Sunday, October 16, 2016
Friday, July 29, 2016
The battle between the judiciary and the executive (and its various arms) is never ending. In the recent past, it has actually intensified as the courts have stepped into a twilight zone created either by the executive's dereliction of its responsibilities or by an onrush of judicial activism. In the public eye, the intensity of the conflict is magnified when the battle lines are over civil liberties.
In a recent judgment, the Bombay High Court cleared the film, Udta Punjab, for public viewing after ordering one scene to be deleted. Earlier, the Central Board of Film Certification - erroneously referred to in everyday usage as the censor board - had made the release of the film conditional on 89 cuts. Additionally, the high court berated the CBFC for its "poor understanding of people's minds"- a serious charge considering that the board has been entrusted the responsibility of being the country's moral guardian, at least in one sphere of the creative arts.
The battle between film-makers and the CBFC is not new, and predates the contested appointment of Pahlaj Nihalani as the chairman by the National Democratic Alliance at the Centre. However, the spirited controversy over the appointment has served to make the issue a facet of the wider war being waged by 'progressive' and left-inclined artistes and intellectuals against the Bharatiya Janata Party. A significant section of the creative community believes that the BJP is blessed with a retrograde world view that it seeks to impose on the country.
Given the fact that international - and, by implication, Western-dominated -views on India are disproportionately shaped by the predilections of India's intellectual community, it is hardly surprising that the Udta Punjab controversy was viewed as further evidence of India's steady drift towards becoming an 'illiberal' democracy, along the lines of, say, Turkey. The world media had a blast ridiculing the Narendra Modi government for the CBFC's censorship of a prolonged kissing scene in the most recent James Bond film - an act that, apart from being a little over the top, amounted to doing the reputation of Agent 007 grave injustice.
To view the Udta Punjab controversy exclusively through the prism of artistic freedom is tempting, and even partially valid. However, in the context of a booming industry whose box-office turnover is calculated at something in the region of Rs 250 billion, there are other important considerations.
The striking differences between the high court and the CBFC over what is appropriate for public viewing turned out to be huge: one cut versus 89 deletions. Arguably, the Indian Cinematograph Act that prescribes the responsibilities of the CBFC allows a huge scope for discretion. Section 5(B)1 of the Act stipulates that "a film shall not be certified for public exhibition if... it is against the interests of [the sovereignty and integrity of India] the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality... or is likely to incite the commission of any offence."
If this constitutes a vast canvas, there are also the May 1983 guidelines issued to the CBFC by the Union government. These charge the CBFC with ensuring "the medium of film remains responsible and sensitive to the values and standards of society"; to ensure "artistic expression and creative freedom are not unduly curbed"; and to see that "certification is responsive to social change."
That the guidelines of the CBFC permit for a great deal of subjectivity is obvious. However, when the differences between two versions of enlightened wisdom turn out to be yawning, it could mean either of two things. First, that one of the involved parties was guilty of individual flights of whimsy. Second, the huge perceptional difference could point to the fact that the national consensus over the limits of freedom has broken down irretrievably.
Viewed either way, this is not good news for an industry that combines both wholesome entertainment and the avant-garde. It is understood that film-makers in India work with a large measure of self-restraint, particularly in matters of sex, violence and politics. Moreover, while being mindful of the CBFC, they have also had to develop a sixth sense about the 'super sensors' - those who believe it is their right to be violently aggrieved at the slightest provocation. Taking offence has become a vibrant cottage industry in India and even films cleared by the CBFC without too much fuss have been withdrawn from cinemas following charges that they offended someone living or dead or some community.
Indeed, given the minefields in its path, not least of which is the sheer unpredictability of the film-certification process, it is a wonder that India's film industry has soared to such heights and become an important facet of the country's soft power. Indeed, there have been suggestions that the industry would have grown further and even notched up Rs 500 billion at the box office annually had it not been for socio-political impediments. At the same time, it is worthwhile remembering that most of the films that have been box-office hits and even set cultural trends haven't faced problems with the CBFC. Neither have the so-called 'daring' films that have tested the open-mindedness of the CBFC made much of a mark in the Indian diaspora. The only possible exception may have been Sholay, made during the Emergency years, that was forced to modify a part of its storyline because the CBFC objected to its supposed glorification of violence. But then Emergency also saw Kishore Kumar songs being taken off the State-controlled radio because he had said no to performing at a Youth Congress rally.
