The delay in overturning the unjustifiable ban on Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam is beginning to appear every bit as unjustifiable. It is difficult to fathom the rationale behind the Madras High Court deferring its decision on the film’s screening. Earlier, the court had ruled the film cannot be shown in Tamil Nadu until January 28, by which time the judge hearing the case would see it for himself. Now that the special screening has been held, what basis can there possibly be for deferring the decision once again and asking Kamal Haasan to “negotiate the matter and sort the issue out amicably”? Courts exist principally to dispense justice, not to hand out advice which, in this case, seems entirely gratuitous. Of course, there have been occasions when the judiciary has adopted a pragmatic, even reconciliatory, approach, one that attempts to find a common ground between adversarial parties; the gulf between formalism and actual judicial practice is a little wider than most people assume. But in this case, the court has not even attempted to resolve the dispute. It has simply thrown the ball back at Kamal Haasan, asking him to find a way out of a mess that was not his making. In doing so, it has risked the unfortunate perception that it is reluctant to take a hard and forthright decision based on law.
There should have been no place for such temporising given the clear judicial precedents in such cases. It was only two years ago that the Supreme Court set aside the two-month ban on the Hindi film Aarakshan on the ground that States cannot proscribe films that have been cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification on the mere apprehension that screening them may cause a law and order problem. As we pointed out recently in this space (“Responsibility To Protect,” January 25, 2013), the landmark case that set the tone for such judgments was S. Rangarajan v/s P. Jagajivan Ram, where the Supreme Court held that “freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstrations and processions and threat of violence.” It is true there have been regrettable aberrations to a judicial approach that has strongly refused to cower before blackmail and intimidation. Only recently, the Supreme Court dismissed a petition challenging the Tamil Nadu government’s ban on the release of the film DAM 999. The ban on Vishwaroopam must be quashed and the police directed to provide adequate protection to theatres and moviegoers. While it is the right of the fringe Muslim groups who are offended, seemingly or otherwise, to protest against the film, any demonstration should be staged only peacefully. Anyone who threatens or takes recourse to violence deserves to be dealt with strictly and punitively.