Home Culture Censorship Fuel Fears of Intolerance in India

Censorship Fuel Fears of Intolerance in India

by AFP
Manjunath Kiran—AFP

Manjunath Kiran—AFP

Critics say recent trend of bans shows how ‘thin-skinned’ Indian politicians have become.

“Don’t eat it, read it, see it, feel it,” sings the Michael Jackson impersonator as she raps her way through a list of pleasures banned by India’s conservative government before chorusing: “Just beep it!” As the world’s largest democracy, India has long been proud of its tradition of artistic, cultural and religious freedoms. But a series of bans, ranging from eating beef to watching the Fifty Shades of Grey movie, has sparked accusations of a growing climate of intolerance under Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Critics say the bans show how “thin-skinned” their politicians have become in the Internet age where attempts to put a lid on offending material are likely to backfire. The spoof of Jackson’s classic “Beat It,” which was made by Indian comedy trio Enna Da Rascalas, has gone viral since being uploaded on YouTube last week, reflecting the backlash against blacklists. Announcing a ban earlier this month on a British-made documentary about an infamous 2012 gang-rape in Delhi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said the comments by one of the rapists could fuel public anger.

Days later, a government-appointed board of censors blocked the release of Fifty Shades of Grey in cinemas, despite being shown a toned-down version. And a comedy “roast” show that featured several Bollywood stars has fallen foul of the authorities after being uploaded on the Internet and is now at the center of an obscenity investigation over some of its sexually explicit jokes.

“For this government, it seems a ban becomes the quickest way to eliminate a problem,” said Shiv Visvanathan, a sociologist based in Haryana state. “Bans do not tolerate disorder but without debate and disorder, you can’t have a free democracy. It is just making life complex.”

Historians point out that the center-left Congress party, which has ruled India for most of the post-independence period has its own track record of bans, particularly during the 1975-77 “Emergency” under Indira Gandhi. British author Salman Rushdie’s 1988 book The Satanic Verses was for example banned in India for allegedly insulting Islam.

But the last two decades has seen a general relaxation on the part of the watchdogs with TV channels able to air shows like Sex and the City that would have once been considered too racy. Even the movie of Rushdie novel Midnight’s Children—which is scathing about the Emergency—was released in Indian cinemas in 2013, albeit without the nudity.

Shashi Tharoor, a best-selling author who is also a Congress lawmaker, says the cultural climate has definitely changed since Modi’s rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party came to power last May. “Our mounting concern is that there is a climate of intolerance that has unfortunately been given free rein,” said Tharoor. “Positions which had always struck the Indian mainstream as being fringe positions have suddenly become acceptable to the powers that lead.”

The former diplomat made his name with The Great Indian Novel, a satire that came out in 1989 and is based on the epic Sanskrit poem Mahabharata. Were it to be published today, Tharoor suspects it would be banned.

Acclaimed Tamil-language author Perumal Murugan quit writing altogether in January following protests by Hindu and caste groups who felt insulted by one of his books.

Pressure from Hindu activist groups was also instrumental in the passing of a ban on beef earlier this month in the western state of Maharashtra, which encompasses the largest city Mumbai. Cows are sacred to Hindus. The move has been interpreted in some corners as another sign of growing intolerance in a country that is overwhelmingly Hindu but also has sizeable Muslim, Christian and Buddhist minorities.

But Pavan Verma, who has written extensively about cultural and religious history in India, said a certain amount of censorship was understandable in order to avoid causing offence in such a diverse country. “India is a country of wide social discrepancies… that try to coexist with each other and it’s not an easy job to keep everyone happy all the time,” said Verma, a former head of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

There was widespread condemnation in India of January’s murderous attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, which had printed cartoons of Islam’s Prophet. But when the editor of a Mumbai-based Urdu magazine reprinted one of the cartoons as a gesture of solidarity, she was arrested under laws against insulting religion.

Tanmay Bhat, one of the AIB comedy team at the center of the obscenity row, said the wave of bans made little logical sense but did reflect a general intolerance. “We [Indians] tend to have… an ostrich kind of mentality,” he said at a New Delhi event last week. “We want to put our heads into the ground and be like, ‘if I don’t like something then it’s got to go away’.”

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1 comment

Satayagraha March 25, 2015 - 1:15 pm

Media in India has evolved in much in the same way as under British colonialism with freedoms and government imposed sanctions/by laws. Media has historically been privately owned and operated freely under Article 19 of the India Constititution, however, the government has in the past has strong censorship watchdogs such as the Indian Censorship board. Historically, the goal of Indian Journalists has been to monitor government for corruption and other violations. The Broadcast Code is aimed at social responsibility:
“The Broadcasting Code, adopted by the Fourth Asian Broadcasting Conference in 1962 listing certain cardinal principles to be followed buy the electronic media, is of prime importance so far as laws governing broadcast medium are concerned. Although, the Broadcast Code was chiefly set up to govern the All India Radio, the following cardinal principles have ideally been practiced by all Broadcasting and Television Organization as well as Print Media, the current most dominant form in India.
1. To ensure the objective presentation of news and fair and unbiased comment.
2. To promote the advancement of education and culture.
3. To raise and maintain high standards of decency and decorum in all programmes
4. To provide programmes for the young which, by variety and content, will inculcate the principles of good citizenship.
5. To promote communal harmony, religious tolerance and international understanding.
6. To treat controversial public issues in an impartial and dispassionate manner.
7. To respect human rights and dignity”
There are hundreds of media outlets most domestically held and foreign such as News Corporation, General Electric, and Sony. Most news outlets in India are in local languages even with the dominance of English. This has lead to major language fragmentation and decentralization across the country. What may seem censorship is really protection because of this East-West mix in a heterogeneous population. Most Western countries are homogenous and the media values therefore are different than that of India’s. This has in turn weakened the power of the central government and caused a breakdown in Indian values and norms that are a reflection of the Fundamental Right outlined in the constitution.
“It has been argued that the globalisation of Western culture is producing “heterogenous disjunctures’ rather than a homogenised global culture. The global-local interaction also appears to be leading to a hybrid media culture, one that blurs the boundaries between the modern and the traditional, the national and the global ( which in essence means US dominated Western) culture.”
India has in the past blocked access to information and events and held reporters in jail but the mortality and imprisonment rate for reporters is low compared with other countries in the region. The constitution allows a media block out if it affects the “sovereignty and integrity of India” and this is the case in areas such as Kashmir and other border conflict zones. This leads to improper coverage or an indirect type of media censorship. Unauthorized access and trying to fight corruption also leads to jail time. Reporters Without Borders 2010 Press Freedom Index rank India’s rank has fallen to 122 from 105 out of 174 in press freedoms, among the worst for a democracy. The criteria include censorship, as well as threats, and state control of the media. India’s ranking has always been in the 120s in the later half of the decade out of at least 166 with a ranking of 128 in 2003 out of 166 the worst and a 2002 ranking of 80 out of 133. From the beginning of the decade to 2010, the countries monitored increased from 134 to 174.


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