Towards a cultural liberalism

Issue 15 - Jun 2008

Jayakrishnan Nair

Governments usually ban books and movies when they think that it has or can upset religious sentiments resulting in a break down in law and order. While that may be the official reason, the ground reality is that it is connected to politics. Thus by banning The Da Vinci Code and The Satanic Verses, the governments made it clear that they can sacrifice liberalism. On finding that James Laine’s Shivaji: Hindu King in Muslim India had remarks that were deemed derogatory to the Maratha hero, the Maharashtra state government banned the book, showing that it is not just minority appeasement at work. Maharashtra’s ban also showed that laws made by local authorities might not be an obvious cure, but opportunities for customised pandering.

This asphyxiation of artistic expression is not new. As India turned sixty, the Indian Express published a list of books that have been banned. The list includes Hindu Heaven by Max Wylie (banned in 1934) to Who Killed Gandhi by Lourenco De Sadvandor, with the most famous ones being Nine Hours to Rama, a fictionalised account of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by Stanley Wolpert and The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. Movies like Kissa Kursi Ka, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Kama Sutra were banned but some were released after court orders.

Our constitution writers were clear that democracy is meaningless without freedom of speech, and that people should live in a social environment that permits maximum personal and cultural freedom.

Our politicians though, play petty politics with this right. Our governments, independent of their ideology, have indulged in communal and regional politics to satisfy vocal groups. Liberals must oppose such bans and question the judgement behind maintaining such lists.

When various governments competitively banned art, books and movies and vigilante groups enforced their morality creating insuperable problems, it has been the judiciary, as in Mr Hussain’s case, which came to the rescue. When The Da Vinci Code was banned, the high courts of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu delivered landmark verdicts vituperating the governments.

The Andhra High Court told the government that, “the constitution does not confer or tolerate such individualised hyper-sensitive private censor intrusion into and regulation of guaranteed freedom of others.”

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