This article is written by Namratha Keshava, a student of NUALS, Cochin.
Voltaire once said “I may not agree with what you are saying but I’ll defend to death your right to say it”. The freedom of speech and expression is the corner stone of every democracy. It is the right to express one’s views however unconventional or non-conformist they are which ensures the survival of a democracy. It is the crucial pillar of any democratic edifice – the right to free expression which is being rapidly eroded, with ominous implications. In the largest democracy in the world we are faced with the problem of having to deal with a blow to this freedom. India has always been a country which has given utmost importance in protecting the right to expression, we are a country which has always accommodated diverse views and given our citizens a right to have an opinion and express it freely.
However, in the recent times this has changed. The Censor Board is on an overdrive to ban every possible movie and song, Intellectual freedom is under direct attack where books are being banned, documentaries are being banned; Movies are being banned, Cartoonists being arrested, People being arrested for posting comments on social media.
We clearly have turned into a very intolerant country and society. Let us trace the reason why this intolerance has creeped in. One of the main reasons is the hypersensitivity of society. We have become a hypersensitive society where every movie released, every book published, every documentary broadcasted, so much so even a comedy roast video seems to offend some section of the society or the other. Another major reason is our inability to accept an issue we are facing as a country. Acceptance is the first step towards addressing an issue. Every time the freedom of speech and expression is curbed we console ourselves by saying there were valid grounds, such as to prevent communal tensions, to keep the peace in society, for the greater good and most recently to save our reputation on the international forum. Unless we as a state and society accept that our inability to accommodate and respect varied views is a symptom of a greater problem in society, we will never be able to address the issue of censorship and ensure a liberal and free space for thought and expression.
Another very important reason for the intolerance is the lack of respect for another person’s views, as a society we need to learn to agree to disagree.
Let’s take recent events and analyze this issue further. Recently a documentary directed by Leslee Udwin which was a documentary based on the infamous Delhi gang rape incident was banned, It contained interviews of the accused as well as the lawyers involved .It was a documentary which gave an insight into the perception of rape as seen by an average Indian citizen, It gave us an insight into the way we perceive rape as a society. However this documentary produced by BBC was banned by the Indian Government stating that the documentary defamed India on an international level. This move was international suicide where India received international criticism for banning the video on such trivial grounds.
Another incident which caused uproar among the intelligentsia was the banning of the book Madhurobagan written by Perumal Murugan on the grounds of it causing communal violence. It was a book based on an ancient custom in Tiruchengod in the district of Nammakal in Tamil Nadu where a woman could pair up with any man she fancies during the temple festival and have a child. This was practice which was rampant during the annual temple festival of the deity Ardhanariswara.
The main contention that was raised against the book was that the protagonist is seen making a statement against the dalits. The groups which caused the protest clearly didn’t understand the context in which the statement was made in the book. The statement where the protagonist tells his wife not to take part in the temple festival because there will be dalit men was not meant to hurt the dalit community of which the author himself is a part of, the particular statement was merely a mirror to Indian society existing at that point in time. This statement was taken out of context and caused a lot of protests in the dalit community which ended with the author Perumal Murugan issuing a public apology and giving up writing. The ultimate conclusion of this whole event was India losing out on a great writer.
India has a glorious history on banning books on the pretext of communal grounds, religious sentiments, misrepresenting India and obscenity. The recent example where the comedy roast produced by a group of comedians called All India Bhakchod being banned on the basis of obscenity mirrors the attitude of the government towards artistic freedom. The video was in the form of a Roast or insult comedy which is a popular form of comedy world over where the participants in the show poke fun at each other. The Government claimed that the comedy show was too vulgar and obscene. However what they clearly overlooked was the fact that all the participants in the show were there by consent and that no one was forced to watch the video. The Government also failed to understand the simple fact that this level of censoring and banning in the era of the internet is futile. For example the documentary India’s Daughter though it has been banned in India majority of Indians have watched it, thanks to downloads , torrent and proxy servers .
Another incident which is worth mentioning in the free speech debate is the case of Wendy Doniger’s book Hindus; An alternative History which was banned by court orders because of the petition filed by Shiksha Andolan Bachao, or the Save Education Movement, a Hindu fundamentalist group seeking to purge India’s educational curriculum and bookstores of works it deems insulting or threatening to Hindu culture.
India is not new to the act of banning of books. The most famous being the banning of the book Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie by the Rajiv Gandhi Government. India has always been a country which is overly enthusiastic to make all communities feel secure. However, one thing the Government fails to realize is that every time it bans a book or say an artist in the case of M.F.Hussain because of being held ransom by Right wing propagandists, The government is giving out a signal to these propagandists that the government will give into any of their demands made on the most trivial grounds as long as it has a communal shade. This act of the Government is also seen as support by the right wing activists and communal propagandists to continue protesting against any form of art, book, and view against their ideology. Another important point to note would be the fact that every time the government bans a book or movie or documentary it creates so much publicity among the public and people invariably get access to the banned material out of curiosity .As they say the forbidden fruit is the sweetest .By banning the Government more often than not does a great Publicity job for the banned material.
Keeping in mind the rate at which the Government is banning videos, documentaries, books and other forms of media, The Government will have to create a different ministry called the Ministry of Gagging affairs for banning and censoring of all material online videos, tweets, books, articles etc which falls under the ambit of offensive to any part of society.
It will eventually reach a stage where artistic freedom and intellectual freedom is curbed to such a extent we are stuck with a society which stinks of diplomacy and being politically right at the stake of losing out on originality and a sense of reality. Such a highly censored society will eventually raise future generations who are too scared to think different, too cautious to be adventurous, too protected to face reality; Basically will lead to future generations of Robots which are programmed to think ,to behave ,to act in a certain way .We as a society will lose out on the diversity of ideas, the birth of all those revolutionaries who will be silenced before they are born and most importantly we will stop evolving as a society. The only whiff of fresh air is the recent Supreme Court judgment which has held the draconian section 66A of the Information Technology Act 2000 unconstitutional .This Act was used to arrest people on the most trivial grounds, as per the whims and fancies of the police if they found any material posted online offensive.
It is time the Government wakes up and the Judiciary takes a proactive role in ensuring that our fundamental right, the freedom of speech and expression is protected. Being the largest democracy we cannot afford an attack on the basic foundations of a democracy, free speech because such an attack will leave the whole institution of democracy shaken.
We need to ensure that the censorship doe not stay for too long. We need to teach society
not only to be tolerant of opposing views but also respect them. We need to learn to embrace and appreciate non conventional views. Most importantly we need to ensure that the censorship raj is replaced with a free, liberal space which gives everyone the space to think, to create, to dream, to innovate, to share, to discover and make this world a better place.
A free bird leaps
On the back of the wind
And floats downstream
Till the current ends
And dips his wing
In the orange sun rays
And dares to claim the sky.
But a bird that stalks
Down his narrow cage
Can seldom see through
His bars of rage
His wings are clipped and
His feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing -Maya Angelou