Freedom of expression

Life-giving sentence

Print edition : August 05, 2016

Perumal Murugan, writer. Photo: By Special Arrangement

A demonstration in Madurai in January 2015 in support of Perumal Murugan, who was forced to renounce writing after his novel came under attack from some caste-based organisations. Photo: S. James

The Madras High Court’s verdict in the case relating to Perumal Murugan’s novel Madhorubagan, upholding the right to write, makes it possible for the writer in him to be resurrected.

“THE choice to read is always with the reader. If you do not like a book throw it away. There is no compulsion to read a book. Literary tastes may vary—what is right and acceptable to one may not be so to others. Yet the right to write is unhindered. If the contents seek to challenge or go against the very constitutional values, raise racial issues, denigrate castes, contain blasphemous dialogues, carry unacceptable sexual contents or start a war against the very existence of our country, the state would no doubt step in.”

This observation in the “Prelude” to the 160-page judgment of the Madras High Court provides the essence of the verdict in the case relating to the writer Perumal Murugan’s Tamil novel Madhorubagan ( One Part Woman in English). The book was seen by some caste-based organisations as showing women of a community in a poor light, and the social tensions that this created forced him to announce that the “writer in him is dead”.

The verdict of the First Bench comprising Chief Justice Sanjay Kisan Kaul and Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana had more than a dash of literary exuberance strikingly similar to yet another outstanding judgment pronounced in the case of the celebrated painter M.F. Husain in 2008, wherein Justice Kaul, then a judge in the Delhi High Court, upheld the artist’s freedom in no uncertain terms.

The present judgment centred on two fundamental points involving freedom of expression as enshrined in Article 19(1) of the Constitution of India: “objectionable material”, and the right to offend. Though “no freedom is absolute” under Article 19(2), which lays down a list of “reasonable restrictions”, the Madras High Court in this case chose to confine itself to the specifics of the novel, holding that it was way beyond the purview of Article 19(2). It also did not get into discussing the issues of a creative artist’s freedom further vis-a-vis Article 19(2).

Article 19 (2) says: “Nothing in sub clause (a) of clause (1) shall affect the operation of any existing law, or prevent the state from making any law, insofar as such law imposes reasonable restrictions on the exercise of the right conferred by the said sub clause in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.” The new restrictions such as public order, friendly relations, incitement, country’s integrity, etc., were added through an amendment after the Supreme Court’s verdict in Romesh Thapar vs State of Madras, 1950.

The background

Perumal Murugan faced hostility from “a group of people” who alleged that Madhorubagan contained “dangerous and damaging materials” and thus defamed women of the Vellalar Gounder community (a backward caste), the Tiruchengode town in Namakkal district in Tamil Nadu, and the Ardhanareeshwarar temple and its car festival. It snowballed into a serious law and order issue and forced the writer to declare that “the writer in him is dead”.

The group hostile to the novel charged that it portrayed a practice that did not exist. On the 14th day of the Vaikasi car festival of the Ardhanareeshwarar temple in Tiruchengode town, the novel claimed, childless women were free to have intercourse with any male they chose to, and the children so begotten were called “thagappan samy” and “kulanthai samy”, meaning children of god.

Its members alleged such portrayal hurt the sentiments of that community and sought a ban on the novel for obscenity, defamation, and derogatory, offensive and scandalous portrayal of women of their community. A state-brokered peace (through a meeting held between the author and those who opposed the novel before the District Revenue Officer, Namakkal, in January, 2015) bought about a truce, with the writer tendering an unconditional apology against his free will ( Frontline, February 20, 2015). The state later pleaded that it had to act since “the people of the town were outraged by the slanderous remarks against women of Tiruchengode in the novel”.

The issue also led to the filing of a volley of petitions, both for and against the writer. While the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Forum, a literary unit of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and the People’s Union for Civil Liberties supported the writer, some individuals and organisations opposed him with a bunch of criminal petitions before the Madras High Court. The present verdict on these petitions clears the writer of all charges of malice and lays down a code for the state to deal with issues of artistic freedom in future.

The verdict

The novel, the judgment said, “is one of the finest creations of artistic creativity, which weaves intense human stories around social history thereby giving the reader a glimpse into the lives of ordinary rustic villagers” of Tiruchengode through the protagonists, the childless couple Kali and Ponna. “The novel refers to a social practice if at all it ever existed to somehow solve the problem of a childless couple through this peculiar yet not very desirable practice. It is in fact a reflection of the desperation to which society drives a childless couple to make such a compromise,” it observed.

The judges did not have any hesitation in recording their appreciation for the literary work that won its writer several awards and citations. They noted: “On reading the novel, we felt that it could not be put down without going the whole hog. It was so absorbing! It is a heart-rending story of a husband and wife who are at peace with themselves but are constantly reminded by the society of their status—of being childless. In order to meet the societal requirement they do everything within their might, visit every temple, even traversing difficult terrains where not many would dare venture, endangering their lives and performing all kinds of poojas.

“Such are the levels of desperation to which the couple is driven. Thus the focus of the novel can hardly be said to be existence of a practice of sexual intermingling on the 14th day of the temple car festival, though that becomes an essential ingredient to show how, despite the refusal of the husband and he having not changed his view, the mothers of the couple and the brother of the wife hatch a plan in a manner as to ensure that this endeavour is made to enable the couple to beget a child.

