In coming down heavily on the Uttar Pradesh government order suspending the screening of the Hindi film Aarakshan, which deals with issues of caste and reservation, the Supreme Court of India has struck another blow for freedom of expression and against the tendency of the state to resort to censorship at the first sign of political protest. Importantly, the court held that the government had no power to suspend screening of a film that had been cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification. The CBFC, or censor board, is an empowered regulatory body constituted to view, rate, and censor objectionable portions of a film prior to its release. To seek to ban or suspend the screening of a film certified by the censor board under the procedure established by law (in this case, the Cinematograph Act 1952) goes against the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution — and is a threat to democratic dissent and artistic creativity. Hearteningly, the court found no merit in the contention that screening the film would cause a breach of peace and law and order. Besides pointing to the fact that the film had been released without difficulty in other parts of the country, the judges referred to the landmark Supreme Court judgment in the 1989 Ore oru gramathile case and ruled that it was for the state to maintain law and order and that “it shall maintain law and order effectively and meaningfully.” No democratic society can allow unreasonable restrictions on the freedom of expression under cover of maintaining public order.
As for the merits of the contention that a high-level committee appointed by the Uttar Pradesh government had recommended suspension of the film on the ground that it dealt with the sensitive issue of reservation, the Supreme Court was categorical that public discussion on such social issues was necessary in a vibrant democracy, and that informed decisions could be taken on the basis of such discussion and dissent. On the other hand, shutting out discussion on sensitive social issues, far from aiding public order, would have the effect of deepening social divides and breeding public unrest. Political stability and public order, it is clear, cannot be bought at the cost of freedom of expression and right to dissent. Successive Supreme Court rulings on the issue, which draw force from Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, should deter governments from going down this road again under pressure from organised groups or special interests or for any other reason. The Hindu hopes that Aarakshan will be the last film to face a ban in India.