February 8, 2013

Dam(n) the ban in a plural society

Book burnings and film bans hold a mirror to contemporary Indian society. 

History has witnessed countless book burnings. Eight hundred years ago the ancient university city at Nalanda was sacked and its libraries burnt – these contained irreplaceable books and manuscripts on Buddhism, fine arts, politics, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy. Alexander the Great is believed to have burnt Zoroastrian scriptures. One of the largest book burnings in history is believed to have been in Alexandria in Ancient Egypt. During the Second World War, the Japanese military destroyed or partly destroyed numerous Chinese libraries, including libraries at the National University of Tsing Hua and the Nankai University


Similarly, many films from across the globe have attracted controversy. A Clockwork Orange, an X-rated Stanley Kubrick movie of a dystopian future and ultra-violence, is considered by many to have been the most controversial Hollywood film. Many others have courted controversy for their depiction of graphic violence or sex. A few movies have become controversial for religious or social reasons. Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie, The Passion of the Christ, which was charged by critics to be anti-Semitic, is one such. The widely watched Da Vinci Code was another. Indian states have had a long list of banned movies. Fanaa and Parzania in Gujarat, The Da Vinci Code in Andhra Pradesh, Goa and Nagaland, Arakshan in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab and Dam 999 (a film based on the devastating effects of the breached Banqiao dam in China) in Tamil Nadu. The Dam 999 ban was widely discussed in the media and set several legal precedents. The first nation-wide ban on a movie in independent India was for a Bengali movie called Neel Akasher Neechey about an immigrant Chinese wage labourer in 1930s Calcutta.

The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) is a statutory body under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, regulating the public exhibition of films under the provisions of the Cinematograph Act 1952.  Films can be publicly exhibited in India only after they have been certified by the CBFC. The Board, consists of non-official members and a Chairman (all of whom are appointed by the Central Government) and functions with headquarters at Mumbai. It has nine regional offices, one each at Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Thiruvananthapuram, Hyderabad, New Delhi, Cuttack and Guwahati. The regional offices are assisted in the examination of films by Advisory Panels. The members of the panels are nominated by the central government by drawing people from different walks of life for a period of two years. In recent years Anupam Kher and Sharmila Tagore have been chairpersons. The current chairperson is Leela Samson.

Section 5(B) of the Cinematograph Act has a sweeping clause which states that a “film shall not be certified for public exhibition if the film or any part of it is against sovereign interest, public order… and is likely to incite the commission of any offence.” The CBFC is expected to take a balanced view of a film under consideration for certification. What is less clear is what can and should happen to a film that attracts controversy after it has been certified by the CBFC. Films have been banned by states acting of their own volition or by some entity taking legal action (typically a stay order from a high court) to halt the broadcast of a film.

The sweeping clauses in the Act are widely used by state governments to justify their bans – a claim of a potential disruption to public order or an incitement of violence by certain groups. In the recent case of the movie Vishwaroopam, citing law and order grounds, the State government had empowered the Collectors to invoke Section 144 (power to issue order in urgent cases of nuisance or apprehended danger) CrPC and ordered theatres not to exhibit the movie.

Why should we care if a few books and movies are banned or burnt for the understandable and practical reason of “preventing a law and order problem”?

One, for Freedom of Speech. Freedom of speech is enshrined in our Constitution. While some of us may not agree with what another has said in a book or film, they have a constitutionally protected right to do so. This freedom must be zealously guarded for it is in difficult circumstances that it must be defended. This right is the bedrock upon which a plural and a democratic modern society is built. If we don’t like what someone else is saying we have no obligation to buy the book or see the movie. In an ironic compromise in the Vishwaroopam case, the Director has agreed to mute seven ‘objectionable’ scenes in return for all legal cases to be withdrawn. The freedom of expression survives at the expense of freedom of speech.

And two, for political complicity. Once the CBFC has reviewed and certified a movie, no State Government has the authority to ban it. For instance, Section 7 of The Tamil Nadu Cinemas Regulation Act 1955 allows a district collector to suspend exhibition of a film if he believes that there could be a law and order issue. This is well short of authority to issue a ‘ban’ on the film and is usually meant to apply for a short while. But state governments are getting into the act for political reasons – appeasing certain sections of the population for political objectives. Misusing regulation for political purposes and simultaneously crushing the right to free speech needs to stop.

If there is a single word that captures the “idea of India” over the millennia, then it has to be ‘tolerance’. India has been a diverse, polyglot country, and tolerant to diverse civilisation(s) for centuries. This is the country that prays to thousands of gods, admits religions persecuted elsewhere, allows even cults to operate with freedom, and has deep-rooted pluralism at its core. The success of the Indian civilisation and one that has lead to its survival over many centuries is this tolerance and acceptance. We must not let it be compromised in favour of intolerance and bigotry.

On a day-to-day basis, one hears the phrase “solpa adjust maadi” (adjust a little) in Bangalore. This is a mundane manifestation of the visceral DNA of India – a spirit of coexistence, adjustment and tolerance. Book burnings and film bans are violent expressions of the opposite idea – of prejudice, distrust and intolerance. Let us say no to bans.

Photo: Imagined Reality

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