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Saturday, May 28, 2005

Censorship Pros And Cons

Indian Writing directs one to an article by Jug Suraiya in today’s Times of India -- and his argument seems to be specious.

In a nutshell, Suraiya says that he’s in favour of certain forms of censorship. A somewhat lengthy extract is worth quoting, if only to reproduce the exact flavour of his argument:

“ …The then editor of TOI rang me up on the evening before my column on Thackeray was to appear. He told me that though the piece would be carried in all the other editions of the paper, he'd decided to drop it for the Bombay edition. Indignant, I began to argue with him about the right of freedom of expression. I respect your right to freedom of expression, said the editor. But how would I square it with my conscience, he asked me, if, as a direct result of my freedom of expression, the Bombay office of the paper was targeted by Shiv Sainiks and in the fracas some of my colleagues in Bombay, including women colleagues, suffered physical and psychological trauma while I sat safe in Delhi? I was free to choose to put myself in a possible danger zone. I wasn't at liberty to place others in a jeopardy not of their making. I thanked the editor, with genuine gratitude, for what he'd done. And as a professional communicator, I learnt a lesson which I hope I shall never forget: That freedom of expression is meaningful only when it carries with it an obligation of responsibility to the community at large.”

He goes on to state that he’d asked for a ban on Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh for the same reason: that the book may incite violence, with its portrayal of a Bal Thackeray-like character, and that lives may be lost while Rushdie remained cocooned in Britain, immune to the effects of his work.

There seem to be two problems with his case. First, the issue of foreknowledge: how exactly does one gauge whether a book or article will incite violence or not? Experience and instinct are unreliable guides: as it turned out, The Moor’s Last Sigh was freely available in Mumbai, without any untoward incident. (Thank goodness.)

And second, who has the right to be the guardian of public decency and outrage? Politicians will do whatever it takes – right or wrong -- to win over vote banks; and as for editors (who in theory have the experience and the gut-feel to make such choices), isn’t a democracy supposed to be about a plurality of opinion? If one doesn’t like a certain paper’s point of view, one is free to cancel one’s subscription and turn to another. When Suraiya speaks of “responsibility to the community”, he makes the assumption that the community is monolithic and homogenous, not multifarious and fragmented.

Though this may seem simplistic, it does boil down to the issue of intent: that’s what one ought to gauge, first and foremost. Does the allegedly offensive article/book/movie in question aim to incite, or is it a legitimate form of creative enquiry and expression? (Please do recall that Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lolita and Ulysses were all thought to be noxious and offensive to the community when they were first printed.)

Intent having been established, perhaps a much stricter policing and supervision of those who try to take the law into their own hands for so-called moral reasons is necessary. Not excision or censorship.

Utopian? Well, one lives in hope.


  • I've always wondered about this question of "responsibility"; so thanks for clearing it up. But, now you've brought up this issue of "intent". How do you really, truly (and not in utopian principles) gauge intent?

    By Blogger runawaysun, at 2:02 PM  

  • Yes, it is a vexed question, isn't it? But in practical terms, it shouldn't be so hard to establish the bona fide nature of a piece of work. Be it be an author, a film-maker, an artist or anyone else, the intent to express versus the intent to create disharmony should, on the face of it, be distinguishable. That having been said, one would be the first to point out that it's clearly a grey area: circumstances do alter cases.

    By Blogger PrufrockTwo, at 2:30 PM  

  • As rightly stated by the author of this blog, I think we reach a full stop after accepting this fact that "circumstances do alter cases". We cannot have a generalised way or for that matter, a rule which can be applied to distinguish between the intent to express and the intent to create disharmony.

    People who create disharmony at the grassroot level- they are very emotional beings. Due to the ambiguity of the language, the words can be misunderstood and often the actions taken in rage by the people who misunderstand the language are of extreme nature.

    If I am wrong somewhere, please do correct me. :)

    By Blogger Truman, at 8:52 PM  

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