- Satyabhama Rajoria
In all civilized societies, censorship has been a contentious issue. In a crude sense, censorship is synonymous with banning. It can be understood as restricting those expressions in spoken, written or performed form, which are considered to be against the order of the day, incumbent regime and or
against much more vague formations like public morality. In India, formal censorship has existed since colonial times. Many books, plays, films, writers, were censored at that time. Our white rulers repeatedly invoked draconian penal provisions of the IPC like Section 153, 124 and 99. Independent India also inherited many of these forms of formal censorship, although the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression was enshrined in the Constitution, but with vaguely defined exceptions of course.
Significant here is also the issue of censorship imposed by extra-legal means, that is societal censorship and norms. Jacques Derrida, when discussing literary censorships in democratic polities and societies, he asserts that “Without literature, democracy is not possible and with lack of democracy, literature is also not possible” Here Derrida very significantly underlines the correlation
between the democratic functioning of a society and the production of knowledge and literary expression. He strongly argues that under any circumstance literature (or any kind of cultural expression) and democracy cannot be separated neatly.
From Colonial Times to our day, the instances of imposing censorships are literally uncountable. Lord Lytton’s notorious Vernacular Press Act serves as a perfect example of the state’s attempts at gagging non-conforming voices. Munshi Premchand’s first collection of short stories, Soz-E-Vatan was banned. Similarly, Angarey, a collection of stories by four firebrands like Sajjad Zaheer,
Ahmed Ali, Rashid Jahan and Mahmuduz Zafar was banned by the Government of the United Province under Section 295A of IPC after a wave of protest by the orthodox Muslim opinion of that time. The writers of Angarey, were intimidated and the only woman contributor to the collection, Rashid Jahan was threatened with an acid attack if she would dare show her face in public. Even the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore was not spared and his book Letters from Russia was banned.
Post-independence too, challenges to the established norms of the society, however decadent they may be, and opposition to the government was never taken lightly. Hindi poet Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh's book Bharat: Itihaas aur Sanskriti which was written as a history textbook for Madhya Pradesh schools was targeted by the fundamentalists. They got the book banned and
Muktibodh never recovered from that trauma till his untimely demise at the meagre age of 46. The emergency of the 1970s remains a dark chapter of choking free voice. A painter of the statue of M.F Hussain had to choose self-exile from his own country because he “violated” the established norms of the society.
Attempts to stifle the free voice (read, the proper functioning of democracy) have also taken extreme forms. Nearly 30 years ago, Safdar Hashmi's theater group JANAM was attacked while performing a street play Halla Bol in a program organised by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) in support of workers demands in UP's Jhandapur village. Safdar was beaten with iron rods and he succumbed to his injuries the next day. Restrictions on the free flow of ideas have taken a more assertive, more violent form in recent times. Writers like Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh were killed in cold blood for the “sin” of saying or writing things which were not in conformity with the established. The Tamil writer Perumal Murugan declared himself dead as a writer because of the harassment he faced. The instance of IIT-Kanpur authorities accusing the poem Hum Dekhenge by Faiz Ahmed “Faiz” to be anti-Hindu, is fresh in public memory.
Freedom of expression, cultural or otherwise is intrinsically linked with the proper functioning of a democracy. The Capability Approach to development advocates that people should be able to exercise their “freedoms” in order to realize their potential or capabilities. Liberty is a fundamental characteristic of a democracy and the attempts to constrict it can produce disastrous consequences for the well being of democracy itself and the citizens. As the saying goes “Literature is the mirror of society”, the curtailing of free speech cracks this mirror and blunts the artistic expression’s potential to produce a healthy criticism of the prevailing order. The prophetic George Orwell famously said “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Without informed debates on people’s issues, there cannot be an introspection and course correction and art is what ingrains all these ideas in the collective consciousness, whether it be in the form of a protest song or a political cartoon.
In these times when the legitimacy of questioning is being threatened by authoritarian populism, it is an imperative to fiercely protect our hard-earned rights and liberties. An anecdote in this regard is worth mentioning here. When Safdar Hashmi died after receiving fatal blows on the 1 st of January 1989 while performing his play, his troupe went to the same place in Jhandapur and staged the same play Halla Bol as a way of protest. This was also an attempt to reclaim our freedom to perform, sing, paint or write and to regain our spaces. We should be especially alert in our grim times, when legal and extra-legal forces are snatching our freedoms and trying to impose external and internal censors on us. The famous writer and critic Henry Loius Gates Jr. said “Censorship is to art as lynching is to justice” Vigilance and resistance is necessary because we are seeing both of them are frequent today.