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Updated: November 30, 2009 03:24 IST

Social censorship against freedom of expression

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S. Viswanathan, Readers' Editor.
The Hindu S. Viswanathan, Readers' Editor.

THE physical attack on a legislator by members of a rival party in the Maharashtra Assembly on November 9 and the series of incidents that followed highlight the growing intolerance of dissent, attempts to strengthen linguistic and regional chauvinism, and, above all, violation of constitutional rights, particularly the freedom of expression.

Samajwadi Party member Abu Asim Azmi was assaulted in the opening session of the newly elected Assembly by members of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), an offshoot of Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena, for the simple reason that he took his oath in Hindi, and not in Marathi, “defying” MNS president Raj Thackeray’s “diktat” issued in an open letter to the Assembly members. The letter had held out a threat against non-compliance. Significantly, Azmi was attacked when he was only discharging his constitutional duty in a language approved by the Constitution. The Assembly condemned the violence as shameful and suspended four MNS legislators through a resolution.

Soon after this, Azmi was the target of attack again, this time from the members of the Shiv Sena led by Bal Thackeray, the MNS chief’s uncle. Sena workers ransacked the business premises of his shop, and the party’s MLAs demanded his arrest for remarks made against Bal Thackeray, disrupting the proceedings of the House. (Interestingly, the two Senas fought each other in the recent Assembly elections.)

Sachin, the next target

The next target of the Shiv Sena was cricket idol Sachin Tendulkar. The provocation this time was a perfectly unexceptionable observation. In response to a question at a felicitation function, the cricketer said: “Mumbai belongs to India, that’s how I look at it. And I am a Maharashtrian and I am extremely proud of that. But I am an Indian.” Intolerant of such broadmindedness, Thackeray stated in a signed letter addressed to Sachin in his party’s mouthpiece, Saamna: “While speaking of Marathi pride why did you have to take a ‘cheeky single’ by bringing in Mumbai? You have been run out from the pitch of the Marathi heart.” He instructed Sachin “to stick to cricket and not play politics.” “Mumbai cannot belong to anyone else”, thundered the Sena chief, adding that “even if it is the country’s economic capital, it is the capital of Maharashtra first.” “You are free to hit fours and sixers on the cricket field, but keep off the political pitch,” he said with a finality that amounted to a warning.

An article written by Shiv Sena M.P., Sanjay Raut, in the party organ, Saamna, took the matter further. It alleged that there was “no instance of Sachin extending a helping hand to other Marathi cricketers.” It contrasted him unfavourably with Sunil Gavaskar, who “had half the team drawn from Mumbai and Maharashtra.”

Attacks on the media

Later, on November 20, Sainiks stormed the offices of the television news channels, IBN Lokmat and IBN 7 in Mumbai and Pune, with sticks and clubs in protest against statements made on the channel against Bal Thackeray. They ransacked the premises, beat up mediapersons, including women, and caused considerable property loss. IBN Lokmat Editor-in-Chief Nikhil Wagle, known for his outspoken views against the Sena, was slapped. What happened here was a brazen violation of the freedom of the press, which flows from the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution. Chief Minister Ashok Chavan, who condemned the attack and declared that “press freedom cannot be gagged like this,” has promised that his administration would go all out to bring all those involved in the attack to justice. But given the past record of softness towards the Sena’s violent ways by the Maharashtra police and governments, it remains to be seen whether this time it will be really different.

Appealing to linguistic sentiments and regional feelings are oft-used strategies of the Sainiks and their leaders. Alternating between violence and intimidation has benefited them in the past. Understandably, such tactics work remarkably well in Bollywood, where several thousand crores of rupees are involved in the business of film-making. The kind of success such “social censorship” brings when used against filmmakers and artists, is often encouraging to its perpetrators.

According to the lawyer and human rights champion, Rajeev Dhavan, there have been many examples of high-profile victims tendering apologies under pressure from perpetrators of social censorship. They include Amitabh Bachchan. Dhavan also cites the case of Deepa Mehta’s Water finding a watery grave even before filming Varanasi. More recently, Karan Johar’s film, Wake Up Sid, ran into trouble on account of his refusal to replace the word “Bombay” with “Mumbai”. At places, the film described the ‘maximum city’ by its old name instead of the new one. Predictably, Johar was forced to yield.

In a sense, social censorship is more invidious than legal censorship because, among other things, Indian courts, in the overwhelming majority of instances, come out on the side of freedom of expression. ”Social attitudes and pressures will always exist. But for social censorship to topple legal governance is an invitation to chaos,” concludes Rajiv Dhavan.

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