The row between the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and the Information & Broadcasting Ministry — triggered by CBFC chairperson Leela Samson’s resignation alleging interference, coercion and corruption of panel members and officials appointed by the ministry — escalated on Saturday. As nine board members put in their papers, calling the government’s attitude “cavalier and dismissive”, Union Information & Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley said they were “rebels without a cause” and called Samson a “non-functional chairperson”.
“It is our firm position that given the cavalier and dismissive manner in which the CBFC is treated by the government, it is impossible to perform this duty with even a modicum of efficacy or autonomy,” says the joint resignation letter sent to Minister of State, I&B, Rajyavardhan Rathore. The nine board members who resigned today are Ira Bhaskar, Lora Prabhu, Mamang Dai, Pankaj Sharma, Rajeev Masand, Sekharbabu Kancherla, Shaji Karun, Shubhra Gupta and T G Thyagarajan.
The letter states that the “advisory panel continues to be filled up with people of questionable credentials appointed directly by the ministry, without taking the board’s recommendations into account”. Pointing out that no funds have been released for conducting orientation workshops for the panel members, it says “officers from other departments, who have no understanding or experience in cinema are appointed as officials”.
“Furthermore, there are several positions in the regional offices that do not have regular appointments There has been no board meeting for the last one year for us to discuss developments and make recommendations, as we were told that there are no funds to organise it. It seems that the CBFC Board is not required at all,” says the letter.
Hitting back at the board members, Jaitley, in a blog post, said it was “regrettable that the UPA appointees have decided to politicise routine issues”. He said at no point had he or Rathore “communicated with any member of the Censor Board or desired that any bureaucrat do the same”.
“It is the UPA-appointed Censor Board which has since continued. If there is any corruption, the UPA appointees have themselves to blame. I only wished that the fact of corruption had been communicated even once by the chairperson of the Censor Board to me. The non-functional chairperson never did so,” he said.
“The meetings are to be convened not by the minister or the secretary but by the chairperson. If the meetings are not being convened, it is those responsible for non-functioning who must blame themselves,” said Jaitley. “I have checked from officials of the ministry who informed that the funds for the Censor Board have been returned to the ministry as unspent by the board,” he said.
Stating that the “legal regime with regard to the functioning of the Censor Board is clear”, he said “it is the Censor Board alone which decides issues within its jurisdiction”.
“The aggrieved producer has a right to move the Appeal Tribunal… If an Appeal Tribunal disagrees with the Board, it is a part of the due process of law and not an onslaught on the board’s autonomy. Can a subordinate judicial authority ever cry foul if its decision is upset by an appellate authority?” Jaitley said, adding that the “NDA government maintains arm’s length distance in all matters relating to film certification”. He also accused the previous UPA regime of “politicising the Censor Board”.
Amid indications that a few more board members may resign shortly, the government continued to question the “timing of these resignations”, arguing that the chairperson and members were on their way out anyway. “The term of this board got over long back. All of them had been given an extension till a new board was constituted. It is surprising that they have chosen to raise all these issues when they are on their way out,” top government sources said.
Top ministry officials said the delay in constituting a new Censor Board was due to the “due diligence” that was being exercised to choose the right people for the job. They added that a new Censor Board would be put in place soon.
In their resignation letter, the nine board members have objected to the way in which Samson “has been treated by the ministry”, saying it “has been humiliating for us all”. “This is not the way in which the head of an organisation ought to be treated, and it is certainly not one that is conducive to any productive relationship,” says the letter, adding that this was “merely the proverbial last straw”.
“This board has consistently attempted to make the certification process more uniform, transparent, consistent and sensitive to the freedom of filmmakers’ right to expression with responsibility. The struggle to do so has been extremely frustrating and disappointing,” says the letter.
“In spite of sending numerous recommendations and appeals, and having several meetings with the secretaries and senior officials of the ministry, and even one with an earlier minister, not a single positive step has been taken by the ministry,” it says.
It adds that a letter was sent to the then I&B Minister in December 2013 “making several recommendations that would strengthen CBFC as an institution”. “None of the recommendations that we made in that letter have been taken on board, and there has been no engagement with us on crucial issues that we were raising,” says the letter.