The Madras High Court’s repudiation of all criminal charges against the author Perumal Murugan is yet another watershed moment in India’s struggle for free speech. In his novel Mathorubhagan (titled One Part Woman in the English translation), Murugan wrote about a childless couple in rural Tamil Nadu, who is pushed by their family to visit an ancient chariot festival at a temple that permits sex between any man and woman for one night without the act amounting to sin.
Although the narrative of the book focuses on the prejudices against women, tyranny of caste, and how the autocracy of a rural community destroys the couple’s marriage by tearing them apart, protests over the book singularly focussed on the portrayal of historical traditions at the Ardhanarishvara Temple at Tiruchengode.
Hindu outfits found the book ‘obscene’ and protested at how it cast aspersions on the parentage of many generations of the local community. Murugan, a resident of Tiruchengode himself, was forced to apologise and withdraw all copies of his book in a ‘peace meet’ organised by the Namakkal district administration. Subsequently, in a Facebook post reminiscent of a suicide letter, Murugan announced that he would stop writing because, “Author Perumal Murugan is dead. He is no God. Hence, he will not resurrect. Hereafter, only P Murugan, a teacher, will live”.
The bench comprising Chief Justice SK Kaul and Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana concluded that the settlements agreed upon at the peace meet were not binding on the author, and dismissed all criminal proceedings. With a nod of understanding to Murugan’s earlier public prostration, the bench observed that, “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.”
By empathising with Perumal Murugan’s cause, the Madras High Court has upheld his constitutional right to free speech and given writers across the country much to rejoice over. The judgement was remarkably well-informed and evoked everything from The Mahabharata to Lady Chatterley’s Lover in order to illustrate the need to protect free speech.
The court stated that, “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.”
Lady Chatterley’s Lover caused an uproar in 1960 when its uncensored edition was published in Britain. The book was banned across the world due to its explicit language and racy plot, which dealt with an extramarital affair between the eponymous Lady Chatterley, an upper class married woman, and her working class gamekeeper. The book’s publication by Penguin led to an obscenity trial which became a litmus test of the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. The trial was a major event that captured international attention. The jury’s ruling in favour of Penguin was celebrated as helping usher in Britain’s permissive society and a liberalisation in publishing. The poet Philip Larkin immortalised the trial in his poem Annus Mirablis:
“Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.”
The bench also asked Indians to look within their own history before taking offense at the drop of a hat. “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 civilisation. The Indian scriptures, including The Mahabharata, are said to be replete with obvious examples of sex outside marriage... 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?”
The Victorian philosophy that the court was alluding to is the Section 295 (A) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) that was enacted by the Colonial British Government in 1927, which states that, “Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of [citizens of India], [by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise], insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to [three years], or with fine, or with both.”
For far too long, under draconian laws such as Section 295 (A), the Indian judicial system has had to entertain the interests of the majority by erasing the interests of the individual. India was the second country (after Singapore) to ban Salman Rushdie’s controversial book The Satanic Verses. The ban, which was strangely never on the book’s literary matter but only on its import, still stands. Rushdie has always maintained a gentle suggestion on dealing with offense, “it is very, very easy not to be offended by a book. All you have to do it shut it.”
Mirroring Salman Rushdie, the Madras bench argued that “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”.
Less than a month ago, the Bombay High Court allowed the release of the film Udta Punjab with minimal cuts because it wanted the Censor Board to “live with the times now” and treat Indian audiences as adults. In light of the Madras High Court’s ruling in favour of Perumal Murugan, it would be fair to say that the Indian judicial system is slowly attempting to give power back to the individual.
Before ‘killing’ himself on Facebook last year, Perumal Murugan had said in an interview that, “the law provides for us to write and speak our mind — this is our right. But often religious and casteist forces tend to subvert this. We, at present, are in a situation to fight these forces at various levels”.
For now, it appears that Perumal Murugan has won the fight. However, this victory is not his alone. With the breaking of the levee that held him back, perhaps Indian literature can be flooded with expressions and ideas that were hitherto unexplored to usher in our own permissive society.