freedom of expression

The resurrection of the writer, Perumal Murugan

On 5 July, 2016, the Madras High Court (HC) upheld the right of Tamil author perumalmuruganPerumal Murugan to publish his novel, ‘Mathorubagan’, and its English translation, ‘One Part Woman’.

Last year, in an infamous episode of exercising one’s right to be offended, a bunch of people from Perumal Murugan’s village took offense to his story (which described the village and its cultural practices) and forced it out of the stands. They made him apologise for his writing (the nerve!), and forced him to retrieve unsold copies of the books. The State stood as a spectator to this, like a mannequin does when a store is being vandalized.

After this sordid affair, Perumal Murugan had had enough. He declared the writer in him to be dead. Here‘s a post on that shameful episode.

On 5 July 2016, the HC, after upholding Perumal Murugan’s right to publish, also dismissed petitions that sought to ban the books (this time, the “vigilantes” were trying to twist his arm through legal routes, as opposed to plain bullying). The HC said, quite plainly, that no one is forced to read. ‘If you don’t like a book, simply keep it aside.’ Well said your Honour!

Will he come back and write more books, though?

After being harassed by the thin-skinned, easily offended lovers of all-that-is-imagined, we can’t say. But we would love to see him back. As does the HC, which said “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.

Subversion of the right to freedom of speech

Indians, anyone will tell you, are talkative people. They can talk about mustard oil and about United Nations Law of the Seas, about what the Char Log will think and about IQ scores, about Barack Obama and about Putin, about Modi’s suit and about the half naked Fakir. Indians can talk tirelessly. They can do so eloquently, and with zest and purpose. Few, though, can claim to have given their life or life’s work to the Right to the Freedom of Speech and Expression.

The Right to Freedom of Speech and expression is a fundamental right, that is available to every citizen of India, and is protected dearly by the judiciary. The judiciary, in India, is said to be the second most trusted institution of the country, closely following the Election Commission.

In the Keshavnanda Bharti case, the Supreme Court of India held that the parliament cannot amend the constitution in such a manner that the basic structure is in any way affected. What is the basic structure? Suffice it to know, for now, that it includes all the fundamental rights in the constitution. The Supreme Court thus drew a line that the legislature had to toe, when it came to the right of the citizens to their freedom of speech.

The executive’s overtures with respect to their attempts to subvert our freedom of speech has also been checked by the judiciary, or sometimes by the sheer volume of the speech itself. Censuring free speech on the internet? The SC quashed the Section 66A of the IT Act, that allowed the police to arrest people on arbitrary grounds for whatever they’d written on the internet. Porn ban? Joke; it simply can’t be done. Digital blocks imposed by the union, that too on an entire industry, are but a joke.

The only time when the legislature or executive can make a law or take action against speech is when the speech seeks to adversely affect interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

So, if you want to carve out a country in your backyard (like a maoist), you could be arrested. And, if you say that all politicians loot people and bleed people of their sanity and dignity, you can be penalized. If you write a book that makes a case for creating a new country out of India, you can well be thrown into jail. If you propound lies about someone or something, be it in academic papers or through the media, you can be penalized.

Sadly, and factually, there’s another class of people who have been shut up, literally, by the people they tried to talk to, for speaking the truth. Imagine being gagged and strangulated for observing casually in a crowd of people that the earth is revolving around the sun. You were gagged because the people you were surrounded by disagreed with you. They would really like the earth to revolve around a cupcake. You were forsaken because you spoke of the sun. The sun does not exist, they say. The sun is an illusion you have created to corrupt minds and dirty the history of the people of the cupcake. The glowing blurb in the sky is the caramel oozing out of the cupcake, they say. How dare you say things like Hydrogen and Helium. Be gone! Off with your head!

Thus begot what happened to men like Kalburgi, Dhabolkar, Pansare and, I might add, Perumal Murugan too. Kalburgi, Dhabolkar and Pansare were killed by people who disagreed with them because they were rationalists, that is, they spoke sense. Perumal Murugan was gagged out of his village for writing a fictional story based on true events of a century ago, about a custom which the locals would rather not be reminded.

Here, the exercise of curtailment or restriction on free speech and expression was assumed by the proletariat, not the legislature or executive.The proletariat was given the rights to freedom of speech and expression, not the right to take it away! There’s a right to freedom of speech. There is NO corollary to it, and there is NO right to be offended.

What has the state done, in response, though? It was shocked at the reactions of the public to these men, and it hasn’t recovered from the shock yet, more than a year since these incidents began occurring.

Does the state, the protector of our rights, need a jolt to be woken up from its pretend-slumber? For, I find it hard to believe that they could be oblivious to the need to address such subversion of fundamental rights. There are more than enough men among them who have been able to amass wealth enough to make a Somalian mafia don blush. Such acumen need only be expressed in its very minimal amount to find the perpetrators of crimes against the basic structure of our constitution. The will needed, of course, has to be dug up from the reserves that lie deep in their minds which is mostly dominated by vote-bank calculations and efficiency methods in amassing more wealth.

If the state is going to continue its hibernation and ostrich-like behaviour, maybe it’s time the rare utterances of brave ideas and stories should be made more common.

Maybe it’s time that the rationalists unite, to say loud and clear, that eliminating those awe inspiring men was futile. That the intellectual and creative fire in our bellies cannot be extinguished by the most lowly and disgusting expressions of disagreement, even through gun powder and violent picketing.

So, here I am. I dare you, to say people like me are wrong to stand by the men whose lives have been wasted because of you.

I dare you, I double dare you, to fight me with words, with ideas, with an instrument known as debate, or discussion. If this is war, I can tell you that you’re going down, for I’d rather be dead that live a life looking over my shoulder! I’m willing to fight, tooth and nail, sir. My right to freedom of speech is sacrosanct, more so than the infinite inane beliefs you hold.

Indians sure can talk, but now, I don’t see them voicing enough concern about the butchering of the intellect in their national fabric. The silence is loud, and is driving lunatics to suppress the few with a voice. This should not be, it must not be, it shall not be. This is my minuscule contribution towards ending the silence of the masses. My shout out to the miscreants who have killed and maimed free speech in India: please, stop.

I’d written this a long time back. However, most of it is true today too. I was inspired to post this (with some edits) after an argument I had with an otherwise sensible friend, on the need to respect everyone’s rights (specifically, the fundamental rights of freedoms). He said ‘your freedom to carry an umbrella ends at the edge of my nose’ – apparently, expressing views that contradict the majority’s views should be done with “sensitivity”, or not be done at all (the latter is preferred). I thought that was a lot of cow refuse. Majoritarianism (be it religious or cultural) is being given greater preference over constitutional correctness, and that is absolutely reprehensible. It is time, I thought, rational and liberal voices also speak up, and refute the apparent justifications given by narrow minded men. Hence, the post.

One Part Woman and Charlie

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.

paris-je-suis-char_3160192k perumalmurugan

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.