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Censoring freedom of expression points to deeper malaise

The ease with which the political class and those in authority issue threats is severely restrictive of individual and collective freedom, and not just of the media

mumbai Updated: Jul 21, 2017 01:21 IST
Ayaz Memon
Ayaz Memon
Hindustan Times
Malishka Mendonca,Mumbai,Ayaz Memon
It would be fair to say that Malishka’s parody that went viral spoke of the collective frustration and anger of Mumbaikars

A day after being lampooned in a song by radio jockey Malishka Mendonca for Mumbai’s hellish roads in the monsoon, the BMC fired off a notice to her mother for allegedly breeding mosquitoes in her Bandra flat in unkempt petri dishes for home plants.

It would be facetious to draw a link between petri dishes at home and Mumbai’s potholed (in many cases cratered) roads but such equivalence becomes unavoidable when you look at the timing and sequence of Malishka’s song and the alacrity with which the municipal corporation acted. It is not anybody’s case that health concerns, especially during the monsoon, should be overlooked. The BMC is well within its rights to inspect homes and charge offending flat owners. But this was so blatantly tit-for-tat as to make the corporation’s intent questionable.

The moot question, however, is still about the quality of roads. This remains abominable, and it would be fair to say that Malishka’s parody that went viral spoke of the collective frustration and anger of Mumbaikars.

Year-on-year nothing changes; not even the excuses. Now, if only the BMC had taken the lampooning as a reminder of a task incomplete or badly addressed, accepted its mistakes, put errant corporators and vendors on notice, it would win the confidence of the people.

Instead, the Shiv Sena, which controls the BMC, got massively upset, created a shindig, had inspectors sent to her house to find some issue, and tried to browbeat Malishka and her organisation with the threat of a Rs500 crore defamation suit through one of their corporators. One doesn’t need mastery of law to know that such a case would walk on spindly weak legs in court. There is not a little irony that the Shiv Sena, whose tallest leader was a fantastic cartoonist himself, should get slighted so easily so often. But the Sena is not the only political party to respond in such fashion as was shown up in Mumbai last week. Preceding the Malishka controversy, comedy group All India Bakchod (AIB) put up a meme on Twitter about PM Modi’s frequent overseas trips. This riled the Mumbai police enough to file an FIR against AIB’s leading member Tanmay Bhatt for defamation and obscenity. Everything suggests this was done at the behest of the BJP. Indeed, if the cops acted peremptorily, it’s even worse, for this implies such threat is getting inbuilt.

AIB pulled down the meme as trolls got on their case. A report in Thursday’s edition in this paper says police may close ‘weak’ case against AIB. But the warning is clear. All this, when the PM himself had earlier tweeted that “We surely need more humour in public life’’!

Sandwiched in between these two events was censor chief Pahlaj Nihalani’s obscurantism in passing Madhur Bhandarkar’s film on Indira Gandhi (and the Emergency) without cuts that had offended Congress party workers in the city.

Whatever the compunctions about Bhandarkar’s ideological leanings, that the Congress should raise red flags on issues like the Emergency and 1984 Delhi riots is baffling. One would think allowing films on these would show up the liberal ethos that it espouses as also opportunity at cleansing and redemption by owning up to mistakes.

Simultaneously, Nihalani also upheld the Central Board of Film Certification’s demands for muting words like ‘cow’, ‘Gujarat’ etc in Suman Ghosh’s documentary featuring Amartya Sen explaining the Nobel Laureate “referring so insensitively to our politics and religion could result in a serious breach of the peace and harmony of the country.’’

In a sense therefore, Nihalani, self-confessed admirer of the present government, was being ‘even-handed’. But effectively this is no less asinine than his other gaffes. However, my concern is not Nihalani and his ilk who are only symptomatic of a larger malaise, which is the ease with which the political class and those in authority take umbrage and issue threats at anything that highlights their deficiencies.

This is severely restrictive of individual and collective freedom, and not just of the media.

Doesn’t portend well.

First Published: Jul 21, 2017 01:21 IST