The suggestion put forward by the yet-unreleased Shyam Benegal committee report to force the CBFC to confine itself to certification and avoid negotiating cuts is appealing. However, it is unlikely to appeal to most of India and not even to the industry. The last thing India can afford is to face a cultural backlash on account of the radical experimentation of a few film-makers whose contribution to the industry as a whole has been modest. What sets a trend and secures the endorsement of the practitioners of the abstruse discipline called Film Studies should not be allowed to set the standards of openness.
However, it is instructive to remember that the overriding importance of cinema in the social and cultural life of India has been significantly eroded by the multiplicity of entertainment channels on TV and the internet revolution. Both these developments are interesting for the simple reason that TV programmes and video streaming on YouTube are available to everyone without pre-censorship. The sheer volume of sexually explicit and culturally reprehensible material available on the internet has only served to underline the self-defeating character of prudish moral policing by the CBFC. Technology has made a mockery of effective censorship.
At one level, the censorship debate constitutes a footnote in public affairs. For the mainstream film industry too, the inherent arbitrariness of the certification process is a minor (but entirely manageable) irritant. Yet, each occasion, some pretentious film-maker dares the authorities and tests the endurance levels of artistic freedom, the international fraternity of liberals comes down hard on India, portraying it as a grim place where only buccaneers would love to do business. Contesting this one-sided narrative is, alas, not really possible in an unequal world where the idea of freedom is judged in terms of its proximity to permissiveness. Curbing prudish impulses has become an ease of doing business imperative.
Telegraph, July 29, 2016
Friday, July 1, 2016
Saturday, June 25, 2016
Friday, June 17, 2016
Wednesday, June 1, 2016
The Nuffield studies of each British general election since 1945 are valued to two reasons. First, they assess an election campaign from all possible angles, from the perspective of politicians to the media coverage of the exercise. However, far more important, these studies approach the elections, not from how it appeared in hindsight but how they seemed “in flight.” This is particularly valuable as it prevents sweeping generalisations of how an election campaign seemed before the final counting of votes and declaration of results.
It is important to inject this chronological perspective into the recent West Bengal elections, a fortnight after the Electronic Voting Machines revealed an unequivocal mandate for Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress. With the outcome revealing little or no scope for ambiguity, posterity will probably forget that even as late as the evening of May 18, after all the anecdotal evidence from the districts had been dissected by the pundits and analysts, there were a very large number of people who predicted that the next morning would see Mamata and her loyal followers scurrying for cover. On the final day of polling I had spoken at length to a Communist leader and a ‘dissident’ TMC parliamentarian at the Central Hall of Parliament. Both had assured me that the groundswell of anger against the Mamata administration was far beyond their wildest expectations and that the TMC was heading for a complete rout. One Left stalwart gleefully described Mamata’s apparently tense body language as she visited her offices for the “last time” before the declaration of results.
The wild optimism that had gripped the Congress-Left combine in the final days of the election campaign warrants mention. The idea is not to mock their horrible misreading of the situation: even the most experienced of political observers do get their sums wrong. It happened in May 2016, just as it has happened in the past and will happen in the future. Basically, all politicians live in an echo chamber and are inclined to talk up what they envisage is the reality. I recall the remarkable extent to which both non-Congress and media professionals failed to anticipate the phenomenal pro-Congress avalanche in 1984. Even a casual re-reading of the press coverage of that election demonstrates how the popular mood was insufficiently understood.
