Calls for a ban on the phantasmagorical propaganda film The Kerala Story, widely regarded as Islamophobic as well as containing gross factual inaccuracies in portraying the danger of Islamist radicalization of young Muslim girls in Kerala, has aroused deeply divisive reactions. In principle, most progressives can agree that bans and censorship are intrinsically bad and to be avoided.
In particular, handing over such power to the political executive or the judiciary is problematic and dangerous. Problematic because the record of both these institutions in implementing such bans in India has not been an exemplary one, with films being banned for a panoply of poor reasons, ranging from disagreement about portrayals of historical events such as Nine Hours to Rama, depicting Gandhi’s assassination and the security lapses which led to it to the pre-emptive ban on The Satanic Verses, which the Indian state was the first to do, without even a demand for such a ban being put forward from civil society; on the grounds of a threat to public order but with the suspicion that the motives were political, with an eye on garnering the support of the Muslim community in the upcoming elections.
It is dangerous because ultimately the only effective constraint on the arbitrary nature of power comes not from basing it on an appropriately safe and impartial source — such as an enlightened administration or an independent Supreme Court — but from limiting the nature of such discretionary power in the first place; given that the intentions and actions of the former can never really be fully guaranteed or assured.
The legal antecedents granting freedom of expression can be traced back to the Constitution of India Bill, 1895, which stated that “Every citizen may express his thoughts by words or writings, and publish them in print without liability to censure, but they shall be answerable to abuses, which they may commit in the exercise of this right, in the cases and in the mode the Parliament shall determine.”
The colonial state utilized this answerable clause to not only control political and ideological dissent but also to manipulate identity discourses to highlight and often create chasms between different religious communities leading to a communally charged situation. In his autobiography, J.M. Shrinagesh, Commissioner of Jalandhar in 1947; recounts meeting the highly regarded editor of the prestigious daily, The Statesman, Ian Stephens; just before embarking on a trip to Ludhiana, and being informed by him that serious communal riots had broken out in the city; describing vivid scenes of Muslims being hacked to death by Hindus in the streets. Unconvinced, Shrinagesh insisted that Stephens accompany him to Ludhiana, where both found the city to be quiet, with no riots having occurred. Stephens apologised making the plea that he had heard about the violence from “a very reliable source”. Shrinagesh reflected in his memoirs, that had the inaccurate story been published; it would almost certainly have provoked a violent reaction on the other side of the border in Pakistan, as was happening in many cases of tit-for-tat violence taking place at the time in Punjab being fuelled by tales of violence happening on opposite sides of the border, some of which were based solely on rumour. In this case, prompt and decisive action by the state’s proverbial man on the ground prevented such a scenario from happening.
Therefore in 1948 when the Constituent Assembly met to discuss the right to “freedom of expression of opinion”, which had been listed as the first fundamental freedom in the Congress manifesto of 1946, opinion was divided for they had the troubled experience of both pre-independence and early independence years. One group of legislators argued for no restrictions on freedom of expression because they were aware of how a repressive state could abuse such provisions; while another argued in favour of some restrictions being retained, justifying it by citing examples of communal incitements and the violence that followed in their wake during the transitional period of partition. Weakened state capacity and the realisation that the polarised nature of inter-religious relations, in a communally charged environment where there was no broad consensus, lead to a serious lack of social compliance; causing the erstwhile censored nationalists, who themselves had railed against the extensive restrictions of colonial censorship under the Raj; to turn into censors themselves, arming themselves with stringent powers of press control.
It is concerning and very troubling therefore, that the state is actively supporting and incentivising films like The Kerala Story even before its release. It is the responsibility of a self-proclaimed secular state to manage these cases by not only discouraging their production through moral and political suasion but also by actively curbing the communal propaganda being spread through such content and if need be, to go as far as banning them given the serious imminent threat they pose to social stability and loss of life. A motion picture, being a unique form of artistic expression, has the potential of creating an instant emotional appeal, which if utilised as a state tool to further extremist political agendas runs the risk of instantly leading to outbreaks of violence putting lives at risk. Acts of violence committed against Muslims after watching this film have occurred throughout the country only a few weeks after its release.
However, the current government with its right-wing Hindu nationalist ideology at the centre of its politics; is actively taking credit for the creation of a “new India”, which as some political commentators argue, is just a sophisticated term for “Hindu Rashtra”, through altered and manipulated discourses based on its distorted reading of history, culture and politics. One of the key functions of the modern state is to create a common stable shared collective identity for its citizens and to this end, as the historian Bernard Cohn has commented, all states mount a cultural project to fulfill this aim and Hindu nationalism from its very genesis has espoused a highly specific cultural-nationalist project to re-shape Indian collective identity in its own image. To protect the (already weakened) secular and pluralist ideals of India and to prevent lethal communally violent incidents; it may well be necessary to ban, films like The Kerala Story which seek to manipulate and create “new truths” in a polarised society that will contribute to the overall cultural project of saffronising the public sphere and popular consciousness.
It is, however, commonly argued that in the struggle between censorship and freedom, the moral balance should tilt towards freedom. For the power of censorship, especially that of banning; is a Faustian bargain with the Devil. We may well have to enter such a pact due to exigent circumstances but if we do, two dangers need to be borne in mind. Firstly, whether the application of such an exception is justified in any particular case and whether the strict threshold of conditions that would justify a ban are met in any such case being considered. Secondly, there should be a clear social self-awareness that even if such conditions are met; that it is still a Faustian pact with the attendant = consequent costs: it is a hoary soporific but all too frequently we console ourselves about choosing the lesser evil as an option without admitting to ourselves that the lesser evil is still evil nonetheless.
Conrad Barwa is a senior research analyst at a private think-tank, and a senior research associate at the Birmingham Business School. Abhinandan Pandey is a post-graduate researcher in History and is a published Urdu poet