On 8th July 2016, Piyush Manush - who claims to be an environmentalist - and two others, were arrested in Salem, Tamil Nadu, for protesting against the construction of a flyover in Salem. It is alleged that the construction took place without acquiring land at the said location of the project.
From the day of their arrests, voices were raised demanding their release and this went viral on social media with the hashtags #StandWithPiyush and #ISupportPiyush. Many environmental organizations including Poovulagin Nanbargal, as well as journalists and other progressive people, rallied in support of Piyush Manush, and against the state violence that manifested in his arrest.
As a Dalit woman, as a lawyer practicing in the Supreme Court of India, and as a person who believes in the ideologies of revolutionary Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and Thanthai Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, I am absolutely against state violence and oppression. However, I wanted to make the public aware of this person – someone who they were blindly celebrating as a 'hero' and whom they knew nothing about!
So I wrote a brief post on my Facebook page on 18th July 2016, sharing my experiences and views on his 'environmentalist' title. The content of my post was as follows:
"I kept watching all the supportive write-ups silently. When I saw a few Facebook posts comparing Piyush Manush to human rights activist Dr. Binayak Sen and Wangari Maathai -who won the Nobel Peace for her environmental and human rights activism - I felt obliged to break my silence.
Piyush belongs to my hometown Salem in Tamil Nadu. Moreover, I worked in his office for a few months when I was studying in the law college at Salem, sometime around 2006-07.
The person now known as Piyush Manush was known to me as Piyush Sethia. In the Indian context, there is no ambiguity in his surname since it definitely indicated his caste. There is nothing wrong in him changing his surname, since Periyar also suggested removing surnames that indicated caste. What I question is the publicity given to this progressive action, in Tamil magazines like Ananda Vikatan! When there were so many other anti-caste activists who even died fighting against this gruesome system, why was the surname change of a person - who was not even significantly involved in anti-caste activities or protests – given so much publicity?
I was surprised to see the construction of his heroic image, as if he was the 'saviour of this world'. While condemning his arrest, in order to understand the objections to this heroic construction, it is necessary to analyze the things which are told to be his achievements, with simple logic and common sense.
Many commended that he had de-silted and renovated Mookkaneri Lake at Salem with only 45-50 Lakh rupees. But could this have been done by one person alone? Here, I naturally questioned the monopolization and seizing of all credit, by highlighting only himself, while the other individuals and the movements that contributed to the cause were not even mentioned anywhere.
It was told that he sent bamboo huts to flood-affected areas during the Chennai floods in December 2015, butI know from my college days that he was doing bamboo and vermicomposting business. Even then, the source of the huge quantity of bamboo is not known.
Furthermore, at the time I was working in his office and even prior to that, he would not send the Right to Information applications in his name. When I was working with him, he used to force me to send those applications in my name alone. During protests that he participated in, he would escape at the first sign of arrest, while cadres from other movements got arrested - this was told to me by a person who was arrested in one such protest.
Unaware of all this, I kept sending the Right to Information applications in my name, without even knowing the contents (as I was unaware of social issues and politics that time), until I was warned and explained of the consequences by few of his acquaintances as well as the person who suggested me to join his office.
Though he himself travelled in a car, he did not pay me for the period I worked with him.
Above all, there are complaints regarding his misbehaviour with the female staff, including me. To be more specific, on one occasion, he euphemistically told me a story that only Owls have sex with one partner throughout their lifetime and that 'we are not owls'. I hope it is not necessary for me to explain as to why he told the story to me and I don't want to say anything more.
The misogynist attitude of a person who raises his voice for annihilation of caste and secularism is naturally bypassed as one's 'personal' behaviour, and the environmentalists are in no way an exception to this.
Under the guise of an environmental activist, one can exploit natural resources and the hard work of many others, can misbehave with his women staff, and why not, can also be a casteist.
There is a group that celebrates a person as being greater than Wangari Maathai without even knowing anything about them, for the simple reason that someone claims to be an environmentalist.
My question to those who celebrate Piyush as an environmental activist is this: Will you call exploitation of nature to develop oneself as love for the Earth?"
While writing the status itself, I knewthat his blind supporters would be outraged upon seeing my post on Facebook. I was also ready to face immature and insensible comments that came out of their intolerance.
But to my disbelief, unable to tolerate the criticisms against Piyush, his supporters kept throwing racist, casteist slurs and making vulgar comments and posts. Particularly, there was a certain H V krishnaprasad - who I later came to know was a Brahmin, from his continuous comments on my beef eating and other activities – who posted his comments as a status update with my then profile picture to provoke more people. The status was followed by even more vulgar and racist comments. The post was later removed by Facebook, after I reported as it as being against the community standards. Some parts of his comments are as follows:
* "Burnt ugly face. You could've given police complaint immediately after Piyush harassed you sexually. You being a lawyer, should someone else teach you this? Why the hell did you mention Piyush's caste name as Sethia?"
* "My friends are creating a forest like Piyush near Tambaram, Chennai. My sister Devika who gave idea for that has a beautiful face. Burnt ugly face do you understand? A woman with a beautiful face. My sister Devika had told me that Piyush is a Gentleman."
