The Motley Crew of the Ban(dwagon)

Published: March 09, 2015 22:34 IST
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(Ishwari Bajpai is Senior Advisor at NDTV; he has been a journalist for 30 years, and has covered the elections since 1984.)

It is a strange collection of people, groups and institutions that have come together to call for and order the banning of the screening of the documentary India's Daughter. And in this coming together they have either forgotten their past or are willing to sacrifice their future for this ban, or both. Further, they seem to be impervious to the consequences of demanding a ban on the film; restricting the freedom of speech and expression.

Politicians love to play to the gallery and to what they think is public opinion, and so they goaded each other on with the battle cry of "ban the film". They went back to that classic myopic and under-confident nationhood by claiming that the film would damage India's image abroad, unable to see that banning something would damage India's image even more. If this image-conscious government cannot see that then there has not been much change since the days of Indira Gandhi.

More importantly, all the major players in the BJP (including LK Advani, Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley) spent two years in jail during the Emergency (Narendra Modi was underground) and know how vulnerable the freedom of expression is.

Two and half years ago LK Advani wrote in his blog "...I have always regarded the Emergency period 1975-77 as the worst in so far as suppression of civil liberties and freedom of expression were concerned...But seeing what has happened to political cartoonist and anti-corruption crusader Aseem Trivedi, I have started wondering is today's political set-up worse even than the Emergency?"

More interestingly, in a debate on the IT Bill recently, Arun Jaitley said that with the internet, the "days of censorship are over." He said he was convinced that if the internet had been around then, the "internal Emergency of 1975 would been a big fiasco." And yet knowing this, he allowed his ministry (Information and Broadcasting) to issue the ban order that drove people to the internet to watch India's Daughter. In fact it is quite likely that the ban probably resulted in more people hearing about the film and perhaps watching it. So what did the ban achieve?

But politicians have their own compulsions and often when in power are driven by different forces then when they are in the opposition. So maybe freedom is just another cry of those without power. But why would the self-appointed defenders and activists of the women's movement join politicians in asking for a ban on the film?

Most of them state that they are also human rights activists and yet they don't see the contradiction in terms? They try and hide their demand for this ban behind the fig leaf of a claim that the matter is sub judice? Sub judice when it is in the Supreme Court? That sounds extremely strange given that the Supreme Court, in the Zee TV case on the airing of a documentary on the December 13, 2001 Parliament attack, said that judges were not influenced by the media.

The Zee telecast was at the time of the trial court judgement and it is argued influenced the judgement. Vrinda Grover quotes that example and says "In my view the telecast of the 'confession' of Afzal Guru, while in police custody, singularly shaped the 'collective conscience' that led him to the noose. I think that confession should never ever have been broadcast." To repeat, this was before a trial court.

But the Nirbhaya case is before the Supreme Court, a court that has already asked seen the High Court ruling and should be abreast with the case and so isn't it up to the court to decide whether a matter is sub judice? Why did they not move the Supreme Court on this ground that the judges may be influenced?

Instead they sent a long letter to NDTV arguing that the film, among many issues, infringes upon and compromises the rights of the rape victim and the accused men; thwarts the sanctity of the evidence recorded; find out how Mukesh Singh's "informed consent" was sought and given; makes a disturbing and direct incitement to violence.

To which argument Shohini Ghosh, Zakir Hussain Professor of media at the AJK Mass Communication Research Center writes, "The feminists who have written to NDTV have foregrounded a singular interpretation of the film whereas the audience response to the film - as is evident on the electronic and social media - has been heterogeneous. That is how it is always with every film. Everyone is entitled to have their opinion about the film but they cannot decide for others what they should think about it. Those who have objections to the film are free to start a public debate without demanding that the film be restrained on grounds that it 'amplifies misogynist views' or 'adds to the cacophony of hate speech.'...At a time when spaces of dissent are being hijacked by right-wing forces, feminists will do well to uphold the Fundamental Right to free speech and expression without rushing to invoke its "reasonable restrictions".

This passage from a longer piece was posted on Facebook and is said to have been forwarded to feministsindia.com, which is run by Kavita Krishna et al on March 5 for publication in response to their letter to NDTV. It hasn't, till now, been placed there. Perhaps, it did not get there and was lost in the cloud or perhaps those wanting India's Daughter banned, the deciders of the women's movement, also don't appreciate criticism.

But perhaps the most fatal blow to the independence of media has come from within the media. While competition is good, and disagreement with views of others' editorial policies are acceptable, it is highly reprehensible for a journalist to call for a ban on programming on a competing channel and that too without seeing the film. It opens the door to any authority, anywhere in the country being able to ask, nay demand, bans without any tangible basis except that they have seen press releases.

While eulogizing Vinod Mehta (RIP) as the greatest editor of our times shouldn't one ask whether he, whatever his views on this film may have been, would have asked for or supported a ban? No, dear colleague, that was not Vinod Mehta, and that perhaps is why you would have benefited from learning from him.

Unfortunately, while the whole episode has shown India in a very bad light, as a self-conscious and weak democracy, the politicians, activists and media people who make calls for bans should remember this is a double-edged sword and they should be the first defenders of freedom and not the clarions of its suppression.

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