free speech debate

'If you don't like a book, throw it away': High Court brings author Perumal Murugan back to life

Key sections from the Madras High Court judgement that has quashed criminal proceedings against the Tamil author.

The Madras High Court, in an order quashing a criminal case against Tamil writer Perumal Murugan for allegedly offending religious sentiments, has acknowledged an important aspect: Not all art is for everyone. At a time when competitive intolerance encourages people to file petitions against just about any piece of art, from movies like Udta Punjab to Yo Yo Honey Singh songs, because they feel offended, the court has made a clear statement about the need to protect free speech.

"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," the court said in its order. "Merely because a group of people feel agitated about it cannot give them a license to vent their views in a hostile manner, and the State cannot plead its inability to handle the problem of a hostile audience."

Murugan, in his book titled Mathorubagan, had written about a childless couple in rural Tamil Nadu being pushed by their families to fall back on an ancient chariot festival in the temple of the half-female god Ardhanareeswara. Here, on the night of the festival, the union between any man and woman is permitted.

Reaction to the book, after its English translation a few years after it was first published in Tamil, suddenly turned violent in Thiruchengode, Murugan's native town. Locals threatened to shut down the town and strike, while others initiated criminal proceedings against the author for allegedly outraging their sentiments with an "obscene book."

In response, the local administration organised a peace meet presided over by a district revenue official, where he had to agree to withdraw all copies of his book.

Shortly after this meeting with the district authorities, Murugan announced on Facebook would stop writing. “Author Perumal Murugan is dead. He is no God. Hence, he will not resurrect. Hereafter, only P Murugan, a teacher, will live,” he had posted.

In its order on Tuesday, the Bench of Chief Justice SK Kaul and Justice Puspha Sathyanarayana held that the settlement arrived at during the peace meet would not be binding on the author and also quashed all criminal proceedings. The bench even called on Murugan to start writing again.

"The author Prof. Perumal Murugan should not be under fear. He should be able to write and advance the canvass 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."

Excerprts from the Madras High Court order are below.

The judgment begins by reiterating its core idea, that not everyone has to read everything. If we are offended by a book that otherwise does not violate constitutional provisions, the true response should be to simply shut the book.

Whether the society is ready to read a particular book and absorb what it says without being offended, is a debate which has been raging for years together. Times have changed. What was not acceptable earlier became acceptable later. “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” is a classical example of it. 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.

The order also speaks of a tendency to follow prudish Victorian ideas when it comes to questions of sex and obscenity, instead of examining Indian culture.

As a society, we seem to be more bogged down by this Victorian philosophy rather than draw inspiration from our own literature and scriptures. Or perhaps may be it is only a small sect of people who believe so, but are vociferous enough to create such a pandemonium. Sex, per se, was not treated as undesirable, but was an integral part right from the existence of civilization. The Indian scriptures, including The Mahabharata, are said to be replete with obvious examples of sex outside marriage, also specifically for the purpose of having progenies and that too, of the intellectual class. These practices have been followed by both the higher and lower social and economical strata of the society, only as an endeavour to have a future perfect King. Can we say The Mahabharata or the various other literatures, which we have quoted herein above, are part of our history, yet they say something that is unusually lascivious and therefore should be banned?

Crucially the text points out that the state cannot use a law and order situation as a pretext to take away someone else's right to free speech. Just because one set of people were threatening to become violent doesn't mean the government has to ban the person who peacefully expressed his views.

We had noticed the fact at the inception that we were troubled by the State interventions in such subject matters are not simply matters of brokering peace. There are different and variant thought processes on social mores and while each may be entitled to his own view, it cannot be forced down the gullet of another. It is not unusual to see now a campaign against a book, a film, a painting, a sculpture and other forms of artistic representations.

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 a license to vent their views in a hostile manner, and the State cannot plead its inability to handle the problem of a hostile audience... A vague construction therefore, of a possible deplorable impact on a certain section is not reason enough to deprive an artist of his expression. Even more so in a democratic country like ours.

The bench elaborates on this by looking closely at what happened here. While acknowledging that the police were not acting maliciously by asking Murugan to withdraw his book at the peace meet, it says that that response is knee-jerk and creates a bigger law-and-orderproblem.

In the matter at hand, the author faced a challenge from the mob gathered outside the Collectorate, coupled with the pressures of a bandh and a strike in the town, called for by these elements. In such simmering circumstances, it was the bounden duty of the State Government to ensure that the law and order situation does not go out of hand, but that is ought not be achieved by placating anyone who seeks to take the law and order in his own hand at the cost of the person who has peacefully expressed his/her view.

The incidents when the so called ‘peace meeting’ was held as discussed in extenso aforesaid would show that the group of people who were outside the Collectorate were actually permitted to have their way by compelling the author to use certain words of apology, which he was not willing to do, but left with a little choice owing to the hostility, decide to budge. 

But then, the solution was to prevent the breach of law and order through lawful means. 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. We may also say that the State and the police authorities would not be the best ones to judge such literary and cultural issues, which are best left to the wisdom of the specialists in the field and thereafter, if need be, the Courts.

The order discusses the question of historical context and whether simply banning a book can keep important issues out of the public domain. In fact, over the course of the judgment, it also makes reference to the recent Bombay High Court decision on the certification given to the film Udta Punjab, which was said to defame Punjab because of its references to drugs.

In “Madhorubagan”, the author Dr. Perumal Murugan did not set out to explode any myths, but conducted research about what he believed to be ‘revealed truths’ that are far more complex in nature. He decided to “follow the facts where they led”, without regard to any consequences. For that, he has been vilified.

In truth, not a single fact stated in the novel had been seriously challenged ever since its publication in Tamil. It is only after the publication of the novel’s English version, understandings that otherwise would have remained in darkness came to light. Can a blanket banning of the novel mean that the true perspective and storyline of this novel will not get addressed in our society? 

The order concludes be restating its central point: That one section of society's outrage is not enough to overturn another person's right to free speech.

All writings, unpalatable for one section of the society, cannot be labelled as obscene, vulgar, depraving, prurient and immoral. There can hardly be any improper intent or motive assigned to the author in the present case, who even went backwards to ensure that the hurt feelings of all are assuaged. He is a writer who had imbibed education and grown from the same very town, holding it in high esteem. There cannot be a new puritanism imbibed in this civilization of variant cultures. 

...

There has to be an attitude of tolerance towards writings which have existed for ages and which come into being, which may not be “of our kind”. The author and artistes like him cannot be under a constant apprehension that if he deviates from the oft-treaded path, he will face adverse consequences. The opponents of the novel may certainly be entitled to its critique, as the proponents of the novel are entitled to applaud it. But shutting down life of the town, holding it to ransom and effecting threats to the author is not the way.

Finally, in an epilogue, the bench calls on Murugan to start writing again.

The author Prof. Perumal Murugan should not be under fear. He should be able to write and advance the canvass 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. It was not a free decision, but a result of a situation which was created.

Time is a great healer and we are sure, that would hold true for Perumal Murugan as well as his opponents; both would have learnt to get along with their lives, we hope by now, in their own fields, and bury this issue in the hatchet as citizens of an advancing and vibrant democracy. 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 the damage.

If we give time its space to work itself out, it would take us to beautiful avenues. We conclude by observing this – “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.”

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