Be intolerant of intolerance

Why the Supreme Court judgment in the case of ‘An Insignificant Man’ shows the way.

Written by Soli J. Sorabjee | Updated: November 22, 2017 9:58 am
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Our Constitution guarantees the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression. Like all fundamental rights, it is not absolute. It can be restricted inter alia on the grounds of decency, public order or defamation. However, the restriction imposed should not be excessive or arbitrary. The vexed question is: Can press freedom, which includes the screening of a movie, be restricted on the ground that it hurts the sentiments of some members in the community or that it distorts historical facts? It may be noted that the concept of hurt sentiments is inherently vague. Whose hurt sentiments are to be taken into account? According to judicial decisions, they are of level-headed reasonable persons, not hyper-sensitive souls and fanatics who perceive insult and offence in any speech or song or painting which they do not approve of.

A bench of the Supreme Court comprising Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justices A.M. Khanwilkar and D.Y. Chandrachud had to deal with a writ petition in which the prayer was to stay the nation-wide release of a film, An Insignificant Man, on the ground that it contained a video clip pertaining to the petitioner and the film should not have been granted certificate by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). The petitioner’s argument was that the Constitution guarantees him the right of not being portrayed in a derogatory manner as was allegedly sought to be done by the film.

Chief Justice Dipak Misra speaking for the Bench categorically rejected the petitioner’s plea in ringing words: “The thrust of the matter is whether this Court should entertain the writ petition and pass an order of injunction directing the CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification) to delete the clip and further not to get the movie released in theatres. It is worthy to mention that freedom of speech and expression is sacrosanct and the said right should not be ordinarily interfered with.” The Bench further made the following significant observations: “A film or a drama or a novel or a book is a creation of art. An artist has his own freedom to express himself in a manner which is not prohibited in law and such prohibitions are not to be read by implication to crucify the rights of an expressive mind. The human history records that there are many authors who express their thoughts according to the choice of their words, phrases, expressions and also create characters who may look absolutely different than an ordinary man would conceive of. A thought-provoking film should never mean that it has to be didactic or in any way puritanical. It can be expressive and provoking the conscious or the sub-conscious thoughts of the viewer. If there has to be any limitation, that has to be as per the prescription in law”.

The Bench ruled that “courts are to be extremely slow to pass any kind of restraint order in such a situation and should allow the respect that a creative man enjoys in writing a drama, a play, a playlet, a book on philosophy, or any kind of thought that is expressed on the celluloid or theatre.”

The judgment is a commendable vindication of press freedom. It is also an outright rejection of the intolerance that is rising alarmingly in our country. We have recently witnessed blatant resort to intimidation with impunity directed against Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the director of the movie Padmavati, and against actor Deepika Padukone. Some organisations like the Karni Sena have offered rewards for violence against Bhansali and Padukone. What is the purported justification for this manifestly criminal conduct? It is said that Padmavati who is a devi to the Rajput community has been depicted in a false and objectionable light. Three points need to be made in this connection. A majority of the people who are bursting with anger have not seen the film. The objected scenes are imaginary, not factual. Aggrieved sections of society can certainly approach the appropriate authorities (CBFC) or the courts to restrain exhibition of the movie after submitting cogent and credible evidence about alleged distortion of history. It is open to them to write and publish articles or even produce a documentary against the movie and urge people not to see it and boycott the cinema halls. But the right to protest cannot descend to vandalising cinema halls and assaulting Bhansali. And the verdict of the CBFC and judgment of the court must be accepted. That is the essence of the principle of rule of law which binds everyone in our country, including the chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan. Blatant dadagiri in the guise of hurt sentiments for alleged distortion of historical facts is absolutely unacceptable. It is heartening that the Supreme Court has refused to restrain exhibition of the movie when a petition was filed before it seeking this relief.

We should always remember David Cameron’s wise words that “we must be stronger at standing up for our values, and we must be more intolerant of intolerance; taking on anyone whose views condone the extremist narrative or create the conditions for it to flourish.”

The press and media channels should highlight the aforesaid path-breaking judgment of the Supreme Court. It is a duty which they owe to the people of India, to democratic institutions in the country and to themselves. Otherwise press freedom will be merely ornamental. There can be no excuse for dereliction of this duty by resort to blame-game and political slugfest. The press must demonstrate that it is truly the guardian of the “Ark of the Covenant” in the Constitution which guarantees fundamental rights to the people.

The writer is former attorney general of India.

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