Salman Rushdie’s critically acclaimed 1988 book Satanic Verses was banned in India. Sanjay Leela Bansali’s Padmaavati was renamed Padmavat after protests broke out and the director and cast were issued with death threats for allegedly defaming a fictional woman whose existence cannot be historically established or corroborated. Spectre, the 2015 James Bond movie had to cut out 22 seconds of video before releasing in India because of an on-screen kiss. 2013’s Papilio Buddha was only allowed to release after the parts critical about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi were omitted or muted. British writer V S Naipaul’s 1964 book, An Area of Darkness was immediately banned for its scathing portrayal of India.
We have a long tradition of banning anything we disagree with, but this trend has only seen a steep increase in the past few years. Movies, TV shows, books, and even comedians are targeted. Death and rape threats abound; diatribe and vitriol-filled social media rants alleging a history of literary and artistic offences committed to hurt the sensibilities of the majority in this country are commonplace.
Amazon Prime’s newest web series is the latest entrant to be on the chopping block. Tandav, starring Saif Ali Khan, Dimple Kapadia, Sarah-Jane Dias, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Kritika Kamra, and Sunil Grover and directed by Ali Abbas Zafar is a story about Indian politics and related power struggles which derives some of its plot from real-life socio-political scenarios.
Scenes in the show have been said to depict Hindu gods in poor light – the portrayal of the Uttar Pradesh police in the show has also been scrutinised – and the issue has escalated, with FIRs being filed against the show in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Karnataka. Threats are being levied against the cast and the crew, too.
The Karni Sena, a far-right organisation with a history of making frivolous objections to movies and shows, has announced a reward of INR 10 million for anyone who slits the tongues of those in the web series who insult Hindu deities.
Succumbing to the mounting pressure, the makers of Tandav agreed to rewrite and omit offending scenes, but this strongarming of artists into conformity and bullying them into submission is a dangerous precedent to set. And this isn’t the first instance of such mass mobilisation against works of art, and given how things stand, this won’t be the last.
Speaking to Film Companion, 2016’s Udta Punjab’s director, Abhishek Chaubey said, “What’s happening currently has for sure been happening for a while, but I think now the attack on the freedom of writers and directors is much more direct. The simple thought that is being conveyed to us is that there is no way we are allowed to speak or offer any sort of view on political or social matters.“
Several movies, shows, and books in the past few years have had FIRs registered against them by people who claim it hurts their sentiments. These complaints are political fights, they send a clear message to artists, dissidents, and us: freedom of speech comes with an extremely costly price tag. The messaging is clear: we aren’t free to dissent, we aren’t free to create art as we see fit, because if we do, litigious bullies exploiting the judicial system will come at us. The judiciary, in a country that is drowning in a backlog of cases and has a troubling shortage of personnel, is being forced to deal with cases that have no merit and waste the time and resources of an already struggling judicial system.
We are a people that aren’t litigious when we must be, we let human rights abuses mount in our backyard, we turn a blind eye to orchestrated violence, we stay quiet when faced with political strongarming, but when it comes to allowing others their freedom of speech and expression, we exploit the justice system to prevent it.
Comic Munawar Faruqui was arrested and held in custody for a month because he was accused of making offensive comments about Hindu deities and Union Minister Amit Shah. FIRs, charges of sedition, the UAPA are all weaponised to ensure conformity of thought, prevent dissent, and clamp down on whatever little freedom of expression we have remaining.
The Nazis during World War II burnt books they disagreed with, thousands of important pieces of art and literature were lost to the might of a fascist regime. In 2021, in the world’s largest democracy, we musn’t emulate a war-time reactionary response to criticism, truth, artistic expression, and dissent. It is unbecoming but more importantly, it is a dangerous precedent to set and a slippery slope from which there may be no coming back.
It is on us to decide where we want to live: in a democracy where freedom of speech and dissent are valued or in an authoritarian regime where censorship is used to instil fear. Where essentially, what are school-yard bullies, silence every dissenting voices. An attack on free speech is an attack on dissent and a democracy without room for dissent is a democracy in decline, it is a democracy that will fail its citizenry, it is a democracy that is no longer of the people, by the people, or for the people.
Where do you want to live?
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