Artistic freedom of author Perumal Murugan, upheld

Madras High Court: While deliberating over the conflict between freedom of expression of a writer and offending moral and religious sentiments of the public, the Division Bench of S.K. Kaul, C.J., and Pushpa Sathyanarayana, J., upheld the artistic freedom of the writer under Art. 19(1)(a) of the Constitution and further set out guidelines for the State for dealing with similar cases, and also directed the setting up an expert body. In the judgment for the Tamil novel, ‘Madhorubagan’ by Perumal Murugan, the Court stated that there is no necessity in warranting any action against the author or the publisher of the novel. .

The award winning novel which revolves around the trials and tribulations of a childless couple, and other ancient social customs of the town of Tiruchengode (the author too belongs to Tiruchengode), came under fire from the public due to its alleged obscene contents offending the religious sentiments of the Tiruchengode townspeople. Certain factions raised their voice against the author, that he had defamed the womenfolk and the community of Tiruchengode. The virulent campaign did not die down even after the author issued a written apology and volunteered to withdraw all copies of the novel. Peace talks were held under the directions of the District Revenue Officer and the Inspector of police, where the author had to sign an “unconditional apology’. Agonized by the events, the author wrote his own “obituary as a writer” on social media, volunteering to withdraw all copies of his books and asking people who bought his books to burn them while he would make good the loss suffered.

A batch of petitions were filed in the matter, where the ‘opponents’ demanded a ban of the novel on the grounds of obscenity, defamatory and hurtful to the religious sentiments of townspeople, and demanded that criminal proceedings be initiated against the author and publisher. While the ‘sympathizers’ pleaded to uphold the creative freedom of the writer.

Perusing the controversy and the arguments for and against the book, the Court, referred to the decisions in Phantom Films Pvt. Ltd. vs. The Central Board of Film Certification, 2016 SCC OnLine Bom 3862 and M.F. Hussain v. Rajkumar Pandey 2008 SCC OnLine Del 562  the bench held that the ‘community standard test’ should involve standard prudence and not sensitivity, and the freedom of speech of an artist must be protected. The Court in its judgment showed concern over the State’s management of the situation and even set out guidelines urging the Government to step in to protect the artictic freedom of the people. It was further observed that extra-judicial, casteist and religious forces dictating the creativity of authors and writers should not be allowed. It was directed that the Government should constitute an expert body consisting of learned academicians etc. so that they can deal with situations arising from such conflicts of views. Following the references and the observations, the Court held that there was no ground for police against the author and/or the publishers. The bench concluded the 160-paged judgment quoting that “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.” [S. Tamilselvan v. Government of Tamil Nadu 2016 SCC OnLine Mad 5960, decided on 05.07.2016]

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