Is law and order more important than one’s freedom of expression?
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On Janurary 12, 2015, days after Tamil author Perumal Murugan faced the initial backlash from the Kongu Vellalar community in Tiruchengode for his book Madorubagan, a ‘peace meeting’ was arranged at the Collectorate.

Also read: 'If you don't like a book, throw it away': Madras HC's fantastic order on Perumal Murugan

Present at the meeting were officials of the district administration, police officers, members of the community agitating against the Perumal Murugan, and the author himself along with his lawyer-friend GR Swaminathan.

Also read: Madras HC quashes criminal case against Tamil writer Perumal Murugan

At the meeting, Perumal Murugan agreed to apologise to the agitated community, but his counsel advised him against it. Following this, there was a heated argument between officials and the lawyer, with officials pressing Murugan to apologise so there won’t be any law and order problems. The lawyer was of the opinion that Murugan’s freedom of expression was also important.

At this stage, here is what happened, according to the Madras HC, “The incidents when the so called ‘peace meeting’ was held as discussed in extenso aforesaid would show that the group of people who were outside the Collectorate were actually permitted to have their way by compelling the author to use certain words of apology, which he was not willing to do, but left with a little choice owing to the hostility, decide to budge.”

But should this have been allowed to happen? Is law and order more important than one’s freedom of expression? And if yes, where does one draw the line? Can one get any book withdrawn by threatening to create law and order problems?

Murugan’s counsel for the case which was hearing the case, V Suresh, asked that the court frame guidelines for such ‘peace meetings’.

The court, conceding that law and order too is important, set the following guidelines which the state will now have to follow in cases involving freedom of expression. (You can read the full judgment ordered on July 5 here)

1. Presumption in favour of free speech: There is bound to be a presumption in favour of free speech and expression as envisaged under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India unless a court of law finds it otherwise as falling within the domain of a reasonable restriction under Article 19(2) of the Constitution of India. This presumption must be kept in mind if there are complaints against publications, art, drama, film, song, poem, cartoons or any other creative expressions.

2. Law and order compulsions no binding on artists: The State's responsibility to maintain law and order would not permit any compulsion on the artistes concerned to withdraw from his/her stand and non-State players cannot be allowed to determine what is permissible and what is not.

3. Expert panel to be constituted: It is high time the Government constitutes an expert body to deal with situations arising from such conflicts of views, such expert body to consist of qualified persons in the branch of creative literature and art so that an independent opinion is forthcoming, keeping in mind the law evolved by the judiciary. Such an expert body or panel of experts would obviate the kind of situations we have seen in the present case. In such matters of art and culture, the issue cannot be left to the police authorities or the local administration alone, especially when there is a spurt in such conflicts.

4. Police protection for authors: The State has to ensure proper police protection where such authors and artistes come under attack from a section of the society.

5. Officers need to be sensitized: Regular programmes need to be conducted for sensitizing officials over matters dealing with such conflicts of artistic and literary appreciation.