Upholding the right to freedom of expression, the Supreme Court of India has refused to ban Meesha, a Malayalam novel authored by S Hareesh, which courted backlash from Hindu extremist outfits for hurting Hindu religious sentiments. The court was hearing a Public Interest Litigation filed by a Delhi resident demanding the removal of certain excerpts from the novel claiming that it was showing Hindu women in a bad light. The petition was filed by Usha Nandini, an advocate, on Thursday, August 2.
“The aforesaid publication caused public outburst and protests across the nation, especially in the State of Kerala as the matter was published in Malayalam. Post the publication of the article, Hindu women visiting temples were subjected to ridicule and embarrassment through various social media platforms. Trolls, which appeared and were circulated on social media, have caused deep pain and anguish to the temple-going Hindu believers,” says the petition
The Supreme Court bench of Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice AM Khanwilkar and Justice DY Chandrachud said that the culture of banning books impacts the free flow of ideas and should not be taken recourse to unless they are hit by Section 292 of the IPC that prohibits obscenity. “You are giving undue importance to this kind of stuff. In the age of the Internet, you are making this an issue. It is best forgotten,” the Court said.
Both the Centre and Kerala government opposed the plea, arguing that free speech should not be curtailed and freedom of expression should be upheld. Reserving its order, the court has asked Mathrubhumi, the magazine which published the controversial part of the novel to submit an English translation of it within five days.
Meesha (mustache) is the first novel by S Hareesh who is a prolific short story writer in Malayalam. In the novel, a conversation between two characters was taken out of context and it was alleged that it hurt Hindu sentiments and insulted Hindu women.
In the story, two characters were seen discussing the reason for young women to dress their best when paying a visit to temples. One of them implies that the women are ‘unconsciously declaring that they are willing for an intimate relationship’ and the priests, he adds, are ‘masters in this matter’.
The novel Meesha is set in Kerala and traces the caste-ridden society, its micro-level structure and mode of work 50 years ago.
Following its publishing in ‘Mathrubhumi’, a literary weekly magazine, the author received abuses and physical threats. His family members were not spared either. They were verbally abused and threats were made against his wife and children. Many right-wing extremist groups like the Kerala Hindu Aikya Vedi and the BJP Mahila Morcha led protests against the magazine and demanded an apology from the writer.
Since his family faced abuses and threats, Hareesh decided to stop publishing the novel and said that he will only publish it when the Malayali society becomes ready to receive them. “I am not capable of fighting those who rule the nation. I am too weak to fight them,” he added.
The Nair Service Society (NSS) opined that the book was an insult to the religion and the body’s General Secretary Sukumaran Nair demanded an apology from the writer and threatened him of dire consequences if he did not do so. He said, “If he doesn’t apologise, the situation will turn ugly.”
“This is complete misuse of freedom of expression to test the tolerance level of Hindu women. The book has hurt Hindu sentiments and has brought shame to the State. It has only helped some political parties and outfits to exploit the situation,” he added.
Kerala police has registered a case against Mathrubhumi who published the controversial parts in their magazine based on the complaint filed in Central Police Station, Ernakulam by Ms.Priya Anand. The complainant alleged that the novel insults Hindu Women. She also demanded to file an FIR against Publication editor in charge of Mathrubhumi, M P Gopinathan, and Novelist S Hareesh.
However, contempt for the Hindu extremist outfits and their threats mounted on and the author received support from all fields, including, the support from the government of Kerala. In a statement, Pinarayi Vijayan, the Chief Minister of Kerala extended the government’s full support to writer Hareesh and promised to now allow any attack upon writers. The Chief Minister also told Hareesh to not stop writing and go ahead with no fear.
Amidst protests and threats by Hindu extremists, ten days after the author withdrew his novel ‘Meesha’, DC Books has now published the novel and its available in all DC outlets. Other publishing houses expressed interest in publishing the novel as well. “If Meesha is not published now, we could end up in a situation where it’s impossible to publish a story or novel in Malayalam. We could end up seeking permission of many before we publish works of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, VKN, Changampuzha, V T Bhattathirippad or the writers of this generation,” DC Books said in a statement on Tuesday.
The BJP workers in response, reached the DC Books branch in Statue in Thiruvananthapuram on Wednesday, 1st August, and publicly burnt the books as a form of protest. The Hindu Aikya Vedi workers also organized a march to the branch on Friday, 3rd August. Following the complaint filed by the branch manager of DC Books in the Statue junction, a case has been registered against three BJP workers who burned the novel Meesha. The unidentified persons have also been charged for deliberate attempts to trigger clashes.
S Hareesh had won National Sahitya academy award for the best short story in 2018. His other awards and endowments include Thomas Mundasheri award, Geetha Hiranyan Endowment award by Kerala Sahitya Academy and so on.