Tamil Nadu

In defence of the opposition to ‘Madhorubhagan’

Columnist and commentator S. Gurumurthy. Photo: R. Ravindran  

Liberal sections of society have hailed the recent Madras High Court judgment upholding Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s freedom of expression and ruling that the state cannot allow groups claiming to be offended by his novel Madhorubhagan to curtail his freedom in the name of maintaining law and order. However, noted columnist and commentator S. Gurumurthy has come out with a critique of the judgment, questioning its legal basis and logic. Sruthisagar Yamunan met him to understand why. Excerpts from his interview with Mr. Gurumurthy.

What is your primary issue with the Perumal Murugan case verdict?

The verdict is wrong on facts. Basically because the writer himself has said in his preface that he has confirmed what has written in the novel: that this practice was going on in Tiruchengode. His withdrawing this comment later does not make it fiction. How did the court come to the conclusion that this withdrawal makes it retroactively fiction? Under what law and under what precedent they are saying this I am not sure. The High Court has not given a proper rationale for why it accepted the argument that he now thinks it was not based on research. His was not just a fiction about a couple but an account of an allegedly prevalent practice.

In essence, this means his characters were fictional but the structure was based on research. My view is he was wrong on facts.

The second point is, the High Court has said this could be about any people anywhere. How did Tiruchengode come in? First, the Kongu community is around that area. Two, Mr. Murugan had drawn attention to the ritual of going around that rock. ‘Sami Kudutha Pillai’ (God-given child) is an existing adage there.

Next, the Madhorubagan idol is on the book’s cover. A competent counsel was not employed to bring these facts to the notice of the court. The court needs assistance of branded counsels. But all of them were appearing for the liberals, writer and publisher. The person concerned had to be persuaded to come to court. All instrumentalities in India are being drawn into the vortex of liberalism, including courts. To take a position otherwise would be deemed illiberal. This overall thinking is affecting institutional independence. Women, the principal affected parties here, were not heard in this court. The court should have said we want some women of that area who practice this ritual to come and say what their opinion is. You charge them with carrying the illegitimate children of third parties but you don’t want to hear them. This judgment has created a huge misapprehension. It has to be withdrawn and the case reheard.

One aspect you have not mentioned is how the court viewed the so-called outrage. It took place four years after the book was released. The court felt this was orchestrated. Should the court bow down to such faceless protests?

Is there any evidence to say there was no outrage with knowledge of the contents of the book? That the book was released years back doesn’t mean they know about the contents of the book. Were there any popular reviews that discussed the controversial parts of the book in detail?

There were lots of reviews and the book even got awards.

There might have been awards and public functions for the release. A book getting released has no meaning. The people did not act at that point because they did not know what was written in the book. I have personally interacted with people of that area. They said they came to know about the contents only later. If there was a political party or a leader, let’s say some one like Dr. Ramadoss, then we can allege orchestration. So definitely, it took sometime for the people to assemble in the absence of a visible community leadership.

But isn’t that worse? That is what the court terms as a faceless mob.

No. Only when it is faceless it means it is spontaneous. There was no Hardik Patel here. And it is not just one community that participated in the protests. Vellala Gounders and Dalits, including Arunthathiyars, agitated. Most of the newspapers have not reported on these facts and that it was a societal protest. What Perumal Murugan had basically written is that the so called vagabonds and untouchables indulge in sexual orgy. But the women of one community are hurt. Women are the pride of any community or family. We cannot deny this. We are not living in an Anglo­-Saxon world. Here we live in a community and it has a certain value even constitutionally, and women are part of the community. Liberalism won’t stand if it ignores sentiments of the people. We cannot have liberalism at the cost of the people’s sentiments. Except hurting sentiments, this book has not achieved anything. These people have done nothing illegal. All that they have done is pray and this novel trivialises their belief.

But the book makes a strong case against certain ideas of what constitutes womanhood and masculinity and the resultant effect on the people. In that way it served an important social cause.

That could have been achieved without reference to this fictitious sexual orgy and without mentioning the place and the community. Why do you zero in on a place, a god, a particular community and a ritual?

Maybe because he was from the community and it was immediate to him?

Then you leave it to the community to decide what to do with the book. If I belong to the community I should have the right to trivialise it. Is this how the courts should look at this issue? By no standards of any jurisprudence is this judgment valid unless the women are heard. This fictional novel served no social purpose. In fact, you should be more careful when writing fiction. Fact is a defence against defamation. Fiction cannot be.

Some could argue the popular morality you are alluding to is not consistent either. For example, how is the relationship between Lord Krishna and Gopis or between Draupadi and Pandavas acceptable but what happens in Madhorubagan is not? Will you support if the community seeks a ban on Bhagavatam?

So long as you do not regard Bhagavatam as history, there is no problem.

How do you regard it?

That is what I am saying. Now you have classified it as mythology. There is no continuity of the community. So long as people do not associate with it and say these are my ancestors,….in fact ancestry is the most important.

But the Yadavas do.

Yes, they do. But the important thing is Yadavas do not reside in one place for them to defend themselves. Nobody says the Krishna­-Gopi relationship is amoral because they are taken to be Bhaktas (devotees). The interpretation is also that.

I can also interpret it as amoral.

Correct, but provided there is a Krishna. You cannot equate a relationship between man and God and a relationship between man and woman.

But Madhorubagan does the same thing. The child is “God given” and not that of the man you have sex with.

I agree. But he has not ennobled the relationship. There is no Krishna. The novel trivialises the woman. It is not a God-given child. It is given by somebody. I would like the court to say both these things are same. God is in a different position. We may even criticise God. In fact, Rama is criticised for sending Sita to forest and for killing Vali. But Rama is God. Only in this country you have the right to criticise God. People are accepted as they are provided they are revered. There is no reverence of any kind in this novel. Do you equate a vagabond giving a child to Krishna?

So you are essentially saying this is acceptable when a person if elevated to divine status, and not otherwise.

Unless you say that the person donating the sperm is divine. But you are equating the sperm donors to those giving it in a laboratory. Sentiments are not dealt with logic. You cannot argue with a million people following a tradition that this is the logic. Where sentiment comes don’t bring in logic just as an intellectual. Man is partly emotional and partly sentimental. How much of your life can you rationally explain? When sentiment of the people is involved, logic has to be moderated.

Should sentiments then be allowed to trump law and rights?

No. It has not done any harm to you. I can understand if the sentiment is to kill a child of my neighbour to get a child for myself, then that is not acceptable since it is against the society. Here, I am just going to pray. You are giving an interpretation without facts. Why did Mr. Murugan not stand by his research? Why did he not continue with his stand that yes the novel is factual? So you are basically castigating people for their faith.

Do you agree with the court’s observation that the society was more liberal in the older times?

Let me ask you one thing: Are the courts liberal? Where was liberalism in the ADM Jabalpur case during the Emergency? [In that 1976 case, the Supreme Court ruled that no person can apply for habeas corpus during Emergency] I don’t think the courts could stand up and say we are liberal. You have never been liberal when you were supposed to be liberal. You are liberal when a liberal regime is there. When the regime is illiberal you have also been so. So I do not want to give a certificate to the courts that they are liberal.

When do you think taking offence is okay and when is it not?

A sentimental country also respects each other’s sentiments. It is in this mutual respect that you have peace in this country. If there is a sentiment that offends the sentiment of others, then the State or courts should intervene. When people are having their own life and beliefs and I don’t disturb others, then I feel they be allowed to live peacefully without interference. I think this judgment has not been delivered with proper briefing.


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