A Culture of Censorship

Penal codes and societal norms in India

by Krithika Vachali


When I returned home from my first semester in college in December 2011, I technically committed a crime. I “imported” into India a copy of Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses,” a book banned in the subcontinent. I did not even like the book, but I wanted to sneak it in so I could silently stick it to the notion of censorship in India, which is an inherently harmful institution that caters more to political agendas than to discourse around what is tolerable within the Indian community. 

Censorship in India is built around the ideal of diversity; we are all told that we need censorship in order to preserve the fragile Indian community that counts within it at least eight religions, various castes, several national communities and a few gender-based minorities. Laws against free speech, labelled “hate speech laws,” are actually part of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). Under this law, speech acts—including art, literature and film—are subject to censorship if found by a court to threaten communal peace within the country. 

As with most laws in India, IPC 295(A) was established during the British Raj, the British colonial rule over the now modern countries of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. 295(A) was created to address the inadequacies of 153(A), which punished individuals who promoted “enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc., and doing acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony—whoever, by words ... or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes ... disharmony or feelings of enmity.”  This was deemed insufficient to penalize the publishers of Rangila Rasul, a book that contained an account of Prophet Muhammad’s sex life and was found to be offensive by the Muslim community. In 1929, the publisher, Rajpal, was acquitted under 153(A). However, he was murdered in court after his trial. His acquittal, and subsequent public disapproval of his actions that culminated in his murder, showed the British Raj that they needed a new rule in place to maintain the religious peace, and IPC 295(A) was created, which reads as follows:

“Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of [citizens of India], [by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise], insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to [three years], or with fine, or with both.”

Ironically, at this time, the British Raj actively enacted a divide and rule policy within India in an attempt to hold on to the subcontinent, which would leave the empire in 1947. Within this policy, the British attempted to create political schisms on existing religious and caste lines, causing members of the Independence movement to succumb to internal politics and break into different factions such as the Muslim League or separate parties for Dalits, or the oppressed caste. This enabled the British to maintain power as the Independence movement lost momentum. 

Even though the British left, their divide and rule policy is still visible today. The existence of Pakistan was the first historical split fomented by the policy before 1947, and its legacy is present in communal and state tensions that exist within India. Much more succinct than its predecessor, IPC 295(A) allowed for the swift imprisonment—if upheld by a court—of anyone accused of publishing incendiary material. Perhaps required to prevent the communal riots that have shaken India since independence, they still apply to art in harmful ways. Moreover, the precedence set during the Rajpal is dangerous; if the law is not enough to send you to prison, communal violence is. 

Salman Rushdie is a renowned literary figure whose works are censored in India under this law. The Jaipur Literary Festival held a video-link talk with Rushdie in 2012, and activists for the Muslim Manch threatened to “protest violently” if Rushdie was present. Thousands of protestors gathered in the municipal gardens outside the festival space, in protest against Rushdie. While public outrage is not censorship, this outcry was inspired by it. India banned “The Satanic Verses” in 1988, and while possession isn’t a crime, import is. Due to the sudden, relative unavailability of the book in the subcontinent after the ban, the public at large believed what was said about the book without reading it themselves. It is doubtful that many of the protesters at Jaipur had ever read “The Satanic Verses”—they only knew its reputation of blasphemy and illegality. The phantom menace of the text has grown through the ban into something that can mobilize large groups of people into action without them ever being fully cognizant of exactly what they are fighting against. The protests against the book only serve to mobilize people in communal ways that carry a threat of violence. These groups perceive that their ideologies are under attack and are ready to defend it, with violence if necessary. 

While fiction remains a space for contestation, the truly disheartening part of censorship in India is that censorship extends to academic work. Wendy Doniger’s “The Hindus: An Alternative History” was banned after it was criticized by Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti (Movement to Save Education, SBAS) for being riddled with heresy regarding Hindu scripture. Dinanath Batra, the founder of SBAS, speedily filed a lawsuit and the book was banned.  Publishers were ordered to stop selling the book and dispose of unsold copies. This is only one of the few books banned in the last few years that ostensibly defy “Hindu sensibilities.” 

The mechanism of the ban is as harmful as the ban itself, and this is evident in the art world in India.  M.F. Hussain was an artist who chose to live in self-imposed exile from 2006 to 2011 rather than submit to death threats, a stream of arrest warrants and the general media circus. Known as the Picasso of India, he was always a controversial figure. The controversy rose to unprecedented heights in 2006 when he was accused of hurting Hindu sentiments by painting naked images of Hindu gods and goddesses. The notion of sexuality attached to these deities, supported by certain versions of mythology as well as reputed scholarship, was anathema to the ideologies of certain religious political groups. Thankfully, the courts did not ban Hussain’s works. They were available for public consumption on the Internet. However, actual exhibitions of his work remained a pipe dream as protestors flocked to galleries. As in Rushdie’s case, the legal steps taken against the work make it out to be demonic or blasphemous. The latter may be decided in a court of public opinion, but no one should be able to legally declare anything blasphemous in a juridical system to effectively uphold the governance of a secular democracy. 

