Something about the Information and Broadcasting Ministry appears to confer a unique logic on its office-holders. Whether it is bleeping out bad language in television soaps or employing scores of drones who comb through every magazine, book and atlas to spot inaccurate maps, the keepers of our morals toil away, oblivious to the realities of a modern society, where information flows untrammelled across cyber frontiers. I&B seem to stand for Invective and Bombast, and our minister has not been found wanting in either department. Questioned repeatedly the other day about how he defined ‘good taste and decency’ in regard to the banning for two months of a fashion channel, Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi uttered a true Orwellism: “When the committee feels it is bad, it is bad. If the committee feels it is not bad, it is not bad.”
The trouble is that India does have one of the world’s freest media environments, and the minister’s banning of two television channels on the ground that they outraged the nation’s modesty comes across as quixotic, not the least because the raging hormones of one of the world’s youngest populations will probably not even notice such blips. Indians are not more prurient or promiscuous than their counterparts in other lands. Any clampdown, however, does look ham-handed, ineffectual and retrogressive. Witness the censor’s certificates that now precede each and every commercial in a cinema hall, and you have to pinch yourself and remember that you are in 2007, not 1947.
Of course, our intrepid I&B Minister is the master of spirited debate. Are journalists in India really free, Mr Dasmunsi asked in Kolkata a few weeks ago. And he likened an absence of censorship to the absence of editors in newspapers. This is the nub of the argument — that we need moral police looking over our shoulders at our browsers, blogs, television screens and mobile-phone displays. And the line between vigilance and vigilantism is very thin. Ask Richard Gere, or ask those movie stars who are being sued for indecency in a faraway courtroom for smooching on-screen. India scored 2 (on a scale of 1 to 7) on political rights, and 3 for civil liberties, in the Freedom in the World 2006 survey, which makes us ‘Free’. Let’s keep it that way.