Resisting Censorship: Kolkata screening of 'Musalmaner Katha'

IN Media Freedom | 08/10/2013
The struggle to protect the right to show and speak about truths uncomfortable for the State is an ongoing one,
and must be combated, say various individuals and organisations

On October 5, 2013, several cultural and civil rights organisations arranged a screening of Soumitra Dastidar's documentary, Musalmaner Katha at the Muslim Institute, Kolkata. 

The film, a documentary on the social-economic condition of Muslims in West Bengal, had a premiere screening slated at the state-owned Nandan III auditorium. But this was canceled arbitrarily, purportedly in another effort at official high-handedness at censoring screening of uncomfortable truths. 

The alternative screening began at 6.30pm. The filmmaker introduced the film and took questions at the end of the show. 

Below is the statement, protesting state censorship and reiterating the resolve to resist, released on the occasion of the screening. It has been signed by several organisations as well as individual film-makers, academics, lawyers and others:

The last-minute cancellation of Soumitra Dastidar's documentary, Musalmaner Katha, jointly organised by Cine Central and Films Division and scheduled to be screened at the state-owned Nandan-III auditorium on 30 September, is a spineless and non-transparent act by the organisers. 

The pretext used for the censoring was apparently the lack of Censor Board clearance, but even that sloppy excuse does not hold water for the indoor screening of a ‘documentary’ in Nandan-III, as stated by Films Division officials themselves. To further the attempt at silencing the film's say, Enforcement Branch officials of Kolkata Police paid a surprise visit to the filmmaker's home, on the very same night, and demanded to see a copy of the film. They rummaged through his books and earlier works, and asked leading questions. 

This is clearly a premeditated and concerted crackdown to suppress Musalmaner Katha, which deals with the socio-economic plight of the Muslim community in Bengal over the ages, and has put successive governments in the dock for their negligence of the minorities. This act of suppression, however, is hardly an isolated incident. Rather, it follows a pattern of overt and covert State censorships. In 2002, Anand Patwardhan's documentary, War and Peace, slated as the inaugural film of a documentary festival organised by Films Division and Nandan, had been barred from screening using a similar pretext. Was it just a coincidence that jingoistic chauvinism was heightening during that period, with a tense India-Pakistan relationship, when the State decided to crackdown? 

Neither was it a coincidence when Joshy Joseph's documentary One day from a Hangman's Life, a film critical of capital punishment, and featuring the executioner Nata Mullick who had carried out the hanging of rape and murder convict Dhananjay Chatterjee, was barred from screening at Nandan at the directive of the then chief minister. Even though that film had a censor-board clearance, the pretext used then was that tickets were being sparingly sold! Examples of such State censorships, and indirect ways of 'censorship by selection and omission', abound in West Bengal and elsewhere in India. To cap it all, police often stand as mere spectators while frenzied, riotous mobs enforce their own variety of 'censorship’ through vandalism and brute force, as witnessed recently in Pune and Hyderabad.

That the State does not want uncomfortable or inconvenient truths to be screened is obvious. But the right to freedom of expression, the right to hear and to be heard, is too precious to give up to State's caprices. As incidents of assaults on freedom of expression are on an alarming rise, it is imperative to resist cultural fascism and State-imposed censorships of all forms. We shall continue to resist acts of censoring, intimidation and abuses of power by the State, with participation of not just filmmakers and cultural activists, but all people who hold precious the right to freedom of expression as the bedrock of democracy – not just on paper, but also in practice.

Our decision to screen Soumitra Dastidar’s Musalmaner Katha at an alternative venue is a part of this struggle. Please join us. 

In solidarity 

Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR);
Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (Masum);
Changers' Foundation Paribartak;
Cinema of Resistance;
Hindu-Muslim Friendship Association;
Jan Sanskriti Manch;
Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFD);
Paschimbanga Gana Sanskriti Parishad;
People Together;
Presidency College Chalachchitra Samsad;
Revolt, Revolutionary Cultural Forum;

The above statement is endorsed by: 

Aditi Chowdhury; Ahmed Sohaib; Albeena Shakil; Ambarien Alqadar; Amitdyuti Kumar; Amiya Bagchi; Anamitra Roy; Anand Patwardhan; Anindya Dey; Annu Jalais; Antara Deb Sen; Arundhati Roy; Ashok Bhowmick; Atreyi Dasgupta; Ayesha Kidwai; Bharatiya Loksanskriti Sansad; Buddhadeb Dasgupta; C P Chandrasekhar; Dhananjai Rai; Dhananjay Tripathi; Gopal Krishna; Harish Wankhede; Himanshu Kumar; Imran Khan; Indranil Chowdhury; Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association; Jayati Ghosh; John Dayal; Jyoti Punwani; Kamayani Bali Mahabal; Khurshid Anwar; Kirity Roy; Kranti Shilpi Sangha; Krishna Bandopadhyay; Maidul Islam; Manisha Sethi; Meher Engineer; Nabarun Bhattacharya; Nakul Singh Sawhney; Natyachinta; Nitish Roy; Partha Sarathi Roy; Prabhat Patnaik; Praful Bidwai; Pragati; Prakash Kumar Ray; Pranay Krishna; Prasenjit Bose; Premanshu Dasgupta; Purushottam Agrawal; Raja Sen; Rajesh S Jala; Ramji Rai; Ranjit Sur; Rohit Azad; Sabyasachi Deb; Samik Bandopadhyay; Sanghamitra Misra; Sanjay Joshi; Sanjay Kak; Sanjeev Mahajan; Srinivasan Raman; Subha Das Mollick; Suman Kesari Agrawal; Sumanta Banerjee; Sunanda Sen; Surya Shankar Dash; Tanweer Fazal; Utsa Patnaik; V Lenin Kumar; Vijay Kumar; Vrinda Grover; Xavier Dais
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