Guest Perspective

Are we back in the Dark Ages?

 

The problem is not of selective or discriminatory moral policing, but rather the concept of moral policing itself.

Most arguments I have with economist friends over China and India competing for world supremacy always end with my trump card “But India is a democracy and we can have Google while the Chinese government can ban it!” However, thanks to the I&B Ministry’s increasing monitoring of what the viewers can and cannot watch on television, this argument doesn’t hold much water anymore. The list of words that the ministry likes to mute out of its channels and make the dialogues disjointed and meaningless is growing every day. What is interesting is how irrational this is. In an episode of Homeland for example, an American thriller on StarWorld, the word ‘mosque’ was taken out because that was where supposedly a bomb plot had been discussed. In an episode of the Big Bang Theory, the word ‘Gandhi’ was taken out presumably by the channel’s editors themselves as a preemptive measure. This, alongside all references to body parts, scenes portraying sexuality, words that may remotely be construed as abuses, and whatever else the channel thinks the ministry would frown upon, are removed.

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Interestingly the same diktat is not followed by the Hindi channels. The last episode of the popular romantic drama Bade Acche Lagte Hain, Ram Kapoor, a character adored by one and all, drinks a glass of neat whiskey with no warning ticker telling us about the perils of alcohol. The same scene with an English speaking white man would have drawn the wrath of the I&B Ministry. As if this is not enough, all English speaking channels are also required to carry a warning ticker asking viewers to report what they might find objectionable. This is not carried out on most Hindi ‘saas bahu’ shows except sporadically in some.

What is disturbing about this trend is the arbitrariness with which power is discharged by the ministry. But what else can one expect if we give discretionary power of monitoring morality to a set of people comprising of ministers and secretaries? How can we let the morality of 1.2 billion people be decided by the standards set down by a few? One can compare this to the ‘khap panchayats’ of North Indian villages where the morality of a few elders is the final word for the entire community and can’t be contested. The only difference is of course the punishments meted out, in case of the channels, it is a ban from one to ten days, based on the extent of the outrage that the content might have caused.

The latest ban was on the channel Comedy Central over a number of violations of the moral code set out by the ministry. According to the order uploaded on the Ministry’s website, the channel had violated the Rule 6 (1)(a) which states that no programme should be carried, that offends against good taste and decency. This tells us the wide range of discretionary powers given to “good taste and decency”. For me, the perpetually scheming women on all Hindi prime time channels are against good taste because they show women in a polarised fashion. There are only two types of women – one is the ideal housewife who worships the husband and tolerates the insults of the in-laws or the other, who is jealous and finding ways of getting back at everyone. Are these in bad taste?

This of course was not always the case, growing up in the 1990s, I remember watching famous Hollywood movies on Doordarshan– the government-run television channel– without any cuts which is unthinkable now. This moral policing is an extension of the welfare state which apart from feeling the need to have a law to feed the millions, feels the need to control what they watch and hear. It doesn’t come as a surprise then that India slid to an all time low of 140 among 179 countries surveyed in the Press Freedom Index, 2013. According to analysts, this downward trend started in 2002. What else has happened in the last ten years? We have had laws making employment a right and a nationwide scheme based on it, we had a law that made education a right while shutting down millions of private schools, and now we are looking at giving the state wider powers to make food choices for millions. We also had lesser noticeable changes like the state making reservations in central procurement for Dalit owned companies and a bill that makes it easier to promote SC/ST officers in the government passed in the Rajya Sabha. Clearly, the state feels the need to promote certain groups and control growth, development and redistribution. This same controlling behavior unfortunately extends also to media, internet and in turn, freedom of speech.

However, the hypocrisy of this futile exercise is exposed when we see a scantily clad Katrina Kaif gyrating to a song with scores of men in tow, candidly stating that she does not need a man to keep her satisfied as she can do so herself. Or rather, every other actress doing the same if we go by the number of item numbers that are present today in Hindi movies. Bollywood’s defence to this is that it is doing bold cinema by letting women wear their sexuality on their sleeve, while the ministry doesn’t seem to mind either. But let us not forget that this is the same ministry whose officials at one time regularly let movies with explicit rape scenes be shown on television while forcing movie makers to show two flowers on screen to depict an act of kissing or beyond. This clearly shows how arbitrary the rules are, leaving a lot of room for interpretation.

The problem though is not of selective or discriminatory moral policing, but rather the concept of moral policing itself. Do we need a policy or a law on morality? Should we allow the state to impose its morality on citizens by spending millions paying salaries to boards and officials of such ministries? Or should we ask the state to leave the Indian citizens free and consider them capable of making choices on what they think is appropriate for them and their families, and not think of them as naïve children who need protection from the big bad media?

Photo: Isaac Mao

Renu Pokharna runs the advocacy group Dharna2.0 in Ahmedabad.

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