Times of Amnesia

One of the reasons I keep bashing the Times of India and not other newspapers (so much) is – its the only newspaper (other than its sister publication, ET) I have been reading consistently for about sixteen years now. I suspect that every mainstream Indian newspaper is the same, but the Times lives up to its slogan – its “The Masthead of India”. Its influential, and its the voice of the “people”. And that’s why its wishy-washy positions on issues are disappointing. But it is unavoidable, I guess – in modern times, you cannot be contrarian (correct and consistent) and influential at the same time. Its position is similar to that of Wynand.

Gail Wynand, in Rand’s The Fountainhead, would have been Howard Roark’s philosophical equal were it not for one major mistake – he gave his newspaper to the people, acquiring power to move mountains as it were, in the process. He thought that such power was his – to use as he chose, which he never felt the need to do; but found out the only time he tried to use it to do what he really wanted to, that he was mistaken – he only had the power till he pleased the mob; the moment he went against them, the power disappeared.

The Maharashtra government had recently banned a Bhojpuri film – Deshdrohi (Traitor) – in the wake of the anti-“bhaiyya” campaign run by the Thackeray clan, particularly Raj Thackeray. The film could cause a law and order problem, it reasoned. The Bombay High Court has overturned the ban, and the Times has an editorial praising the Court’s decision

The Bombay high court deserves to be commended for overturning the Maharashtra government’s ill-conceived ban on the Hindi film Deshdrohi. In an order blunt and eloquent in equal measure, the two-judge bench scolded the state for the “arbitrary’’ suspension and for transgressing the fundamental rights of citizens to suit its convenience.

[…]

The order, which forcefully upholds artistic and creative freedoms, will especially gladden the hearts of civil libertarians dispirited by the repeated efforts of Mumbai’s moral police to censor that which they find offensive. In recent months, art shows have faced the threat of vandalism on grounds of alleged indecency, bookstores targeted for stocking the works of Pakistani writers and theatres stoned for showing films deemed to be vulgar, no matter that they have been cleared by the censor board. Depressingly, most of those who have been victimised have taken the line of least resistance and caved in—but then, who can blame a shopkeeper or gallery owner from toeing the line when the state itself abdicates its power or, worse, becomes a covert agent of suppression?

The court has thus rendered a signal service to Mumbai’s long-standing culture of liberal thought and freedom of speech. The message to the ruling class is unambiguous—hate speech is not to be tolerated at any cost nor attacks on the outsider who has chosen to call Maharashtra his home. This deshpremi homily could not have come at a more pertinent time for a city hit so hard by violence from across the border. The need of the hour, to use the court’s wise words, is to “reaffirm rather than revise our commitment to our core constitutional values’’.

The ambiguity in its unambiguity is eye-popping.

Freedom of speech and expression means the right to use any non-physical means to express yourself. In films, that would mean being able to make a film on any subject you chose regardless of how inflammatory or disgusting or titillating or obnoxious the subject turned out to be. I have written about free speech innumerable times – I believe in freedom of speech of an absolute kind – most recently here, and Chomsky’s definition of the same is a clear and comprehensive one-

“If you believe in freedom of speech, you believe in freedom of speech for views you don’t like. Goebbels was in favor of freedom of speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re in favor of freedom of speech, that means you’re in favor of freedom of speech precisely for views you despise.”

Under this principle, the state government had no right to ban this film. Under the same principle however, the State has no right to ban the display of any film not carrying a censor certificate too. But the Indian constitution is not based on this principle of freedom of expression.

Note the interesting position – the Indian State cannot ban a film – you can make any film you want (as long as you don’t violate any “laws of the land” in the process – you cannot commit real murder on film, or adapt someone’s book without his permission, for example) – it only bars you from a “public exhibition of the film” – displaying the film to the public in a theater, television channel, by distributing cds etc (hitting you financially, unless your motives are non-financial) unless you get a certificate from the censor board. So you can have as many private “non-commercial” viewings of the film as you please, but you won’t be able to make a dime off it unless you prostrate before the Almighty State’s power to place “reasonable restrictions” on you in “public interest.” Its similar to Modi’s method of banning inconvenient or unwanted films in Gujarat – the theaters aren’t interested in “anti-Gujarat” films, his acolytes would say.

About Deshdrohi, if this is a film about the plight of North Indians that get caught in a Marathi web, there was another film, a Marathi one this time – Mumbai Amchich – which was delayed by two odd years because the Censor board took its scissors to the film

The controversial Marathi film Mumbai Amchich, which targets non-Maharashtrians, has been held up by the Censor Board because certain portions are inflammatory, says its chief Sharmila Tagore.

The film by director Sarad Bandsode tells Marathis that outsiders, particularly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, have no place in the city of Mumbai. And if they still choose to stay on, they do so at their own peril.

[…]

Commenting on the content of the film, Sharmila said: “We couldn’t allow certain portions because they went against our guidelines. India is a democracy with a large number of states, cultures and people. We can’t allow anyone’s sentiments to be hurt.

“Also, there is a lot of violence against a certain group of people in the film. Worse still, the violence is justified by a police officer (played by the director). How can we allow a film to say it’s okay to kill? It’s totally against censor guidelines. However, I was a little preoccupied and the producer, understandably, was in a hurry. We suggested to him go to the courts to quicken the process.”

The film was released early last year after the “objectionable” scenes that “hurt sentiments” were chopped off. Another Marathi film has recently found itself on the wrong side of the board because “its theme and impact was not fit for exhibition.” A similar argument was made by the board when it refused a certificate to Anurag Kashyap’s Paanch a few years back – the film does not have any positive characters, it said.

Government censorship is a disease was introduced by article 19 of the Indian constitution, and perpetuated by the Indian legal system. The Supreme Court of India, in a 1989 judgment allowing a film to be displayed, said “censorship by prior restraint is, therefore, not only desirable but also necessary.” I have previously written about it here.

People simply don’t understand the contradictory positions involved. And the same goes for the Times which says – “The court has thus rendered a signal service to Mumbai’s long-standing culture of liberal thought and freedom of speech. The message to the ruling class is unambiguous—hate speech is not to be tolerated at any cost nor attacks on the outsider who has chosen to call Maharashtra his home.”

Speech and action are not one and the same. Only actions can be punished because its actions that hurt people. Speech may cause “emotional” harm, but there is no objective standard to measure “emotional” damage. Something someone says may be considered by someone else as having hurt his sentiments. And that’s why the whole theory of “hate speech” belongs in a dustbin.

The amnesia I refer to is this – Thackeray, or the Hindu right, or Muslim fanatics, consider some things to be offensive – that’s why they get violent. The liberals consider these people to be vandals. Similarly, when liberals find something offensive – slurs based on ethnicity or race or sexual orientation or something else – they label it “hate speech” and try to get it legally banned – they use the threat of State violence. So there is no inherent difference in the position of the two groups as far as their opinion on speech is concerned. Therefore the “people living in glass houses…” adage applies. Unless people are willing to support freedom of speech of an absolute kind – support the right to all non-violent speech – they shouldn’t go around calling themselves defenders of freedom.

Its not as if India is the only country afflicted by this censorship disease. The Canadians are just as crazy, worse in fact. So are the British.

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Comments

  • you12  On January 14, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    The articles and their nonsense tells you a lot about the level of journalism in India. TOI is a tabloid nothing more. Each dailyedition is filled with grammatical and factual errors.

    Canada is a funny case though. You can smoke Marijuana and marry the same sex but can’t speak whats on your mind.

  • yet_another_hindu_infidel  On April 27, 2010 at 12:09 pm

    Send that tagore packing and im sure it would make anurag kashyap happy.

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