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IN Censorship | 09/08/2011
The issues involved in the ‘Aarakshan’ controversy are fundamental to the functioning of a free, democratic and pluralistic society that accords a high place to tolerance,
says Soli J Sorabjee, former Attorney-General for India
 
The ongoing controversy about the screening of the movie Aarakshan highlights the emergence of the banning itch, which is, as usual, impelled by intolerance. The facts about it are these:
The movie was previewed by an examination committee (EC), which comprised members of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and OBCs. Pankaj Sharma, member of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), was also a part of the EC. The chairman of the CBFC, Leela Samson, had requested Mukul Mudgal, former chief justice, Punjab and Haryana high court, as an expert, and Rajni Tilak, a Dalit activist and a writer, to be members of the EC. These EC members watched the film and found nothing objectionable. One member suggested that the word “Dalit” should be removed from a dialogue in the first reel. This was conveyed to the filmmaker, who agreed to the suggested deletion. Thereafter, the CBFC issued a “U” certificate to the movie.
It appears that the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) had asked Prakash Jha, the director, to screen the movie before it prior to the release. The NCSC, under the mistaken notion that it is a supra-board of censors, has issued a summons to the chairperson of the board to appear before it in connection with the movie. Objections are raised by some to Amitabh Bachchan and Saif Ali Khan being cast in it. An organisation called the Dalit Suraksha Samiti has written a letter to the filmmaker, protesting that Khan, a Muslim, was cast as a member of the backward caste, and warned of serious repercussions if this was not rectified. The panel chairman, P.L. Punia, is reported to have said, “Aarakshan is against Dalits, so we won’t let it run in theatres.” One is aghast at the brazen intolerance and intimidation displayed by those opposed to the exhibition of the movie.
The main objection to the movie is that its theme is against the policy of reservation for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in educational institutions, and therefore, it is anti-Dalit. Now, there can certainly be two views about the wisdom and desirability of caste-based reservations. Freedom of expression cannot be suppressed because some views are unacceptable to a section of society. Dissent is an integral part of democracy and we must accord freedom also for the thought we hate. As Gandhiji said, evolution of democracy is not possible if one is not prepared to hear the other side.
Our Supreme Court had to deal with a similar issue with reference to banning the public exhibition of a Tamil film called Ore Oru Gramathile. The board of censors had issued a “U” certificate for the exhibition of the film because, according to the majority opinion, the underlying theme of the movie — that reservation should be made on the basis of economic backwardness — was not in any way objectionable. A determined effort was made to ban the screening of the movie by a group of persons who regarded its theme and its presentation as hostile to the policy of reservation in favour of Scheduled Castes and backward classes. The Madras high court was moved, which revoked the certificate granted by the board of censors and restrained the exhibition of the movie. The SC promptly reversed the judgment. In a landmark decision, Justice Jagannatha Shetty, speaking for the court, laid down important principles: “Freedom of expression protects not merely ideas that are accepted but those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of the pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no democratic society.”
A fervent plea was urged before the SC that the exhibition of the movie would lead to serious law and order problems because of the threats of violence. The SC firmly rejected that plea and observed that “freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence. That would tantamount to negation of the rule of law and a surrender to blackmail and intimidation”. The court further ruled that “it is the duty of the state to protect the freedom of expression since it is a liberty guaranteed against the state. The state cannot plead its inability to handle the hostile audience problem... freedom of expression cannot be held to ransom by an intolerant group of people.” The Court concluded with these memorable words: “We must practise tolerance to the views of others. Intolerance is as much dangerous to democracy as to the person himself.”
The declaration of law by the SC is binding upon all authorities and persons. Any action in breach thereof would be clearly illegal. The issues involved in the present controversy are not specific to the movie Aarakshan, they are fundamental to the functioning of a free, democratic and pluralistic society that accords a high place to tolerance.
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