PK Doublespeak

IN Censorship | 01/01/2015
Vigilante Hindutva groups have perfected the art of violent protests.
But the state cannot kowtow to such pressure tactics, says GEETA SESHU
Its interesting that the BJP government is taking the legal route to rein in its relatives in the Sangh Parivar to quell their protests over the film ‘PK’. At first, the Centre, which seemed to be making all the right noises, said it could not intervene once a certificate for viewing was issued by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), then the I & B ministry backtracked to say that state governments could intervene to protect law and order!
 
In August this year, a writ petition unsuccessfully sought a ban on ‘PK’ because of film promos showing a bare-bodied Aamir Khan holding an oversized transistor to cover himself.  A veritable orchestra of protests followed the release of the film, with comments on social media over the film’s alleged offensive references to religion and disruptions of screenings by supporters of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal and Hindu Sena.  They vandalized theatres in Mumbai and in cities in Gujarat, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
 
The film, directed by Rajkumar Hirani and starring Aamir Khan, deals with the travails of an alien looking for god to return the device he lost when he landed on earth. It spoofs obscurantism and organized religion, poking fun at blind faith and reflects on bigotry and blind worship.
 
In a response to the protests and demands for a ban on the film, the Union Information and Broadcasting (I & B) ministry affirmed that it could not ‘intervene’ once a film was cleared for viewing by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Minister of state for I & B, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, said that those aggrieved, could approach the courts as the central government could not intervene once the certificate was issued by the CBFC.
 
But in much the same breath, Rathore added a rider: the Centre couldn’t intervene, but state governments could act depending on the law and order situation!
 
This is classic prevarication, made worse because the minister sounded so emphatic about the issue. “Freedom of speech is enshrined in the Constitution, he said, adding that the “people are empowered, the citizens of this country are empowered to go to various courts of justice to seek their help”.
 
The Maharashtra government’s Home department has sought a police investigation into the film.  The minister of state for home (rural) Prof Ram Shinde has asked the special Inspector General of Police for law and order, Deven Bharti, to ‘look into’ the content of the film to see if any dialogues or scenes were objectionable or could hurt religious sentiments. 
 
But no sooner did he say that when Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Phadnavis declared that no probe would be made and that the film would be screened with due police protection. And a good thing too, for, if the police is going to check film dialogues and scenes, what use was the exercise the CBFC undertook to certify the film?
 
Sure, the CBFC has come under a cloud lately over the arrest of its CEO Rakesh Kumar, in a bribery case in August this year. Its refusal to award a certificate to ‘En Dino Muzzafarnagar’, the documentary film on the Muzzafarnagar riots because some of those interviewed blamed the BJP for fomenting trouble, has also been challenged in the Supreme Court. But it is a regulatory body for film and the board comprises people from all walks of life. It has guidelines and procedures for certification and a tribunal to appeal against its decisions.
 
On its part, the CBFC chairperson Leela Samson stated very clearly that there would be no cuts imposed. The furore over the film, shesaid in an interview, was a sign of the ‘growing intolerance expressed politically by restless and insecure ideological groups’. It undermined not just the authority and autonomy of the CBFC but the philosophy of the nation, she feared.
 
Law and order bogey
 
The other issue this brouhaha has raised is the fear of law and order being imperiled by its exhibition. The state is mandated with the responsibility to maintain law and order. If citizens want to watch a film that has a certificate for exhibition, obtained after due procedure, they have a right to do so, however objectionable the film may be to others.
 
To those who find it offensive, Chief Justice of India, Justice R M Lodha had a simple response: don’t watch it! Hearing the petition seeking a ban on ‘PK’ in August, he said, unequivocally: “If you don't like it, don't watch the film. Don't bring religious facets here.”
 
In a number of judgements distinguishing the issue of maintaining law and order with that of preserving public order, which is one of the reasonable restrictions on freedom of expression in the Constitution, the apex court has maintained that a community or a public or at large would have to be affected for some act to jeopardise public order. Law and order with the responsibility of the state and it would have to take all the steps necessary to protect and preserve law and order.
 
However, judicial response to the question of threats to law and order and the outbreak of violence are not uniform. In the Vishwaroopam case, the Madras High Court accepted the AIADMK government’s plea that the film would cause law and order problems. But in the Deshdrohi case, the Bombay High Court rejected the Maharashtra government’s ban of the film due to protests by the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. The court maintained that ''good governance demands not just rule by law, but rule by good law consistent with constitutional guarantees.''
 
Over the last few years, vigilante Hindutva groups like the VHP, the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu Janjagruti Samiti and other such groups have perfected the art of violent protests of books, film, theatre, documentary film screenings. In 2014 alone, the Free Speech Hubtracker recorded a range of instances of saffron censorship, including those violently imposed on citizens.
 
Of course, the hindutva groups aren’t the only ones to adopt unconstitutional and illegal methods to enforce their diktats. In Nagaland, the Ao Senden, the apex body of the Ao tribe in Nagaland, used social boycott as a weapon against Naga journalist Monalisa Changkija, author of ‘Cogitating for a better deal’. Language, caste and ethnic groups assert their majoritarian beliefs and sentiments, with violence if necessary.
 
All these acts, conducted with complete impunity, strike a body blow to free speech and erode all attempts at democratic expression of dissent and disagreement. In all this talk of good governance by the BJP government, it would be useful to remember this.
 
And woe betide free speech if the state kowtows to their pressure tactics.
 

  

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