The Ascent Of Stupidity
What could these three things possibly have in common: the appointment of a new head of the censor board, a tax on a music concert and a book a famous Indian figure by a foreign author? It all seems innocuous, even routine. But underlying each of these is something extremely dangerous at play: state-sponsored domination of individual freedom.
Sharmila Tagore retired as head of our Censor Board on 31 March after a six-year stint. In recent interviews, she expressed the hope that her successor would be open-minded, and said that during her tenure the censor’s touch has been lighter—fewer cuts, more films with a different approach allowed through, a greater reliance on ratings rather than ordering changes and, overall, an explicit recognition that a censor’s scissors do terrible damage to an art form. The problem is not with the individual; it is with the state of the law, which expressly permits the censor to ban and cut; and that it allows the government to place as the head of the censor board anyone it pleases. The new chief is Ms Leela Samson, a renowned exponent of classical dance. By her own admission, this is not her field, and her appointment has received decidedly unenthusiastic responses. To put her in this place is not just unfair to film industry; it demonstrates, more than anything else, the government’s attitude of complete domination. It is quite another matter that the powers vested in the Censor Board are futile. Easy access to television and the Internet make almost everything the Censor Board cuts or bans freely available, and the government’s view that it is actually restricting anything is a triumph of self-deception over common sense.
The state government’s entertainment tax is equally bizarre. There seems to be very little rational justification for it or, at any rate, for the size of the levy (perhaps a reasonable tax, applied across the board without exception might be defensible). Frequently, a tax like this operates as a form of censorship. The most recent victim is the Mehli Mehta Foundation and the western classical music concerts that Zubin Mehta brings to a city starved of live performances. The Foundation recently sought exemption from the tax. It said that while ticket prices may be high, so are the costs: performers are flown in, their hospitality taken care of, equipment and instruments brought in and more. Yet the government has it that exemptions are only permissible if tickets are priced below Rs.100/, and actually suggested that the Foundation donate its proceeds to a government-nominated charity. Why? The Foundation has its own charitable objects, and these have been previously approved by the government itself. That these exemptions are granted arbitrarily seems self-evident; if a show extolled a historical figure from Maharashtra is there any doubt that the exemption would follow? Such taxes give the government the authority to decide what is or is not culture or art, and to drive out anything that does not conform to pre-conceived notions. Zubin Mehta says it is unlikely he will return.
The latest outrage is the proposed ban on Joseph Lelyveld’s new book on Gandhi, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India. Undeterred by the slap it got from the Supreme Court in the James Laine book ban case, Maharashtra is considering it, as is the central government. Always quick out of the gates, Gujarat’s ever-entertaining Chief Minister has already banned it, saying, “The writing is perverse in nature. It has hurt the sentiments of those with capacity for sane and logical thinking.” Problem 1: NaMo hasn’t read it. Nor have any of those who clamour for its ban. Problem 2: This simply isn’t the law. What the law requires is that
“the effect of the words used in the offending material must be judged from the standards of reasonable, strong-minded, firm and courageous men, and not those of weak and vacillating minds, nor of those who scent danger in every hostile point of view. The class of readers for whom the book is primarily meant would also be relevant for judging the probable consequences of the writing.”1
The writing must also be “calculated to promote enmity or hatred” for such a ban to be effected under criminal law. It is difficult to see how anything in Lelyveld’s book even approaches this standard.
Interestingly, the strongest voices against this ban come from the descendants of Gandhi: his grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi; and great-grandson, Tushar Gandhi. Both say the ban is un-Gandhian and that Gandhi himself would not have wanted it. We are quick to take offence, but slow to accept our fundamental freedoms.
Bans of one kind or another are not new, nor are they limited to India. The list of books banned and taken off library shelves across the world is very long, even in America said to be that great champion of free speech, and in England. But increasingly attempts at bans fail when they run up against the doctrines of liberty and free speech.2 Freedom of speech, the right to disagree, freedom of choice: these are fundamental.
When governments tell us what books we may read, what music we may listen to, what films we may see, they fail both us and our Constitution. They turn our cities into cultural backwaters and rob their people of intelligence, the civility of thought and discourse. Censorship takes many forms, but it has only one effect: encouraging stupidity.
From Faiz’s bol ki lab azad hain tere:
Speak, for your lips are yet free
Speak, for your tongue is still your own
Speak, this brief time is enough
Before the tongue and body die
Speak, the truth is still alive
Speak: say what you have to say.
The day this appeared, the Hindustan Times reported that the Central Government has exempted the cash-rich ICC from income tax for the World Cup. There is simply no logic to this. It’s true that this isn’t an entertainment tax, but that is a distinction without a difference. The income tax on an event like this is perfectly justified; it’s exemption is not. There is no charitable purpose being served here, unlike the work of the Mehli Mehta Foundation. Of course the tax-exemption is purely populist; but it underscores my point—that the government is quick to grant exemptions for the activities it favours, but has quite a different approach when it comes to matters it considers less important. The one thing about taxation is that it must be certain and uniform. Ad-hoc taxes, arbitrarily applied, only indicate that taxation and exemption are now matters not of governance but of government indulgence. This is our millenia old feudalism and subservience on egregious display.
State Of Maharashtra & Ors. vs Sangharaj Damodar Rupawate & Ors. decided on 9 July, 2010, (2010) 7 SCC 398 ↩
In the Jaimes Lane case, the Supreme Court said: “Undoubtedly, the power to forfeit a newspaper, book or document is a drastic power inasmuch as it not only has a direct impact upon the due exercise of a cherished right of freedom of speech and expression as envisaged in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution, it also clothes a police officer to seize the infringing copies of the book, document or newspaper and to search places where they are reasonably suspected to be found, again impinging upon the right of privacy. Therefore, the provision has to be construed strictly and exercise of power under it has to be in the manner and according to the procedure laid down therein.” ↩