It has become a deplorable tendency to rush to “ban” what one cannot accept on hastily constructed grounds of moral or ethical confrontation. For a country that has so completely embraced democracy, modern India is surprisingly uncomfortable with embracing what offends it. Censorship, when applied ad-hoc to please the several strands of diversity in India, is necessarily lopsided and discriminatory. The need to ban comes from an inherent fear of what the offensive material will bring in its wake; for societies like North Korea that are designed around suppression of information, censorship is necessary to the rulers’ survival. For a free country like India, indiscriminate censorship points to similar insecurities of groups and self-proclaimed God-men that are trying hard to maintain their flimsy empires. What threat does a book like Wendy Doniger’s history of Hindus pose to a religion as ancient and diverse as Hinduism? Religion, and its dubious upholders, can only be afraid of commentary if it threatens to unveil some hidden crimes the priests or practitioners of religion do not want the world to know of.
The protests against PK are simply the latest instances of attempts by self appointed vigilante groups to police the Indian people and sacrifice free speech and expression at their perfidious altar of religion, morality and tradition. By allowing these groups to run amok India is blurring the line between censorship by state and censorship by vigilante groups. The recent empowerment of radical Hindu groups and the rise of ‘Love Jihad’ and ‘Ghar Vaapsi’ are an unapologetic assault on freedom of choice and equality of religions by self-appointed guardians of honor. On television, too, every scene of intimacy is hastily blurred and discussions on sex and intimacy are widely considered taboo. For a nation of 1.2 billion people that produced the famous Kamasutra, the inherent hypocrisy is astounding.
The preamble to our Constitution grants every Indian citizen “liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship”, but the realities of radical policing are tightening the noose around the Indian statue of liberty and stifling it day by day. Freedom of expression is grounded in the even more basic freedom to life; a country that cannot ensure its citizens’ safety cannot ensure its citizens’ right to speech. If an offensive breach can threaten riots or killings, then the freedom of speech is necessarily limited and censorship becomes an easy weapon to maintain calm. Only a strong state can guarantee both freedom of speech and freedom to offend. Vigilante groups with specifically communal identities can only exist in states that are too weak to bring its erring citizens to justice. India’s judicial and institutional systems need to become stronger if we are to hope to confront the problem of over-censorship. Goons feel empowered to burn shops and books not because they think they can but because they know that the government will fail to persecute them.
There is a larger issue at stake here that manifests in the calls for censorship of PK, in the moral policing of women on the street, in the social taboo’s that exist around topics such as sexual intimacy; that issue is the very identity of India. The diversity our country is host to cannot afford to have rigid walls that attempt to delineate territories. It is not questions that challenge traditions and the status quo that are dangerous, but rather the censorship of questioning, of stigmatization of identity and expression, that threatens our very foundation as a nation.
Liberty and equality are the lifeblood of our democracy; limiting questions and freedom of the media, valuing one religion above others, disrespecting the freedom of women, not even recognizing the rights of homosexuals, are the parasites we must do away with. Where is the ‘thapa’ that decides what we can say, who we can love or what we can do granted we do not harm others? The wrong numbers of the Indian stage are ringing far too loudly in real life. Censorship is much like the ostrich; a country, and consequently its many groups, can either choose to weather the storms that come its way or turn its face away. Countries and groups that live in denial have much to reckon with. Germany is a shining example of owning up to unpleasant history. Instead of banning books that investigate its shameful Nazi past, Germany has put its concentration and extermination camps like Sachsenhausen on display– all can come, all can see, and all can criticize. Only with a full reckoning of its past and the present can a country work towards building its tomorrow.