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Heresy against democracy

The kind of reaction that we saw when the film The Da Vinci Code was set to be released was interesting for one particular reason, among many others.

india Updated: May 20, 2006 02:02 IST

The kind of reaction that we saw when the film The Da Vinci Code was set to be released was interesting for one particular reason, among many others. The demand that it be banned was made most insistently by a number of Christian groups, mainly Catholics, and was of a piece with the mayhem caused by the release of the Bollywood film Jo Bole So Nihal, except that the louts who stopped the latter from being shown were violent and viciously destructive.

But what lies beneath the reaction to both is what is interesting. I have no doubt at all that, on any other occasion, those demanding that The Da Vinci Code be banned will be vociferous in supporting freedom of expression, will declare themselves ardent votaries of that most sacred freedom. So would the goons who took to vandalising and burning cinemas when the other film was released — that is, if they are able to comprehend what it means. In fact, if they were stopped from observing some event or the other organised by them, they would lose no time publicly to whine about minorities being suppressed, being denied their rights and all the rest of that cant.

Freedom of expression is, to them, something that works for their own ends, never mind if their expression affects someone else, just so long as their ability to say or do what they like is kept intact. But do something that offends them and you have an almost Pavlovian reaction — ban, suppress, gag.

This is by no means their preserve alone. We have had spectacular examples of this over the years, by different groups. Hindu zealots outdid themselves when Deepa Mehta was shooting her film Water in Varanasi. And to take this kind of action a little further, we had the edifying spectacle of their reaction to Valentine’s Day and to girls wearing dresses they, the goons, didn’t approve of. And, as I said, these goons will be loud in their affirmation of the inviolable nature of the freedom to speak and express oneself in anyway one wants.

Some of them will immediately point out that they respect freedom of expression but it should not, therefore, hurt someone’s sentiments. Really? Is free speech really to be abridged in that way? The reaction is, however, not surprising. Generations of living in societies that have never known what freedom of expression really means breeds some instinctive reactions, reactions that have no rational basis but are taken to be true expressions of freedom of expression.

What, may one ask, is the difference then when a political personality vilifies his opponents in a public speech and when a film is perceived to hurt the sentiments of some members of a community? Is the political leader not hurting the sentiments of his opponents? But that is placidly accepted by those who demand that films and books be banned. They will explain laboriously that it is a valid political statement, one that can be made in a free society.

But what is the difference? Can sentiments be hurt selectively? Can offence be taken to some acts, and a demand made to ban that act or suppress a book or film or whatever, and not to others? In a society such as ours, an unnecessary premium cannot be put on religious sentiments. True, these are very commonly used for political ends when the numbers involved are large so that the political dividend is substantial. But that does not validate any premium on these sentiments in a secular society.

If the freedom of expression means that a political leader can make a statement vilifying his political adversaries, it must also mean that another kind of statement — a book or a film — can also be made and no one has the right to demand that it be banned or suppressed. Sadly, it has been done, time and again. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was banned, as was Taslima Nasreen’s Shame.

It is usual for the authorities to hide behind the spectre, imagined or otherwise, of a huge communal conflagration. Even if there are some violent reactions, that is no excuse to ban and suppress books. The plain fact is that most of us don’t really believe in freedom of speech and expression. We’re used to a world where all this is ordered, whether it was the feudal, oppressive rule of monarchs or that of colonial rulers. It fits in well with our propensity to compromise, something we give the comforting name of the middle path.

Film censorship is, finally, no different. Having had to administer the law on film censorship, one has to say without any ambiguity that the best form of censorship is the censorship that film-makers would work out for themselves. Incidentally, I am not saying I administered the law with secret anguish. I did it as best as I could. It was my job, and I did it. No apologies. But I did realise that the State should not have any role in this affair, although legislators have on more than one occasion stated, both in Parliament and outside, that the censorship law must be made more comprehensive, that censorship of films should be, if anything, even stricter than it is.

The perceived dangers that prompt them to advocate censorship are certainly there. But it is — and one says this with the benefit of hindsight — not the State’s business either to lay down what the dangers are, far less to decide how they should be handled. If we as a society believe in freedom of speech and expression we simply have to leave this to the mechanisms that will emerge from society itself, through confrontation, if you will, or through debate, and above all through the perceptions of the

makers of films. This is not to say that the Central Board of Film Certification be done away with. It is to say that the board should be a body which consists of and is managed by film-makers and others in the film world, not a body of the State to which the State appoints film personalities. The decisions of such a board may lead to angry protests on occasion. But these have to be resolved through means other than through executive fiat. The exercise of this freedom is not always palatable to all. Indeed, it usually is not. It’s time, though, that we realised this and lived with it.

Criticism of all kinds is a part of our democratic polity. If someone is offended by a film or book, for whatever reason, he or she can always make it public. Even collective protests are a part of the normal and expected reactions that a film or book can provoke. (It always is, of course, because of the attitudes or beliefs or assumptions in a book; never, alas, on account of its literary merit. How wonderful it would be if there was, even once, a public protest because a book was downright bad!)

Criticism, however, cannot mean a demand that a book or film be banned. That is a manifestation of subliminal feudal or neo-colonial postures that still exist among far too many people, and must be removed if we really want true freedom of speech and expression.