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Mob violence and curbs on the film Arakshan

India: "Formulate a decisive response, this danger to everyone’s freedom of expression will only escalate"

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12 August 2011

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’Mob fascism is dangerous for cinema’

The Times of India, August 10, 2011

Aarakshan, Prakash Jha’s new film on the government’s policy of caste-based reservations in educational institutions, has become a hotbed of controversy, with individuals, organisations and political parties agitating against it and demanding to ’clear’ it before its release. Anjum Rajabali , the film’s writer, speaks to the Times of India:

What was the seed of Aarakshan? How did you think of a subject like reservations?

In early 2008, Prakash narrated a story to me, written by Kamlesh Pandey about a disillusioned vice-chancellor. My reaction was that instead of using education as a mere backdrop to a personal story, we should actually address an issue that is important to the education system. The then Supreme Court order, endorsing the government’s proposal to extend 27% reservation to OBCs, had effectively cleaved public opinion into two. I had been part of several debates on it and was deeply struck by how emotionally intense they would get. And, given that there were so many socio-political and historical factors involved in the issue, those debates were invariably inconclusive! Both of us agreed that it would be worthwhile to actually take the issue head-on and make that the dramatic pivot of our script.

What is the film’s stance (and your personal position) on the reservation policy?

The film takes a humane look at the issue. The spectrum of positions on reservations is personified by different characters. As for me, i believe that affirmative action is a desirable policy for India.

When you decided to write this film, didn’t you anticipate strong reactions since it’s such a volatile subject?

Well, it is undoubtedly a controversial issue, so i did expect some speculation on the film’s stance before the release. And some debate afterwards. But, none of us anticipated a reaction of this magnitude before the film is even released! Believe me, there is nothing offensive in the film towards any caste. Both Prakash and i are sensitive to how both sides feel about it, and it’s been written and made in a fair and responsible way. It’s really ironic that right now we’re being cornered by Dalit groups as well as by Rajputs and Brahmins!

People are agitating against the film without even knowing its political stance. What does this mobocracy portend for cinema?

It’s dangerous. As it is, in an industrialised society, independent filmmakers and independent-minded writers and directors face a tough challenge, since the exhibition of their work depends on commercial support from financiers and businessmen. They have to constantly battle and negotiate through the minefield of profit-seeking imperatives to protect the vision guiding their work. Now, on top of that, we have this resurgence of political fundamentalism, led by the moral police and other self-appointed custodians of Indian culture, which is constantly threatening the already shrinking space for artists. Art, by its very nature, is about challenging accepted norms and conventional thought. And that is essential for a culturally healthy society.

No one is questioning the right of these groups to be concerned about the political content of Aarakshan. But when the freedom to express this manifests itself as mob fascism, and there is no quick and effective statutory response to it, then filmmakers will be left at the mercy of any group that chooses to threaten a film’s release on the pretext of being apprehensive about its politics.

In all likelihood, this threat to Aarakshan might get resolved soon. But it sets a seriously dangerous precedent. Unless the state, the film industry, artists, thinkers, and civil society formulate a decisive response to it, this danger to everyone’s freedom of expression will only escalate.

o o o

The Hindu, August 12, 2011

Editorial

Lift the ban

The suspension of screening of the Hindi film Aarakshan, which deals with issues of caste and reservation, by the governments of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Andhra Pradesh is a serious encroachment on the freedom of expression in the guise of upholding public order and respecting the sentiments of a social group or community. The director, Prakash Jha, has done well to challenge the ban before the Supreme Court of India, which will hear the case on Tuesday. Independent of the merits of the film, such a ban is out of place in a democratic society. It militates against the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Although clause (2) of the Article allows for reasonable restrictions on the freedom, including in the interest of public order, the Supreme Court has clearly laid down, in the 1989 judgment in the case of S. Rangarajan v. Jagjivan Ram involving the film Ore Oru Gramathile (which too dealt with the issue of reservation), that “freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence.” That, the court noted, would be tantamount to “negation of the rule of law and a surrender to blackmail and intimidation.” The competent authority for clearing a film for public release is the Central Board of Film Certification, and politicians and communal or sectarian pressure groups cannot arrogate to themselves the right to decide what films others should watch. Taking the easy or opportunist way out by banning a movie is anathema to any functioning democracy.

