Sep 12, 2009

Freedom of Expression

Politics of ban

By Sudhanshu Ranjan

Now, in India, there is a tendency among some individuals or even communities to demand a ban on the drop of a hat.

Anthony Collins’s book ‘Discourse of Free-thinking’ published in 1713 popularised the term freethinking. In it, he wrote, that perfection of the sciences could be achieved only through freethinking. Deeply disturbed at the executions of witches, he wrote, “It is a glory to free-thinkers to wrest out of the priests’ hands the power of taking away so many innocent lives and reputations.”

Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau and others made it popular in France while in America, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, among others, were its torchbearers. A society that does not provide space for dissent is a nothing but a barbaric society.
In 1702, Daniel Defoe wrote a pamphlet, ‘The Shortest Way with Dissenter’, in which he ridiculed the Anglican intolerance. He was arrested, jailed, fined and pilloried. But this is past. People fought hard for getting the right to freedom of expression and constitutions of most of the countries now guarantee it.

However, in India, of late, this right has become a victim of vote-bank politics. The Gujarat government’s ban on Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah, which was subsequently set aside by the high court, is the latest example of sacrificing the constitutionally-guaranteed right to score some brownie political points.

Thank God

Luckily, other BJP-ruled states did not follow suit. That the book was banned by a state government ruled by the BJP which also expelled Jaswant from the party even before reading the book and without giving him an opportunity to explain his position only proves that the party does not allow any freedom of thought.

Thus, a party man must write a book, not under the imprimatur of truth but in a way that appeases the leadership. Similarly, even textbooks must not be written objectively if some facts are not acceptable to some section.

Just a year ago, it was the BJP which opposed the ban on Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ and demanded to treat Taslima Nasreen like a political refugee to protect her freedom of speech and criticised the ban on her book ‘Dwikhandito’. Surprisingly then, the ban was imposed by the West Bengal government for which secularism is the creedal faith. However, the Calcutta high court set aside the ban. The state government also banned an issue of ‘Pathsanket’, a journal, which carried an article eulogising Taslima’s views as rational and scientific and raised some questions about the Prophet.

So, again it was a vote-bank politics — the Left front wanted to appease a particular community by banning the book, and the BJP opposed it to please another community. Protecting the freedom of expression was none of their concern.

Now, there is a tendency among some individuals or even communities to demand ban on the drop of a hat. Recently, Chhattisgarh government banned Habib Tanvir’s play ‘Charandas Chor’ because some self-styled representatives of the Satnami community complained that it denigrates Sant Ghasidas of their community. Habib wrote the play in 1974, which is based on a Rajasthani tale retold by Vijaydan Detha. That very year, Shyam Benegal made a film on it. Actors in both productions were almost same. This play was first of all enacted among members of the Satnami community who liked it very much. Habib wanted to christen it as ‘Amardas Chor’ because the protagonist is an honest thief who becomes immortal after getting the death sentence. But he was told that Amardas is the name of one of the gurus of the Satnamis. Another name suggested again turned out to be the name of another guru. Then, it was named ‘Chor chor’, which was later rechristened as ‘Charandas Chor’. Now, after 35 years, some people have taken offence, and the state government readily acceded to their demand.

Unofficial bans

Apart from official bans, there are unofficial bans imposed by vigilantes. Deepa Mehta was not allowed to film ‘Water’ in Varansi, and no action was taken against miscreants. ‘Parzania’ could not be screened in Gujarat. So was the fate of Mahesh Bhatt’s ‘Jakhm’ and Aamir Khan’s ‘Fanaa’. Babu Bajrangi thundered, “How can ‘Parzania’ ever be shown without our approval?” Bajrangi is the prime accused in the Naroda Patiya case in which over 100 people were massacred.

This trend of imposing unofficial ban is not new. A film on Shivaji could not be exhibited in the Kashmir valley in 1948. Hollywood film ‘Tango Charlie’ faced similar people’s ban in Assam by the ULFA as it showed the BSF engaged in anti-insurgency operations. Many a time the government does not show magnanimity either and bans films on tenuous grounds. French director Louise Malle’s film ‘My India’ was banned since it showed beggars, cows, dirt, etc on streets. The commentary was not offensive but the visuals were real which could not be changed.

The government has the power to impose restrictions but this power should be exercised in the rarest of rare cases. The US Supreme Court’s observation in Dennis vs US is apposite that to say that a thing is constitutional is not to say that it is desirable.
It is for the people to protect the hard-earned freedom. They must realise the dangerous game being played by politicians is inimical to the country’s interest.

No comments: