Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, who was forced to symbolically declare in 2014 that he had died after protests over his novel, said on Wednesday that he will “get up” after the Madras high court dismissed a criminal case filed against him two years ago and called for the author’s “resurrection.”
“My mind wishes to spend a little time in the joy of this moment,” he added, indicating his “resurrection” as an author would take a little longer.
Residents of Tiruchengode and the Kongu Nadu belt--areas where Murugan lived and wrote about in his novels--claimed that Madhorubagan offended their religious sentiments - only after it was translated into English in 2014. The Tamil version was published in 2011.
The book is about a childless couple from rural Tamil Nadu that is forced by their families to participate in an ancient chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeshvara, a composite androgynous form of Shiva and Parvati. According to the book, any man was permitted to sleep with any woman and vice-versa during the night of the festival.
The bench, comprising Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana, argued that the charges that Madhorubagan - translated to ‘One Part Woman’ in English - allegedly offended the religious sentiments of a community were unfounded.
“All writings, unpalatable for one section of the society, cannot be labelled as obscene, vulgar, depraving, prurient and immoral,” it said.
It was Chief Justice Kaul, who as a member of the Delhi high court, delivered the historic judgement that exonerated legendary painter MF Husain of similar charges in 2008.
Murugan’s intention to return to the fold and write again is not the only consequence of Tuesday’s landmark judgement.
Activists say the court ruling has come as a victory for freedom of expression in a country that has seen a systematic hounding of artists over the last four years - from the murders of rationalists Dr Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi and Govind Pansare, to the outcry surrounding Gajendra Chauhan’s appointment as chairman of prestigious FTII and Sahitya Akademi members returning their awards in protest against government ‘apathy’.
“It was an excellent judgement that has allowed him to come back to writing,” Kannan Sundaram, editor of the Tamil arts magazine Kalachuvadu and Murugan’s publisher, said. “But it is also absolutely a milestone in the context of freedom of expression in India - and hopefully, will be used as case law in the future.”
“Because it is a high court ruling, it can be used to settle issues of freedom of expression across India,” Sundaram added.
Of the many points that Tuesday’s judgement established in flowing, oft-times verging on the poetic, prose in its 140-page ruling, arguably the most important one was about the reinterpretation of presumption.
“What is interesting about mentioning the idea of presumption is that the court has argued that the primary presumption should be in favour of your fundamental rights,” Sadanand Menon, an art critic and cultural commentator, said.
The new interpretation holds that one must presume the author has the right to write until proven guilty in a court of law - a statement that helps buttress, according to Menon, the “absolute un-negotiability of Article 19A’s commitment to free speech.”
The conclusion to the nearly two-year long battle that Murugan has faced constitutes an important milestone in the battle for freedom of expression in a nation as fractious as India, activists said.
But it should also not be taken lightly, Menon warned.
“It can’t be as simplistic as celebrating Murugan’s victory,” he said. “The time has come for artists and writers to take this forward - for us as a society to acknowledge the importance of this particular reinterpretation of the law.”
Sundaram is now planning to try and republish Murugan’s works, including Madhorubagan and his latest, unfinished novel Pookuzhi (pyre).