When the State Is In Cahoots With Vandals

BY AG NOORANI

THE media is a powerful institution with a fragile base. It depends on public opinion for support against the state and any others who seek to stifle it. But it finds itself weak in the face of mob fury whipped up by vigilante groups. Every institution has come under attack lately in India — the newspaper office, the TV station, the cinema hall and even the book publisher.

In the main, vandals are of two kinds — those who perform on their own and those who enjoy political backing. They either instigate the agitation or use state machinery to see that vandals escape punishment. Gradually, the room for dissent has become more restricted than ever before. This has happened especially since boundaries were redrawn in 1956 to establish states on a linguistic basis.

Linguistic nationalism triumphs over democratic governance. States have their regional heroes who are worshipped by their devotees. Even scholarly historical criticism is taboo, as book publishers have discovered in recent years.

One case decided by the Supreme Court in 1989 provides a vivid illustration of the menace as well as the limits of governmental help. It concerned a Tamil film on the reservation of seats, in educational institutions and public services, on the basis of caste — a sensitive subject in South India. The Madras High Court revoked the certificate for its exhibition granted by the board of censors.

Its central theme was that reservations on the basis of caste were bad; reservations would be justified only on the ground of economic backwardness. The state government said that some organisations had been agitating that the film should be banned as it hurt the sentiments of people belonging to Scheduled Castes.

The Supreme Court rejected this excuse in these scathing terms. “…[W]hat good is the protection of freedom of expression if the state does not take care to protect it? If the film is unobjectionable and cannot constitutionally be restricted under Article 19(2), freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence. That would be tantamount to negation of the rule of law and a surrender to blackmail and intimidation.

“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.”

This was the highest watermark of the court’s censure of intolerance. Sadly, it has tended to temporise by suggesting changes or counselling compromises.

In 1991, controversy broke out over state TV Doordarshan’s telecast of a TV serial on the life and times of Tipu Sultan, produced by Sanjay Khan. Based on a historical romance, the serial depicted Tipu as a symbol of Indian nationhood. This evoked a storm of protest, with allegations that Tipu was a despot and a religious bigot.

Gidwani’s book was avowedly historical fiction. That Doordarshan should have decided, nonetheless, explicitly to disavow any claim to historical accuracy or authenticity was one thing. What is saddening is the lapse on the part of the Supreme Court. Doordarshan’s formulation was made worse by the court sanctioning the words: it “has nothing to do with either the life or rule of Tipu Sultan”. This makes a mockery of the very concept of historical fiction which is fiction inspired by history.

Evidently, the judges completely lost sight of what historical fiction is about. This was not a solitary lapse. It marked the beginning of such orders; more recently in relation to a scholarly book on Shivaji. Agitators had vandalised a library in Pune inflicting enormous losses on an institution of historical significance.

The Criminal Procedure Code, 1898 empowered the state to ban a book. But it had to state its reasons and the aggrieved author or publisher was entitled to move a special bench of three high court judges.

Likewise, the Cinematograph Act, 1952 enables the state government to even revoke a certificate given by the board of film censors. In both cases, grant of judicial relief is a tardy process. In both cases too, not seldom, politicians in power connive at the vandals’ behaviour and aid and abet them by banning the book or the film — citing a ‘law and order’ problem.

Since 1989, such behaviour has not been censured. In the mid-1980s, activists of the Congress Party attacked the editorial offices and the printing presses of a leading daily in New Delhi. The Karnataka government brought in the Karnataka Freedom of Press Bill to punish physical attacks on the press. But, even if such a law is made, who will enforce it but the government which is in cahoots with the vandals?

-the writer is an author and lawyer based in Mumbai

-by arrangement with dawn.com