In banning the screening of Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam for a period of two weeks, the Tamil Nadu government has recused itself from a fundamental responsibility — that of protecting the right to free expression. It has relied on the old chestnut — maintenance of law and order and public tranquillity — to justify the indefensible. That a clutch of fringe Muslim organisations had protested against the film, claiming to be offended by its alleged depiction of the community in a negative light, hardly justifies restraining its screening. If a threat of violence was anticipated, the right response would have been to ensure that the necessary security arrangements were provided to ensure its smooth screening rather than slap a temporary ban. Whether a film contains objectionable elements, and whether it may be screened or not, are decisions that vest with the Central Board for Film Certification, constituted under the stringent Cinematograph Act, 1952. It is difficult to believe that a film which passes through the process of pre-censorship with its rigid guidelines contains material that would upset the sentiments of a religious community and pose a real danger to public order.
It is a pity that such reflexive bans are imposed despite the courts reiterating time and again that a law and order threat does not justify such action. In 2006, the Supreme Court adopted this position while dismissing a petition seeking to bar the screening of The Da Vinci Code; a little later, the Madras High Court quashed the Tamil Nadu government’s order suspending the screening of the film on the ground that it “may lead to demonstrations and disturb the peace and tranquillity of the state.” The landmark case, which set the tone for these and related judgments is S. Rangarajan vs. P. Jagajivan Ram, in which the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the right of the former, a film producer, to release Ore Oru Gramathile, which was critical of the reservation policy in Tamil Nadu’s educational institutions. In a stirring judgment that underlined that it was the duty of the state to protect the right to unpopular forms of speech, the court held that “freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threat of violence.” As it observed, this “would be tantamount to negation of the rule of law and a surrender to blackmail and intimidation.” Given the precedents, it is highly doubtful that the Tamil Nadu government’s ban on Vishwaroopam will withstand judicial scrutiny. In capitulating before those who protested against the film, the State has only passed the buck on its screening to the judiciary. Could this be exactly what it wanted?