I am sure many in Tamilnadu must be seething with anger at the insensitivity exhibited in the judgement of the High Court in seeing no offence but only freedom of speech in the way Mr Perumal Murugan, has constructed the ideas behind a still-in practice ritual in a famous temple in his novel “Madhoru Bagan”. One may argue that judgements must be sensible and that insensitivity is not an issue. But coming as it does closely on the heels of the Swathi murder case which received more media publicity after the Madras High Court lambasted the authorities for insensitive treatment to the victim with a remark that “Even a dead person has got right to dignity under the Constitution”, one is at a loss to understand how the esteemed Chief Justice of Madras High Court failed to see the affront cast by the novel on the dignity of every woman who has attended the festival – for countless generations from the past.
The ritual under scanner is one related to childless women circumambulating a stone / boulder called “Varadi-k-kal” (வரடிக்கல்) on top of the hillock of the temple of Arthanareeswara on the day of Vaikasi Vishaka during the annual car festival. Beliefs like this have existed in many other temples in India. One can say that this belief is widespread even today in temples dedicated to snake god. Circumambulating the peepal tree for begetting children is a more widespread belief which I used to think was even present in Indus sites.
These beliefs could not have continued to exist if the prayers had not fructified. While the devout ones engaged in these rituals believe that God had answered their prayers, Perumal Murugan has thought differently. Claiming to have done a research on how the children are born to these women, he has spun his story that all these women – who were all married and childless, have had intercourse with unknown men in the guise of the ritual and borne children out of it. This has not just offended the people of that geographic region of Tamilnadu where the faith in the ritual still lives on, it has also cast a slur on countless women – all women now living and had lived - who had taken part in the ritual. When confronted to show proof of this which he has claimed in the preface, he had none to show.
In this background the issue has gone to the court. The court did not find anything offensive in his story and instead marked it as ‘freedom of speech’ while in reality it was ‘freedom of imagination’ crossing the border of another person’s dignity.
Not long ago the same court condemned the police with ‘insensitivity’ for having let Swathi uncovered for 2 full hours.
But the Chief Justice does not find anything insensitive with the blanket stigmatisation of the women who take part in that ritual. Strangely enough he has found insensitivity in the eyes of the people who objected to the depiction.
A part of the judgement reads
“It is not to be judged by the eyes of the insensitive which sees only obscenity in everything… No one reading the novel would be persuaded to draw a definite conclusion as sought to be canvassed by the opponents of the novel that the endeavour of the author was to portray all women coming to the car festival as prostitutes. This is a complete misreading of the novel and its theme.”
Who is insensitive? Whose eyes are insensitive? When I scurried through many articles commenting on this judgement to look for some justice to those unknown women, I could not find any but only one which was written sensibly by none other than Mr S.Gurumurthy. The last paragraph of his essay tells the real pain inflicted by Perumal Murugan, the author of the book.
The last paragraph runs as follows:
“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.”
Does the learned judge have an answer for this?
He said that no one reading this novel would draw a conclusion on the women who undertook the ritual. Here is one ready to have expressed her anguish to Mr Gurumurthy.
What explanation the Chief Justice can give this women and countless others who are silently suffering?
Will he take suo motu congnizance of the suffering inflicted on this woman by Perumal Murugan and bring justice to her, similar to the way the HC took note of Swathi’s murder?
Does he have the sensitivity to realise that like this woman, countless number of women who have done the ritual have been massacred like Swathi in public and more than that, stripped off their dignity?
Madhorubagan, satanic verses, polyester prince
The liberals in and outside the media are celebrating the Madras High Court judgment 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 judgment 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.
Even handed 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.