Films have a tougher time, as the Censor Board for films in India adds an additional barrier to the IPC. The Censor Board can choose to pre-emptively recommend “cuts” and withhold a film’s release so that it doesn’t hurt religious or other societal sentiments. Filmmakers often prefer to make recommended “cuts” rather than face the onslaught of potential lawsuits or the vast morass of red tape they would have to cut through at the Censor Board to actually release their films. This usually means that big-budget films on sensitive issues that set aside funds for legal issues get away without the cuts, while most low-budget independent films addressing similar issues are unable to front legal costs and face either delayed release or remain unreleased in India. When they do premiere, months or sometimes years after their international releases, low-budget films face much controversy due to being legally banned in the first place. The Censor Board banned “Final Solution,” a documentary about the Godhra riots in India (during which Muslims and Hindus were killed due to communal violence), for several months before it was released. People are primed to look at these films through the lens of their banned status. Controversy and hypersensitivity follow, and the narrative created around the release of these films and their consequent banning can never quite be undone. The film bears the stigma of being a “Deliberate and malicious [act], intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” (IPC 295A). 

Vishwaroopam, a Tamil film about the 10 avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu, was banned in Tamil Nadu for two weeks before it was released, predictably amidst much protest despite the fact that the actor in it had a large fan following in the state. Certain caste-based groups criticised the song “Aaja Nachle” for making slurs against specific castes—for implying that traditionally “cobbler” castes were inferior to the “goldsmith” caste. A ban was swiftly upheld in the states of Harayana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh, only to be removed a few weeks later after the producers apologized and replaced the lyrics in question. The song was popular in India despite the controversy and brought to light another disturbing effect of India’s fluid censorship laws: People did not take the issue seriously anymore. 

According to some people, when everything remotely related to religion or caste was censored without the establishment of strictly offensive material and its consequences for the community in question, censorship was just something politicians did because they could. Not only is censorship a legal mechanism that reduced the seriousness of caste-based or religious slurs, it is also a political mechanism that is becoming increasingly more visible to people. Instead of asking why a song was offensive, we now ask which political party stands to gain from the media spotlight around the ban. As a dispirited friend and Madhuri Dixit (the actress in Aaja Nachle) fan told me over the phone, “Bas, controversy karane ke liye, yahan to sabka lafda chalta hai. Ban nikalvate woh paise lete hain, ya ban karake logon se vote maangte hain. Dekh lo, election ke time pe hi sabko padne ki shauk chad jaati hai” (They do this just to create controversy. Everyone has a racket going here. They take money to remove the ban, or use the ban as political capital to get votes from certain people. Just see, it is during elections that these bans come into place.)

Organizations with different religious affiliations are usually the ones to impose the bans, as seen with “The Satanic Verses” or even “The Hindus: An Alternative History.” The motives behind these bans may remain unclear, but their perception as both useless and unwarranted on one end of the issue, to absolutely valid and unquestionable on the other end of the issue, is harmful. There is little to no middle ground. 

In erring on the side of declaring most things to be offensive to soothe ruffled communal sentiments, the legal ban on materials either trivializes or promotes violence. Moreover, the ban always demonizes the artist, writer or filmmaker as “deliberately or maliciously” producing material that threatens societal harmony. It does not take into account the possibility for constructive rhetoric regarding issues of religion or caste that can emerge from public discourse untouched by legal frameworks; it simply condemns. 

In fact, it condemns before it even considers the merit of the lawsuit asking for the ban, because bans continue to be lifted after they are imposed. Moreover, the spatial locations of these bans, sometimes only applicable in certain states and not others, makes people question why something may be offensive to a certain part of the country and not to another. Instead of creating a space where people can discuss offensive materials to evaluate their effect on communities and their narratives, they legally disappear from public consumption. 

Despite their censorship, I can still view Hussein’s sketches. I can still read “The Satanic Verses.” I can still watch Visharoopam. The censorship laws aren't actually able to completely limit public consumption. They do however, act as an official disavowal of the sentiments of the work, which creates a negative hypersensitivity that leads to further division along caste, religious and class lines. It also discourages people who buy the legal narrative around the material—that it is blasphemous, demonic, heretical or just bad—from consuming it because the consumer is now doing something illegal. It makes illegal the questioning and shaping of discourse. It allows the government to wash its hands of potentially difficult dialogue by simply banning things. 

If we look at how the colonial rule, 295(A), is affecting Indian society today, we can see an echo of the divide and rule policy that the British carried out successfully. Indians remain unable to interact with each other on religious issues largely because of excessive polarization on those very terms. 295(A) needs further consideration in legal circles, though we need to find ways to take it out of a legal framework entirely. Having public opinion decide whether material is offensive is probably the best solution, because it no longer places the barrier of legality on discourse. 

It also prevents what can appear to be legal endorsements of violence. When a protest against banned material turns violent some people can perceive that the violence is legally justified. India needs discourse around what is appropriate for its diverse community; Indians need to be able to condemn political speeches that are anti-Hindu, or anti-Muslim, or anti-anything; they need to be able to talk about why caste based slurs are not tolerable. We cannot do that as long as a legal system presumes to do it for us, because the legal system creates binaries of legal and illegal, good and bad, which cannot support the aforementioned discussion. Censorship, in its legal sense, should not exist in India.