The critical issue of freedom of speech in India got a much-required boost from the Madras High Court on Tuesday, when it ruled in favour of Tamil author, poet and professor Perumal Murugan’s book Madhorubagan. “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write,” the court said. The court also directed the state to circulate a series of guidelines framed by it to handle such situations among the state police and to form an expert committee to deal with similar cases in the future.
Mr Murugan’s book Madhorubagan narrates the story of a childless couple and raises several issues about gender, patriarchy and masculinity. The bold theme got the author into trouble with Hindutva and caste outfits and on December 26, 2014, a mob burnt copies of the book. The writer was threatened with unpleasant consequences if he failed to withdraw “objectionable” portions of the book, forcing him to make an announcement through social media in January 2015: “Perumal Murugan, the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He has no faith in rebirth. As an ordinary teacher, he will live as P Murugan. Leave him alone.” Mr Murugan was so agitated by the Hindutva and caste outfits-sponsored incident that he even asked his publishers not to print and sell his work and implored his readers to burn his books.
The Tamil version of the book was published in 2011 but the trouble began after the English translation of the book was published in 2014. “The silencing of Perumal Murugan,” historian Ramachandra Guha told BBC, “is a sad day for Tamil Nadu and for India.” Many authors felt that if Mr Murugan does not return to writing in India’s disturbing climate of increasing intolerance of freedom of speech, it would be a tragedy.
The attack on Mr Murugan was not the first one in Tamil Nadu in recent years. In 2000, HG Rasool, author of Mailanji, was asked to apologise before the Jamaat panchayat for what they considered his “anti-Islam” views. When the writer Bama wrote her first novel Karukku in 1992 about her village, the people of her community and their lives, there was protest in her village and her parents were harassed. The scenario is not much better in other parts of the country.
Fortunately, in the case of Mr Murugan, the court has stepped in and a “tragedy” has been averted. The Madras High Court order will hopefully embolden independent and secular thinkers not to succumb to pressures. The choice, as the HC correctly said, is always with the reader. “Literary tastes may vary - what is right and acceptable to one may not be so to others. Yet, the right to write is unhindered”. The ruling is unambiguous and will, hopefully, force the anti-free speech brigade to let their grievances known in a more acceptable and non-violent way.