Controversy

Bleeping out Amartya Sen

Print edition : August 18, 2017

Suman Ghosh (centre) with Kaushik Basu (left), former Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India, and Amartya Sen on location at Santiniketan for the documentary "The Argumentative Indian". Photo: By Special Arrangement

The censor board’s objection to the use of words such as “cow”, “Hindutva” and “Gujarat” in a documentary on the Nobel Prize-winning economist is seen as a blatant attempt to muzzle freedom of expression.

THE Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) under the chairmanship of Pahlaj Nihalani once again exposed its intolerance and authoritarian attitude when it raised a bizarre objection to the use of words such as “cow”, “Gujarat”, “Hindu” and “Hindutva” in a documentary, The Argumentative Indian, on the life of the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.

Suman Ghosh, who made the documentary, which was slated to be released in Kolkata on July 14, said he was asked by the CBFC to mute these words in the film. Said Ghosh: “They told me to bleep out four words: ‘Gujarat’, which Amartya Sen had used in the context of the Gujarat riots; and ‘cow’, ‘Hindu’, and ‘Hindutva’. If these are bleeped out, then only they will grant me the U/A certificate. In the past two years, we have been seeing curbs on freedom of expression not just in films but in other fields as well. I have told them I will not omit a single word.” He pointed out that Amartya Sen’s was a very topical voice in the current world scenario, and ironically, it was a documentary on him they were trying to curb. With Ghosh refusing to abide by the recommendations of the CBFC, the film will be available in India only on the Internet when he releases it online by the end of the year (see interview with Suman Ghosh).

In the hour-long documentary, the story unfolds around a central narrative in the form of a free-flowing conversation between Sen and Kaushik Basu, the eminent economist and former Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India, and a former student of Sen. The entire conversation was shot in Santiniketan, the university town set up by Rabindranath Tagore, where Sen spent his childhood. Kaushik Basu, who has also worked as Chief Economist with the World Bank, and is the C. Marks Professor of International Studies and Professor of Economics at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, told Frontline: “CBFC’s censorship of Amartya Sen is extremely unfortunate and damages India’s long-standing tradition of free speech and open debate. This has received so much global attention because people are baffled that India is imitating the very nations it criticises for intolerance.”

The CBFC’s move has triggered a strong reaction in intellectual, academic and political circles; even the general public has expressed outrage at what is being perceived as an absurd action. The internationally acclaimed film director Buddhadeb Dasgupta feels that a dangerous trend is developing. “It is not just ridiculous, it is very dangerous. Our Constitution guarantees us freedom of expression, and yet, we see the words of someone of the stature of Amartya Sen being censored. Where is this leading to? It is a cause for concern for the entire intelligentsia of the country and people pursuing creative work,” he told Frontline. Writers, artistes, and entertainers cutting across political divisions have come forward to condemn the incident in one voice.

Archaic guidelines

Ananya Chakraborti, a former member of the board of the CBFC, pointed out that the guidelines followed by the CBFC were archaic and needed to be reformed, but nowhere in the code was it written that one could not use words such as “Hindu”, “Hindutva”, “cow” and “Gujarat”. “It is clearly an agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government at the Centre. Both documentary and commercial film-makers are having a terrible time. Even common colloquial expressions cannot be used if there are references to Hindutva. This was not the way it was before. I was on the board myself, and we used to try and push the films through, knowing how much time, effort and money had gone into their making, unless, of course, there was something that was grossly offensive,” she told Frontline.

She said that earlier the CBFC comprised artistes, writers and intellectuals, “but now I am told it is mainly RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] cadres [who are on the board]”.

According to Madhuja Mukherjee, the film-maker and associate professor of film studies in Jadavpur University, censorship of this kind has been taking place since 1918. “There have been quite a number of cases like this, most notably one involving K.A. Abbas and, more recently, another involving Anand Patwardhan. They all took up the challenge and went to court. It is up to the film-maker to fight it out. A film-maker who is particularly dealing with political issues should also have the courage to counter various political forces and agendas working against her,” said Madhuja Mukherjee. She felt that the CBFC’s stand on The Argumentative Indian was “politically and ideologically motivated”.

Like her, there are many others who see the CBFC’s cuts as an act of political vindictiveness. Relations between Sen and the BJP have never been cordial. Sen has been vocal in his criticism of the political and economic policies of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) at the Centre, and the BJP, in turn, has lashed out at him from time to time. In February 2015, Sen withdrew his candidature for another term as Chancellor of Nalanda University, a post that he had held for the previous nine years. Though the university’s governing body had recommended renewal of his term, the Central government remained non-committal. “It is hard for me not to conclude that the government wants me to cease being the Chancellor of Nalanda University after this July, and technically it has the power to do so,” wrote Sen in his resignation letter. He added: “I am also sad, at a more general level, that academic governance in India remains so deeply vulnerable to the opinions of the ruling government, when it chooses to make political use of the special provisions.”

In the past four years, Sen’s views have made him a target of verbal attack by the BJP. Earlier this year, West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh questioned Sen’s contribution to India’s development. “A fellow Bengali among us has won the Nobel Prize and we are proud.... But, what has he done for the State? What has he given to the nation? …He is in extreme pain because he was removed as the Chancellor of Nalanda University. Such people are spineless and they can be purchased or sold, and can stoop to any level,” said Ghosh, drawing widespread criticism.

In the latest controversy involving the CBFC, condemnation from political circles has been as loud as that from social and intellectual circles. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee tweeted: “Every single voice of the opposition is being muzzled. Now, Dr Amartya Sen. If somebody of his stature cannot express himself freely, what hope does the common citizen have?” Sujan Chakraborty, senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and leader of the Left Legislative Party, said: “It is clear that the BJP is not willing to listen to anything other than the sound of their own drumbeat; even if the words happen to be those of Amartya Sen.” Even some members of the BJP registered a mild protest. The BJP leader Chandra Kumar Bose, grand nephew of Subhas Chandra Bose and grandson of Sarat Chandra Bose, tweeted: “We may not agree with Amartya Sen, but the Censor Board has no right to strangle voice of any. Discussion on issues is a fundamental right.”

If the intention of the CBFC was to curb Sen’s voice, it only succeeded in whetting the interest of people in the film. The celebrated historian Sabyasachi Bhattacharya pointed out an interesting parallel between the controversy and a medieval Chinese practice. He said: “It reminds me of a political practice in medieval China recorded by the French Sinologist Jean Chesneaux. It seems that the mandarins developed a practice of deleting from records and from history undesirable people by calling them ‘fei’, a negative grammatical expression denoting non-persons. A similar denial of the existence of certain people and things appears to be the aim of various forms of censorship by those in power in India today. The fact that Amartya Sen has been censored brings this issue to public attention, but it happens in many other instances unnoticed. However, such erasure did not work in China and elsewhere in the world in the long run. And it will not work in India.”

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