The communalisation of censorship

Censorship in India is increasingly out of the hands of government, and in the grip of self-appointed politico-cultural guardians.

The recent agitations in India against The Da Vinci Code, the US conspiracy film about the Catholic church, took some observers by surprise. For those who have been following the drift of India's media culture over the past few years, however, the real surprise was that the film was introduced in the country at all. Indeed, the movement to ban The Da Vinci Code comes at the end of a long string of controversies involving religious communities who claim their sentiments have been hurt by films – including Deepa Mehta's 1996 Fire and Rahul Rawail's 2005 Jo Bole So Nihaal, to name just two examples. Religious conservatives have also instigated riots over purely non-religious films, such as the lesbian-themed Girlfriend, which was also vehemently criticised by gay-rights groups in India.

Despite the turn to globalisation and liberalisation, it appears that India is in the midst of a spike in banning and resultant self-censorship. Censorship continues to thrive in India – though in a new paradigm, with the Indian government reduced to the status of an enabling bystander, as the threat of communalist-inspired theatre-burnings make directors and producers more circumspect than they need to be.

This new culture of censorship is cultural rather than governmental, which is to say that while it tends to be backed by political parties, it is intensely communal. In the British Raj, as well as through most of India's independent era, the main motive of state censorship in the domain of print was anti-popular: it aimed to stifle political subversion, whether it was anti-imperial propaganda in the 1910s or anti-Congress party writing in the 1970s. Up until the banning of Salman Rushdie's allegedly anti-Islamic The Satanic Verses (one month after its 1988 publication) most works prohibited by New Delhi were political in nature, and criticised either a historical nationalist figure or the current administration – this is why Michael Edwards' Nehru: A Political Biography was banned in 1975.

Since India became the first country to ban Rushdie's book, however, censorship has become increasingly 'communal', and works about religious figures and mythic cultural heroes have had to confront censorship. When a book or film makes it to the market past the censors, it is still liable to arouse protests and violence, forcing publishers and producers to withdraw the 'offending' work. In 2004, American religious-studies professor James Laine's book Shivaji: A Hindu King in Islamic India provoked the trashing of Pune's staid Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute for helping the author with his research, even after the book had been withdrawn by its publisher.

As far as cinema is concerned, the official censor board had historically focused on vanquishing sex on the screen, rather than what was perceived as political subversion (though politics was unquestionably also suppressed). Today, the film industry has also been dragged down by the new censorious culture. Between 2000 and 2004, the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, did its best to ban any film critical of its policies. The attitude is exemplified by the prohibition slapped on two political documentaries, Anand Patwardhan's film War and Peace, which focused on the nuclear tests of 1998, and Rakesh Sharma's The Final Solution, which took on the Gujarat government of Narendra Modi over the 2002 riots.

With a secular United Progressive Alliance government led by the Congress party currently in power, the central government strictures may have been loosened, but state and non-state actors have already gotten the taste of censorship and bannings. And so, even where the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and the Supreme Court have ruled in favour of films such as The Da Vinci Code (with changes inserted in deference to Indian Christians), seven individual states have still found reason to ban the film. And in what may be the most absurd case of censorship of all, the state of Gujarat attempted to ban the inoffensive film Fanaa – not because of any objectionable content, but rather because actor Aamir Khan had the temerity to criticise Chief Minister Modi's government's handling of the relocation of villagers displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam.

Helpless censors?

There have been numerous attempts over the years to reform film censorship. A 1970s book provocatively called Bare Breasts and Bare Bottoms protested the incoherence of censors' approaches to representations of sexuality, seething against the censors' almost fetishistic concern that hemlines be maintained at a certain length, or that the camera not linger too long on certain parts of the female body. After the filing of an official committee report in 1976, some liberalisation was sanctioned, but not much really changed for Bollywood – except perhaps that the word 'censor' was replaced by 'certification'. In 2002, the chair of the CBFC, Vijay Anand, tried to initiate another round of reforms, but he was quickly forced to resign.

Little of substance, perhaps, can be done on the official front now, anyways. The communalisation of politics has created an atmosphere where the expectation of societal censorship is playing a role in stifling creativity, even more than the post-production act of the official censor. Most of the time, agitations by an 'offended' religious community are pre-emptive efforts – driven by the expectation of insult, rather than the actual experience. In many cases, what is deemed offensive is vaguely defined, without regard to the contextual aspects of a book, film or work of art, which might explain or mitigate a potentially insulting image or phrase.

Take Bombay artist M F Husain's work Bharat Mata, which was the target of a nationwide campaign and court case this past spring. The central figure's nudity is respectful and beautiful, rather than exploitative, but has nevertheless been adjudged offensive by the cultural guardians of India's self-image. Some paintings by Husain that feature Hindu deities in suggestive poses might admittedly be deemed offensive, but surely in this painting it is simply the idea of a nude Mother India that has led not just to criminal proceedings against the artist, but the threat of violence as well. One leader of the far-right Shiv Sena has offered INR 50,000 to anyone who will chop off Husain's hands and deliver them to the Sena leader, the fiery but aging Bal Thackeray.

Similarly, the controversy over the film Jo Bole So Nihaal (a comedy involving a Sikh policeman) emerged despite the filmmakers' extensive efforts to have the film approved by the leaders of the Sikh community in advance of public screening. In the end, the only objectionable aspect of the film cited by the Sikh organisations that condemned it was the use of the religiously-significant phrase in the title. But while that phrase perhaps suffers somewhat from association with what is a B-grade spy film, the Sikh faith is neither criticised nor attacked in the script. The subsequent agitations inspired a reactivated wing of the Babbar Khalsa (one of the oldest militant Sikh separatist groups) to set off bombs in two theatres in New Delhi, killing one and injuring almost 50.

Censorship devolution

While India as a whole seems to be marching towards liberalisation on both the political and cultural fronts, the future of censorship remains uncertain, partly because of a possible contradiction in the Indian Constitution itself. The very first section of Article 19 guarantees freedom of expression, but the second clause subsequently indicates that the government retains authority "to legislate concerning libel, slander, defamation, contempt of court, any matter offending decency and morality, or which undermines the security of or tends to overthrow, the State." It is this text that is repeatedly cited by the state when it agrees to demands by religious groups to ban works of art: the security of the state. But security for whom, and from what? The irony is that the threat to security from censorious religious groups is the threat they themselves pose. It is hard to understand why the religious groups responsible for fomenting riots against offensive works are not being prosecuted, and in their places are writers, artists and filmmakers.

Certainly the question should be asked: What about images that are specifically created to offend, such as the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed? Or, along the same lines, what should be done with a film that fans the flame of communal hatred? With the anti-Islamic cartoons, it is always the prerogative of news organisations to decide whether or not to print a certain kind of image; the state need not get involved. Self-regulation could also work quite well in cinema. One could argue that a number of communally-inflected films were indeed released in the 1990s and early 2000s – the worst offender probably being the Partition super-hit Gadar in 2001, which featured a heavily slanted representation of Islam and Pakistan. And yet, these saffronised films were rubber-stamped by the BJP-friendly censor board of that period. Still, despite the surge of communally-themed films in the mid-1990s, it is worth noting that no film led directly to any reported act of violence against religious minorities. The attempt to suppress controversial material, on the other hand, has often had that result.

Though the current shift towards the 'communalisation' of censorship is not driven by the government, the government will have to take a leadership role in correcting the trend. An obvious solution is to abolish the current system of censorship by government altogether, removing it as an object in the agenda of religious groups. The maintenance of a censorship system in an otherwise free society is based on a paternalistic and oversimplified concept of what literary and artistic representations actually do. The paternalism is a holdover from colonialism, and is gradually declining as the authority of India's old elites gives way to the new, technocratic, free-market order. But the misconception of the nature and function of the work of art remains widespread. It is mistaken to believe that watching or reading violent films and books will induce masses of people to commit acts of violence. In a mature democracy, questions about how to discuss religion ought to be worked out through public debate. Instead, what we have seen is the cancerous growth of a culture of banning and censorship, which exploits an aspect of the government's paternalism for communalist purposes – not to maintain an environment of mutual respect and tolerance, but to undermine it.

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