HT Image
HT Image

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.
By Bhaskar Ghose | None
PUBLISHED ON MAY 20, 2006 02:02 AM 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.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
app
Close
Google celebrates 'Unity in diversity' in today's doodle.
Google celebrates 'Unity in diversity' in today's doodle.

Selfie, sitar, cricket: Google celebrates R-Day with Mumbai artist's doodle

Written by Poulomi Ghosh
UPDATED ON JAN 26, 2021 07:48 AM IST
Today's Goggle doodle, illustrated by Mumbai's Onkar Fondekar, sums up India, its unity in diversity and vibrant culture.
Close
Entry of general people has been banned and only the invited guests will be allowed to be present.(PTI)
Entry of general people has been banned and only the invited guests will be allowed to be present.(PTI)

'Jai Hind': PM Modi greets nation on 72nd Republic Day

By hindustantimes.com | Written by Susmita Pakrasi
UPDATED ON JAN 26, 2021 07:26 AM IST
  • Only around 25,000 spectators will be allowed to witness the parade as compared to the average of 1.15 lakh people every year.
Close
A vehicle cleans Rajpath on the eve of Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi.(AFP)
A vehicle cleans Rajpath on the eve of Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi.(AFP)

Live Updates: Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal greets nation on occasion of Republic Day

By hindustantimes.com | Edited by Susmita Pakrasi, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JAN 26, 2021 07:58 AM IST
  • Republic Day 2021 Live Updates: The Republic Day Parade ceremony will commence with Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting the National War Memorial.
India’s military might, cultural diversity, social and economic progress will be on display during the 72nd Republic Day celebrations.(ANI)
India’s military might, cultural diversity, social and economic progress will be on display during the 72nd Republic Day celebrations.(ANI)

With many firsts, India’s military might, cultural diversity on display on R-Day

By hindustantimes.com | Written by Susmita Pakrasi
PUBLISHED ON JAN 26, 2021 06:41 AM IST
  • The Republic Day Parade ceremony will commence with Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting the National War Memorial. He will lead the nation in paying tributes to the fallen heroes by laying a wreath.
Close
President Ram Nath Kovind unveiled the portrait of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose on Sunday. (Twitter)
President Ram Nath Kovind unveiled the portrait of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose on Sunday. (Twitter)

Much ado about Netaji portrait at Prez House

By HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON JAN 26, 2021 06:21 AM IST
  • The claim, that the portrait was based on Bengali actor Prosenjit Chatterjee, popularly known as Bumba, who played Bose in a 2019 movie, Gumnaami gathered momentum.
Close
A Chinese soldier stands guard on the Chinese side of the Naku La border crossing between India and China.(AFP File)
A Chinese soldier stands guard on the Chinese side of the Naku La border crossing between India and China.(AFP File)

Troops come to blows in India-China face-off

By Rahul Singh, Rezaul H Laskar, Sutirtho Patranobis
PUBLISHED ON JAN 26, 2021 05:22 AM IST
  • The latest incident took place at Naku La area, which is at a height of over 5,000 metres, on January 20, when Chinese soldiers attempted to intrude into the Indian territory.
Close
A Supreme Court bench, headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde, made it clear that it will not transfer the petitions against the UP Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020, to itself, but would like the high court to rule on the validity of the law.(HT Archive)
A Supreme Court bench, headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde, made it clear that it will not transfer the petitions against the UP Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020, to itself, but would like the high court to rule on the validity of the law.(HT Archive)

Conversion ordinance: Don’t take HC ‘lightly’, top court tells UP govt

PUBLISHED ON JAN 26, 2021 05:13 AM IST
  • The state government, got adjournments from the high court in the last two hearings citing the pendency of the similar petitions before the Supreme Court.
Close
A TikTok logo is displayed on a smartphone in this illustration. (REUTERS)
A TikTok logo is displayed on a smartphone in this illustration. (REUTERS)

