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The ban wagon is speeding now

By curbing free expression, the country is replacing its secular ideals with intolerance.

india Updated: Jan 31, 2013 21:18 IST

Kamal Haasan and Salman Rushdie have more in common than just artistic success. Opposition by Muslim groups have led to Mr Haasan’s directorial venture Vishwaroopam being banned in Tamil Nadu, and similar outfits have prevented Mr Rushdie from attending the Kolkata book fair.

Though disturbing in itself, there is more to the limits being placed on the expression and movement of these two individuals. Both controversies are symptomatic of a larger intolerance that seems to be spreading with alarming speed. By giving in to what are largely frivolous objections, we are only making creative representation almost impossible.

Reacting to the accusation that the Central Board for Film Certification was incompetent, the board’s chief Leela Samson has claimed that the ban on Vishwaroopam was a case of an artist being hounded. “Once we have certified the film, there is no reason to doubt that decision.”

There is now cause to believe that Ms Samson’s resolve will be further emboldened. Information and broadcasting minister Manish Tewari has tweeted that the Cinematograph Act of 1952 must be revisited. If this did not happen, he blogged, each state would become its own censor.

According to the Act, “A film should not be certified for public exhibition … if the film is against … the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality.” The question that needs to be asked is what happens when it is the public that is more intent on disorder than the film.

If we, as a country, stop having faith in the discretion of official bodies such as our censors, any theme of religion, caste, race or gender will be contested by groups that could insist on the supremacy of their interpretation.

This convenient recipe for anarchy appears to be firmly in place already, and if encouraged by politicians such as the West Bengal and Tamil Nadu chief ministers, this trend can only get more dangerous.

When campaigning to become chief minister, Mamata Banerjee had done much to court the radical intelligentsia of Bengal. She gave singers tickets and encouraged artists to share her political platform. By not giving Mr Rushdie security, she has only made apparent her own cultural opportunism.

Jayalalithaa is busy debunking the theory that she allegedly has a grudge against Mr Haasan because of his proximity to political rivals. There is a sense of déjà vu here, one that neither Mr Rushdie nor Mr Haasan are unfamiliar with.

Mr Rushdie, as we know, was not allowed to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival last year, and, in 2000, Mr Haasan’s Hey Ram was denounced as both anti-Hindu and anti-Gandhi.

These recent incidents should serve as a wake-up call to the tolerant majority that a divisive cultural and religious militia is riding roughshod over its sensibilities.