Madhorubagan, satanic verses, polyester prince
The liberals in and outside the media are celebrating the Madras High Court judgement in the case of Perumal Murugan who wrote a book “Madhorubagan” — the book that had invited massive protests in Western Tamil Nadu by the Kongu Vellalar community who felt hurt by its contents. The High Court has written a long and profound prose on how liberal the Indian Constitution is and the freedom it guarantees. The Murugan case judgement calls for a comment in the backdrop of the country’s political and constitutional ecosystem.
First, the facts of the Murugan case. The judgment sets out the contents of the book and the objections to it in paras 27 to 62, which are important. Madhorubagan is the name of the Hindu temple deity “Arthanareeswara” in Tiruchengode where from Murugan hails. The belief is that on the Vaikasi Visakam day of the temple’s annual car festival, childless couples who circumambulate the ‘Varadi Kal’ [a large boulder on hilltop] would be blessed with a child, known as “Sami Kodutha Pillai” [God Given Child]. Murugan’s book centres around a childless couple, Kali and Ponna of the 1940s. Kali’s mother advises him to allow his wife Ponna into the sexual orgy that takes place on the Vaikasi Visakam day — so that she begets a child through the orgy. As Kali refuses, Ponna’s brother tells him that the popular belief “Sami Kodutha Pillai” is only child begotten by women by sex orgy with strangers during Vaikasi Visakam. The imputation is also that most married Kongu Vellalar womenfolk in Tiruchengode indulge in sexual orgies and the childless among them get impregnated in the one night orgy. The festival is a once a year opportunity for youths from “untouchable” community, according to Murugan, to explore their libidos and orchestrate it on Kongu Vellalar community women above 30 years. Murugan even wrote that the youths would boast about how many women they had had sex with on that one night. It does not need a seer to say that unless a community is saintly, it must feel hurt by such writing, hurt to its religious feelings apart.
Facts not denied
The judgment does not indicate that the facts set out by the community are false. The only issue discussed is whether the author had intended the book as fiction or as historical narrative. Far from claiming it as fiction Murugan had said in his preface that he had studied and documented the Tiruchengode orgies. But when, at the peace meet called by government officials, community leaders asked for the documents, he could show none.
Despite the author himself asserting to the contrary [even though he withdrew his claim later], the book has been accepted as fiction in the judgment. Constitutional freedom of expression is not unlimited. Hurting facts maybe permitted. But hurting fiction should not be easily allowed. The law is clear that expressions should not offend decency or morality nor defame anyone or incite violence. Can women of a community be trivialised as amoral like Murugan has done to assert one’s constitutional right? Do such undignified remarks about women, whose dignity is paramount in any civilised society, promote freedom?
The Court has castigated those who protested against the book as “a section of people just seeking to put themselves or their ancestors in the shoes of persons who are affected because of a reference to a location and a folklore, which description of location also stood withdrawn subsequently, since the author believed it was a work of fiction and could have been based anywhere else”. What impression the book intends and creates in the average reader is critical, not what the author Murugan believes, particularly post facto. Murugan’s retroactive belief is clearly self-exculpatory. He has written not about an unspecific section of people, but particularly about the women of the community he names. That community and the ritual are connected geographically and could not relate to any other place or any other community. He names and undermines the Kongu Vellalar community women. Imagine the community in Murugan’s book is about a more aggressive community or its ancestors. There would have been no peace meeting as in Tiruchengode — but only massive violence. Threat of violence, a worldly reality, has led to judicial silence, even restraint, on free expression. The most famous case was on Salman Rushdie’s book, “Satanic Verses”. Some 25 years back Islamic cleric Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa to kill him for writing that book. The man is under protection till today. Recall Kamal Haasan’s film Vishwaroopam, three years back. The film cleared by Censor Board was banned in Tamil Nadu on law and order grounds as the protesting Muslims halted Chennai. The ban led to stopping its screenings in neighbouring states, even in a few foreign countries.
