Censor censorship

July 28th, 2012

The government has done it yet again. It has found another target for censorship. This time it’s a particular video work which was being shown at an exhibition in the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

Titled “I Love My India,” the video by Mumbai-based artist Tejal Shah is about the 2002 Gujarat carnage. It is nine years old and has already been shown several times at exhibitions in India, London, Oslo, Rome and Lyon. But now suddenly the ministry of external affairs has asked the Beijing gallery to censor the art show. Once again, this knee-jerk reaction of the government to what clearly violates the Right to Freedom of Expression, guaranteed under Article 19(1) (A) of the Constitution, has caused a lot of disappointment and dismay. The art world, including Ram Rahman, Dayanita Singh, Bharti Kher, Subodh Gupta and Devika Daulet Singh, has already written an open letter of protested.

We pride ourselves for upholding the freedom of speech and expression, yet we have a sorry history of censorship. We all know that one of the darkest examples of it was in 1975. But the history of censorship dates back much earlier. One of the earliest examples of it was a film called Karma. A pre-Independence movie released in 1933, this had a rather long and passionate kissing scene between Devika Rani and her screen lover and real-life husband Himanshu Rai. Devika Rani incidentally was the first recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award. And what a brouhaha that liplock caused. National debates broke out on the content of cinema and for decades after the release of Karma, the kiss disappeared from the screen.

In the 80 years since, we have only moved backwards. Days before Tejal Shah’s video controversy erupted, Google reported that Internet censorship from India was up by 49 per cent in the second half of last year. Goggle had logged 255 instances of India asking for censorship of online content. In all, the Internet giant had received 1,000 such demands from governments around the world. So, India made for 25.5 per cent of these demands! In its transparency report, Goggle said India had sought the blockage of 133 YouTube videos, 10 of which were made on national security considerations (which we could perhaps grant as justified) 77 on defamation (rather arbitrary), 26 web searches and 49 blogs.

Some time back, while debating the attack on freedom of speech on the web in India, Arun Jaitley had said: “The days of censorship, the days of withholding back information are all over. I always believe that if the Internet had been in existence, the internal Emergency of 1975 would have been a big fiasco… Therefore, these institutions which have come up by virtue of technology have a great role to play.” This said, he also pointed to the dangers – of hate speeches, objectionable content and information that could create religious hatred or trigger violence appearing on sites. This, he said, could be objected to. Fair enough. But the most critical part of his speech was this: “The difficulty will arise … if the kind of information which is sought to be objected to and removed is too wide, and then becomes a threat to free speech.”

This is precisely what is happening. Not just in the case of the Internet, but also in films, as well as the art and literary world. Take the example Rockstar in which director Imtiaz Ali had to blur the ‘Free Tibet’ banner which was in the background of one of the songs. He had to do this on the orders of the Censor Board of Film Certificate. The scene appeared in theatres with the ugly blurred patch in the background. People who perhaps wouldn’t even have notice the flag otherwise noticed the blur. They talked about it and the banner which the government so wanted to underplay.

So where do we draw the line? “Free Tibet” protests are a reality. They exist, whatever be our political equations with China. Should no Indian artist or filmmaker dare to portray them in any form in our films because it will disturb our relationship with China? China is not known to be the shining example of a country that respects freedom of speech or expression. And it makes no pretence of being one. But we are. Or at least we would like to believe we are. Which is why, we cannot afford to have two sets of rules. And we cannot waiver every time we are confronted with a situation where external influences, from within and outside the country, are expecting us to push for censorship. Films, art and books have always mirrored social, political and economic issues and realities. And they will always do it. There will always be something which will rock the boat.

As Indians, we have a much bigger responsibility of upholding the spirit of freedom. We know what freedom means, we’ve earned it the hard way. Which is why we cannot put a limit on how free freedom of speech and expression can be.

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