Quarterly Report of the Free Speech Hub of theHoot.org
Censorship in democratic India continues to be on the rise. This dismaying trend was starkly evident in the first quarter of 2014. The Hoot.org’sFree Speech HubTracker recorded 52 instances of censorship in the first 3 months of the year, a little less than one a day.
Actors as diverse as the courts, student organizations, state governments, publishing houses, the LokSabha Secretariat , the Central Board of Film Certification, a lawyers’ association, Hindu groups including the Shiv Sena, the RSS, and the Hindu Jan JagrutiSamiti, the ministry of information and broadcasting, Tamil groups and individual industrialists moved to exercise various forms of censorship. These were on books, newspapers, films, Facebook posts, telecasts, and the exhibiting of films and staging of plays.
The most newsworthy blackout was by the LokSabha Secretariat of the final moments of voting in Parliament to create a new state, the state of Telangana. On February 17, 2014, the LokSabha TV telecast was switched off just as home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde began speaking at 3 pm when the AP Reorganization Bill was taken up for consideration.
Claiming the bill had been passed "democratically", the LS secretariat said the telecast disruption was being probed. "LS proceedings couldn't be telecast live due to technical reasons," the statement said. But the leader of the opposition in the LokSabha, SushmaSwaraj said the lack of live coverage was a "tactical glitch", not a technical one, a view supported by leaders of other parties.
In the first three months of this year, Hindu groups of different kinds triggered censorship of books, films, and performances, in as many as 12 different incidents. The case that attracted the most attention was the decision of Penguin Books to withdraw Wendy Doniger’s controversial book, “The Hindus.” It was reported that Penguin Books India has agreed to withdraw all published copies this book and also decided to destroy all remaining copies of the book they have.
The agreement, which stated that Penguin ‘submits that it respects all religions worldwide’, was drawn up with a group called ShikshaBachaoAndolan, based in NarainaVihar in New Delhi, which had filed a civil suit against the company over the book in the 2011. In addition to this, there were two criminal complaints filed as well in this matter in HauzKhaz. One complaint was filed in 2010, and another in 2013.
Emboldened by their success in getting Penguin to agree to withdraw the books, the group then set their target on another publisher, Aleph, which had published a book by the same author ‘On Hinduism’. Though the publisher said it would not succumb, its offices directed the withdrawal of copies from bookstores in Bangalore.
The quarter also saw the usual crop of films fighting bans on screening, three of these at the behest of right wing or pro-Hindutva groups. The Mumbai theatre Globus refuses to screen 'The Gujarat Promise' for fear of a BJP backlash. The film explores whether development in Gujarat is indeed touching the lives of those at the lower rungs of society or whether the figures are skewed and inflated in the state. The filmmakers said it was a special screening by invite but the multiplex management changed its mind.
In Thrissur, Kerala, RSS workers stopped the screening of 'Ocean of Tears', a Kashmiri documentary film in February, at the ninth edition of the ViBGYOR international short and documentary film festival. The film festival organisers were also attacked. BJP state cell coordinator B Gopalakrishnan, had demanded that the organizers of the film festival not screen 'Ocean of Tears', alleging that the film maligned the image of Indian Army.
The film was later screened after police removed the RSS activists from the theatre hall, underscoring the point that effective enforcement of law and order can combat such censorship attempts.
But it wasn’t only documentaries of a political nature that attracted the ire of right-wing Hindutva groups. In March, the Hindu Jan JagrutiSamiti (HJS) demanded a ban on the movie Ragini MMS 2 as well as deportation of Bollywood star Sunny Leone from India in its memorandum submitted to the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). The organisation threatened to agitate in front of movie halls that screen the film, if it was not banned.
In order to press the demand to stop the movie from being exhibited, the HJS said that is "educating" movie theatre owners, to stop the movie from being screened. Calling Ragini MMS 2 "an assault on Bharatiya culture, dignity and Hindu deities" in its memorandum to the CFBC, the HJS said the movie begins with the chanting of the "Shree Hanuman Chalisa" which is sacred to Hindus and held the CFBC responsible for "increase in communal and social tension".
Saffron intolerance spilled over onto news media as the DwarkaShankaracharya slapped a journalist because he was annoyed at his uncomfortable questions about Modi while RSS workers attacked Caravan magazine’s offices for publishing an interview with Samjhauta blast accused Aseemanand.
Categories of Censorship
In the first quarter of the year, there were five instances of cyber censorship, including a complaint on a Facebook post that made allegedly anti-BJP messages. The cyber crime cell of the Goa police registered a complaint against Facebook user DevuChodankar for allegedly stating that if BJP leader NarendraModi came to power, it would ‘lead to holocaust of the minorities’.
The complainant feared the post could trigger enmity between two communities and instill fear among the minority communities. The post was later deleted, it was reported but the cyber crime cell, which has booked an offence under 153A, 295A of IPC, section 125 of representation of the people act and 66-A of IT act, said investigations would continue.
