Artistic freedom fine, but don’t abuse national icons: Supreme Court

supreme courtThere is a thin line between artistic freedom and abusive outpourings. Lampoon or mock, by all means, but do not lapse into demeaning language against nationally and historically venerated figures like Mahatma Gandhi. This is the message from India’s Supreme Court, a sobering note amid a raging debate in the country over limits of the poetic license.

While allowing for the freedom to ideate, the country’s top court pointed out: “You cannot use abusive words for historical figures under the garb of artistic freedom. There is a complete freedom for ideas but the freedom of speech and expression is not absolute. The Constitution provides restrictions and it is a regulated freedom.”

In recent judgment, a bench comprising Justices Dipak Misra and Prafulla C. Pant, underlined that it was no offence to criticise, mock, lampoon and make parodies of the country’s iconic figures, but the freedom of expression cannot be stretched to demeaning them (by the use of abusive language). The same is an offence under Section 292 of Indian Penal Code, attracting a maximum jail term of two years.

The court’s directive was in response to a petition filed by a publisher who had published a poem on Mahatma Gandhi in 1984. The poem, ‘Gandhi Mala Bhetla Hota’ (I met Gandhi), written by Vasant Dattatray Gurjar, a Marathi poet, depicts the Mahatma as the narrator who uses obscene language in the poem. The bench agreed that the boundaries of freedom of speech has been expanding, but should not mean using abusive words against Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, under Article 19(1) of the Constitution guaranteeing free speech.

“Had it be an ordinary ‘Gandhi’ it would not have been a problem, but using Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi is objectionable. Mahatma is not a mythical or imaginary character who can be abused. This work would not come under artistic freedom and would attract provisions of Section 292,” the bench emphasised.

“You can write satires on Gandhi, lampoon him or criticise him but if you put abusive words in his mouth, then it is not permissible”, the Supreme Court cautioned.

The publisher’s counsel, Gopal Subramaniam, argued that the recent development lays down a proposition, under which the law cannot be applied differently. He said, “Veneration is a personal matter. Constitution does not talk about veneration of historical figures. Time is changing and what was earlier considered abusive has become idiomatic in society. Society should be tolerant”, he said.

Meanwhile, the court has reserved its verdict and it would pass a detailed order on the issue at a later date.

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