While it is in the nature of art to shock or provoke, in the case of Aarakshan the portions objected to do not even constitute the thrust of the movie. To tear out of the dramatic context snatches of dialogue and demand their removal from the film is to take intolerance to new heights. The issue is not whether an articulated argument is valid or not. As the Supreme Court noted in the watershed 1989 judgment, “The producer may project his own message which the others may not approve of. But he has a right to ‘think out’ and put the counter-appeals to reason. It is a part of a democratic give-and-take to which no one could complain. The State cannot prevent open discussion and open expression, however hateful to its policies.” The real danger to the public interest springs not from the public screening of the movie, but from state-imposed restrictions on freedom of expression on indefensible grounds. Aarakshan must be allowed a free run as cleared by the CBFC without any cuts — in the interest of keeping India a free and open society. To give in to sectional interests in this case would be to put in jeopardy a cornerstone of the Indian Constitution.

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Outlook

BLOGS / Sundeep Dougal

Banana Republic

It has been difficult not to be reminded of Satanic Verses since news items started trickling out —first, a few days back, about demands for a ban on Aarakshan and then, even more bizarrely, about actual bans being imposed in UP, Punjab and now AP — ruled respectively by the BSP, the Akalis and the BJP, and the Congress.

Needless to say, none of the worthies demanding or deciding on the ban have seen the film. In fact, they have been boasting on TV that they haven’t.

Initially, when self-appointed spokespersons of various groups had got up to demand a ban on the grounds that the film was likely to be anti-reservations and therefore likely to lead to disturbances in law and order, cynics among us thought the film could not possibly have asked for a better publicity campaign.

One thought that bodies like the NCSC would be quietly told that their demands were outside their remit. The CBFC stand was exemplary and the fact that Mr Prakash Jha still decided to edit the "objectionable scenes" has more to do with the economics of film-making which make it necessary for film-makers bend to the politicians’ unreasonable diktats than anything else.

It seemed as if even to comment on the sheer absurdity of the demands would be giving these fringe groups a legitimacy they did not deserve. But that was when it seemed reasonably certain that the state governments would act responsibly and allow the film to be screened in normal course. But now, with competitive politics having taken over and three state governments having announced their ridiculous bans, with the ban epidemic seeming all set to spread to other states, perhaps the obvious does need to be stated all over again.

So here goes:

Certainly, anybody and everybody has a right to protest against a film, but the only body to protest to is the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) that is in charge of clearing and certifying films.

It does not matter in the least whether or not the film is pro- or anti-reservations — or that it is a cop out and does not take any stand.

As of now, it should not concern us whether or not it is a good, bad, ugly or indifferent film. All that we should concern ourselves is whether the state governments have the right to impose these ridiculous and idiotic bans. Yes, they do have the responsibility to maintain law and order, but that should not be allowed to become an alibi to ban any thing on their whims and fancies on the simple pretext that not doing so would result in a public disturbance.

This is not the first time that we are seeing this sorry spectacle. Each such incident only emboldens and acts as a precedent for more and more such demands to be raised. The politicians involved and state governments need to be challenged in respective High Courts, or directly in the Supreme Court. Chances are that the courts would direct the governments to ensure that freespeech rights are upheld. Bombay and Madras High Courts had already rightly refused to intervene and rejected petitions demanding a special screening of the film before its release.

If a state government is incapable of maintaining law and order and takes recourse to knee-jerk bans raising the bogey of perceived threats, it has no business to be in power.

POSTED BY Sundeep ON Aug 11, 2011