“When you have nothing to say, you start a fire.”
“Modi! Modi! Modi!” I looked around. Was I in a political rally? Or in Wembley or Madison Square Garden? What was this circus? It was, would you believe, the normally elegant debate held at the end of the Jaipur Literature Festival. Invited to participate to support the motion – Is freedom of speech absolute and unconditional – I had anticipated well-articulated points by eloquent adversaries.
The brilliant actor Anupam Kher was on to supporting that there should be restrictions on freedom of speech. His points: India is the greatest because we can say what we want. To prove that he let fly a string of Hindi gaalis that included your sister. Kher announced from the start that the drum to signal the speaker was over the time limit would not apply to him because he was going to speak as long as he wanted. However, he never had enough to say and finished before even reaching that time. Periodically, the thousands of goons he had brought in shouted “Modi! Modi!” on Kher’s cue when he raised his arms. I have seen that many insecure stars like to travel with their own entourage of chamchas but this was stretching it. In October 2015, Anupam Kher was roundly booed repeatedly at the Tata Literature Live Festival debate on ‘freedom of expression is an imminent danger’. Bruised by the barrage of booing he received there, this time around, he was taking no chances. Kher encouraged them with fist pumping and blowing kisses to them. It was a pinnacle of rowdyism.
Kher was slightly low on facts. He said India has more freedom than any other nation citing examples of how he has been strip searched at foreign airports. What does that have to do with the price of coffee and freedom of speech? He also said, “You have to have an attitude of a winner. In an attitude of a winner you have to suppress what is wrong with us and try to correct that”. He mentioned that Salman Rushdie was banned from coming to the Jaipur Literature Festival. He got an earful from Sanjoy Roy in explanation on what really happened. Also he called William Dalrymple – Daryl.
Suhel Seth and Pavan Verma seemed to be on the wrong side. Their discomfiture when the debate was politicised by Kapil Mishra of AAP and Kher, was evident.
It is a remarkable display of boxed in thinking that the BJP caught the ball that Nayantara Sahgal threw at the Sahitya Akademi. She objected to the Akademi’s silence over the killing of writers. Not to the BJP. Smart BJP strategy would have agreed that they were also against intolerance. That would have taken the wind out of the bag. But, the intolerance/tolerance ball was set rolling when any mention of freedom of speech or an intolerant atmosphere was translated to anti-Modi, lack of patriotism and met with verbal lynching.
In truth, it has been the Congress Party that has been the most intolerant and vindictive of dissent and criticism. Starting with Jawaharlal Nehru’s adding restrictions to freedom of speech (Article 19a) that included obscenity, vulgarity etc and banning of books, films and even people (Kishore Kumar during the Emergency). The press treated Nehru with adulation when he was a freedom fighter. When he became Prime Minister and the press criticised him, he could not take it. The Congress Party has the longest list of banned books and films. The now repealed Section 66A that threw people in jail for Facebook and Twitter posts were all done by the Congress. It was the Congress party that blocked websites and Twitter handles.
According to 295A in the IPC, any citizen can file a complaint of hurt sentiments and the person would be jailed. How did this happen? Easy. Blame the British. In 1924, an Arya Samaji named M. A. Chamupati or Krishan Prashaad Prataab whose name was never revealed by the publisher, Mahashe Rajpal of Lahore, wrote a pamphlet Rangeela Rasul (meaning Promiscuous Prophet) that spoofed the personal life of Prophet Mohammed. It was published during a period of confrontation between the Arya Samaj and Muslims in Punjab during the 1920s. It was allegedly a retaliatory action from the Hindu community against a pamphlet published by a Muslim depicting the Hindu goddess Sita as a prostitute. On the basis of Muslim complaints, Rajpal was arrested but acquitted in April 1929 after a five-year trial because there was no law against insult to religion. After several unsuccessful attempts to kill Rajpal, he was stabbed to death by a young man named Ilm-ud-din on April 6, 1929. Ilm-ud-din was sentenced to death and the sentence was carried out on October 31, 1929.
Rangila Rasul had a surface appearance of a lyrical and laudatory work on Mohammed and his teachings; for example it began with a poem which went “The bird serves the flowers in the garden; I’ll serve my Rangila Rasul”, and called Mohammed “a widely experienced” person who was best symbolised by his many wives, in contrast with the lifelong celibacy of Hindu saints. Originally written in Urdu, it was translated into Hindi. Although it is still banned in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, it can, of course, be read on the Internet. So much for banning books.
Rajpal was charged under Section 153A with intentionally promoting enmity and hatred between his Majesty’s subjects. The Lahore High Court ruled in favour of Rajpal stating that, although the pamphlet was scurrilous satire on the founder of the Muslim religion, the judge did not find that it was meant to attack the Mohammedan religion as such or to hold Mohammedans as objects worthy of enmity or hatred. The court added that Section 153A “was intended to prevent persons from making attacks on a particular community as it exists at the present time and was not meant to stop polemics against deceased religious leaders however scurrilous and in bad taste such attacks might be.” This judgement caused a stir and unrest amongst a group of people. There was a fear that communal feelings could lead to violence. The British Governor of Punjab, Sir Malcolm Hailey, assured the community that an amendment to the Indian Penal Code would be added that would ensure that religious sentiments would not be hurt in the future. During the debates on the proposed amendment, many argued against it, including M A Jinnah, Lala Lajpat Rai, saying it would stifle research and bona fide criticism [credit Shivprasad Swaminathan]. For more details read:
295A was passed by the British in 1927. This was used to jail a puzzled comedian, Keki Sharada, who acted out a spoof on godman Ram Rahim. The BJP had nothing to do with it.
