“Perumal Murugan is dead,” wrote the Tamil writer and teacher Perumal Murugan in January 2015 after his books were burnt, his family displaced, his safety threatened, and his career made uncertain. It was a rhetorical device. Murugan was alive, but his freedom of speech seemed to have died at the hands of a lumpen mob and a government derelict in its duty to uphold the rule of law.
This week, the Madras high court brought Murugan to life again. His right to write was upheld. More importantly, his right to offend, without which the right to free speech means little, was upheld. And, crucially, the state was reminded that it is charged with the obligation to resist the illegal demands of censorious mobs, not to appease them.
Appeasement and infantilisation
Murugan published the Tamil novel Madhorubhagan in 2011, an English translation of which was published in 2013 as One Part Woman.
In the town of Tiruchengode, now in western Tamil Nadu, built around a temple to the deity Ardhanarishvara, a young couple in love stoically suffer their childlessness. As Ardhanarishvara is a composite form of Shiva and Parvati in equal halves, split down the middle, Murugan’s couple stand together to equally share their burden in quiet dignity. But on the last day of a frenzied temple festival, the young wife has a consensual, extramarital sexual encounter with a Dalit man.
The novel was critically acclaimed in both its original and translated forms, winning several literary awards in India and abroad. But, presumably angered by its interrogation of gender and caste norms, local organisations arranged along caste and community lines mobilised in a show of violence designed to extra-judicially censor Murugan and illegally intimidate the government. Shamefully but predictably, the government capitulated and forced Murugan to apologise for his award-winning book.
The Indian state has an unfortunate history of silencing creative expression to placate the imagined grievances of ignorant mobs. This tradition was bequeathed by Britain’s colonial administration, which was not interested in protecting free speech, but enthusiastically continued even after political independence in 1947. It was the deliberate policy of the colonial state to legitimise social conflict at the cost of liberal freedoms. This resulted in an infantilised Indian public, described by Thomas Macaulay as “emotionally excitable subjects,” insecure and prone to violence.
But if stoking discord kept Indians from uniting against foreign occupation, it also saddled the colonial government with an additional challenge to public peace. That challenge was met by a raft of legal provisions to enable the government to put down protests, such as the offences of unlawful assembly, wanton provocation, rioting, and public nuisance. Why were these laws not used against the mobs that intimidated Murugan? After independence, the Constitution promised a brighter future for free speech and the hope that creative expression would be maturely received, but that promise has yet to be fully redeemed.
The objections to Murugan’s book canvassed a wide range of grievances. Some said the novel’s handling of extramarital sex was obscene. Others claimed it had offended the sentiments of the dominant caste group in the Kongu region of Tamil Nadu where the novel is set. The local chapter of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh even claimed the novel damaged Hinduism itself. All wanted the book to be banned. These grievances were far-fetched, yet the makers of such complaints have been emboldened by the state’s deplorable habit of banning books.
Several types of books have been banned in India. Racist works like Katherine Mayo’s Mother India, which Mohandas Gandhi famously described as “the report of a drain inspector,” draw obvious condemnation. Sexual content, such as D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, attracts obscenity charges which the Supreme Court upheld in the Ranjit Udeshi case in 1964. On the other hand, the absence of a specific blasphemy provision resulted in the acquittal of the publisher of Rangeela Rasool, a scurrilous pamphlet about the Prophet Muhammad, in 1927. But the publisher was killed in the streets soon after and the government, instead of confronting vigilantism, tacitly succumbed by enacting a blasphemy offence. As a result, religiously offensive content is also banned. And, of course, works that challenge the official narrative of Indian nationhood, particularly those concerning Kashmir, can be swiftly banned.
All of this makes for a censorious country with an ill-informed public. To make matters worse, as Nilanjana Roy points out, the state also bans critically acclaimed books if they are irreverent or defy religious dogma. But before a work published in India can be banned – technically, forfeit to the state under section 95 of the Criminal Procedure Code – the government must make a written finding of objectionable matter. That did not happen in the case of Murugan’s book. Instead the protestors asked the Madras high court to usurp the state government’s power and issue a judicial ban, even though such a ban would have been unconstitutional because the judiciary does not have to power to ban books.
Resisting the mob
The local administration is tasked with upholding the law and maintaining law and order, which it should have done by breaking the mob and arresting its leaders. Instead, it illegally summoned Murugan, who had fled with his family in the face of the mob’s violence, and told him to apologise. His lawyer was expelled from the room. Under clear duress, Murugan signed an unconditional apology – it is not clear who he apologised to – and undertook never to write again. According to the high court, the local administration behaved like a kangaroo court or a katta panchayat, the Tamil equivalent of a khap panchayat, which the Supreme Court in 2011 denounced as “barbaric and illegal.”
Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, who spoke for the Madras high court, has a history of defying mob violence and protecting free speech. “There should be freedom for the thought we hate,” he said in 2008 when the Delhi High Court quashed the baseless complaints against M.F. Husain, India’s greatest modernist painter. In the Perumal Murugan judgment, Justice Kaul went a step further to remind governments that unless a court finds otherwise, there is a presumption in favour of free speech which the state has a duty to protect. This is not entirely new. In the Rangarajan case in 1989, the Supreme Court ordered the Tamil Nadu government to enable the unhindered screening of a controversial film, reminding the states that it was their “obligatory duty to prevent [violence] and protect the freedom of expression.”
To Murugan, who had announced his literary death, Justice Kaul said: “Let the author be resurrected. Write.”