The Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) Tamil Nadu unit president, Annamalai, has set the cat among the pigeons.
The former IPS officer, who is not willing to pull his punches, recently made a comment that seems to have raised the hackles of a section of journalists, who, without putting too fine a point on it, can be described to be part of the ecosystem that the Dravidian section too operates in.
So what did Annamalai say that has got the goat of some scribes?
Well, again to be blunt, what Annamalai said wasn't edifying. He dealt with a figure of speech, nay, a crass euphemism, in the context of an interview of Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) leader Udhayanidhi Stalin with a Tamil news channel journalist.
The questions that were put to Udhayanidhi were decidedly half-volleys and rank full tosses. It all seemed a fixed encounter. Responding to that, Annamalai described it with a crass colloquialism ('pallu padaama paathu kelvi kettar'). Without actually going into its import or meaning, it should be said that it is bawdy and coarse, and is best avoided in public speeches. (Annamalai continues to maintain that he never intended to use the phrase as double entendre and that it is locally used as an innocuous turn of phrase).
While what Annamalai said wasn't uplifting, it was also not something uncommon. If anything, there is a 2023 Tamil film with a title that carries the same words that the TN BJP leader uttered. Which means, Pallu Padama Paathukka has actually gotten past the Censor Board. That the film itself is a B-grade commercial pot-boiler filled with double entendre is a different matter.
Anyway, Annamalai's jibe elicited a strong response, which is not entirely surprising. But the vehemence of it seemed a little disproportionate to the verbal transgression.
The Dravidian leaders have said far worse things about journalists and journalism.
One of the frontline leaders of the DMK, R S Bharathi, not long ago compared media houses to red-light districts. His son, who is also an up and coming functionary in the party, in a recent social media talk wanted to 'spoil the happiness' of a couple of journalists who had merely reported on the lack of adequate government response in the aftermath of Chennai floods of December 2023. And DMK leader, late Karunanidhi himself had let slip on occasions many an observation that carried disturbing double meanings. But those were held up as examples of his wit with the language.
Hey Ram! This is intriguing!
Annamalai refused to take a back step and did not apologise for his scurrilous expression. And this is where things took an intriguing turn.
A bunch of journalists, led by card-carrying Communist N Ram, decided to hit the protest button. Their team, filled with the usual suspects, held a meeting at Chennai Valluvar Kottam area --- Chennai's Speaker's Corner of Hyde Park --- condemning Annamalai.
They didn't stop with that. They also demanded --- why not? --- criminal defamation case on Annamalai. Well, well, well, journalists asking for a criminal defamation case? Weren't they against the use of criminal defamation law in any context.
For context, the very same N Ram not long ago wanted the criminal defamation section to be thrown out of the IPC books. In April 2023, Ram wrote: "The objections against the law of criminal defamation are easily summarised. It is a colonial law meant to protect the British empire and its officials from the effects of robust criticism and opposition and has no place in a sovereign, democratic republic. Freedom of speech and expression is vital to democracy and if this freedom is curtailed by resort to a draconian colonial law, the cherished value of free speech under the Constitution is imperilled."
And he continued: "The law must be consigned to the dustbin of history and since there is little prospect of Parliament doing this, it is perhaps time for a challenge before a constitutional bench of the highest court in the land."
It is the same legal provision Ram and his ilk want to to be used on Annamalai.
Ram’s cousin and a stakeholder in his paper, Malini Parthasarathy, called him out. In a tweet, she said that the 'attack' on Annamalai by a group of journalists in Chennai, especially the call to black out coverage of him, is totally unacceptable for any reputed news organisation.
Also, at a time when a TV journalist has been hacked with sickles in Tiruppur district recently, and news reporters feeling unsafe from the attacks of goons and goondas and the State, the protest from Ram and his cohorts over a throwaway line seems insensitive and a travesty.
DMK’s ventriloquists in the media
Beyond the irony of journalists wanting the use of criminal defamation law, it is also pertinent to analyse the political underpinnings to the development. It can be safely claimed that the bunch of journalists who turned up for the protest have channels of communication open with the top brass of Anna Arivalayam.
And the shrill and over the top reaction of these journos lead to the suspicion that they may be ventriloquizing for somebody else. Of course, they have no love lost for the BJP. Which is fine. Left to themselves they would have put out a statement under the aegis of a press club or some such council and let the unsavoury matter die. But when they hit the street in protest and ask for a case to be slapped under a law that they themselves have been describing as draconian, you can feel the Dravidian ecosystem at work.
But why? Well, whether it is a fact or not, there is a general feeling, especially on social media platforms, that the high-octane politics of Annamalai is helping the BJP to draw support in TN. It is a claim that has to be tested at the hustings.
At the same time, the repeated self-goals of the DMK and the loud chirping from Annamalai's acolytes on social media platforms have created an image that the momentum is slowly shifting towards the saffron party in the State.
The DMK, the grapevine tells us, is losing its sleep over Annamalai's aggressive and relentless gambit. It is perhaps the Dravidian party that is shooting at Annamalai from the shoulders of journalists. The BJP leader is sure that it is the case. Of the journalists protest, he said, "the first layer of DMK onion is activated".
It is fine for the DMK to do so. The question to ask is: Why are the scribes lending themselves to such an unseemly fight?
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