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Sunday, December 05, 2021

Republic of control

Policing or controlling culture is the domain not only of the fringe

Written by Dhiraj Nayyar |
January 29, 2009 1:49:08 am

The self-appointed custodians of Indian culture and values raised their ugly head on Monday,when a bunch of hooligans called the Sri Rama Sene attacked young women in a pub in Mangalore. The women’s alleged wrongdoing: drinking and dancing,which the group sees to be a perversion of Indian culture and tradition. Leave aside the plain illegality of such an attack,but the Sri Ram Sene cannot seriously believe that drinking and dancing are alien to Indian culture — if they knew their history,they would know otherwise. But the fact is that the Sri Rama Sene does not know its Ramayana,or the deep and long tradition of tolerance that Indian culture is most famous for.

Sadly,the Mangalore incident is hardly a one-off affair. It is just one incident in a long line of incidents — the destruction of an art exhibition in Baroda,the vandalism on Valentine’s Day,threats to M.F. Hussain,to name just a few — which expose the extreme intolerance and thuggishness of a certain section of society. Unfortunately,many of these hooligans are well-organised groups of politically motivated individuals who do usually have formal or informal links with many mainstream right-wing parties. The BJP may deny direct association with the Rama Sene,but what about the Bajrang Dal?

Still,if the tendency to police or control culture were purely the domain of a fringe element,there would be less to worry about. Sadly,the trend extends well into the mainstream (right,centre and left),and even if it ends up being expressed in less violent,and more subtle terms,it is no less damaging to society. It is this systemic tendency to lean towards control of culture,creativity and independent thinking,which is worrying.

Consider the attempt by Anbumani Ramadoss,the Union health minister,to ban the depiction of smoking in films. Admirable as his attempts to curb smoking are (every non-smoker must appreciate any campaign to educate people about the risks of smoking),banning its depiction in films was taking it a step too far. One always had the feeling that this was simply an extension of the minister’s instinct to be a control-freak and attention-seeker — look at how he runs our premier medical establishment,AIIMS — than more noble motives.

Many kudos,therefore,to Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul of the Delhi high court who quashed the ban in a judgment last week. In an excellent judgment,he held that the government had no right to interfere in creative processes,or impede freedom of expression and speech. He correctly argued that films had the right to depict the realities of life even if those realities were undesirable. Justice Kaul’s landmark judgment in which he also observed that “censorship is highly subjective and can be essentially mindless” ought to have ramifications well beyond this particular case. Creative arts in India — whether film,drama,writing or painting — often tend to get the brutal end of the government’s senseless censorship policy. And this is separate from the brutalisation received at the hands of non-state actors.

Twenty years ago,India became the first country,and probably the only country with a democracy and free speech,to ban Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. A countless number of films are censored everyday for profanity,mild sex and other “sensitive” bits. Why doesn’t the Central Board of Film Certification just do its basic job by rating films for their suitability for different audiences,and then leave the matter of whether people want to watch the film to the people themselves? Profanity,for example,like smoking,is after all a reality,and like Justice Kaul opined,what is the point of blanking out from a film what you can’t blank out from real life. It is unfortunate that even a censor board appointed by a liberal government chooses to cut and beep.

Not so long ago,the government believed that it was the only authority capable of making business/economic decisions for themselves and others. And look at the stagnation that resulted in the economy. Fortunately,that mindset of control (in the economy) changed,helping create world-class businesses in India. And bad products or products that don’t appeal to public tastes will simply now not sell,and fade out.

Something similar will happen with a liberalised creative arts/culture — those works which don’t appeal to public tastes will not make money,and will eventually not be made at all. So,in theory,if the India public objects to profanity,or violence or any other “obscenity” in films,they will vote with their feet and wallets. At any rate,it is better to use the more democratic forces of the market to make these choices than arbitrary state control.

It’s time now to start getting rid of the control mindset,particularly (but not solely) in the creative arts. India has enormous potential to be a world beater in the creative arts. Indian film-makers (and indeed painters or dramatists) can compete on the world stage but the government can’t keep interfering in their creative processes.

And while on the subject of control and creativity,do not forget the role of education. This is another sector which remains in the iron-grip of the government,of whichever ideological persuasion. Politicians of all shades view the control of education as the surest way to try and control minds. It is preposterous for the government to determine all curricula in school — no wonder we end up with doctored histories and warped minds. Our education system,starting in school,needs to encourage independent thinking and creativity and that’s not going to happen if ideologies of the left or right are being rammed down young minds.

We are,in 2009,a better economy courtesy an open economy and entrepreneurship. We can be a better,more tolerant and more creative society by freeing our minds from government control. That’s where,with a little help from Justice Kaul and some other enlightened individuals,our free market democracy now needs to evolve to.

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