Nearly 16 months after he declared the death of his authorial self, Tamil writer Perumal Murugan has announced that he plans to return to writing. The resurrection of Murugan, best known for his searing fiction including the controversial Mathorubagan, owes to a judgment by a two-judge bench of the Madras High Court, which ruled on Tuesday in favour of his right to write and publish. Ruling on a clutch of petitions that, among other things, sought action against Murugan and his publisher and a directive to the publishers to forfeit all copies of Mathorubagan and its English translation, One Part Woman, the judges held that the claims and allegations of various communal organisations and their representatives were baseless. The judgment said the peace agreement that the district administration had forced on Murugan after a show of aggression by local groups cannot be binding on the writer since he agreed to its terms under duress and held that “Murugan should not be under fear” and that he must be able to “advance the canvas of his writings”. The judges concluded with an exhortation: “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.”
The protests against Murugan were led by a mix of caste and religious groups that claimed he had misrepresented history, beliefs, traditions and defamed their town, temple and women in his novel. They insisted that Murugan render an unconditional apology and withdraw the book. The administration, instead of reasoning with the protesters on the constitutional right to freedom of expression and pointing out the elementary fact that the book in question is fiction not history, caved in to their aggression. The judges concluded there was a “concerted effort by a select group of people to drag the author into a controversy than there being angst of any real substance, be it by the residents of the town or by the community said to have been affected by the author’s writing”. While lamenting that tolerance levels are on the wane, the court rejected charges that the book is obscene or derogatory or hurtful to the religious sentiments of Hindus. A mob had held Murugan — and the district administration — hostage. The judgment has criticised the administration’s failure to safeguard the writer’s freedom of speech and expression.
However, it is a cause for worry that it is left to the judiciary to restore sanity in debates over the freedom of expression. The unwillingness of the executive and the political class to step in to defend constitutional freedoms when they come under attack points to serious infirmities in our democracy.