In a country where creative impulses are more often than not suspect, which enjoys the dubious distinction of being the first to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, and whose government has peevishly declined to lift the ban for two decades, the protection of creative freedoms is always welcome news. But when Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra observed, while dismissing a plea for banning the Malayalam novel Meesha by S Hareesh, that creativity would perish if books were banned on flimsy allegations, and that requiring authors to “succumb to specifics” would be “tantamount to imposition”, he laid down a clear line which future PILs woud have to step over in order to be admitted.
At the same time, there is another way in which the case marks a departure from convention. Article 19 of the Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of speech, lays down under sub-clause 2 that the state may impose “reasonable restrictions” in the interest of the “sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with other states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.” It follows that it is the state, through its central or state governments, which performs the duty of banning and unbanning. Traditionally, courts have been petitioned to evaluate bans for constitutional validity — they enter the picture after the event. Now, this dismissal may be read as a precedent by which courts can be approached directly with a ban plea. Each case would necessarily be decided piecemeal on the merits of the text, and a rash of cases could bring further legal pressure to bear on authors.
However, it is an open question whether that is a bad thing, since governments have proved to be fairly arbitrary in banning books, and are vulnerable to electoral considerations. If such cases are deemed to be matters of immediate public interest and decided expeditiously — like the Meesha matter, which jumped the queue — this might even bring quick relief. Besides, courts could exercise caution in admitting such PILs. The matter in question represented the interest of temple-going women, which is scarcely a well-defined section of the population. As the bench has observed, a ban “would create unrest and disquiet among the intelligentsia”. Indeed, the protection of the creative community is the responsibility of the court, as much as the protection of the freedoms of the general public.