Freedom Trust Launched to Protect Free Speech in India

Mr. Hartosh Singh Bal, Political Editor at The Caravan

Hartosh Singh Bal who is currently the political editor at The Caravan and formerly held the post of the political editor at Open magazine has, in an article on Free Speech Debate, introduced an initiative recently launched by him to protect free speech in India. I am reproducing some of the important points highlighted by Mr. Bal in his article which prompted the initiation of such an initiative.

Bal’s article begins by illustrating instances of blatant censorship imposed by the State in the past wherein the Government barred the release of certain films on the ground that they would threaten the law and order situation in the country: examples of these are the bar on the release of the movie ‘Kaum de Heere’ which was based on the 1984 assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The release of the film, which had been previously okayed by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), was barred after the Home Ministry intervened in the matter, citing a law and order problem.

It is interesting to note that an earlier controversy surrounding Deepika Padukone- Saif Ali Khan starrer ‘Aarakshan’, wherein a ban was sought on the film in Uttar Pradesh because it dealt with the sensitive issue of reservation, had been settled in favour of free speech by the Supreme Court; the Supreme Court allowed the release of the film on the ground that reservation being a social issue required public discussion and that it was therefore necessary to allow the film to be released. The SC in its order had noted that the State cannot impose censorship once an expert body such as the CBFC had cleared the film.

Unfortunately, the Cinematograph (certification) Rules, 1983 empowers the Central Government to direct the Chairman of CBFC to re-examine certified films; using such loopholes in law, the Government has been successfully circumventing the directions of the Supreme Court.

It has also been seen that the Chairman of CBFC often panders to the Government because it is the Government which appoints the Chairman in the first place. As Mr. Bal notes, what makes it difficult for the producers to fight cases of censorship against the CBFC is this that they would have to go to the same Board for certification of films made by the producers in future.

This kind of censorship by political outfits is not restricted to films alone; many books too have borne the brunt of censorship, most notably Wendy Doniger’s book, ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’. Penguin India had decided to shelve the book after receiving threats from a right-wing Hindu national organization. (SpicyIP had blogged about this here). Another author whose book was similarly shelved is Megha Kumar, a historian at University of London.

Orient BlackSwan, which published Megha Kumar’s ‘Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad since 1969’, discontinued publication of the book to pre-empt any controversy in future. This is indeed worrying because of the self-censorship which was imposed by the publishers to avert the possibility of any controversy in the future. Mr. Bal rightly observes that this kind of “chickening” out on the part of the publishers has indeed made organizations which demand censorship much more powerful.

The ills of this kind of censorship also pervade the field of journalism where newspapers are often wary of the kind of news that they publish lest they offend the sensibilities of the State. Journalists who resist the censorship risk losing their jobs.

To counter these threats to free speech and expression, Mr. Bal recently started ‘The Freedom Trust’. The Freedom Trust aims to intervene legally in cases of censorship by the State and other organizations. It also invites people who can provide expertise and resources and most importantly, lawyers who can fight these cases pro bono, so that journalists, authors etc. are not deterred from fighting on account of the heavy litigation costs that these cases often entail.

Protecting free speech and expression, is one of the ideals of the SpicyIP blog and we laud the initiative taken by Mr. Hartosh Bal to ensure that State censorship does not succeed in silencing free speech forever.

H/T: We would like to thank Ms. Jaya Bhattacharji Rose for bringing this wonderful initiative to our notice.

P.S.: Mihir Sharma, Mitali Sharan, Omair Ahmad and Trideep Pais, a lawyer, are the other founders of the Freedom Trust. You can contact the Trust at [email protected] (Their website and resource database is under construction).

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