Satanic Verses and Polyester Prince
Judicial declarations on liberty and freedom hardly enthuse the people because of lack of consistent and evenhanded approach to all cases. When the Supreme Court denied the right to life and liberty in ADM Jabalpur case during Emergency and post-Emergency pontificated on the right of Maneka Gandhi to passport as part of the right to liberty, it was laughable. Salman Rushdie claimed his “Satanic Verses” was just a fiction and apologised, but no one took notice of it. India which, according to the Murugan case judgment, has “one of the most modern and liberal Constitutions” was the first country to ban Rushdie’s book! Liberals were afraid of challenging the ban. Even if it were challenged no court would have pontificated on the freedom of expression of Rushdie because had the book not been banned there would have been riots all over. Likewise no liberal challenged the ban on Vishwaroopam before courts like Murugan’s admirers enterprisingly do now. The reason is obvious. In the face of threat of violence, no one looks at freedom of expression. Liberals vanish before violent mobs. Take another case, that of Dhirubhai Ambani. This newspaper had carried on a relentless campaign in the 1980s to expose the wrongdoings of Reliance. But the government of the day joined hands with the wrongdoer and raided the paper, arrested the writer, harassed the owners, and filed over 300 criminal cases against it to protect Ambani. Later Hamish MacDonald, an Australian journalist, wrote a book “Polyester Prince” which documented the work of this paper and misdeeds of Ambani. “Polyester Prince” was barred in India. By who? By the judiciary at the lower level! The liberals like those who are crying for freedom of expression today did not take the case to the High Court or Supreme Court. The reason is self-evident. It concerned a most feared and richest Indian business group.
Ban on other books
See the sort of books banned by governments in India. The book “The Reminiscence Of The Nehru Age” by M O Mathai, secretary to Pundit Nehru, which explosively described all important personalities of Nehru era, was banned in 1978. Why? Because it offended the powerful. Freedom of expression didn’t matter. “Understanding Islam through Hadis” by Ram Swarup was banned in 1991. Why? Because it was critical of political Islam. “The Moor’s Last Sigh” a fiction by Salman Rushdie was banned in 1995. Why? It contained a character resembling Balasaheb Thackeray, the powerful Shiv Sena boss, also had a dog named Jawaharlal. The Supreme Court declared the ban unconstitutional in 1996. Yet, the book sellers, fearing violence, refused to stock the book in Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena forte. No liberal approached the Supreme Court for contempt. More.
The “True Furqan”, written by two Muslims Al Saffee and Al Mahdee, was banned for purportedly mocking Islam. A Pune court ordered the copies of the book by Anand Yadav which was derogatory to Tukaram and Dnyaneshwar to be destroyed in June 2014. Clearly, there is no consistency in the executive or judicial approach on objected books. The only guiding principle seems to be whether it will lead to violence.
The Tiruchengode community who were protesting against ‘Madhorubagan’ were ordinary people — dhoti-wearing countrymen, not modern urbanites. Not like the wealthy Ambanis, who could threaten the publisher to pulp the book or politically powerful like those who could get books, like the ones on Pundit Nehru or Bal Thackeray, banned. The Tiruchengode people conducted a peace talk democratically where Perumal Murugan was invited to produce the evidence he had claimed. There was no violence. No one abused or molested him despite the issue being sensitive. Murugan apologised for his writing because he could not adduce any evidence. Yet the peace meet is regarded as kangaroo court, despite government officials initiating it. Many disputes in India are settled by informal talks — be it panchayat or community leaders’ intervention. The famous Manipal group dispute lingering for decades in High Courts and Supreme Court was finally solved by a spiritual leader — Veerendra Heggade. A sweeping generalisation is likely to undermine a valuable, cost effective social capital still functioning in many parts of India. The judiciary ought to be empathetic and issue guidelines on how peace meetings or panchayat should be held rather than ridiculing and trivialising them. In communal riots or caste wars, even police invariably resorts to peace meetings and solves issues. Are they too kangaroo courts? Despite Murugan’s provocative writing against their women, the community gathered for the peace meet, which was held without violence. They need to be patted. In Rushdie and Vishwaroopam cases, the protesters succeeded in their aim by unleashing violence. Were the Tiruchengode people wrong then in holding peace meeting? The conclusion is self- evident: A helicopter view of the cases on ban on books in most cases and selective assertion and celebration of freedom in some other cases exposes political and constitutional hypocrisy that goes on in the name of liberalism and freedom of speech.
Evenhanded approach needed
A personal account: An educated lady professional from Tiruchengode, who begot a child by undertaking the Visakam ritual, asked me what those who had read Murugan’s book would think of her and her child. I had no answer. Nor can the liberals who celebrate Murugan’s book have any. Thousands of women in Tiruchengode areas suffer this humiliation — silently. I understand their pain. Lesson: A balanced and evenhanded constitutional approach to ban or permit objectionable expression is needed.
S. Gurumurthy is a well-known commentator on economic and political affairs.