That the state unit of the CPI(M) miscalculated the verdict of May 2016 and ended up behind both the TMC and the Congress is apparent. In Left circles, this spectacular debacle is now the stuff of a fierce political battle involving the so-called ‘Bengal line’ and the orthodoxy. The Bengal CPI(M), it may be recalled, had basically told the Politburo to go and take a walk as it, inspired by Biman Bose and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, crafted a variant of a Left-Democratic alliance involving the existing Left Front and the Congress. It was a quiet rebellion and was quite unprecedented from the standpoint of the CPI(M) that, in its internal structures, still adhered to Lenin’s top-down command structure. The Bengal CPI(M) was more or less united in its resolve to include the Congress in a broad alliance against the TMC. Indeed, the local unit was so determined that many of its hotheads were even willing to contemplate a formal split in the party.
Now that the disastrous performance of the CPI(M) is a grim reality, there are some awkward choices that confront the party. First, a recalcitrant local party has informed the Politiburo that, far from admitting the error of its ways and shamefacedly falling in line, it proposes to continue the alliance with the Congress both inside and outside the Legislative Assembly, at least until the general election of 2019.
On its part, the Congress, which was the major (and unexpected) gainer from the alliance, has indicated it is willing to play ball with the CPI(M). Humbled in Assam, Kerala and Tamil Nadu and confronted with its own existential dilemmas vis a vis the rising regional parties, Congress Party spin doctors have lauded the Bengal experience as a way of blunting the BJP onslaught. Dejected promoters of the Congress-Left deal in West Bengal now say that the TMC prevailed only because a major chunk of the votes the BJP secured in the 2014 general election went totally in favour of the TMC. Earlier, during the campaign, it was presumed by the same people that the anticipated contraction of BJP votes would benefit the main anti-TMC combine. The presumption was a bit unreal since voters who lean towards the BJP are more than likely to favour other anti-Left forces as their second choice. But then, in hindsight, many of the political assumptions of the Congress-Left were based on the spurious belief that the battle to oust Mamata was essentially to restore civil liberties in the state.
Indeed, for the beleaguered CPI(M), the electoral battle in 2016 was essentially one of political survival. There was a time when the CPI(M) was driven by a desire to effect profound social change and use West Bengal as a springboard for expansion into the rest of the country. That dream was put to rest after more than three decades of uninterrupted power and the Left Front’s failure to introduce socialism in one province. By and large, those who joined the CPI(M) after Jyoti Basu’s victory in 1977 were driven by the desire to benefit from being on the right side of the political power structure. Once power slipped out of the Left hands in 2011 and the TMC mounted a campaign of ruthless expansion, the Left found itself struggling to just about stay afloat. It is interesting that, apart from a few mass rallies, the Left has been unable to intervene effectively at the constituency level since 2011. In short, the character of the Left and its political priorities has changed immeasurably. At its best, the Left has piggybacked on loose ‘progressive’ causes in a bid to roll back the advance of the BJP. To add insult to injury, as the swearing-in ceremony of Mamata last week demonstrated, it is being regarded as a bit player (if not a liability) by the regional parties that now dream of providing a ‘federal’ alternative to Narendra Modi in 2019.
The growing mismatch between Left hopelessness in West Bengal and the residual pretensions of revolutionary politics in the CPI(M) Politburo are now becoming increasingly visible. There is a growing contradiction between the CPI(M)’s larger political programme and the grim realities on the ground in West Bengal. At one time, revolutionary intransigence may have been a shield against the bad times but with international Communism now relegated to the history books, there is little hope for future optimism.
Traditionally, in India, Communists punched above their weight and made their impact through strategic interventions in the larger ‘progressive’ ecosystem. That might still happen if the Congress persists with its leftwards lurch but for the CPI(M) to remain relevant, it will have to undergo a doctrinal revision, incorporate the Congress into its definition of ‘democratic forces’ and, most important, reassess the relevance of being the ‘vanguard’ party of the proletariat.
Some of these shifts may have been forthcoming had the CPI(M) performed well in West Bengal. Unfortunately for it, the staggering setback has only hardened the resolve of those who see continuing merit in the historical legacy of the Red flag. If the CPI(M) is to maintain a relevance it can exercise two possible options. It can either make itself indistinguishable from the CPI of the mid-1970s by tailing the Congress. Alternatively, it can emulate the European examples and submerge itself into the largest ‘progressive’ party. The present incoherence can’t persist indefinitely.
The Telegraph, June 3, 2016