Vol. XL No. 32 August 07, 2016

Let Perumal Murugan Be Resurrected To What He Is Best At - Write

S P Rajendran

THE Madras High Court’s verdict in the case involving author Perumal Murugan, declaring that the right to freedom of expression cannot be demolished by anyone, has been hailed by all. Editorials in newspapers of national and international repute, including the New York Times, hailed the judgment as “historic” and “remarkable”.

“The Madras High Court in Chennai, India, delivered a decision on Tuesday (July 5) that was remarkable for its eloquence on the right to freedom of expression, on the centrality of this right to India’s democracy and on the state’s duty to protect it… This decision sends a strong message at a time when freedom of expression is under threat from government attempts to muzzle dissent, and from self-appointed morality enforcers affiliated with conservative groups. In May, Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report on the many threats to free speech in India, including vaguely worded laws that criminalize speech on grounds of sedition or defamation, the use of the police to arrest people for free-speech offenses — rather than to protect citizens’ right to freedom of expression — and an alarming official tolerance for mob violence in pursuit of censorship,” said an editorial in the New York Times.

The First Bench of Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana delivered the verdict on a petition filed by S Tamil Selvan, eminent writer and President of the Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association (TNPWAA). Selvan is a member of the Tamil Nadu State Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He filed the petition in solidarity with Perumal Murugan, the author of Tamil novel Madhorubagan, who had last January declared literary suicide, announcing: “Perumal Murugan, the writer is dead”, following threats from caste organisations and right wing forces that objected to his writings.  

Madhorubagan, translated into English as One Part Woman, narrates the story of a childless couple from rural Tamil Nadu -- Thiruchengode in Namakkal district, who were compelled by family and social pressure to take part in an ancient chariot festival in a temple during which women, unable to conceive from their husbands, were allowed to have sex with strangers in order to conceive. The novelist came under severe attack from socially dominant groups, compelling him to announce that he would withdraw his entire body of work from publication and never write again.

It is pertinent to know the respondents in the case -- Arulmigu Arthanaareeswarar Girivala Nala Sangam, Hindu Munnani, Morur Kannakula Kongu Nattu Vellalar Trust, Sengunthar Mahajana Sangam, Federation of Kongu Vellalar Sangam, Dheeran Chinnamalai Peravai, all casteist and communal organisations which are controlled and funded by RSS. The other respondents, who acted in support of the above castiest forces, are the government of Tamil Nadu, the District Collector, the District Revenue Officer, the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Tiruchengode.

In the judgment, Chief Justice Kaul quotes Voltaire: "I may not agree with what you say, but will defend to the death, your right to say it.” He reiterated that the freedom of expression is a great value of democracy. “India has the benefit of one of the most modern and liberal Constitutions.  It is reflective of its rich and diverse heritage, yet enunciating the modern principles of democracy, as distinguished from a feudal society.  One of the most cherished rights under our Constitution is to speak one’s mind and write what one thinks.  No doubt, this is subject to reasonable restrictions, but then the ambit of what one can do is wide.

“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.  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,” he said in the 160-page judgment.

In the case on hand, Chief Justice Kaul said, we are confronted with a strange situation where a Tamil novel has been a recipient of literary awards, yet is alleged to contain dangerous and damaging materials, evoking emotions of the residents of the location of its storyline. The novel is not really religious in content, but is alleged to be narrating non-existent conventions which seek to tarnish the image of the populace of the area. In essence, the novel seeks to relate the travails and tribulations of a childless couple and the barbs of the society against it, while the couple seeks to battle it out against social and familial pressures. Somewhere, the family pressures gain an upper hand and what transpires to assist procreation is the troubling area of the story. The judge asked is the novel based on history and if so, what is its effect? And he answered: despite certain locations being mentioned, the author has tried to build a case that it is not so, while the critics of the novel say this is a subsequent thought. Should there always be a recorded history to prove events or can even folklore carried from person to person form the basis of a book? And how do you obviate any offences caused to you? He asks would what the writer Salman Rushdie said be the cure, “It is very easy not to be offended by a book, you simply have to close it”.

“This is a wider canvass, but in a multi-cultural, diverse society, where different religious beliefs are important to varied sections, there are atheists, who are expected to show a minimal element of responsibility in order that there are no unnecessary dissensions on religious and social lines by intrusions into the customs, beliefs and practices of different sections of society, so that such activities satisfy the touchstone of our Constitution. Religion is a major influence in our country, even though sometimes its credibility and relevance is questioned.  However, all this is eternal and personal.”

More than eight years ago, a 74-page judgment of Justice Kaul, then not-so-senior judge in the Delhi High Court, too had an equally explosive start benefiting Maqbool Fida Hussain, a painter hounded by self-anointed cultural guardians who disapproved of his drawing of Goddess Saraswati. Wrote Justice Kaul, quoting Pablo Picasso: "Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art."

And in this judgment also, he had noted the role of the state while the freedom of expression under attack. “Writings are vehicles of personal expression, they must be understood and appreciated, even if provocative, keeping in mind our rich cultural heritage. The ancient Indian Art as depicted has encompassed eroticism as part of it. Of the so called folklore referred to by the author here, there is material to show that it was not something unknown – and this is why he has labeled his book as a novel. All writings, unpalatable for one section of the society, cannot be labeled 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 (Perumal Murugan) 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. We are not stating that the creative freedom of an artiste is unhindered. We have referred to the fact that these are not matters concerned with security of the State or of denigration of any religion or a class of people.  A section of people are just seeking to put themselves or their ancestors in the shoes of persons who are affected because of a reference to a location and a folklore, which description of location also stood withdrawn subsequently, since the author believed it was a work of fiction and could have been based anywhere else… 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. The State also performs an important role along with the judiciary in protecting these individual rights and freedoms,” he said.

The High Court finally expressed its expectation that "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."

The Bench concluded by observing “let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.”

TNPWAA, CPI(M), CPI and Left-oriented thinkers, writers, artists and other writers welcomed the historic judgment. Prof. Perumal Murugan expressed happiness and thanked those who fought for him. In a statement posted on Facebook, the author said, "The judgment gives me much happiness. It comforts a heart that had shrunk itself and had wilted. I am trying to prop myself up holding on to the light of the last lines of the judgment: `Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write’. I will get up. It is just that my mind wishes to spend a little time in the joy of this moment. My thanks to friends who stood by me. My thanks also to friends who stood against me." "Since I am not very proficient in English, I am reading the judgment slowly to understand it," he said.

The right wing forces are trying to organise the casteist forces against the verdict. Initially, it was RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy who cried foul over the Madras High Court’s judgment. Later, Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) founder Ramadoss entered the arena, deeply regretting the ruling. It is likely that now casteist associations will take the cue and kick up a fresh round of agitations, effectively silencing Perumal Murugan yet again. Ramadoss expressed his anger and attacked progressive writers. This has been countered by TNPWAA leaders Prof.Arunan and S Tamil Selvan, among others.