India has repeatedly seen incidents where the screening of films, certified by the Central Board of Film Certification, has been halted. Extremist groups threaten public order, and claim community ‘sentiments’ have been ‘offended’. Rather than take on such forces, State governments have often caved in, unwilling to invest political and administrative capital in the protection of the freedom of expression. Earlier this year, in the wake of the controversy over the ban on Vishwaroopam, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting set up a committee under Justice Mukul Mudgal to revisit the entire legislative framework. The report has now been made public. It recommends a new procedure for appointments to advisory panels, which actually view films. It is on the basis of their recommendations that the board issues certification. Unfortunately, membership to such panels is often distributed as political patronage. For certification, the committee has adopted two guiding principles — “protection of artistic and creative freedom,” and remaining “socially responsible and sensitive to values and standards of society.” But the danger is that such phrases can be used to stifle free speech.
But it is with regard to the government’s power to ban films that the committee comes up with a new set of recommendations. It upholds the principle that exhibition of a film already certified shall not be suspended. This is in line with the landmark 1989 judgment in the case of S. Rangarajan v Jagivan Ram involving the film, Ore Oru Gramathile, where the Supreme Court laid down that “freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence.” The committee also concludes that the Central government is the “sole repository of legislative power and executive action” regarding exhibition of films. In instances where a public exhibition “leads to a breach of public order” or can potentially do so, the Centre can — the committee suggests — order the suspension of the exhibition. While allowing such orders, the committee makes the point that it has inserted additional caveats. It has taken away the power from State governments the power to ban films. It has stipulated that film producers be given an opportunity to explain their side of the story first. Such orders, it says, are justified only in the case of threats to “public order,” not merely “peace.” It should be passed only after public screening and not prior to intended screening. It has also expanded the jurisdiction of the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal. While the committee appears to invest excessive faith in the Centre’s judgment and willingness to stand up to extremist forces, the recommendations are positive and a step towards institutionalising freedom and checking unwarranted censorship.