Freedom at stake

Print edition : August 24, 2007

The Mumbai Police stops the screening of Sanjay Kaks film on Kashmir on the pretext that it could be provocative or inflammatory.

in Mumbai

THE Police Inspector melted the red wax over a candle, let it drip over the brown paper that covered the digital video disc (DVD) and put the official seal over the melted wax. His mission was accomplished. But, while wrapping up this case, something unexpected happened. Doubt started creeping in was this film really that dangerous?

The Inspector had been told that the screening of this film had to be stopped. His team was on full alert an hour before its screening at Bhupesh Gupta Bhavan, the office of the Communist Party of India. The people who trickled in to watch the film seemed innocuous enough. Not the kind to get rowdy.

Yet the Inspector had to follow orders. The organisers asked the policeman to watch the film with them, but he refused. They demanded a written explanation.

As the Inspector sat there for two hours writing down the police report, he realised the irony of it all. Somewhat sheepish about the drama created over an innocuous gathering, he told the film-maker: You know, some people would pay for this. It gives them publicity. I know you are not that kind. What can we do? We are just following orders. These orders decreed the film dangerous without even knowing what it said. Thus was banned Sanjay Kaks film on Kashmir, Jashn-EAzadi: How We Celebrate Freedom.

Jashn-E-Azadi

The second preview at Prithvi House was also stopped. This time, the police said that there was no Censor Board certificate. As their reasons changed, it was clear that the Mumbai Police was grappling for excuses to ban the film. With no idea about the content of the film, no attempt to find out what the reaction to the film in other cities had been, the police response seems totally disproportionate, even reckless. You dont need a censor certificate for a private preview or a film festival, said Kak. In the digital age, the ban seems quite meaningless. The police can seize one DVD, but hundreds of copies can be made.

The Mumbai Police seems to be fumbling with technology. In June, it tried to block the social networking site Orkut because it contained comments against the Shiv Sena. The Mumbai and Thane police asked cyber cafes to disallow users from accessing the site. But they were not successful.

No film can be screened without a censor certificate, said D.M. Phadtale, Deputy Police Commissioner. However, the organisers say that it was a private preview. Thousands of such screenings of newly cut Bollywood films take place in theatres across the city. No questions were asked. The police say they acted after they received an e-mail warning them about the contents of the film. But they refused to reveal who sent the e-mail.

The only person to back the police action has been Ashok Pandit, a Mumbai-based film-maker who belongs to the Kashmiri Pandit group, Panun Kashmir. Until you have a censor certificate, you cannot screen a film. Just because the police in other places have not been smart enough to stop this, it does not mean that the Mumbai Police should be foolish. said Pandit. This city is sitting on a volcano. It has been hit by terrorism. This film looks like it has been produced by Bin Laden. In the name of freedom of expression, we must not allow anyone to sell terrorism. Ironically, the man Ashok Pandit calls a terrorist is also a Kashmiri Pandit.

This heavy brush has become the new tool of those who cannot deal with an argument, be it the state or these self-appointed guardians of public morality, safety, national interest, whatever. If you cant deal with those who draw attention to what is happening to the poor and marginalised in rural India, call them naxalites. If you cant deal with an argument about what is happening in Kashmir, call it terrorism, Kak said. Democracy in India isnt quite dead yet, just a bit wounded. People will not be swayed by these ridiculous charges.

The organisers of the screening, Vikalp, are a group of independent documentary film-makers who came together to fight for the freedom of expression. The 300-strong group was born out of a protest against the attempts by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to make censor certificates mandatory for Indian documentaries entered into the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF 2004). It managed to pressure the Ministry to drop its attempts to introduce censor certification for the festival.

Film-maker Sanjay Kak.-

Film-maker Sanjay

The screening of Jashn-E-Azadi was intended to bring to a Mumbai audience an eloquent cinematic argument for dialogue beyond anguish and antagonism; for an understanding of the Kashmir issue in human and cultura l terms, said Ranjit Hoskote, honorary secretary-treasurer, the PEN All-India Centre. To disrupt the screening of such a documentary is only to re-enact the brutality that has become the tragic norm in the Valley. We strongly deplore this violation of the right of Indian citizens to examine, express and discuss questions of great public importance, without falling in line with the official view on these questions. Such high-handedness cuts at the very root of democracy.

In May, paintings at the M.S. Universitys Faculty of Fine Arts Department in Vadodara were seized when right-wing activists, accompanied by the police, stormed into a private exhibition of students works on the campus. Chandramohan, a student who created the allegedly blasphemous paintings, was arrested. There were protests in his support all over the country. But in Mumbai, things are somewhat different. When the Maharashtra government banned the academic James Laines book Epic of Shivaji last year, he received little support. Not even his publisher was willing to fight his case. Indias most famous artist M.F. Husain is in exile in London at the age of 92 because of the cases against him for allegedly depicting Hindu goddesses obscenely, and hurting Hindu sentiments.

These recent cases throw up a number of questions: Can protests by fringe groups jeopardise the freedom of expression? Who should the police be protecting the protestors or the artist? Who decides what is inflammatory?

In a crammed metropolis like Mumbai, not only physical space but space for dialogue seems to be shrinking. No one bats an eyelid when people are muffled. It is business as usual. This is how freedom is celebrated.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor