Why Are We Surprised By The ‘Padmavati’ Controversy?

The controversy over the movie “Padmavati” highlights a major fault-line in the right of free speech that is recognized by the Indian Constitution. It makes the right seem incidental to the dominant narrative rather than an essential nature of our polity. It also highlights the withering of the state in essential spheres like public safety and its creative concentration on disputed issues of culture, history and moralities. The censor board is an integral part of this setup.

British colonisers considered Indians as excitable, irrational, underdeveloped, unyielding to reason and vulnerable to degrading influences. To curb the ease of provocation through motion picture, the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) was established in 1918, to function with a heavy-handed approach.

This was carried over to Indian law under the Cinematograph Act, 1952 as the Board of Censors (now CBFC, a euphemism), which authorised the government to frame directives for the censors. The government directed no certification of pictures that ‘lower the moral standards of those who see it’, ‘deprave the morality of the audience’, ‘lower the sacredness of the institution of marriage’ etc. These vague and over-broad guidelines are such that agreement of opinions is bound to be rare.

In fact, it set a regime of prior restraint by allowing the government to control what the public can access, such that certain ideas could never be entertained on the screen. This is quite similar to the British-era orders requiring prior approval of the Governor-General for publishing a paper. What is even worse, the burden of proof was on the artist to approach the court and have it overturned – not an easy cup of tea either.

The Supreme Court in several cases has itself indulged in encouraging censorship, albeit for the ‘public good’ while also reversing censorship orders when it found the message ‘socially useful’.

The law and the subsequent judgments leave the publication of art contingent on the personal biases of the judges and the veto of a heckler. This has always given fringe elements the power to arrogate to themselves the veto over cultural and political memory, over myths and realities – sometimes government-imposed, sometimes judicially sanctioned. It places on an altar, the memory of some people over that of others, however imperfect the recollection of the memory it might be.

The absence of recognition of an active citizen’s autonomy and self-determination – as if we were still passive subjects of an oppressive ruler – is strikingly clear. In fact, ‘law and order concerns’ – quite frequent occurrences in the British era – are quite common cited by the state to ban and suppress parts of movies.

Governments seem to be particularly concerned about the ‘illiterate and average persons’ who might get provoked, as this is often cited in defence of a censorship order. Threats of violence have always been brushed aside or used to invoke law and order concerns, while the state focuses on ensuring homogeneity of thought – apparently a more far-reaching concern.

Whether “Padmavati” is indeed banned indefinitely, or released with some censorship, we should not be surprised. The state has a long history to look back at and cynically ensure its continuity. Still, let us not suspend disbelief.

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