When the BJP was in office, censorship was very much the flavour of the season. As Information and Broadcasting Minister, Sushma Swaraj worked herself into a lather over the nipple count on Fashion TV; her minions asked newsreaders to dress ‘appropriately’; her successors frothed at the month about music videos and, most shamefully, failed to provide the security required to shoot Deepa Mehta’s Water; it was considered no big deal to ban a movie; and anybody who made a film with a slightly daring theme could expect the mobs to attack cinemas where it was showing.
Naturally, you and I were appalled. We were liberals, we said. What happened to the tolerance that is the hallmark of a liberal democracy? Was the BJP going to Talibanise our society? And so on.
Joining this chorus and cheering us along was one slightly unusual grouping: the Congress party. Even though the Congress has no particular record of tolerance of protest or love of free speech (just ask Salman Rushdie about The Satanic Verses ban), it swiftly transformed itself — during the BJP period — into a champion of liberal democracy.
No matter what instances of intolerance the media came up with — the protests against Fire, the disgraceful treatment of MF Husain etc — there was always a Congress spokesperson ready with a sound bite. The BJP was a fascist organisation, we were told. It had no respect for liberty. The Congress, on the other hand, was committed to freedom of speech etc etc.
And because liberals needed all the help we could get, we were content to take the Congress at its word, and to ignore its previous record in this area.
But then, two-and-a-half years ago, to everybody’s surprise (including the Congress’s) the BJP was thrown out of office and suddenly, the very Congress spokespeople who had assured us of their “anti-fascist commitment to freedom” found themselves being sworn in as ministers. And guess what?
They’ve turned out to be just as bad as the BJP — if not worse.
So much for all that pious rhetoric. Let’s take a few instances.
•Priya Ranjan Dasmunsi, the Minister for Information and Broadcasting, says that he will be introducing a new Broadcasting Bill in the Budget session of Parliament. This Bill, he says, will not be like the last one he tried to push.
I hope he’s right because that Bill, prepared by the ministry and whisked past Priya’s darting eyes, was so illiberal that almost every journalist and broadcaster came out in protest. Finally, Priya’s bosses had to tell him to take it back and to start all over again.
Judging by that attempt at regulation, the Congress government’s attitude to the broadcasting sector is worse than anything the BJP could ever come up with. Priya’s Bill would have made us all slaves to petty bureaucrats.
•Then, there’s The Da Vinci Code fiasco. The Censor Board saw the film, insisted that a disclaimer to the effect that it was fiction be added (in case credulous audiences believed that Jesus’s great-great-great-granddaughter was a French policewoman with a silly accent) and then passed it. No big deal there. Western democracies with large Christian populations have also passed it without any cuts.
Enter the Christian lobby. The film is offensive to all of Jesus’s followers (excluding the French policewoman presumably), they declared. We demand a ban!
At that stage, somebody should have told them not to venture into cinemas where The Da Vinci Code was showing, but to stay at home and rent a DVD of Mary Poppins instead. But no, Priya arranged a special show where he saw the film with the protestors. Finally, he offered them a disclaimer (same as the Censor Board had) and declared that he had mediated a compromise. End result: as Sharmila Tagore, chairperson of the Censor Board told me last week, they felt redundant because the minister had decided to become a Super Censor.
Why bother to have an institutional mechanism like the Censor Board if the Minister can simply ignore its decisions? And the next time that some other community protests, what do you suppose Priya will do? Keep watching film after film himself? If he spends all his time doing that, then who will run the Football Federation?
•Sushma Swaraj raved and ranted about FTV. But she never banned it. This government has gone much further. It has banned AXN because somebody in the ministry did not like a programme on the world’s sexiest ads.
To ban an entire channel is such an extreme step that even the BJP never dared go so far. What’s worse is that the decision was not taken by any independent regulator (largely because they don’t have one). Instead, in a reminder of the worst excesses of Ministry Raj, the decision was taken by a few civil servants and endorsed by Priya. Because the TV industry is too scared to make a fuss, the I&B Ministry has now announced that more such measures are being contemplated.
So this is how the Congress is fighting for free speech?
By banning it?
It’s enough to make me say: come back Sushma Aunty, all is forgiven.
•The saga of the aborted shoot of Water must rank as one of the BJP’s lowest spots. Deepa Mehta went ahead and made the film in Sri Lanka anyway and it’s been nominated for an Oscar (over Lage Raho Munnabhai and Rang De Basanti). Nobody I know who’s seen the film, and not one reviewer of note, has regarded it as being anti-Indian.
But on Wednesday, there were more protests against Water in Banaras. This time, however, it wasn’t the sangh parivar that was complaining. It was the Congress.
According to activists of the so-called Rahul Gandhi Vichar Manch, a eunuch was shown making derogatory remarks about Gandhiji and so, they would not allow Water to be released.
There’s no shortage of bogus organisations in India, so my first reaction was that this was probably a ploy to embarrass the Congress by its rivals. But no, Rajesh Mishra, the local Congress MP, held a press conference to declare that he would also be writing a letter of complaint to Priya.
So, can somebody explain to me: just what the hell is going on?
The distinguishing characteristic of the Congress’s attempt to overturn its previously professed liberal agenda is confusion. During the BJP era, its ministers would tell you frankly that there was no central control. It was every maniac for himself.
Sushma Swaraj had her own agenda. Nobody dared rein in the Bajrang Dal when it attacked cinema houses because nobody could. Arun Jaitley, as I&B Minister, tried to broker a truce between the Banaras branch of the sangh parivar and Deepa Mehta’s’s Water unit but the problem was that the Banarasis had no reason to listen to him. Nobody in Delhi approved of the attacks on MF Husain’s paintings but the BJP’s Gujarat unit was beyond the Centre’s control.
Bizarrely, much the same seems to be true of the Congress. I doubt very much if the first Broadcasting Bill had been cleared with anybody — which is why it had to be withdrawn. I know for a fact that the Prime Minister had no idea that AXN was going to be banned. The whole Da Vinci Code fiasco was an individual ministerial initiative. Nobody at the Centre knew that Congress governments in the states were prosecuting MF Husain or even that the Union Home Ministry was behaving disgracefully. And I’m reasonably sure that the protests against Water have no central sanction.
You can argue therefore that it is unfair to blame the Congress leadership at the Centre for all the intolerance. But I don’t think that this is a good enough excuse. Every crackpot who called for a ban when the BJP was in power did not first take AB Vajpayee’s permission. Every assault on an artist and every attack on a cinema were not cleared by the Centre. And yet, we still held the BJP responsible.
And so, I regard the Congress ministry at the Centre as being as culpable as the BJP government. If this government is sincere about its commitment to liberalism and to liberal values, then the message must be clear: no intolerance will be tolerated.
The problem, unfortunately, is that no such message has gone out. And every minister and every activist makes up his politics on the spot.
In the BJP era you could argue that the liberals at the Centre had no way of reining in the fanatics at the margins. But that defence is not available to the Congress.
And so each failure to protect freedom of speech and each act of intolerance reflects directly on those who head this government.
Meet the new intolerance. Same as the old intolerance.
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