Select provisions of TN Dramatic Performances Act struck down; court acts on petition by Gnani

Staging of plays in Tamil Nadu no longer requires police permission, with the Madras High Court on Wednesday declaring unconstitutional, some provisions of the Tamil Nadu Dramatic Performances Act, 1954.

In a verdict that gave a boost to freedom of expression, the court said it was of the opinion that the definition of “objectionable performance” in the law was too vague to be brought within the restriction allowed under Article 19 (2) of the Constitution.

“The power conferred on the State government under section 3 as well as on the police commissioner/district collectors under section 4 is too wide and highly discretionary. Therefore, it cannot be held to be constitutionally valid and hence it is violative of Article 14 of the Constitution,” Justice K. Chandru said.

The court passed the order while allowing a petition by N. V. Sankaran alias Gnani, a journalist, who also ran a theatre group, Pareeksha.

The petitioner contended that whenever he wanted to stage a play, its script needed to be cleared by the Chennai police commissioner, who determined whether there was anything objectionable in the content. On satisfying itself that there was nothing objectionable in the play, the commissioner’s office then granted approval to stage it.

Normally, permission was granted only a day before the staging of the play. “Vesting such discretion in the hands of the third respondent (police commissioner), who is not an artist or had no aesthetic sensibility to judge whether the play is objectionable, is clearly uncalled for.”

The petitioner said he arranged to stage a play, Kamala, based on the work of Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar. The police did not approve of the script even three hours before the scheduled time. He was asked to cut several “objectionable” dialogues. Therefore, the group was forced to compromise on its artistic freedom and accepted such cuts.

Mr. Sankaran said the 1954 Act was a relic of colonial rule in the country during which the Dramatic Performance Act, 1876 was enacted to regulate theatre. Though the law purported to grant an opportunity of hearing before an order of prohibition could be passed, such a procedure was an empty formality.

The petitioner’s counsel, R. Yashod Vardhan, said the argument that the 1954 Act had stood the test for more than 60 years and therefore could not be challenged was unacceptable. Advocate-General A. Navaneethakrishnan said the impugned Act did not go against the Constitution and the restrictions imposed on it came within Article 19 (2).

When a play is sought to be enacted, time was of the essence. It could not be left to the party to forever wait, as the law did not give any time limit.

Citing an Allahabad High Court judgment on a similar procedure, the court said when discretion was given without any guidelines to officers, merely providing for an appeal to the High Court was not a consolation.

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