Published: 13th June 2019
What Pa Ranjith said isn't new. Identity politics has made us forget historical facts: Stalin Rajangam
We ask writer Stalin Rajangam if Pa Ranjith's statements had any basis and if in fact, people's lands were snatched away from them
Over the last two days, social media has been having a war of words over the comments that director Pa Ranjith made about Raja Raja Chola and the Chola empire. While the speech itself was made a couple of days ago, it began to go viral after H Raja put out a tweet condemning the speech and also attaching a picture of Ranjith's family including his minor daughter. Soon the hashtag #PrayforMentalRanjith began to trend, people went on their usual tirade of called the director a casteist for talking about caste and Dalit rights. He did gain some support later on and the hashtag #IStandwithPaRanjith began to gain some traction.
So what did he say — Ranjith said that during the Chola period land was snatched away from the Dalits. We decided to ask Stalin Rajangam, the acclaimed historian and academic to explain what took place during the Chola period. If it was actually a golden period or if some of that shine over the last few years as more and more digging happened?
#pray_for_mental_ranjith He studied eat dress shit from the money of Hindus— Iyers voice (@BrahmanaSingam) June 11, 2019
He enjoyed all benefits reservations from the Hindu money
2 views — the King and his subjects
Explaining how history has been recorded, Stalin tells us that pre-Chola era, most of our history was derived from literature. It was only from the Chola period that historians were able to record history from actual visible evidence. "During the Chola period historians could rely on, not just scriptures but also on the temples, the names of the regions, art, artifacts, sculptures and buildings to determine history. The first two historians to write on the Chola dynasty were Kallidaikurichi Aiyah Nilakanta Sastri and T V Sadasiva Pandaratha," Stalin explained.
Following these historians were Subbarayalu Y, Burton Stein and many others who documented the Chola period and its feudal system. "There were two angles from which history under the Chola dynasty was recorded — from the King/governance point of view and two, from the people's point of view. Left-leaning historians began to document facts from the people's point of view. Now those two views don't match each other," he explained.
Social system wasn't gold...not even silver
Yes, there was splendid architecture, foreign trade, agriculture, economy, culture, art and architecture were all booming during the Chola period as our history books tell us. "Yes our crops and our produce were great during that time. The Cholas ruled on the banks of the Cauvery river so the land was naturally fertile," Stalin says. But whose land was it?
The historian says that the Cholas took over the fertile lands from their owners and made them slaves on that very land. "They became like bonded labourers on their own lands," he said.
The temples of the Chola period that have become heritage sites and a matter of pride for the Tamils were set up on other people's lands, according to Stalin. "Researchers and historians have supported this fact for ages now. It's nothing new," he added. When a temple was set up, the village had to surrender itself to the temple. And the decisions of the temple (or by those inside it) became the rule of the land.
Temples — the law of the land
"When the Cholas would conquer other lands too, the owners of the land, the people who had been cultivating on those fields had to suddenly surrender their lands. And if a temple came up in that region, that whatever was seen as good for the temple and the Gods in it, that was followed. Whatever the temple asked, they had to give," Stalin said.
People also had to 'donate' lands for temple use. People became landless and slaves during the Chola period, he added.
The Verdict — Ranjith was saying nothing new
According to Stalin, these facts have been known for years now. "The event that Ranjith was speaking at was a memorial event for Umar Farooq, a Dalit man who fought for the rights of the people whose land was acquired by the state and were left landless. It was only because of the nature of the event that Ranjith must have said what he did."
But he was right, Stalin says, "Nothing that he said was factually wrong. It is true that land was snatched away and temples were erected on those lands. The rules the temples dictated became the rule of the land, if they were asked to surrender their lands, then they did so. The Kings were treated like Gods too."
Even according to some essays that we went through in the process of putting together this story, during the time Brahmins were exempt from taxes and held the powerful positions in the palace and administration as well as of course, the temples.
#PrayForMentalRanjith Failed director trying distort our history ,Mental Ranjith should take psychiatric treatment.— Sankara Narayanan T (@Sankarant82) June 10, 2019
Why the hysteria? Why the drama?
If this has been a known fact all these years, then why have Pa Ranjith's comments garnered so much hate? Why are people getting so offended? Why is a democratic country suddenly so defensive of a monarchy?
It is because of the identity politics that has politicians have used as their political weapon, Stalin says. "Since about 20-30 years, identity politics has become very significant in our lives. Every time a politician has to feed into the misery of the people, they will remind them of the glorious times of the Cholas and say we should return to those times," he said.
Somehow facts, evidence and history has gotten lost and no one looks at it anymore. "Every kingdom has its good and bad as does every single thing in life. But here, we are selective about what we talk about and what we don't. We like to exaggerate the good things about the Chola period and hide the bad things," he said.
Pride before the 'fall' of the dynasty
According to Stalin, Ranjith could have offended people from the following categories — RSS/BJP, Caste Hindus, Tamil nationalists and some sections of the Dravidian parties too.
"The Hindu nationalists see Raja Raja Cholan as a Hindu ruler, the Tamils as a Tamil ruler and caste Hindus as someone who belonged to their caste. While Periyar never praised the King, the Dravidian leaders who followed him did praise the King. They were all proud of him and spoke well of that period. In all this identity war, we've forgotten facts," he states. Stalin said that Karunanidhi even established an award in his name and other political leaders also spoke fondly of wanting to go back to that era.
People have romanticised the period because it was prosperous and do not want to acknowledge that fact that there was social discrimination that existed as well.
The love triangle, square and rectangle
There are several castes that have claimed Raja Raja Cholan as their own. This is because he was known as a brave king, Stalin says. "People try to show off with each other about their castes. They always say this caste is the bravest, that caste is the strongest. So since Raja Raja Cholan is seen as a brave king, as many as four castes have claimed that he is from their caste."
"Personally, I think that we have to be progressive in our thinking and accept the fact that there was discrimination in the period. We have to choose progressiveness over pride," Stalin states.
An FIR has been registered against Ranjith under IPC 153 (giving provocation with intent to cause riot) and 153 (A) (1) (a) (promoting enmity between different groups). He has applied for anticipatory bail today.
When there are enough news articles to prove that even today land is being snatched away from Dalits across the country. Should it be a wonder that it happened during a monarchy? There's a reason we did away with it. Maybe some fact checking will help us remember why.