In Valmiki's Ramayana, Lord Rama had to go into exile for 14 years, unfairly, only to ensure his father is able to keep his word to his younger queen Kaikeyi. In the 21st century, criticism of Lord Rama has landed Telugu film critic and filmmaker Mahesh Kathi with a police order to go into `exile'. 

Mahesh has been externed from Hyderabad for six months for using derogatory language for Lord Rama and hurting the religious sentiments of the Hindu community. Underling the irony more is the fact that Mahesh has been banished to his home district of Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh, which is where Lord Venkateswara resides at Tirumala. 

But these are also times of political correctness. So lest sending a Dalit activist into exile be interpreted as harsh treatment meted out to a member of the Scheduled community, more so in an election year, the Telangana police also placed Swami Paripoornananda under house arrest in Hyderabad. The seer was to lead a `Dharmika Chaitanya Yatra' from July 9 to 11 from a Shiva temple in Bodduppal to Yadadri, 60 km from Hyderabad by chanting Sri Rama Sankeertanas to protest against Mahesh's comments. The police denied permission to the yatra citing possible trouble from anti-social elements which could lead to a law and order problem. 

That the state was not amused by what it saw as Mahesh Kathi's attempt to create fissures, was obvious. Police chief Mahender Reddy did not mince words when he accused the likes of Mahesh Kathi with having ulterior motives.

"Certain elements with ulterior motives have been trying to hurt the sentiments of the people of a particular religion in the last two weeks resulting in disharmony, feelings of enmity, hatred and ill-will between groups, castes and community by airing their personal views in the public domain through electronic media or otherwise. Because of these unwarranted statements affecting the sentiments of one group, other groups have started counter agitations," said Reddy. 

On a TV show on a vernacular channel, Mahesh made a reference to the Ramayana saying, "For me, Ramayana is just another story." Not stopping with that, Mahesh then went on to indulge in what the devout saw as character assassination of a revered God. 

"I believe Rama is as much a cheat (the word in Telugu was dagulbaaji) as he is ideal in that story. And I think perhaps Sita would have been better and might have got justice if she had stayed with Ravana," added Mahesh. His reference was to Sita having to undergo agnipariksha to prove her chastity despite which, she was again banished by Rama. 

The comments predictably met with angry reactions. Those came not only from the right-wing BJP, VHP and RSS but even from people not associated with the Sangh parivaar. Among them, actor Chiranjeevi's brother Naga Babu who demanded that Mahesh be arrested. 

"It is time for all Hindus to raise their voice against those who are attacking Hinduism, Hindu Gods and culture," fumed Naga Babu. But what made matters worse was that in his 7-minute video clip that he posted on social media, Naga Babu used the term 'Neechudu' for Mahesh Kathi and that was enough to give the entire controversy a different spin. Mahesh accused Naga Babu of using the term because he is a Dalit and asked for action to be taken against the actor under the SC/ST Act. 

Looking at this needless controversy makes one wonder if a jugalbandi of sorts is taking place between the TV channel, which too has been served a notice for ``telecasting malicious content hurting religious sentiments', Mahesh Kathi and the right-wing groups. The controversial nature of the debates generates TRPs for the media house while Mahesh who is suspected to harbour political ambitions, gets to improve his brand equity as a Dalit and literary icon. The right-wing groups that are hardly a force to reckon with in Telangana, get the necessary oxygen to make their presence felt by organising protests. It seems like a win-win situation for everyone concerned.

Not that Mahesh Kathi is apologetic about his utterances. He calls the RSS and the VHP 'jobless' and asks them to 'grow up, get educated'. 

"I also go to Rama temples but as a literary critic, I am entitled to give my interpretation of the Ramayana. To me, Ramayana is just a book. But these people are threatening me just like Dabholkar and Gauri Lankesh were," says Mahesh Kathi. 

No one denies that Mahesh has the right to interpret a story in any way he wants. After all, there have been several interpretations of the Ramayana where Rama has been criticised for how he treated Sita or how he killed Vaali by deceit. But to use a harsh term like `cheat' is provocative. Especially in today's times of a very polarised India. And then to play the Dalit card, taking refuge in the SC/ST Act and cry about being insulted with a reference to his caste, seems a deliberate attempt to stoke trouble. 

Within the Telugu film industry, Mahesh Kathi is seen as a repeat offender. Last year, he shot into ill-fame with his movie reviews where he was extremely critical of Pawan Kalyan's films. The Powerstar's fans were not amused and were abusive. They targeted him by making his number public and his phone kept ringing with Pawan's fans using expletives. That time, Mahesh was seen as the victim whose freedom of expression was being abused. Having grown in popularity, Mahesh subsequently was one of the inmates inside the Bigg Boss house in its Telugu version.

With his Ramayana comment - though he insists he said it as part of a debate and was therefore not planned - Mahesh Kathi seems to have bit more than he can chew. He is known to use the social media extensively and it will be seen if he continues to stoke passions from Chittoor. Mahender Reddy, for one, will certainly be watching.