Section 294 was used to issue arrest warrants to All India Bhakchod, Karan Johar, Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor. Members of the audience, Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt also got arrest warrants for enjoying themselves and laughing. This was from one citizen’s complaint that he was offended by the vulgarity. Section 294 states: “Whoever, to the annoyance of others;
(a)Does any obscene act in any public place, or
(b)Sings, recites or utters any obscene song, ballad or words, in or near any public place,
Shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine, or with both.”
The BJP had nothing to do with it. Then, why has the BJP taken ownership of being intolerant by insisting there is no intolerance?
The Central Board of Certification, more truthfully called the Censor Board, is only supposed to certify films. But it chops and snips where it pleases. Recently, they cut the duration of a kiss by 50 per cent in the latest James Bond film. It had to be an Indian man who did that because it is against Indian culture. More than 15 seconds of foreplay? Not a chance. Why raise expectations of women?
Watching Woody Allen’s Annie Hall on Indian cable television, you will see Diane Keaton walking around the room with a cigarette in her hand that has been blurred out. What you end up seeing could be interpreted as Diane blowing kisses in the air, because there is no cigarette in her hand as she brings her fingers to her lips and moves them away.
In the satirical film on terrorists and terrorism, You Don’t Mess with Zohan, the word terrorist is silenced out throughout. If the word is used three times in a sentence, there are only pronouns that makes the sentence incomprehensible.
The question is, how much does all the censoring cost the taxpayers of India? Since films are being censored using technology, it means all these thousands of films shown on television are watched, noted and marked, then given to editors to chop and blur. Where is this done and how many people house this office? Are we paying for something we don’t want done?
The government banned the film India’s Daughter, which only backfired. They decided that it created a bad impression of India abroad. The message everyone abroad got was that the government was against freedom of expression. Everybody in India saw it anyway on YouTube.
Even the film Kissa Kursi Ka can be seen on YouTube although it was reported that Sanjay Gandhi had the prints burnt in 1975. All the banned books are freely available in the market.
The Babri Masjid story by Newstrack (video magazine) was banned by the “Censor Board”. We appealed to the Appellate Tribunal in Bombay. Justice B. Lentin passed an order that stated, “Not only should this tape be allowed, it should be compulsory viewing for every citizen of India.” Doordarshan showed nothing. Censorship keeps the public ignorant.
When Newstrack was on Doordarshan, Mayawati was interviewed when she first entered politics. Mayawati said in the interview: “Mai garv se kehti hoon ke main chamaar ki beti hoon”. She was embracing her identity much like the African Americans did in the 70s when they turned the derogatory term Black to Proud to be Black. Doordarshan made me take it out because you cannot say the word ‘chamaar’ on television. There is no room for nuance.
By placing Shyam Benegal to review the process of censoring, the BJP has made a move towards more tolerance.
The worst is that anyone wanting a more tolerant and pluralistic India is greeted with hooliganism and branded as someone who does not love his/her country. The argument against the motion in the Jaipur Lit Fest debate centred on the idea that with freedom comes responsibility and restrictions are essential to that.
My point is that censorship comes from a superior colonial perspective that citizens are not to be trusted and must be reined in. WE can see, read or hear it, but the stupid masses cannot. The laws put in by the British stand today which makes any government in power a colonial authority empowered to use the laws on whims and fancies. According to the IPC, any individual who takes offence by another’s statements has the right to complain and the offender can be put in jail. Not only have all governments misused these laws at their convenience to muzzle dissent and criticism, citizens are busy censoring each other using these laws.
Is being offended enough reason to put another citizen in jail? I was offended by artist M F Hussain’s depiction of Hindu goddesses and more than offended by his depiction of Madhuri Dixit with bulls. I saw these paintings as violent, obscene and degrading to women. But, as deeply offended as I was, I saw no reason to file a complaint for his arrest or defile his work. Even though I believe, if he was exercising his artistic freedom fully, how come he never painted Prophet Mohammad? Why was he following a different set of rules for one religion and not the other? Many politicians’ statements about women, rape, Dalits and journalists have offended me, but it is good to hear them. It is important to know how prejudiced our politicians are.
The debate ended with the goons voting for – restrictions, censorship or anything Anupam Kher would have told them to vote for. What does it say when the youth of India are so unthinkingly pro-establishment?
Anupam Kher is a great actor. Just this time, he was given the wrong script and was on the wrong set. The session ended appropriately with Anupam Kher doing the bhangra and then posing for photographers Arnold Schwarzenegger style, flexing his biceps. Kher won. The audience lost.