Because India Never Had Freedom Of Expression


A country where the freedom of leading a routine life in a city, the freedom of children to attend schools daily, the freedom of a reader to follow the kind of reports, articles and history he wishes to read are not insured, films and fictions in print are too frivolous an indulgence to fight for

It is no longer about a possible marketing stunt Sanjay Leela Bhansali might have employed, which involved raking up a controversy about his film Padmavati — renamed as Padmaavat following the instructions of the Central Board of Film Certification — much before its shooting started to make people curious about the story, thus enhancing the movie’s box office prospects. The burning of a Haryana State Transport bus, a bounty announced for disfiguring actress Deepika Padukone and stoning of a school bus have naturally made the filmmaker and his crew objects of sympathy. Such vandalism cannot be supported by mincing words or taking recourse to sophistry. But this is a mere episode in a series of the story of intolerance and politically or business-motivated censorship that include, most prominently, the prohibition on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and the unauthorised biography, The Polyester Prince: The Rise of Dhirubhai Ambani.

In between, several films, books and paintings have faced the axe or have had a troubled passage to their release. In every case, the Indian state has come across as weak-kneed, overwhelmed by the threat issued by not-so-fringe groups of holding the country to ransom. Successive governments have upheld different communities’ sense of ‘hurt’, thereby violating the fundamental right of a citizen to his freedom of expression. The people of this country, with soft corners for various interest groups, have not come out in flying colours as advocates of liberty either, but that is because we all know now that the government of the land can be browbeaten to submission. Nevertheless, if Indian publications, broadcasters and web portals cannot dare reproduce Danish cartoons or Charlie Hebdo’s caricature of Prophet Mohammed, if a champion of liberty on Indian television can be forced to say on his own show, where he otherwise does not bow to anybody, that he condemns the cartoon on Islam drawn by a minor in West Bengal — whom the police wasted no time to arrest — we lose the right to protest the rank hooliganism that is going on in the name of offering a soothing touch to offended Rajputs. And vice versa! If you are not challenging the hoodlums now, you had no right to demand during the terror strike in France that Charlie’s take on Islam be depicted in India, too.

“Love is stronger than hatred,” this Charlie Hebdo cartoon reads

Therefore, we have a censored Vishwaroopam on the one hand and some paintings of Maqbool Fida Husain on the other. We forget he who has accepted others’ right to offend him alone has the right to offend others. If you do not accept this, you are condemned to live in cities that would be thrown out of gear any fine day.

One aspect of the problem is the distorted, arbitrary definition of secularism India has adopted in theory and spirit. To say that an overtly religious country cannot be secular in the European sense is to leave enough room for the followers of any religion to exploit the excuse of their hurt sensibilities to block the passage of a work of art (how credible or dubious the form is, is irrelevant). But the distorted version, which seeks to protect religious sentiments that are perpetually on a short fuse, does not rear its head once in a while when a book or film is about to release. It affects our lives on a daily basis — obstructing our passage to office when a tent for a puja is erected overnight right in front of our houses, or when a temple or mosque encroaches upon an area meant for a public road, or when a procession of taaziya or kanwariya occupies a street, when loudspeakers blare bhajans, kirtans, azan and shabad throughout the day to disturb the calm of a neighbourhood, waking little babies up from their afternoon siesta, affecting exam preparations of students and threatening the lives of cardiac patients even during the nights.

Worse, a ruling party that had sought the help of the ilk of Rampal and Gurmeet Ram-Rahim ‘Insaan’ during elections — perhaps also for regular funding — cannot back the police when the law must get hold of the crooks in religious robes. However, history finally catches up with the not-so-holy men when they are Hindu. Thanks to the consciousness of the people of Kerala, some unholy acts of the Christian clergy surface once in a while. When it comes to Muslims, Pakistani authors like Tehmina Durrani display more valour than their Indian intellectual counterparts. Indian law-enforcement agencies might apprehend clerics who suffice as terrorists; they rarely make news for arresting subjects of depravity in the ranks of mullahs. In fact, when a Shi’ah cleric speaks up against madrassahs, the forthrightness is deplored, even though there is no dearth of videos exposing what goes on under the garb of theology in some of these Islamic schools. In the linked story, not only Sunnis but other Shi’ah maulanas objected; ergo, there is no freedom within a sect, let alone within a religion. Among Hindus, too, vegetarians lecture non-vegetarians often about the ‘immorality’ of the food habit of the latter. Freedom is not celebrated when it comes to an Indian’s choice of food.