India to impose permanent ban on 59 Chinese apps, including TikTok: Report

Reuters, Bengaluru
PUBLISHED ON JAN 26, 2021 04:56 AM IST
The ministry's June order stated that the apps were "prejudicial to sovereignty and integrity of India, defence of India, security of state and public order".
Close
Abe, Japan’s longest-serving PM, stepped down last August and was the first Japanese PM to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade in 2014.(REUTERS)
Abe, Japan’s longest-serving PM, stepped down last August and was the first Japanese PM to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade in 2014.(REUTERS)

Govt confers 119 Padma honours

By HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON JAN 26, 2021 03:53 AM IST
  • The list of Padma awards also comprised 10 Padma Bhushan and 102 Padma Shri recipients.
Close
During the hearing, senior advocates Parag Tripathi and BH Marlapally, appeared on behalf of the associations of state government officers and other employees.(HT Archive)
During the hearing, senior advocates Parag Tripathi and BH Marlapally, appeared on behalf of the associations of state government officers and other employees.(HT Archive)

SC rejects Andhra govt plea to defer local polls

By Utkarsh Anand, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON JAN 26, 2021 03:10 AM IST
  • On January 8, state election commissioner N Ramesh Kumar released the schedule for elections to be held in four phases
Close
Farmers participate in a tractor rally to protest against the newly passed farm bills, on a highway on the outskirts of New Delhi (REUTERS)
Farmers participate in a tractor rally to protest against the newly passed farm bills, on a highway on the outskirts of New Delhi (REUTERS)

Stage set for mega tractor rally; Parliament march on Feb 1

By Zia Haq, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON JAN 26, 2021 01:01 AM IST
  • The police say about 30,000 tractors are likely to participate in the rally, but farm leaders said the number of vehicles will be closer to 200,000.
Close
A SSB personnel on alert at Rajpath near India Gate on the eve of Republic Day, in New Delhi(Sanjeev Verma/ Hindustan Times)
A SSB personnel on alert at Rajpath near India Gate on the eve of Republic Day, in New Delhi(Sanjeev Verma/ Hindustan Times)

Republic Day 2021: List of police personnel who received gallantry medals

By hindustantimes.com, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON JAN 26, 2021 12:11 AM IST
  • The break-up of 946 police personnel who have been awarded medals on the occasion of the Republic Day, 2021.
Close
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the Climate Adaptation summit in the Netherlands via video conferencing. (ANI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the Climate Adaptation summit in the Netherlands via video conferencing. (ANI)

'Change lifestyle to adapt to climate change': PM Modi

By HT Correspondent, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JAN 25, 2021 11:59 PM IST
  • "We have promised ourselves that we will not just meet our Paris Agreement targets but exceed them...” PM Modi said.
Close
A note by the Lokayukta suggested “unpleasant circumstances” and “hostile environment” as the reason to quit forthwith but “upon dismissal of writ petition (by Nagaland government)” by the Supreme Court..(HT PHOTO)
A note by the Lokayukta suggested “unpleasant circumstances” and “hostile environment” as the reason to quit forthwith but “upon dismissal of writ petition (by Nagaland government)” by the Supreme Court..(HT PHOTO)

Willing to resign, Nagaland Lokayukta tells SC, seeks protection from state

By Abraham Thomas
PUBLISHED ON JAN 25, 2021 11:55 PM IST
  • The Nagaland government had come to the Supreme Court in exceptional circumstances for orders to restrain the sitting Lokayukta from hearing any case or exercising his powers or functions under the Nagaland Lokayukta Act, 2017.
Close
The chief minister said the state government was announcing the ex gratia in honour of the bravery shown by Col Santosh Babu while fighting the Chinese troops.(HT PHOTO.)
The chief minister said the state government was announcing the ex gratia in honour of the bravery shown by Col Santosh Babu while fighting the Chinese troops.(HT PHOTO.)

He deserved top medal: Col Santosh Babu's kin disappointed with Maha Vir Chakra

By Srinivasa Rao Apparasu | Edited by Sparshita Saxena, Hyderabad
UPDATED ON JAN 25, 2021 11:42 PM IST
  • His mother said she was not at all happy to receive the news that her son was conferred Maha Vir Chakra. “I expected the top medal, not this,” she said.
Close
SHARE
Story Saved
OPEN APP