“We have extracted various portions of the novel so that someone reading our judgment can get a flavour of what the novel is all about. But then it is only a flavour and the full absorption is only possible by reading the novel from cover to cover. The novel shakes you, but not in the manner its opponents seek to profess. It jolts you because it succinctly sets forth the pain and sufferance depicted through the words of this childless couple. That is the takeaway from the novel.” The judges further pointed out that one of them, Chief justice Kaul, had even felt a tinge of frustration and disappointment over his “linguistic handicap”, since he could not read the original Tamil version to catch its vibrant flavour. “Of course, one of us (Sanjay Kishan Kaul C.J.) could only have the benefit of reading the English translation of the novel because of the linguistic handicap but in consultation both of us do believe that the English version truly reflects the heart of the story and it is not merely a transliteration. In fact two other sequels of the novel have also been published which have not evoked as yet at least any reaction,” the two-member bench observed.

The bench also expressed its anguish and wondered how such a lucidly narrated and rich literary piece of a cerebral writer could be termed “objectionable” and warranted the demand for a ban from a few insensitive ones. “People have read the novel and have found nothing wrong with it. Four long years elapsed since its initial release (in 2010). It is nobody’s case that it had fallen into some hands where it could cause damage.”

The judges did not make any attempt to hide their annoyance over the frivolous allegations against the novel. They showed palpable irritation at the declining tolerance level in an evolving society, and took pains to define the thin line separating morality and artistic creativity. “If you do not like a book, simple, close it. The answer is not its ban. It is not to be judged by the eyes of the insensitive, which see only obscenity in everything. Art is often provocative and is meant not for everyone nor does it compel the whole society to see it. The choice is left with the viewer. Merely because a group of people feel agitated about it cannot give them licence to vent their views in a hostile manner and the state cannot plead its inability to handle the problem of a hostile audience.”

They wrote: “At the cost of repetition, we seek to emphasise that the theme of the novel is the travails of this couple and the reference to the so-called practice is only a suggestion put forth to the protagonists by their own family members as a means to attain parenthood. No one reading the novel would be persuaded to draw a definite conclusion as sought to be canvassed by the opponents of the novel that the endeavour of the author was to portray all women coming to the car festival as prostitutes. That is a complete misreading of the novel and its theme. In fact, the practices prevalent are also claimed to be based more on folklore.”

‘A worrying trend’

Any contra view or social thinking, the judges pointed out, was met at times with threats or violent behaviour.

“A rising phenomenon of extrajudicial, casteist and religious forces dictating the creativity of authors and writers, a worrying trend,” it observed. “India is not endangered by someone writing about social practices real or unreal more so qua a childless couple as is the case here. If the literary world does not find anything offensive in the novel nor did the government find anything offensive in it, and a small group of people who may have a more conservative view of the writings create such a ruckus while the simple solution was not to read the book,” the court said.

The novel, the court said, must be understood in its true perspective and storyline and the mere use of crass or earthy language in the dialogues “cannot be the basis to take on the author and make it into a larger social issue only because a particular temple or site has been referred to in the novel which also stands subsequently withdrawn by the author in the sequels to the novel”.

It, however, said that it had not found anything “mala fide” in the state’s role here. “We do not believe that there was any mala fide endeavour of the police and the administration; but would call it more of a knee-jerk reaction arising out of mere apprehension of law and order situation. We do not say that the peace meeting initiative itself can be said to be faulty but it ought not to have proceeded the way it did.”

There was “bound to be a presumption in favour of free speech and expression as envisaged under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India unless a court of law finds it otherwise as falling within the domain of a reasonable restriction under Article 19(2) of the Constitution. This presumption must be kept in mind if there are complaints against publications, art, drama, film, song, poem, cartoons or any other creative expressions.”

The state and police authorities, the judges opined, would not be the best ones to judge such literary and cultural issues which ought to have been left to the wisdom of specialists in the field and thereafter, if need be, the courts. There was the need to mix care with caution so that such endeavours did not result in malicious proceedings merely on the basis of a perspective of another set of people who might have different mores, they noted.

“The state’s responsibility to maintain law and order would not permit any compulsion on the artistes concerned to withdraw from his/her stand and non-state players cannot be allowed to determine what is permissible and what is not. It is high time the government constitutes an expert body to deal with situations arising from such conflicts of views.” They insisted that such an expert body should consist of qualified persons in the branch of creative literature and art so that an independent opinion is forthcoming keeping in mind the law evolved by the judiciary.

They scripted an epilogue, which is as lucid a narrative, and as dramatic, as the novel itself. Saying that in the present case it seems to be “sentence first and trial later”, the judges declared that there was no necessity warranting action against any publication of the Tamil novel Madhorubagan or its English translation, One Part Woman, as sought for. “There can also be no possible direction for any police action against the author and/or the publisher or for any case to be registered or proceed further. The expert body to deal with such issues in future should be constituted with independent experts from different fields after proper consultations within a period of three months.”

In conclusion, the judgment said: “The author Perumal Murugan should not be under fear. He should be able to write and advance the canvas of his writings. His writings would be a literary contribution even if there were others who may differ with the material and style of his expression. The answer cannot be that it was his own decision to call himself dead as a writer. We hope our judgment gives a quietus to the issue with introspection on all sides. Time also teaches us to forget and forgive and see beyond damage. Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.”

Talking to Frontline over phone, Perumal Murugan said he felt happy about the verdict. “I need some more time to come to terms with the changing scenario. I have to discuss with my family and friends about my future. Please bear with me. No more prodding,” he said.

There are enough indications to suggest that “the writer in him is getting resurrected”, thanks to the proactive verdict of the Madras High Court.

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