The suspension of screening of the Hindi film Aarakshan, which deals with issues of caste and reservation, by the governments of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, and Andhra Pradesh is a serious encroachment on the freedom of expression in the guise of upholding public order and respecting the sentiments of a social group or community. The director, Prakash Jha, has done well to challenge the ban before the Supreme Court of India, which will hear the case on Tuesday. Independent of the merits of the film, such a ban is out of place in a democratic society. It militates against the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Although clause (2) of the Article allows for reasonable restrictions on the freedom, including in the interest of public order, the Supreme Court has clearly laid down, in the 1989 judgment in the case of S. Rangarajan v. Jagjivan Ram involving the film Ore Oru Gramathile (which too dealt with the issue of reservation), that “freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence.” That, the court noted, would be tantamount to “negation of the rule of law and a surrender to blackmail and intimidation.” The competent authority for clearing a film for public release is the Central Board of Film Certification, and politicians and communal or sectarian pressure groups cannot arrogate to themselves the right to decide what films others should watch. Taking the easy or opportunist way out by banning a movie is anathema to any functioning democracy.
While it is in the nature of art to shock or provoke, in the case of Aarakshan the portions objected to do not even constitute the thrust of the movie. To tear out of the dramatic context snatches of dialogue and demand their removal from the film is to take intolerance to new heights. The issue is not whether an articulated argument is valid or not. As the Supreme Court noted in the watershed 1989 judgment, “The producer may project his own message which the others may not approve of. But he has a right to ‘think out' and put the counter-appeals to reason. It is a part of a democratic give-and-take to which no one could complain. The State cannot prevent open discussion and open expression, however hateful to its policies.” The real danger to the public interest springs not from the public screening of the movie, but from state-imposed restrictions on freedom of expression on indefensible grounds. Aarakshan must be allowed a free run as cleared by the CBFC without any cuts — in the interest of keeping India a free and open society. To give in to sectional interests in this case would be to put in jeopardy a cornerstone of the Indian Constitution.