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Gagging Mickey Mouse

11 February 2013

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Mail Today - 11 February 2013

by Rajeev Dhavan

MARTYN Whittock’s recent chronicle of Nazi Germany offers “ a bizarre insight ( into) the fate of Mickey Mouse under the Third Reich”. In 1936, Mickey was declared “ an enemy of the state” and banned as “ a decadent rat”. For Nazis, Jews were vermin who could not be portrayed as triumphant. However, reportedly, Hitler was delighted with Goebbels presenting him 18 Mickey Mouse films.

The Mad Doctor in which the dog Pluto was sought to be crossed with a chicken was banned in Germany in 1933 as taking the ‘ mickey’ of Nazi eugenics. Three Little Pigs was not censored because the pigs out- witted the Jewish- looking wolf.

By 1939, the American cartoons were not shown in Germany. Nazi social censorship censored speech in books and on walls. Is India different? Is the style of state censorship similar? And does the social censorship not seem more threatening


People in India cavil at the comparison between ‘ Hindutva’ India and Nazi Germany. True we are not in a declared on- going war although some Hindutva ideologues think we are. Muslim and other groups are also censorial. But they pale away when compared with the ferocity of Hindutva intolerance. Pakistani artists like Mehdi Hasan are not allowed to perform in India — more so than Michael Jackson who went to meet ‘ the’ Shiv Sena supremo for permission.

The best of Bollywood actors did darshan before Bal Thackeray. Girls can’t wear what they like. Skirts are un- Indian. As, indeed, are jeans. Muslim painters like MF Hussain were pushed into exile. Forced out of Bangladesh, Taslima Nasreen was all but hounded out by communist Bengal.

Kamal Haasan had to accept cuts in Vishwaroopam at the instance of fringe Muslim fundamentalists. Salman Rushdie was sent into hiding. Deepa Mehta had to film her film Water abroad because the pundits of Benaras objected.

When the state does not want to accept the responsibility of censorship, it claims an uncontrollable public order problem.

My friend MN Krishnaswamy’s teenage son’s art was found wanting because Hindutva cohorts did not like the way he portrayed Hindu gods. His brave reply: “ I won’t leave the country, I will fight this out.” Goebbel’s Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda attacked “ cultural Bolshevism.” Abstract art and atonal music was un- German. Plays, pictures, books were burnt including the works of Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann.

Painters such as Paul Klee and Emil Nolde and playwrights like Berthold Brecht suffered the ignominy of humiliation. Modern art was “ degenerate” resulting, in 1937, in an exhibition of ‘ degenerate art’ that went on tour. True, Leni Riefenstahl’s cinematics of the Rally at Nuremberg was breathtaking.

But it was commissioned by Hitler.

Racist films, The Eternal Jew and “ veiled” comparisons between Hitler and Frederick the Great passed muster. By 1940, 1,000 books were banned. There was support for this Nazi fearing propaganda. The people supported the Nazis in a nation where there was no room for the ideologically uncommitted. If khap panchayats issue death- threatening social warrants against romance, relationships, dress and appearance, ‘ culture’ crusading thugs are no better than khaps — with the Hindutva mobs more menacing than others.

It is a creeping censorship advanced with a menacing rigour. Minorities, foreigners and women are soft targets. What James Laine’s biography of Shivaji and Vishwaroopam have in common is the insistence of cosmetic changes. The ‘ change’ does not really matter. What matters is power play: “ We forced you to change, you did.”


This is the symbolic equivalent of “ kneeland- and- lick- my- boots”. Reputed publishers send manuscripts by reputed authors to be vetted for fear of mob reaction. This is a new phenomenon. Earlier they were vetted for defamatory comments. Now they are examined for imagined offensiveness. Is this the state of affairs? The ‘ don’t– like’ test.

If a person has enough power or goondas or street clout and claims not to like anything, it must be banned. Immediately, on promise of pain and violence.

Hussain and Nandy offered apologies.

That was not good enough because these were voluntarily given, depriving objectors of the pleasure of extracting it from the artist and writer. I am not at all sure what Chief Justice Kabir meant by ticking off Ashis Nandy whilst restraining his arrest.

A closer look at the Constitution might suggest that this ticking off was unjustified.


We are very far removed from Justice Variava’s judgement in the Cinema Censorship case ( 2001) where he exhorts state governments to protect a Censor Board- cleared film from mobster detractors, not the other way round. This was lost on Jayalalitha’s government.

The test for restricting free speech in the Constitution and common sense is not, and cannot be, to stop what others find offensive. Taken to its illogical conclusion, this will kill free speech altogether.

Our mobsters and fundamentalists see themselves as rulers. Our rulers are scared — not distinguishing between democracy and the electorate. Defamatory speech is remedied by apology and damages not court or social injunctions.

For governance the restraint has to be limited to time and place where there is a clear and present danger that the government confessedly cannot control.

If so, the government must declare itself in favour of free speech and criticise strong- arm behaviour. Our grip on free speech ( including how we depict ourselves) is loosening. The best and most democratic societies are those who have maximum tolerance for the most unpopular speech.

Free speech entails the right to reply to free speech with speech, the grace to welcome differences of opinion and the courage to accept apologies to quell controversies in a spirit of tolerance.

The writer is a Supreme Court lawyer


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