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Holy smoke! Churchill and no cigar

india Updated: Jan 24, 2009 00:23 IST
Satya Prakash
Satya Prakash
Hindustan Times
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Can there be a film on Winston Churchill without his signature cigar? The answer is an emphatic no.

The Delhi High Court’s verdict giving primacy to artistic freedom over purported public interest in banning on-screen smoking will go a long way in ensuring freedom to creative people. The verdict, based on a progressive interpretation of Article 19(1)(a), is bound to trigger a debate on the ambit and scope of artistic freedom and the executive fiat purportedly issued in public interest.

Framers of the Constitution may not have imagined how crucial a role it would play in guaranteeing freedom of speech/expression to artists. As a matter of fact, the right to freedom of speech/expression is not absolute but subject to reasonable restrictions under Article 19(2), including security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, etc. But any restriction has to be imposed under the authority of a law that must be reasonable so as to qualify the test prescribed under Article 19(2).

The Constitution is the supreme law of the land and any law or executive order that comes in conflict with it will have to go. In this case, the ban under the The Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003 came in conflict with artistic freedom guaranteed by the Constitution.

There’s a lesson here for the government and the health minister: in the zeal to espouse a public cause, ensure the decision passes the test of law.

“When there is propagation of ideas, opinions and information or public interests or profits, the interests of society may tilt the scales in favour of free speech and expression,” Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul said in his verdict last year quashing criminal charges against M.F. Husain, accused of offending public morality and Hindu sentiments. On Friday, he once again gave primacy to artistic freedom over a government order.