While in January, a dalit musician was barred from performing at the famous Guruvayoor temple, saffron censorship struck again in February, when performances of a play and a music band in Mumbai were affected by objections of Hindu groups. The Kalaghoda Arts festival axed ‘Ali J’, a play loosely based on Mohammad Ali Jinnah, after the right wing group Hindu Jana jagrutiSamiti protested that it was ‘anti-national’. The producers move it to YouTube.
Meanwhile in the same month, the Shiv Sena, a Hindu right-wing party, which leads Mumbai’s civic body, attacked a press conference by a Pakistani band at the Press Club of Mumbai. Shiv Sena workers barged into the press club in the afternoon and demanded that the Sufi band, MekaalHasan Band, be sent back to Pakistan.
Judicial action, privacy violations, defamation notices
The first quarter saw orders by various courts on a range of petitions seeking bans on books, films and hate speech regulation. Two separate petitions came up before the Supreme Court urging action against hate speech, prompting a directive from the apex court to get the Law Commission to prepare guidelines on the issue.
Privacy violations of real-life incidents and people came up repeatedly, as the Delhi High Court allowed the release of Bollywood film ‘Gulab Gang’, only after a disclaimer that the film bore no resemblance to the life of Gulabi Gang founder Sampat Pal. The Bombay High Court directed producers of the Marathi film, ‘KhairlanjichyaMathyavar’ (On Khairlanji’s forehead), to seek a fresh CBFC certificate, responding to a privacy protection plea by the only survivor of the 2006 massacre, BhaiyalalBhotmange. In another case, the Supreme Court ordered the controversial UIDAI not to share details of the Aadhar scheme so as to protect privacy.
However, the Madras High Court banned a whistleblower website Savukku, run by Achimuthu Shankar, reportedly because of its publication of some of the 2G tapes.
Defamation notices and a case in the Kolkata High Court proved to be a handy weapon for controversial Sahara chief Subrato Roy to stop the publication of a book “Sahara: The Untold Story” by Mint editor TamalBandopadhyay. Indian cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and retired Supreme Court judge Swatantra Kumar, accused of sexual harassment by a law intern, also took the defamation route, the latter obtaining an order from the Delhi High Court restraining media coverage.
Self-censorship was increasingly evident, either as protest, as in the case of newspapers in Arunachal Pradesh that blacked out their own editions to protest lack of security for journalists or in the cancellations of scheduled film screenings and theatre performances following protests by right-wing Hindu vigilante groups.
The unprecedented pulling out of Santosh Sivan’s Tamil film “Inam” from theatres at the end of March 2014, following protests by Tamil groups, was an alarming reminder of ever-prevalent street censorship. Dalit groups, aggrieved at portrayal of casteism books by acclaimed Tamil writer P, got Madras University to withdraw the books from curriculum.
Industrialist Shiv Nadar and union minister for heavy industries, Praful Patel, sought to stop uncomfortable biographies of their work and lives. While the formed backed out of his agreement with Penguin to publish his authorized biography, the latter succeeded in getting Bloomsbury to withdraw JitendraBhargava’s “The descent of Air India”.
Hate speech cases
A criminal complaint was filed against ImraanMasood, Congress LokSabha candidate from Sahranpur, Uttar Pradesh, for threatening to ‘chop to pieces” the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate NarendraModi for fomenting communal riots. Police promptly arrestedMasood and the Congress party distanced itself from the remarks.
Attacks on the media
Attacks on the media continued with impunity as police, in separate instances, beat up journalists covering protests in West Bengal and in Imphal, personnel of the Indian Reserve Battalion (IRB), beat two journalists. Apart from the attacks on journalists by pro-Hindutva forces, the media was targeted by militant student groups and the police in separate incidents in the North-East. Personnel of the India Reserve Battalion (IRB) assaulted Paojel Chaoba alias Aribam Dhananjoy, a senior correspondent of Imphal Free Press in February.
Silencing of dissenting voices
The quarter also saw the chilling effects of censorship of any kind of free and frank expression of opinion by citizens from authorities as varied as the Mumbai University (who suspended Economic professor NeerajHatekar for his remarks on deterioration of academic conditions) and the Kochi Bar Association (which suspended a woman lawyer for criticizing sexism in the bar). In the former instance, concerted student-protest saw the revocation of the suspension notice but the lawyer received scant support from colleagues.
The archaic colonial-era law that continues on Indian statute-books to penalize any allegedly anti-national expression, was used against 67 Kashmiri Kasmiri students of the Swami VivekanandSubharti University, Meerut for allegedly raising pro-Pakistan slogans during an Indo-Pak cricket match. But protests across India against the action resulted in the charges being dropped. Another sedition case against AamAadmi Party leader ArvindKejriwal was also dropped.
Government surveillance, phone interceptions and blocks on websites were still the order of the day. India was amongst the five countries throughout the world to block websites, Verizon disclosed in February this year while India’s Centre for Development of Telematics was named an ‘enemy’ of the Internet by media freedom group, Reporters without Borders.
Who are the censors? Click this list to find the Agents of Censorship
Censorship - how and where? Click this list to find Categories of Censorship