenging.
FIR against Viduthalai Sigappi for Satirical Poem on Manual Scavenging Draws Criticism from Various Quarters

Tamil Nadu— Assistant director Viduthalai Sigappi aka Vigneshwaran , known for his activism in the Ambedkarite community, has come under fire from certain Hindu right-wing groups in Tamil Nadu.

An FIR was  filed against him on Tuesday  by the Bharat Hindu Munnani, alleging that his recitation of a satirical poem at an event organised by Neelam Cultural Centre hurt Hindu sentiments. The poem in question was a commentary on manual scavenging and had characters from Brahminical mythology such as Ram, Lakshman, Hanuman, and Sita.

The incident has drawn widespread criticism from various quarters, with filmmaker PA Ranjith condemning both the Hindu groups and the Tamil Nadu police for their actions. Ranjith, who organised the Vaanam Arts Festival where the poem was recited, has stated that the poem was meant to criticise the deaths of manual scavengers across India and was in line with the teachings of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar.

Ranjith also said, “Viduthalai Sigappi, following in the steps of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, recited a poem that shows what would happen even if gods had to do manual scavenging work. The poem criticises the deaths due to manual scavenging that have occurred across India.” He said that BJP and other right-wing organisations do not understand what the poem is trying to say. He also added, "I strongly condemn the fascist organisations and the Tamil Nadu police department that has bowed down to pressure."

The event in series of Dalit History Month Celebrations

The recitation of the poem by Sigappi, during the Vaanam Arts Festival organised by the Neelam Cultural Centre, on April 30,  stirred up controversy. The festival was held to commemorate Dalit History Month, and Viduthalai gave a speech about manual scavenging deaths and the system's indifference to their plight.

The poem in question is titled 'Malakuzhi Maranam' and concerns the issue of death by manual scavenging. The poem satirically features Hindu deities as characters, with 'Raman', 'Lakshmanan' and 'Hanuman' entering a manhole while the goddess 'Sita' observes the scene.

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In his speech, Sigappi posed a hypothetical question, speculating whether the Gods would receive the same indifference if they were to undergo such an experience. This led to his recitation of the poem, which sought to highlight the negatives of manual scavenging.

Despite the poem's intended message, certain parties have taken issue with it and drawn a religious connotation. In response, the Neelam Cultural Centre released a statement decrying these forces' attempts to mislead and misdirect attention from the larger issue.

Recital going viral on social media

Following the circulation of videos on social media showcasing Viduthalai's recital of the satirical poem, the Bharath Hindu Munnani filed a complaint against him at the Abhiramapuram police station. 

The complaint alleged that Viduthalai's poem was enraging religious sentiments, promoting class enmity, and inciting fear among the public.

Following upon the complaint, the police registered an FIR against Viduthalai under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, including 53, 153A (1)(a), 295 A, 505 (1)(b), and 505 (2).

The Neelam Cultural Centre's statement 

Neelam Cultural Centre strongly condemned the Bharath Indu Munnani Party for filing case against Viduthalai. The organisation took to social media for opposing the state police also,  for having registered the complaint against the artist.  

In the statment, the group said that, "The roots of manual scavenging - a caste based occupation lies in the Hindu social order. Several decades after India’s independence and its emergence as the largest democracy in the world, the nation has ignored to eradicate the inhumane age old practice. Over the years governments have turned a deaf ear towards the increasing number of deaths from manual scavenging. A Dalit youth expressing this societal failure through a creative expression of satire, is nothing but him exercising his right to expression as a citizen." 

The statement further read , "The Bharath Indu Munnani Party cannot infringe the rights of any person. This is an unacceptable and unconstitutional. Our support and solidarity to brother Viduthalai Sigapi."

Ex- CM demand strict action

Former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and deposed AIADMK leader, O Panneerselvam, has issued a statement on Twitter calling for strict action to be taken against individuals who insult Hindu deities or religious sentiments. Panneerselvam also criticized the DMK government for its inaction in preventing such derogatory actions, citing that the Indian Constitution grants individuals the freedom of religion and prohibits any defamation of a particular faith.

He claimed that during the rule of former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, it was ensured that individuals were not allowed to insult members of another faith. 

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Panneerselvam went on to reference a past incident involving derogatory comments made about Lord Thillai Nataraja, which had caused outrage among devotees, and demanded action be taken to prevent similar incidents from happening.

Panneerselvam also condemned  comments made by Vigneshwaran aka Viduthalai Sigappi, claiming that he insulted deities from the Hindu faith. He further insisted that such derogatory comments are a threat to law and order, religious harmony, and that strict legal action should be taken against the individual responsible.

Panneerselvam has urged the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M K Stalin, to take immediate action and prevent any such incidents from occurring in the future.

Ambedkarites condemn TN police action

Ambedkarite activists have strongly criticized the Tamil Nadu police's action against assistant director Viduthalai Sigappi. They have condemned the FIR filed against him and asserted that Sigappi's poem is a powerful and nuanced reflection of the social injustices faced by those engaged in manual scavenging.

Moreover, the Ambedkarites have accused the authorities of being blind to the issue of manual scavenging and have called for an end to such inhumane practices. Sigappi's poem has provoked critical thinking and sparked a conversation on the very real and pressing issue of manual scavenging, which is often overlooked by those in power.

The Ambedkarites have pledged to stand in solidarity with Viduthalai Sigappi and have called for an end to the suppression of voices that speak truth to power. They have also urged the authorities to ensure that justice is served and that the fundamental rights of individuals are not curtailed in the name of religion or culture.

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Deaths due to Manual Scavenging

Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment, Ramdas Athawale, imparted a disturbing piece of information to the Rajya Sabha on February 8, regarding the unfortunate deaths of 308 individuals who have lost their lives while cleaning sewers and septic tanks in the last five years (2018-2022). The harrowing numbers comprise 52 fatalities from Tamil Nadu, 46 from Uttar Pradesh, 40 from Haryana, 38 from Maharashtra, and 33 from Delhi. Experts contend that the reported figures may be an underestimation since First Information Reports are not filed in all cases.

Although abolished on paper, the practice of manual scavenging continues to persist in reality

Ever since the legal abolition of “untouchability” by The Untouchability (Offences) Act, 1955, discussions regarding the deplorable practice of manual scavenging have become a regular feature in parliament. The Congress government, led by P.V. Narasimha Rao, banned the unspeakable practice through the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993. Later, in 2013, the United Progressive Alliance government introduced an even more potent measure, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act. Guidelines suggest that manual cleaning activities should only be carried out with adequate precautionary measures, and machines should be deployed wherever possible.

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