Justice S.K. Kaul Says 'Obscenity' in Art Brought on By Viewer Himself, Recounts Murugan Order

At a literary event organised by The Hindu, the Supreme Court judge known for his order in the case against M.F. Husain too, said that he often wondered what made artists and writers like Perumal Murugan, Husain and Khushwant Singh take on the status quo.

New Delhi: Talking of his 2016 judgment on author Perumal Murugan and his book Madhorubagan, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul said on February 25 spoke glowingly on the constitutional safeguards for freedom of expression and said that any “perceived obscenity” in a book or artwork is brought upon by the reader or viewer himself,

Justice Kaul was participating virtually at a literary event, ‘Lit for Life’, organised by The Hindu news outlet in Chennai.

The Supreme Court judge said at the event that it was necessary to facilitate principled conversations on even the most contentious issues and ensure that freedom of speech and expression is maintained.

Justice Kaul, in his speech, recalled his famous order as part of the 2016 Madras high court bench also consisting of Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana, bringing back to life Murugan’s book which had faced criticism for obscenities, particularly in its depiction of Gounder caste group. The order, which is often cited for its clarity and force, contained these famous lines:

“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”.

Speaking on this judgement on Saturday, he said that the order rejected allegations of obscenity.

“It (the judgement) held that the alleged obscenity which might or might not exist, was not the central theme of the novel. The perceived obscenity in a book or work of art is brought upon a viewer by the viewer himself. The constitutional principles of freedom of speech and expression weigh overwhelmingly in favour of the artist and cannot be disturbed,” Justice Kaul said, according to Bar and Bench.

Justice Kaul is also remembered for a landmark judgment in 2008 on a work of art by the late M.F. Husain which had been called ‘vulgar’ and ‘obscene’. Squashing the IPC Section 292 charge against Husain, Justice Kaul had illustrated in his judgment how “art is never chaste” and that its very nature is to be dangerous.

On Saturday Justice Kaul noted that he often wondered what made artists like Husain and writers like Khushwant Singh take on the status quo.

“What could be the benefit, especially if it comes at such a grave personal cost, as was the case with Professor Murugan, and very recently, with Salman Rushdie? Why did the makers of our Constitution, in line with democratic principles from across the world, chose to protect and grant privilege to such works, especially when the ramification of provocative art can be social disorder and at times even violence?” he asked, according to Bar and Bench.

He said such efforts could “mould a new humanity from the clay, to reshape society, chipping away at the existent social structure bit by bit.”

He also mentioned how A.K. Ramanujan’s famous essay Three Hundred Ramayanas faced opposition from some groups but indeed showed the diversity of perspectives.

He added that the Indian constitution heavily favours artistic freedom of expression and that this should not be disregarded.

“The act of literature emerges from an intellectual and cultural world that is full of contradiction and is always in a flux,” Justice Kaul said according to The Hindu, adding that resistant voices and activities always existed even within hegemonic ideological currents.