The Marathi poem, Gandhi Mala Bhetala (Gandhi met me), is a satirical critique of those who falsely claim to follow the path of Mahatma Gandhi
In 1994, a first information report was filed against Devidas Tuljapulkar in Latur, Maharashtra. He was charged with obscenity, promoting enmity between communities and making assertions prejudicial to national interest. It was alleged Tuljapulkar, a Bank of Maharashtra employee, had committed these crimes by re-publishing a poem in the bank employee union’s internal magazine.
The poem was first published in 1983. The poet was a class-III employee of the Bombay Dockyard, Vasant Dattatraya Gujar, now in his 70s. The Marathi poem, Gandhi Mala Bhetala (Gandhi met me), is a satirical critique of those who falsely claim to follow the path of Mahatma Gandhi.
More than two decades later, Tuljapulkar’s case has wound its way to the Supreme Court and its future depends on a unique question the apex court has posed: Under Indian laws, does one have the ‘poetic licence’ to use the name of historical personalities such as Mahatma Gandhi as a symbol in his/her poem, which a reader might find obscene?
In the dock are also the printer and Tuljapulkar’s co-editor.
The poem has been published several times, before and after Tuljapulkar printed it. It has been appreciated by several Marathi, as well as Hindi poets and authors. It is to be included in an anthology to be published by the Sahitya Academy, put together by the 2014 Gyanpeeth award winner, Bhalchandra Nemade, as one of the best literary works on Gandhi.
However, when Tuljapulkar republished the poem in 1994, Patit Pawan Sangathana, a Pune-based right-wing Hindu organisation affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, filed an FIR against the four, claiming it was obscene and lowered the image of the Father of the Nation.
Tuljapulkar was a leader of the Communist Party of India-controlled All India Bank Employees Association.
In Latur district, the police filed a case against the four, under sections 153A, 153B and 292(3) of the Indian Penal Code. Section 153A is imposed against those promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language. Section 153B is imposed for imputations and assertions prejudicial to national-integration. Section 292(3) is imposed when something is found obscene or lascivious, appeals to the prurient interest or tends to deprave and corrupt someone.
Working their way through local courts and the high court by 2010, the charges of harming national integration and promoting enmity between communities were thrown out, but they continued to be prosecuted for obscenity. Tuljapulkar had published an unqualified apology in the very next edition of the internal magazine, before the FIR was filed.
In 2010, Tuljapulkar approached the Supreme Court for relief. By then, he had worked as director on the bank’s board. In 2012, the All India Bank of Maharashtra Employees Federation, of which Tuljapulkar was the general secretary, wrote to the Reserve Bank of India, alleging wrongdoing in the bank relating to loans given to businessman Vijay Mallya, as well as in other transactions. The bank began disciplinary action against Tuljapulkar, but the move fell flat. Next, the bank used the decade-old case against Tuljapulkar to chargesheet him, despite the Supreme Court hearing the matter and staying all lower court proceedings till it took a decision. This led to a face-off between union members across the country and the bank. Eventually, the bank was forced to withhold disciplinary action till the apex court decided on the matter.
In 2013, the Supreme Court began hearing the case. In 2015, it asked Fali Nariman, amicus curiae in the case, to “assist the court with regard to the proposition, whether in a write-up or a poem, keeping in view the concept and conception of poetic licence and the liberty of perception and expression and the use of the name of a historically respected personality by way of allusion or symbol is permissible”.
The court, in one of the hearings, was quoted by NDTV as saying, “Is it not a collective responsibility of the nation to respect Mahatma Gandhi? You cannot respect an ideal but vulgarise the man who gave the ideal in the garb and guise of artistic freedom”.
The Indian Express reported the two-member Bench saying, “Linguistic freedom is not a problem but using the linguistic freedom to say something to Mahatma Gandhi is an issue.” The newspaper said the court “clarified that this was not a question of individual comfort of an artist but the ‘statutory and constitutional comfort’.”
Tuljapulkar’s lawyer, Gopal Subramaniam, has contended the Supreme Court has raised a question that goes beyond the initial case of obscenity and involves the fundamental right to free speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. He has contended that an interpretation on the ambit of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution does not concern the specific case but in case the court wishes to examine the issue, it should be done before a five-member Bench of the Supreme Court. He has also elaborately challenged the charges that the poem is obscene and contended the poem “refers to those who proclaim themselves to be followers of the Gandhian path but, in fact, have strayed from it. To express this idea of decadence, even though in certain lines, profanities have been used and they must necessarily be construed as part of artistic expression. The use of profanities is pungent and can carry idiomatic force.”
The two-judge Bench of the Supreme Court has completed hearing the case and now, it is to pronounce a verdict, which could redefine ‘obscenity’ as well as legal limits to poetic licence and poetry in India. Recently, the Supreme Court had ruled in favour of freedom of thought and expression on the internet. But Gandhi Mala Bhetala was published before the internet era in 1980.