Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s decision to never write again and withdraw his entire collection of work from publication, following protests by Hindutva and various caste organisation, has been a setback for those who profess the freedom of speech and expression. According to news reports last month, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) burnt copies of his novel Madhorubagan in Tiruchengode in Tamil Nadu, saying that parts of it insulted a temple, Shiva and female worshippers.
The offense, many protesters claim, was the depiction of sexual permissiveness described in the novel. What the protesters have not understood is that this work of fiction, set 100 years ago at a time of an annual festival in Tiruchengode, where childless women would come alone to the temple and couple with a male stranger of her choice.
If the woman got pregnant, the child was considered a gift from god and accepted as such by the husband’s family. The book, in its essence, narrates the travails of a childless couple and how society’s obsession for male heirs destroys the couple’s marriage. Organisations like the RSS and its affiliates clearly do not understand nuance, and yet again, they’ve won a smaller battle within a larger one that is being fought to preserve the freedom of speech and expression.
Despite holding negotiations with groups that had objected to the book, the author continued to receive grave threats over the phone. Subsequently, the writer felt compelled to flee his hometown, and quit writing altogether. Under the Constitution of India, Article 19 guarantees free speech under vague and ‘reasonable restrictions’, such as ‘decency and morality’, ‘public order’ and ‘defamation’.
If recent events in Paris have taught us anything, it is that ‘freedom of speech’ means supporting the right of people to say exactly those ideas that you do not agree with. In India, where a plethora of beliefs and world views exist, and as it would be impossible for all of us to agree on any one belief, the freedom of speech is the only foundation upon which a democratic society can stand.