>An author who declared himself “dead” last year has been judicially resurrected. Under intense pressure from conservative religious and caste groups, award-winning Tamil writer Perumal Murugan had announced his death in a literary sense. That was his way of voicing his anguish at being hounded by some in his hometown of Tiruchengode in Tamil Nadu for writing a novel that they deemed prurient and defamatory, four years after its publication. Perumal Murugan was forced to agree to a written “unconditional apology” at a ‘peace committee’ meeting organised by local officials at Namakkal in the face of orchestrated protests to demand > a ban on his novel Mathorubhagan (One Part Woman) and his prosecution. In a welcome verdict that reinforces the point that jurisprudence in the country is still speech-protective and is unwilling to accept any role for “faceless” mobs in silencing an author, the Madras High Court has rejected the demand for banning the book or prosecuting him, and declared that it will not allow self-appointed super-censors in society to decide what people read or see. It has upheld the freedom of writers to write and advised those professing to be hurt by a book to just avoid reading it.
The >160-page judgment by a Division Bench headed by Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul builds on a series of progressive rulings. It has applied the contemporary community standards test in concluding that there is nothing obscene in the novel. It has affirmed that the novel’s focus is on recording the travails of a childless couple subjected to community ridicule rather than what the book’s opponents allege: that it is an attempt to vilify the deity in a Tiruchengode temple or the women who lived in the town by linking them to a social practice of having sex with strangers on one particular night as part of an age-old temple festival. The Bench has instead reminded the authorities of their duty to secure freedom of expression and not pander to mob demands in the name of preserving law and order. The court draws on the argument that eroticism is not unknown in Indian artistic tradition and rebuts suggestions of vulgarity by pointing to the merit of using the earthy language spoken by the people. If there is one thing in the judgment that sits uneasily in this well-articulated defence of free expression, it is that the state should have an “experts’ body” to resolve such “conflicts”. Even if the objective is to counter unreasonable protests, the notion of having a committee to advise the government in dealing with a conflict between protection of free speech and maintaining law and order may itself represent a grave compromise.