Amid relief that the apex court quashed obscenity charges against him earlier this week, Devidas Tuljapurkar, 57, says his mission remains incomplete. And that is to prise out some answers on a question that led the trade unionist to become an unlikely champion of a 20-year litigation on freedom of expression.
More precisely, the question is of just how far poetic licence can stretch. Back in 1994, Tuljapurkar was editor of Bulletin, a magazine of the Bank of Maharashtra Employee’s Union, Aurangabad, and he chose to publish Gandhi Mala Bhetla, Marathi poet Vasant Gurjar’s angsty take on an imaginary conversation with the Mahatma set at a time when the post-Emergency Janata experiment was collapsing.
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Written in 1983, Gandhi Mala Bhetla (Gandhi Met Me) had already been published in 1986, but a reader of Bulletin took offence and it fell upon Tuljapurkar to defend Gurjar’s poetic licence to attribute to his imagined Gandhi-of-the-Eighties language that the complainant found offensive.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court held that freedom of speech had “constitutional limitations” and that expletives could not be attributed to such historically respected personalities as Mahatma Gandhi. A bench of Justices Dipak Misra and P C Pant said the fundamental right to speech and expression, as envisaged under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution, could not be considered as absolute. While the SC found no fault with the Bombay High Court order that prosecution under Section 292 of the IPC (for sale, publication of obscene books) of the IPC would not be dropped, Tuljapurkar’s unconditional apology was accepted and the charges were dropped.
Gurjar, however, will now face trial, in a Latur court, where the original complaint was registered.
The Patit Pavan Sanghatana’s Vidyadhar Anskar actually filed the complaint in Pune, but the case was transferred to Latur, where Bulletin was published from.
Freedom of Expression needs to be understood in a broader context of our times, Tuljapurkar says, citing the striking down of 66-A as symbolic of changing perceptions. “There may be people who will now read Dhasal or other Dalit literature and find it obscene,” says Tuljapurkar, speaking to The Sunday Express over telephone from Aurangabad. “The truth is that Dalit literature has to be seen in a certain context.”
Thursday’s SC order means that his employer, Bank of Maharashtra, may have to withdraw a chargesheet issued to him in 2012.
Tuljapurkar, who says his union supported him in the litigation, promises to stand by Gurjar through the trial. Himself a law graduate, Tuljapurkar says his lawyer Gopal Subramanium’s 11 hours of argument in SC were a masterclass on the Constitution.
“A law cannot withdraw a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution,” he says, calling for a popular debate on how we define what is obscene.