A government that loves to ban

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March 9, 2015

Last week, the government banned India’s Daughter, a documentary on the gang-rape and killing of a physiotherapy student in December 2012.

In doing so, the government has kept up with India’s unenviable record of censoring and banning content across different media—print, film and the Internet. It reflects poorly on the world’s most populous democracy.

March 9, 2015

Last week, the government banned India’s Daughter, a documentary on the gang-rape and killing of a physiotherapy student in December 2012.

In doing so, the government has kept up with India’s unenviable record of censoring and banning content across different media—print, film and the Internet. It reflects poorly on the world’s most populous democracy.

Filmed by Leslee Udwin and telecast by the BBC, the documentary was described as “very sensitive” by the government. Home minister Rajnath Singh said on Thursday, “Yes we had informed all channels that the documentary must not be released. But BBC has broadcast it in London. Whatever action we have to take, the home ministry will go ahead and do that.” Notices have also been served to social media platforms for removing the documentary.

The documentary attracted controversy because of its interviewing of Mukesh Singh, a convict in the case. Singh was one of the six men who indulged in the barbaric crime and was among the four who were sentenced to death.

In India’s Daughter, Singh blames the victim for what happened to her. This has evoked widespread revulsion and anger in India and elsewhere.

There are two issues at hand. One, the futility of bans in the digital age, and two, the substantive reasons for a ban. On both grounds, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is wrong.

There are no tools worth their name to enforce such bans in India now. If the BBC was ordered not to telecast the film in India, it complied. But it quickly broadcast the film from London, defeating the purpose of the ban.

Soon after the ban order, the documentary and its controversial snippets—such as the bit with Singh’s interview—were freely available on social media and the Internet. Not to be deterred, the government issued more notices to prevent viewers from accessing the documentary. It is a futile effort but one which dents India’s credibility as a democracy.

Any government must evaluate the link between the reasons for a ban and the efficacy of the measure to effect that ban. This government has certainly not done that exercise.

In most democracies, the only ground for banning films, books, etc., is their potential to create public disorder. India’s Daughter comes nowhere near that. The only reason, if it can even be called that, is the anger and disgust at the airing of a convict’s views on his crime. These views are reprehensible and show the man deserves the punishment handed to him in a fair trial, but again, that is insufficient for a ban.

The danger of the documentary affecting the course of justice, too, is far-fetched. India’s judicial appeals system is robust. Further, there is an active public sphere in the country where all events and issues of importance are debated threadbare. These are sufficient safeguards against any miscarriage of justice.

The trouble is with the political basis on which these decisions are made. The BJP is a party that is yet to define its conservatism: does it want to be a free-market espousing party that attracts urban, educated, masses or does it want to be a culturally conservative party, one that wants to launch culture wars in the country that no one really has an appetite for? This point has been argued before in these pages (http://t.co/EVrKANKasI).

This ban should be seen in conjunction with its picking of censor board members. The latest from that board—another antiquated institution—is a ban on allegedly offensive words in films.

These events show the BJP in a different, unflattering light. The party was elected with a huge parliamentary mandate barely a year ago. It was a mandate to put India back on its economic rails. Banning films and cuss words was not a part of that.


Courtesy: LiveMint