States of abdication

Tamil Nadu, West Bengal governments show lack of resolve in addressing threats to freedom of expression

Two states headed by strong-willed chief ministers have muzzled artistic expression, citing the apprehension of public violence and offering the overused alibi of hurt minority sentiments. J. Jayalalithaa's government appears to have gone out of its way to reimpose the ban on Kamal Haasan's big budget trilingual film Vishwaroopam in Tamil Nadu, even as the actor-director has felt compelled to meet Muslim leaders and commit to making cuts. Meanwhile, Mamata Banerjee's government has evidently spiked Salman Rushdie's visit to the Kolkata Book Fair, ostensibly at the behest of some Muslim groups. In the past, these two chief ministers have demonstrated a capacity to stand up quite robustly to pressures mounted by various quarters. Jayalalithaa had signalled firmness in her handling of the agitation against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant, for instance. After her election in a deeply polarised state where political violence is quotidian, by sheer force of personality, Banerjee had disallowed the bloodbath that had been expected to follow.

Resolve of that order may now be needed to stanch the epidemic of hurt sentiments sweeping across the country. Fringe groups are being seen as vectors of the plague, but their protests would be extinguished, or at least subdued, if the state defended the right to expression with any degree of conviction. Instead, it is giving them room to grow. Jayalalithaa has claimed that her government banned Vishwaroopam in the interest of law and order. She has argued that deploying the police at the 524 cinema theatres where the film was set to release would have prevented the force from discharging its routine duties. This is a specious argument. What was required was a show of resolve, not an extensive mopping-up operation. If the police had been deployed in four theatres to enforce the theatre-owners' right to show a movie that had been cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification, the message could have sufficiently dissuaded groups planning to target the other 520 theatres.

While state governments need to reaffirm their resolve to keep the peace even as they protect the right to expression, they must resist the temptation to ban. The Censor Board is the sole authority for evaluating the fitness of a film for screening. Earlier, the Supreme Court had observed that a film cleared for screening should be shown and had cautioned against the use of protest as a tool of censorship. Now, the I&B minister has spoken of amending the Cinematograph Act to reaffirm the primacy of the Censor Board. Perhaps nothing less will end this epidemic of censorship by protest, with the abetment of governments at the Centre and in the states.

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