The Ban-Week: Instance of Misuse of Free Speech or a Culture of Censorship

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This past week saw the Government going on a “ban-spree”, confirming the worst fears of all those who foretold Mr.Modi’s election as the onset of pseudo-dictatorial politics and governance. However, state governments elsewhere are not much far behind, banning movies and elements of popular culture alike. The reasons for these bans were numerous and often, quite inept. However, the lack of good reason did not prevent the government from vociferously justifying its actions.

The week started with the Maharashtra state government, led by DevendraFadnavis banning the slaughter and sale of beef and animals belonging to the bovine family. Though the ban on cow-slaughter had been operating in the state since 1976, the new and improved, Maharashtra Animal Preservation (Amendment) Bill, which received Presidential assent on the 2nd of March, rejuvenated BJP’s pet agenda to prevent cow-slaughter in the country. The ban came amidst cheer by those campaigning for the rights of animals against slaughter/torture. However, the celebrations were mired in controversy, as the ban was criticised for giving a communal colour to a socio-economic problem. Arguing on the economic plane, the ban’s critics observed that since beef is supposed to be part of the so called ‘poor man’s diet’, banning its sale would result in malnutrition and deteriorating diet among the hoi polloi. However, the main force of the argument against the ban came from those who saw it as RSS’s influence on government’s policy. While the BJP was accused of being majoritarian communal, the government staunchly defended its stand stating that not only did beef not fall within the purview of ‘poor man’s diet’ (courtesy Supreme Court’s decision in State of Gujrat v. MirzapurMotiKureshiKassab), eating it also hurts the sentiments of millions of Hindus, who regard cows and other members of the bovine family as sacred. Moreover, the government argued that the ban is nothing new as the ban on cow-slaughter is already operational in the state since 1976. Consequently, at the moment, anybody indulging in the sale or possession of beef in Maharashtra will be liable to imprisonment of up to five years or fine up to Rs.10,000.

Next in line came the ban issued by the Central Board of Film Certification for the makers of the film ‘Dum lagakeHaisha’. Earlier, the CBFC headed by Mr.Pahlaj Nihlani, had sought to amend and replace nearly 28 swear words used in the film. The said amendments were communicated to the film-makers, by way of a list released by the CBFC. However, the CBFC could not succeed in its quixotic endeavour. Therefore, in order to save face it ended up causing itself more embarrassment. The CBFC then, objected to the use of the word ‘lesbian’ in the movie, along with a suitable replacement for four other swear words. Though the reasons given for the move were unclear, the CBFC’s actions were criticised for amounting to moral policing instead of proper certification and censorship.

Moving on to the third ban of the week, the Patna High Court took the mantle of keeping the country’s culture and the morality of its youth intact, by banning controversial actress MallikaSherawat’s next film ‘Dirty Politics’. Objections were raised preceding the release of the film, owing to the inclusion of certain ‘obscene’ sequences in the movie along with the ‘in your face’ effrontery apparent in the movie’s poster which saw Ms.Sherawat draped in the Indian tri-colour. While it is quite clear that the film-makers seek to gain cheap publicity from the movie poster, they have argued that there are no so called ‘objectionable scenes’ in the movie and they also have the Censor Board’s certification (figures!). The movie directors and producers filed a written petition in the Court, which saw the Government lift the ban on the movie’s release.

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However, the highlight of the week, rather the infamy of the week, was the restraining order (issued by the Home Ministry/Delhi Police and then extended by a local Delhi court) against the BBC in order to stop it from broadcasting/publishing LesleeeUdwin’s controversial documentary ‘India’s Daughter’. The infamous documentary seeks to shed light on the December 16 gang-rape in New Delhi, its after-math and the perpetrators’ frame of mind. Containing a palpably misogynistic interview by Mukesh Singh, one of the convicts in the case, who is on death row, the government claimed that the documentary was an attempt to malign India’s reputation by showcasing the very ugly and unsavoury mentality of the convict for the entire world to see. Though legal experts all over the country feel that the government’s ban might not be able to stand the scrutiny of a judicial review, the government is adamant upon its stand, stating that since the interview is an affront to women worldwide, it cannot be allowed to be published. Consequently, the government has also filed an FIR against the film maker in the case. However, the BBC telecasted the documentary in London, stating that they are adhering to the ban in India, but they can’t be stopped from broadcasting the documentary elsewhere by the Indian government. While the Indian government has taken a serious note of the BBC’s transgression, it is gearing up for a showdown in the Delhi High Court, where a public interest petition has been filed by VibhorAnand, a law student against the impugned ban. However, it is noteworthy that the ban has been largely ineffective, as the documentary was widely viewed and shared extensively on the internet. Before it was taken down from YouTube, the documentary saw a viewership of nearly 3 lakh people within the first 24 hours.

The Censor Board, which has been very active off late, worked tirelessly to issue another ban this week on the on-screen adaptation of E.L. James’s erotic novel ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’. Though the makers of the film had complied with the Censor Board’s demand of removing several sequences of explicit sex/nudity in the movie, the Censor Board banned the movie citing sexually palpable dialogue at several places in the movie. Universal Studios, under whose banner the movie had been produced is all set to appeal the decision of the Censor Board. Of course, it goes without saying that the new urge to ban anything ‘sexual’ or even a wee bit ‘explicit’ in nature is disheartening.

The Indian National Congress, so vehement in accusing the BJP led government in the Centre of ‘moral policing’ could not claim ‘clean hands’ when it came to cracking down on popular culture. The government has moved forward to lodge a ban on all parties with foreigners in attendance unless they comply with a ridiculous set of rules. While some may term the ban necessary owing to the growing scourge of illegal and drug-infested ‘raves’ in Karnataka (esp. Bangalore), the ban is difficult to be justified, save on the ground of government’s prerogative. While a maximum time limit till 10 pm has been imposed on the parties, the party organisers are obligated to render the details of all the foreigners in attendance at the venue beforehand along with allowing the party to be video-graphed by police and tourism officials present at the venue. Furthermore, any tourists/foreigners are not allowed to sleep at the venue for the night, after the party is over. While the ban seems frustrating, one can see a gold star being awarded to the ‘moral policing brigade’ that has now begun to infiltrate even government circles across the country. Such ridiculous set of guidelines for parties, being articulated in the name of public interest and law and order, are condemnable, if not ironic.

All in all, this week (March 1st to March 07th), seemed akin to a week long ‘ban’ bonanza offered to Indian citizens all over the country as part of Holi and related festivities. While most of these bans may not survive the light of day considering that they are an unjustified assault on the culture and privileges of free speech in the country, they are dangerous as they may be harbingers of a culture of censorship.

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by Siddhartha Singh.