Indian state’s trepidation pervades domestic politics and casts a shadow on foreign policy as well. India has had the misfortune of such scared souls in government that we imposed a precondition on Dalai Lama not to speak a word against China even as he stayed in exile in this country, defeating the purpose of offering a political asylum to the persona non grata of a hostile neighbour. Further, as and when a Chinese delegation arrives, our policemen come down heavily on Tibetan demonstrators who are not even in the vicinity of the venue where the Chinese are about to arrive. The poor monk has been so used to be on leash for all these decades since 30 March 1959 that he has now reconciled with the timid nature of India; frustrated, he issues pro-China statements these days, off and on.

The second aspect is feudalism. Without elaborating Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, it can be said that “annoyance” and “inconvenience” being reason enough to punish a person by law betrays our political class’s mediaeval mindset. They believe they are merely a modern makeover of the former lords under the monarchical and feudal orders the nation lived in until a century or more ago. The proletariat couldn’t question them in their courts; now they cannot point fingers at them even in the virtual medium.

The third aspect smacks of cronyism. If Dhirubhai Ambani made his way to the top of Indian industry allegedly by manipulating the regimes of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and their successors, obviously those governments wouldn’t like the story backstage to occupy the front stage. The power of money is so overbearing even today that consumers are threatened to withdraw their complaints from Facebook and Twitter when matters as serious as the death of a family member of the complainant shakes the foundations of a large hospital chain. On one occasion, सिर्फ़ News had to pull a report down because the grieving person, whose narration of woe we had reported, could not stand by her story on Facebook. Here, government (the executive) was not involved. A threat to drag the lady to a court of law was intimidating enough.

Due to rampant misuse and abuse, a phenomenon of social that had emerged in the last decade — blogs, a portmanteau of “web logs” — has lost its credibility. Now they make news only when Hindu and atheist bloggers are hacked to death by Islamists in Bangladesh. In India, whereas once it had forced a dubious marketing called Arindam Chaudhuri to shut his shop called the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, and made a conjurer-evangelist called Benny Hinn beat a hasty retreat, blogs no longer make news for anonymous users posting details of the sinister ways of their reputed employers.

The inability or lack of will to stand up to threats of violence makes governance a difficult proposition. In our democracy, the force that subdues the state need not always be in the majority; their numbers should just be consolidated. A small but united group, determined to create chaos, can shut public transport in Gujarat, Rajasthan or Haryana because the respective, dominant castes in these States want job reservations. It can close a school in Gurugram because a student out of thousands of students allegedly killed a child. It can pressure the State government of Delhi to lock a hospital because one odd medical practitioner out of its scores of doctors happened to misdiagnose a living child as dead. It could stop the circulation of a newspaper (Anandabazar Patrika) for months together because the then ruling coalition [Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front] despised its editorial policy… The social pressure for such bans is so intense that journalists, normally expected to appreciate the concept of property as much as the freedom of expression, often start parroting the words of anarchists, seeking a closure of private institutions. Freedom eludes the minds of all.

Jyoti Basu, chief minister of West Bengal in the 1980s and ’90s, was known for his tirades against Anandabazar Patrika; at one point of time under his regime, the (M) cadre did not allow the newspaper’s circulation for months on end

The ban-happy gentry in the country is so overbearing that, on rare occasions when a popular view is not the right view, no politician worth his votes dares to speak the truth. This society is a killer of statesmen. But then, the absence of courageous leaders for decades has tempted our communities to turn belligerent. A country where serious issues like the routine life of a city, the health of citizens, the education of children, the right of a reader to follow the kind of reports, articles and history he wishes to read are not insured, films and fictions in print are too frivolous an indulgence to fight for.

Yet, law, peace and normalcy in life must prevail; may the state put all goons who wouldn’t allow the screening of Padmaavat behind the bars because no argument is valid after the authority, the CBFC, has sanctioned the film. However, the state then cannot look for an escape route the next time it ought to allow a writer, painter or cartoonist portray Prophet Mohammed.

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Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Sirf News Surajit Dasgupta has been a science correspondent in The Statesman, senior editor in The Pioneer, special correspondent in Money Life, the first national affairs editor of Swarajya, executive editor of Hindusthan Samachar and desk head of MyNation

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