* "To live such a low life you can beg at the High Court gate." (He did not stop at commenting on my post but also made this an independent status on his Facebook page.)
* "Even if Piyush had spoken about owl and tortoise, there is no chance that good blood is running in Kiruba's body, since she had posted this status while he was arrested for a genuine cause and beaten up by 30 policemen"
In several other comments, he mentioned my name Kiruba as 'Kirukkuba', which means 'Mad ba' and he kept commenting on my race and skin colour.
Following his comments and posts, one of his friends (as per the statement of H V krishnaprasad) a certain Thiyagu Raman, wrote another venomous post on his Facebook page. It was obvious from his wall that he was anti-Dalit, since his page was full of hateful posts against Dalits. A section of his Facebook post is as follows:
* "If a woman who is not afraid of anything wants to take revenge on somebody, the first thing she would say is that 'he pulled my hands'. If Piyush would have concentrated only on women like Honourable Leader Karunanidhi, he wouldn't have been able to create 100 acres of forest."
* "Kiruba Munusamy!! If Piyush had really behaved in such a way with you, then you could have reported this to Thirumaavalavan (a Dalit and leader of Liberation Panthers' Party) and he would have procured a lump sum amount for you. Being a lawyer, you are someone who will take it easy. Being a lawyer who only takes adjournment in the courts, you've now got publicity by throwing your prestige in the wind. Congratulations!! At least now let you will get many cases! Let your income swell!"
In the meantime, Piyush was released on bail and participated in a one-to-one programme called 'Agni Paritchai' on Puthiya Thalaimurai TV channel. In the programme, when he was asked about the criticisms against him, he replied as follows:
* (Regarding the allegation on making profits out of nature)
"There is definitely profit in this business. How could I do something without profit? I've to pay my children's school fees, I've to feed myself, I've to pay salaries, I've pay my house rent, I've to travel, I've my own expenditure. I've set an example for being successful by doing business even while depending on nature."
* (On allegation about his misbehaviour)
"It came to my notice only now. She should've reported when she was working there. She has not done that. I think she is a lawyer as well. She is a very strong person. You should see the timing now. After 5 years. But if I've been rude with anyone, I'll seek forgiveness. I think timing is also very important. It's not like she is a weak person. I've hurt many people, major activists. She also belongs to that organization. I apologize to them even now. I stand by my apology."
This comment was a reply from the same H V krishnaprasad, to one of my Facebook followers, after the interview came out:
"Why do you keep repeating my statement 'burnt ugly face' like a worn-out audio cassette. Even if good humans like Piyush commit any wrongs they'll accept and apologize for it. People like Kiruba and you who have burnt ugly hearts will never have such a good quality."
Many persons, including H V krishnaprasad and Thiyagu Raman, continued to post defamatory and indecent comments that were degrading and insulting to me both personally and professionally. The said comments and posts were not only outraging the modesty of a woman, but also encouraged many others to make abusive comments.
While commenting on my race, skin colour and caste, they also continued to question my character, since I reached the Supreme Court, having been born as a Scheduled Caste person from an ordinary family in Salem District. These comments were also followed by vulgar comments from many others including H V krishnaprasad.
He goes on to comment -
"If someone sees this face he will not even get the mood to fuck. How is this beggar dog able to say so without any shame? It is obvious that she does not come from a good family. Look at her face, yuck!!"
Although Piyush claimed that my status came to his notice only after he was released on bail, he did not condemn his supporters for making such statements against me.
Furthermore, nobody in this world will acceptabout their misbehaviour toward women staff on a live show. Yet his supporters continued to blame me with defamatory comments, as if I did it for publicity, and defending upon Piyush's statement by saying that he only sought forgiveness for his rude behavior.
The words in their comments and posts are overtly racist, casteist, slanderous, vulgar, insulting, abusive, indecent and defamatory. I've already sent a complaint over e-mail to the Commissioner of Police and will also be going in person to Chennai in the coming week to lodge a complaint under The Scheduled Castes and The Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act, 2015, Protection of Civil Rights Act, The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986 and Indian Penal Code, 1860 and other relevant statutes.
What is shocking and revealing about this entire episode is that a critique on an obviously upper caste businessman who promotes his business in the guise of activism invites sexist, racist and castiest ire of people similarly located – but who do not even remotely know him personally. The above allegations can be cross-checked with number of other people who have worked with Piyush and left because of his boorishness and high-handedness. The narratives in the critique are all based on personal experience and not on hearsay.
This is not a quarrel or fight between two individuals called Kiruba and Piyush, but a larger structural discourse on how hegemony operates and who are allowed to speak. What is fascinating is that other criticismsabout Piyush (regardless of their validity) have not been met with the same ire that was meted out to criticisms by a Dalit woman. In this whole discourse, the Caste-male privilege of a businessman has been used to crush the credibility of a testimony of oppression.
After all it is not without reason that our follies like Piyush and Anna Hazare become icons in this country!
This was written with inputs from Bobby Kunhu.
Kiruba Munuswamy is a lawyer in the Supreme Court of India.