December 2014 was a bad month. Cartoonists were gunned down in Paris and a novelist declared himself to be “dead” in South India. They were unrelated, but they both breathed their last, one literally and the other virtually (and ironically, more significantly) because they were radically so different in the way they expressed art and literature, that their readers were threatened and angered. The difference of opinion between them and their readers bubbled into resentment and violent action.
Charlie Hebdo was bold, and was read by people who disagreed with the editors and cartoonists because their fundamental beliefs were ridiculed. Perumal Murugan was creative, and was read by people who were too comfortable in the present to care to listen to a story, about a past that they don’t want to be confronted with.
If Je Suis Charlie, then, in India, Naanum Murugan. (“I am Murugan too,” in Tamil)
The book that was withdrawn, One Part Woman, is a translation of a Tamil novel written by Perumal Murugan. It talks of a couple who belong to a lower caste in a little village in Tamil Nadu, in early 20th century. The couple finds that they are unable to have children, so they go to a temple during the annual chariot festival – to pray, and to be “blessed” with a child, in God’s temple. In a custom that involves consensual impregnation, a woman may bear a child in the temple festival, with one of the random men who have come to the temple for the very purpose of helping women. In other words, this was a ritual in which the woman engaged in consensual sex in the temple with men who have surrendered their bodies for the purpose of helping these childless women become pregnant. Remember, the novel is set in the early 20th century. Also, the ritual did exist in real, and is documented too. For small farming communities with tiny landholdings, having an heir is considered very important and for the woman, too, it is essential to have a child to escape the stigma of being barren. So, desperate, the young lady in the story, persuaded by her husband’s family, goes in search of a partner for the ritual during the festival, assuming her husband’s endorsement of it. It is this part of the story that has created an avalanche of resentment from the Hindu fundamentalists.
The Indian right wing public (the right wing fringe elements) were irked by the reminder of their horrifying past. So what if it is based on truth? The ones that disagreed burnt his books and protested loudly. They even threatened violence against the writer. Perumal Murugan was coaxed by the District executive to withdraw his book. He was called for a public meeting, where he was made to apologise to the irate public. He was then offered no protection by the police. He was instead told to leave the district, for his own good. The fundamental right of this writer has been scrunched up in a ball and thrown out the window.
Paris rose in chorus, against extremism, for a magazine that they felt represented them. But India has not even noticed this writer who has been so brutally mentally assaulted. India, for that matter, would never even entertain a magazine of the Charlie Hebdo kind, simply because we really are over-loaded with sensitivity in the fault-lines of our distinct identities. Besides, India cannot be seen to protect a magazine that routinely ridicules “values and principles” of various institutions. India is a melting pot of cultures, and throwing spices in the brew will lead to cracks in the pot.
Why is there such an imbalance in upholding citizens’ rights in a strong democracy like India? To answer this, one must simply look at the history of the evolution of the democracy itself. We are a diverse country, whose peace is guaranteed by pacified sentiments and cultural safeguards. While the French can associate themselves to a common culture way back into history, Indians can’t. We were born different, just like our forefathers were. The very idea of India, in fact, is based on cultural diversity which is revered by one another. Maintenance of public morality, decency and public order dictates the extent to which the Fundamental Rights can be exercised. In the melee, constitutional morality is lost.
Constitutional morality, in the backdrop of Perumal Murugan’s case, can be studied as the protection offered by the State to the right to freedom of speech and expression, and the constitutional ground being created (or protected) for constructive debate which balances cultural activism and creativity. Unfortunately, the Indian democracy lacks in both areas of constitutional morality. While she protects the rights of a community (to express itself – in the form of policing, or violence), she is powerless in the sphere of protection of an individual’s personal right to express himself or herself. While India seems to offer a ground for constructive debate on various topics including this one, she has failed to address the issue of balancing community rights and individual rights (or for that matter, of establishing the criteria for a book/art to be deemed unfit for public consumption).
The immediate way forward is for the Supreme Court of India to issue guidelines on what constitutes immoral literature or art. In the future, constitutional morality has to be deliberated upon, debated and a law must be brought out, to keep a check on over-zealous practitioners of both, freedom of expression and maintenance of public order.