The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Ram debate challenge, with Valmiki punch

Chennai, Sept. 20: M. Karunanidhi today rejected a demand from L.K. Advani to withdraw his “affront” to Ram, challenged him to a public debate and cited the Ramayan’s references to its hero’s drinking habits.

The DMK chief had earlier described Ram as a mythological character and wondered from which engineering college he might have learnt the skills that enabled him to build a sea-bridge to Sri Lanka.

Advani told reporters here today that the chief minister must withdraw his remarks, made in the context of the “Ram setu” controversy that is holding up a navigation project off the southern Tamil Nadu coast.

“I respect atheists, there are atheists in the BJP, too, and I respect Karunanidhi also for being an atheist,” the BJP leader said.

“(But) atheists in America and other countries do not wound religious sentiments. Can such remarks be made against Jesus Christ in countries where Christians are in (the) majority or against the Prophet Mohammed where Muslims are in (the) majority'”

Within hours, Karunanidhi had stepped out of the DMK office to say he had hurt no one’s religious sentiments and spoken only the obvious truth.

“I myself have written many novels. Do the characters of my novels exist' Even Jawaharlal Nehru had said that the Ramayan was an imaginary tale and this was the opinion of Rajaji, too,” he said.

“Valmiki wrote that Ram was a habitual drinker of somabaan (an intoxicant), but have I said such things'” the 84-year-old chuckled. “Advani should first read the Valmiki Ramayan in full and then come for an argument with me. I am ready for one.”

The dispute centres on a ship canal project that looks to cut through a chain of islets which, the Sangh parivar says, is the remnant of a bridge built by Ram’s monkey army. After the matter went to the Supreme Court, the Centre had said Ram never existed, triggering a furore that prompted it to withdraw the affidavit.

Karunanidhi’s earlier comments came in that context, sparking a bomb-and-stone attack on his daughter’s home in Bangalore and the torching of a Chennai-bound bus that burnt two people alive.

The chief minister can afford to make such remarks unlike a north Indian politician because Ram is not a big factor in Tamil Nadu politics although he is worshipped there. Karunanidhi, rather, hopes to earn brownie points because of the perception that the ship canal would transform the economically backward southern Tamil Nadu.

Advani, who had earlier demanded apologies from the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi for the affidavit, today said that under Section 295 (a) of the IPC, any action that outrages religious feelings is “punishable with three years’ rigorous imprisonment”.

Asked if the BJP might prosecute Karunanidhi, he, however, clarified that the party “has not made any such statement”.

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