Supreme Court passed a verdict stating that obscene language cannot be used against Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, because he is a historically respectable figure. The case pertained to a Marathi poem Gandhi Mala Bhetla Hota (I met Gandhi) written in 1984 by Devidas Ramachandra Tuljapurkar. The poem became controversial because of the use of cuss words. A member of Patit Pawan Sangathan filed a police compliant under Sections 153A and 153B of the IPC (causing disharmony between classes) and Section 292 (obscenity) against the poet and the publisher. The accused were discharged under 153A and 153B but not under 292. The high court upheld the verdict and also the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court said, “When the name of Mahatma Gandhi is alluded or used as a symbol, speaking or using obscene words, the concept of “degree” comes in. To elaborate, the “contemporary community standards test” becomes applicable with more vigour, in a greater degree and in an accentuated manner. What can otherwise pass of the contemporary community standards test for use of the same language, it would not be so, if the name of Mahatma Gandhi is used as a symbol or allusion or surrealistic voice to put words or to show him doing such acts which are obscene.”
The judgment has received varied reactions. But those who are advocates of absolute freedom of expression are very saddened with the verdict. They are of the viewpoint that there should not be any restriction against the use of cuss/profane/abusive/obscene words. In fact they assert that an artist should have the license and protection to portray their work of art or literature the way they deem fit. In a nutshell they bat for complete freedom to abuse or insult anybody.
If the freedom for obscenity is guaranteed then we would create a society where every individual will unresistingly try to shame the other person as per their whims. We will have a scenario where a child without any hesitation will abuse his mother, a student without any fear will shame his teacher, and an employee use his freedom of expression to desecrate the image of his boss. Are we ready to be part of such a society?
Indecency needs to be condemned and not condoned. Disagreement, debate and discussions have been part of Indian society since eons. Learned scholars used to organize debates and challenge others opinion. The discussions were always civilized. In fact the Indian epics like Bhagavad Gita and Srimad Bhagavatam is entirely based on debates, discussions and questions and answers. The opinions of others were not throttled but they were given opportunity to express it in a decent way. This is why we find that in India we have plethora of rich literatures – the 4 Vedas, the 18 Puranans, Upanisads, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Chaitanya Charitamrta and many more. Mahabharata is the longest epic poem consisting of 100,000 shloka (verses); it has about 1.8 million words in total. The Vedic books are considered to be oldest books in the history of mankind.
Later during India’s freedom movement, the freedom fighters extensively wrote revolutionary poetries and thought provoking articles and essays to arouse nationalistic fervour inspiring thousands to join the freedom movement to overthrow the mighty British Empire. But in their work obscenity and indecency had no place.
So at present the clamour for the right for obscenity does not augur well for Indian art and literature. Liberals question what does obscene mean. The Oxford dictionary defines obscene as “offensive or disgusting by accepted standards of morality and decency.”
So should one have the right to use their artistic freedom for character assassination? As per the Supreme Court of India, for respectable historical personalities like Mahatma Gandhi this is forbidden. But what about others and also who would decide and define “respectable historical personality”? Marxist historians in India have liberally chosen only those as respectable who adhere to their ideological principles and they have belittled the image of others especially those with Hindutva ideology. So, if we stick to this criterion then we will continue to have paintings insulting Hindu Gods and Goddesses, the way late M F Hussain did, and authors like Wendy Doniger who used repugnant language while writing about Hinduism will feel emboldened.
The best way is to not allow anyone to cross the border of decency while expressing their opinions. The freedom guaranteed by the constitution should be utilized judiciously to build a just and righteous society. It should not be used as a tool to demonize and sully other people’s image.
It seems that as a society we have been able to surround our senses with gadgets and gizmos but still our heart is dry and dirty. And so we take pleasure in throwing muck on others. As humans our humanity does not just depend on how much we have advanced materially but it primarily depends on how we deal with others and also with our ancestors. A person is not just judged by how smartly he dresses but how politely and honestly he expresses his opinion. Crow and cuckoo can’t be distinguished by the colour of their skin but by the difference of their voice.
So, while using the might of pen we should be very cautious and careful. Words are mightier than the most powerful weapon of this world, it has the ability to revolutionize and transform the society. Gita acknowledge its potential and advises us to use it very careful and intelligently. “Austerity of speech consists in speaking words that are truthful, pleasing, beneficial, and not agitating to others.” (Bhagavad Gita 17.15).
Let us stop promoting, publishing and patronizing cheap literature and cheap form of art in the name of freedom of expression.