The curious case of arguing about the right to freedom of speech in India is one with more than the regular amount of jagged edges. Jokes of a sensitive nature are deemed unfit, opinions are aggressively criticised and each word in a statement is pessimistically scrutinised. In an age, when seemingly innocent statements can land a rational human being in prison, there is a voice that propagates the freedom to express in one of the highest positions that the legal system in our country has.

Reflecting on judgements involving MF Husain to Perumal Murugan, CJ Sanjay Kishan Kaul is the advocate for freedom of speech that we so desperately need.

In 2006, prominent artist MF Husain was charged with having hurt the sentiments of the Indian people with nude portraits depicting Hindu gods and goddesses. The paintings, particularly that of Bharat mata, were considered obscene and derogatory, deeming the work of one of the greatest painters in the country as distasteful. An act of ostracising the artist, that led him to flee the country. 

In 2008, it was Justice Kaul – the then Delhi High Court judge – who acquitted the artist of his charges.

Although, the exile beyond the decision was self-imposed, it was Chief Justice Kaul who ended it legally, retracting arrest orders imposed on Husain. It was in a landmark judgement that the now Chief Justice of the Madras High Court displayed an enormous amount of empathy toward artists and their right to express freely.

“Our culture breeds tolerance- both in thought and in actions. I have penned down this judgement with this fervent hope that it is a prologue to a broader thinking and greater tolerance for the creative field. A painter at 90 deserves to be in his home painting his canvass!”

This is how Justice Kaul delivered his judgement, as quoted by The News Minute.

This year, in another memorable judgement, the Chief Justice upheld the right to freedom of speech in arts.

In January, 2015, following attacks and charges levied against him by various Hindutva groups and caste-based outfits for his novel, Madhurobhagan, prominent literary genius Perumal Murugan announced that he had given up writing altogether. Heading a bench that included Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana for the investigation, CJ Kaul dismissed any criminal proceedings against the author, saying “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.” As reported by The News Minute.

It is a matter of concern that as an evolving society, our tolerance level seems to be on the decline. Any contra view or social thinking is met at times with threats or violent behaviour.

– Justice Kaul and Justice Pushpa Sathyanarayana were quoted by The News Minute.  

Both, the 2008 and 2016 judgement by the Chief Justice are an example of how tolerance in the country can rise. It is due to the toil and intelligence of progressive minds like Chief Justice Kaul that we can hope to evolve as a society. Difference in opinion and open conversations are the mark of intelligence and a display of improvement. Plus, we all need to chill out, even if it’s for a little bit.

If his message doesn’t get through, what will?