Citing freedom of expression and recalling instances of courts refusing to ban works of literature and art, the Supreme Court Thursday cleared the decks for the nationwide release of Padmaavat by staying notifications of the governments of Rajasthan and Gujarat that prohibited screening of the film following protests from the Rajput community.
Underlining that “valued constitutional rights” were at stake, the bench of Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud, in an interim order, also restrained other states from issuing similar notifications and directed state governments to provide security to the film crew if they ask for it.
The bench accepted the contention of the petitioners that once a film is cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification, states cannot interfere with it: “We direct that there shall be a stay of operation on the notification and orders issued and we also restrain other states from issuing such notifications or orders in this matter… Once Parliamentary legislation confers the responsibility and power on a statutory board and board grants certificate, non-exhibition of it by states will be contrary to statutory provisions.”
Rejecting the contention of the states that the film’s screening will cause law and order problems, the bench said it was the “duty and obligation of states to maintain law and order”. Senior advocate Harish Salve, who appeared for film producer Viacom18, urged the court to order security for the film crew, saying they were receiving threats. The court agreed and said the state must provide them security if they ask for it.
Appearing for Gujarat, Rajasthan and Haryana, Additional Solicitor General Tushar Mehta sought more time to reply to the petition, saying more facts needed to be brought on record. “Suppose there is a rumour against a community which is in majority in my state, can’t I take action,” Mehta asked, adding “we have intelligence inputs and we want to place them on record”.
He repeatedly sought more time, saying there was no urgency in the matter since the film was set for release only on January 25.
But Justice Chandrachud countered this: “It is important. Valued Constitutional rights are at stake.” The court will hear the matter next on March 26.
Hearing the parties, CJI Misra reminded them that the film Bandit Queen had passed the test of the Supreme Court. Salve said “in this case, we have agreed to do everything that the Censor Board asked us to do. But someday, I will argue that an artist has a right to even distort history.”
Countering him, Mehta said: “History can be distorted as Gandhiji sipping whisky… the country will not tolerate it. History cannot be distorted.” Salve replied: “Mr Mehta, that is not even distortion of history.” He said the West had even made a film called Jesus Christ Superstar. But Mehta would not give in: “Let us follow Indian standards.’’
Responding to Mehta’s arguments, the CJI said, “If you go by this, 60 per cent of literature, even classical literature of India, cannot be read.” The story of Nala and Damayanti, he said, was once translated by an Odisha scholar. “But the scholar was a puritan. He left out some parts, saying he doesn’t think it should be read now.” The scholar, the CJI said, was born in the 19th Century and was influenced by Victorian morality.
Salve mentioned Lady Chatterley’s Lover and said it was still selling. To this, the CJI remarked that in the 1970s, those who had not read the book were considered ill-qualified to discuss certain topics. As a judge of the Delhi High Court, he said, he had dismissed a petition which sought a ban on the film Dhobi Ghat. The plea was that it affected a community, he said.
Justice Chandrachud recalled his own experience when the Marathi play Me Nathuram Godse Boltoy was sought to be banned. The argument, he said, was that it would disturb public order.
The CJI cited the case of Sakharam Binder, a Marathi play by Vijay Tendulkar that was banned in the country in 1974. He also mentioned instances of courts upholding freedom of expression by refusing to ban books like The Men Who Killed Gandhi and Gandhi: Naked Ambition.