Of writers and poets who criticize with their pens
Cinema and poetry have an incredible power to influence the social conversation and the public mind
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Commonwealth ka daas ye Nehru
Aur tabahi laane na paaye
Maar ley saathi
Jaane na paaye
These words were written by the poet Majrooh Sultanpuri a few years after India won freedom, in response to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s decision to have India join the Commonwealth. Majrooh saw Nehru’s decision as a sellout, and chastized him as such. In what was perhaps the first instance of the government bullying a writer, the 29-year-old Sultanpuri was jailed by Nehru, who seems to have been unable to tolerate a few lines of critical poetry.
Nehru went on to kill free speech when he brought the first amendment to India’s Constitution in 1951, which imposed “reasonable restrictions” on speech. Today, Sultanpuri is acclaimed as a giant of Urdu poetry, and recognized especially for his work in Hindi films. The younger generation would recall the popular number Pehla Nasha from Mansoor Khan’s Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander, while the elderly would remember Kundan Lal Saigal’s Gham Diye Mustaqil.
Six years before Sultanpuri was punished for his insolence, the great poet Ramchandra Dwivedi, better known as Pradeep, wrote the song Door Hato Aye Duniya Walon Hindustan Humara Hai for the 1943 movie Kismet, which established Ashok Kumar as a star. Pradeep’s powerful verse coaxed Indians to take on the British colonizers and liberate their country, but there was one problem - the censor authorities of the time would not permit patriotism in a film song. The Second World War was going on. Pradeep thus included a reference to fighting the German and Japanese, and the mandarins were satisfied that the song wasn’t targeting the British.
Cinema and poetry have an incredible power to influence the social conversation and the public mind. Movies like Taare Zameen Par and 3 Idiots, both Aamir Khan-starrers, probably did more to sensitize people about the abysmal state of India’s schooling and higher education systems than dozens of opinion columns and research papers on that topic put together. It is this influence that tyrannical authorities and entrenched interests fear and such groups seek to shut out ideas from the public discourse through protests, threats and as we have seen, even violence.
Intolerance towards cinema has once again been in the headlines. Rajkumar Hirani’s PK evoked protests from sections of society for its supposed denigration of Hinduism, while Messenger of God, a movie about the leader of Haryana’s Dera Sacha Sauda group, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, was sought to be prevented from release by the mandarins of the Censor Board.
The contrast between how members of the Central Board of Film Certification responded to PK and Messenger of God reveals a lot. When sections of society protested against PK, Censor Board mandarins and assorted intellectuals all defended the filmmaker Hirani’s artistic right to freedom of expression.
The makers of Messenger of God, which supposedly portrays the Dera Sacha Sauda leader performing miracles, should also enjoy freedom of expression by the same token. But the Censor Board chief and all members resigned in protest, wailing that political pressure was being brought upon them to clear the movie. Board member Nandini Sardesai went so far as to say that the Dera leader “is shown performing miracles...this would only encourage blind faith and have every godman across the country wanting to feature in a film too.”
This comment is at once astonishingly patronizing, typically hypocritical and incredibly pompous. Sardesai and those of her ilk should be asked if someone made a biopic on Christian religious fundamentalist Mother Teresa, showing her performing miracles, would that be acceptable? What gives Censor Board members the authority to mediate and judge an individual’s beliefs in any case?
The problem isn’t that the Censor Board members aren’t doing their job properly. The problem is they have a job. There should be no authority with the power to dictate what is and isn’t exhibited. In independent India, if we still have to appease the political mandarins of a board, like Pradeep had to before independence, we must ask ourselves if we really are a free country.
When politically appointed mandarins are allowed to choose which religions are allowed to be satirized and which aren’t, when they can dictate what is sacred and what isn’t, it vitiates communal relations in society. The Censor Board’s arbitrary diktats don’t end here. The TV release of Delhi Belly, a comedy movie, was stalled for years because the mandarins believed that the cuss words and alleged vulgarity in the movie wasn’t suitable for a television audience. Kangana Ranaut-starrer Queen had a scene where the protagonist is shown holding a brassiere. The eminent Board members required the undergarment to be blurred out to make the scene palatable, in their deep wisdom, for TV audiences.
Hence, replacing one set of Censor Board members with another set isn’t the answer. Often, political leaders simply point to - or even prop up - protest groups and aggrieved parties, using threats of disturbance from such groups as a pretext to censor art and expression that they themselves would rather not see in the public domain because such art is offensive to one of their favoured political constituencies. Yet there are well-meaning individuals who condone censorship based on threats, painting grim scenarios of what may happen if there were to be violence.
But this is a copout and an abdication of duty by the political executive. If a citizen’s fundamental right to freedom of expression is subject to the whims of mobs, then the citizen doesn’t have that fundamental right. Moreover, those who are offended by some form of speech are incentivised to take to violence under the reasonable restrictions regime. They know that by indulging in violence and creating threats to public order, they can have their way.
The argument that restricting speech helps curtail violence is false. The reality is such restrictions create incentives to be violent. The Brandenburg standard in American jurisprudence stipulates that speech can be restricted by the government only if there is an intent to incite lawless action, and such action is imminent and likely. There should be public debate about whether India should adopt a similar standard.
India should do away with the reasonable restrictions imposed on free speech by the first amendment. The Bharatiya Janata Party government in Delhi should build on the legacy of its ideological founder, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who valiantly and implacably opposed Nehru’s drive to emasculate free speech.
“Does he (Prime Minister Nehru) feel that people of India have run amuck and cannot be trusted with the freedom that has been given to them?” Mookerjee asked in Parliament on 16 May, 1951.
On 30 May, 1951, Mookerjee said “Our complaint is that having provided for fundamental rights yourselves, you are changing these today in an arbitrary and high-handed fashion...it is a deliberate curtailment of freedom...” Mookerjee later cited the Swedish constitutional position on the freedom of expression, and said “it is an unrestricted, absolute right...I wish a similar provision had been made in our Constitution.”
Mookerjee did not have the opportunity to bring that freedom to India - but his political successors do today. Indian democracy would be well-served if they fulfilled his vision.
Rajeev Mantri is co-founder of the India Enterprise Council.
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