I get six newspapers at home in Bangalore. This past Tuesday, the 14th of June, all six had front-page stories on the judgment, the previous day, of the Bombay High Court on the film ‘Udta Punjab’. The Central Board of Film Certification had recommended as many as 89 cuts in the film. The Bombay High Court cleared the film with just one cut, noting in its judgment that ‘none can dictate to the film maker on how he should make a film and use words; there is no need to censor films’.
The judgment was received with relief, and celebration. For the cuts recommended by the Censor Board were clearly motivated by a political agenda, namely, to save the ruling Akali Dal-BJP regime in Punjab from getting further bad publicity for its unwillingness to tackle the drug menace in the state.
As a writer for whom freedom of expression is a precondition for the practice of his profession, I was happy to join in the celebration. But my joy was tempered by a story in the inside pages of one newspaper, which informed me that while the makers of ‘Udta Punjab’ had now got relief from the courts, a Gujarati director was told by the Censor Board to make more than a hundred cuts in his film. The film, called ‘Salagto Sawaal Anamat’, dealt with the debate on reservation in Gujarat, sparked by the Patidar agitation led by Hardik Patel. The Censor Board had, among other things, demanded that the director remove the words ‘Patel’, ‘Patidar’, and ‘BR Ambedkar’ from the film.
The contrast was instructive. It pointed to a fundamental asymmetry in how threats to freedom of expression are enacted, and how they can be challenged, in our country. For, had ‘Udta Punjab’ not been produced by one Bollywood celebrity, and not featured well-known stars, it is unlikely that its (entirely just) cause would have been taken up so vigorously by the ‘national’ media. Once Anurag Kashyap and Mahesh Bhatt (among others) had spoken out, the TV channels smelt a good story and ran with it. Their decision was vindicated when the Censor Board chief accused Kashyap of taking money from the Aam Aadmi Party, adding that he, Pahlaj Nihalani, was proud to call himself a ‘chamcha’ of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The debate now escalated, and, with every minute, the Censor Board found itself with more ink on its face. I know that High Court judges are supposed to judge cases purely on the basis of submissions presented to them, but it is extremely unlikely that those who heard the petitioners in court had not read the newspapers or watched the shows that had made the petitioners’ case so well.
Thanks to ‘Udta Punjab’ I now know, courtesy an enterprising reporter in Ahmedabad, of the travails of a Gujarati film-director and his film. The cuts the Censor Board demanded in this case were very likely also motivated by partisan politics. But is this likely to be the top story on news channels tonight (or any other night)? I doubt it.
The Hindi film industry has an aura denied to its Tamil, Kannada, Gujarati and Odia counterparts. Our so-called ‘national’ media is thus more prone to interesting itself in Hindi films, and ingratiating itself with its star actors and producers. In a perhaps less obvious fashion, English-language writers have an advantage over those who write in Indian languages. They have a greater freedom of expression, and greater immunity from physical attack. It strikes me that the three eminent writers murdered in recent years — Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and MM Kalaburgi — had two things in common. One, noticed by everyone, was that all were fiercely opposed to bigotry and fundamentalism. The second, less commented upon, was that none of them wrote in English.
Legal scholars have pointed to the burden of outdated laws which restrict freedom of expression in India. But an equal or greater threat may be posed by our professedly ‘democratic’ and proudly ‘nationalist’ politicians. No politician, of any party, has ever acted strongly in favour of freedom of expression. To the contrary, they have often been complicit in threatening it. In the years that Narendra Modi was chief minister of Gujarat, the film ‘Fanaa’ was informally banned, books on Gandhi and Jinnah formally banned, and several art shows vandalised, the Gujarat police looking on. There may be other ways in which Mr Modi has transformed himself in moving to Delhi, but acquiring a new commitment to artistic freedom is unlikely to be one of them.
The record of the Congress (which banned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and allowed MF Hussain to die in exile), and of the communists (who banned Taslima Nasrin’s books and had her sent away from West Bengal) is equally disgraceful. And the regional parties are, if anything, even worse. Apart from not stopping (indeed, sometimes encouraging) the harassment of artists, writers, and film-makers, chief ministers across India, and of all parties, inhibit press freedom by withdrawing government advertisements from newspapers which run stories critical of their policies. And they sometimes also initiate tax probes and police cases, offering these newspapers the alternatives of financial ruin or humiliating submission.
The record of the Indian nation-state in the matter of artistic and intellectual freedom is undistinguished. The judgment of the Bombay High Court must therefore be welcomed; but cautiously, not exuberantly, in the knowledge that many more, and perhaps even more arduous, battles lie ahead.
Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India
The views expressed are personal