Freedom of expression

Will the remarkable judgment in the Perumal Murugan case end attacks on writers and artists?

The persecuted Tamil writer’s publisher asks all the uncomfortable questions.

On the afternoon of July 5, my lawyer, and national secretary of PUCL, Dr V Suresh emailed me the PDF of the Perumal Murugan judgment delivered that morning by the Madras High Court. I went off-line for the next couple of hours, reading it and rereading some parts of it again. If wishes ever come true, then this must be it!

For me, as a publisher, this judgement was empowering. For Perumal Murugan this was a gift of the writer’s life and a possible return to a semblance of normalcy.

History of persecution

In 2008 our monthly Kalachuvadu was reeling under a series of attacks on it by the DMK government for publishing editorials and articles critical of the government. The government also muzzled the rising protests in support of the Sri Lankan Tamils during the bloody end of the civil war. People living in the margins of the city were expelled to build flyovers and beautify Chennai.

Kalachuvadu had then organised a meeting in support of right to speech and right to life. One of the papers presented at the conference by G Kuppusamy, and later published in our special number, was on two judgments in support of freedom of expression. Much of that paper was devoted to a landmark judgement by the Delhi High Court in the MF Hussin case by Justice SK Kaul. As luck would have it, he was on the bench as Chief Justice when Perumal Murugan’s case came before the Madras High Court!

As a society I am afraid we have little belief in freedom of expression. Most people understand it to be the freedom for ideas they believe in. When the Perumal Murugan issue blew up the first people on the ground to protest against the majoritarian caste and religious forces that threatened him was the TamilNadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association, the literary front of the CPI (M).

They were also the first to approach the judiciary against the “kangaroo court” contract signed at the Namakal collectorate where Perumal Murugan was forced to apologise and withdraw his novel, Mathorubagan (published in English as One Part Woman). Sahmat, in New Delhi, organised a high-powered protest meeting in February 2015. I had the honour of participating in it alongside illustrious personalities such as Ashok Bajpai and Romila Thapar.

Political positions

But what is the position of the Left parties on freedom of expression? Is there a policy document that spells it out for us? Does the Congress have a stated position on freedom of expression? Or for the matter,does any other political party in India?

However, since the ascension of Narendra Modi to Delhi, instead of the usual political indifference to freedom of expression and opportunistic banning of books, there has been a systematic attempt to muzzle freedom of expression in many aspects of culture: the sciences, cinema, literature and ideas. This is being managed both through government bodies headed by Hindutva henchmen, and right-wing organisations, formally and informally, associated with the Sangh.

In the Perumal Murugan affair, there was a new-found synergy between caste majoritarian organisations and Hindutva forces. It was a serious challenge to freedom of expression. A writer was harassed and threatened by whipping up the emotions of people in a town. Probably for the first time in Indian history an indoctrinated town closed down to protest against the novel of an illustrious son of its soil. His book was burnt and his family was exiled.

What Perumal Murugan went through can only be imagined by even those of us who were in touch with him on an hourly basis in those dark days. In his own words, this judgment has given him “much happiness. It comforts a heart that had shrunk itself and had wilted”.

But will this remarkable judgement put an end to continued attacks on artists and writers? Will it force governments to presume freedom of expression even as they grope with law and order problems? Will it encourage us to tolerate ideas and expressions we passionately hate? Will it put an end to the politics of hurt sentiments?

We may not have to wait long to find the answer!

Kannan Sundaram is the publisher and managing director at Kalachuvadu Publications, which publishes Perumal Murugan in Tamil.

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