Leela Samson resigned as the head of Central Board of Film Certification, commonly known as the Censor Board of India, on Thursday alleging government interference, a claim refuted by the Information and Broadcasting ministry amid protests in Punjab and Haryana over the release of a film the CBFC had refused to release in India.
Police and paramilitary were deployed in Bhatinda and Amritsar after protests broke out over the film ‘Messenger of God’, starring the controversial head of a local sect - Gurmeet Singh Ram Rahim - who is shown performing miracles in the film. Top police officials in Haryana have held high-level meetings to review the security situation.
Samson is understood to have resigned amid a row over 'Messenger of God' and accused the government of interference in the CBFC. Minister of State (MoS) for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Rathore said his ministry has always "kept a hands away distance" from the Censor Board decisions.
He also said that if evidence was provided that any particular member had been coerced, the government would take appropriate action.
"We have respected the Censor Board all along. In fact when the issue of the previous film came up, we respected the decision of the Censor Board. We kept a hands away distance from its decisions," Rathore said.
Meanwhile, a Dera official told the CNN-IBN news channel the film did not hurt sentiments of any religion and that the Dera was yet to receive a copy of the certification by the tribunal.
Samson had declined approval for public viewing of the film 'MSG, the Messenger of God' starring the controversial Dera Sachcha Sauda (DSS) sect chief. The film portrays the Dera chief as a hero fighting social evils and performing miracles. Sikh organisations, which have had a traditional rivalry with DSS, have opposed release of the movie.
The producers of the movie filed an appeal against the censor board's decision, and it was then cleared by the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT). Their only action was to ask two words to be deleted.
Samson said that she did not know of the decision of the tribunal, which is the final arbitrator in cases of dispute between the censor board and filmmakers.
She did not refer to the movie in her resignation letter, and directed her complaint at the Information and Broadcasting Ministry. "Recent cases of interference in the working of the CBFC by the ministry, through an 'additional charge' CEO, and corrupt panel members has caused a degradation of values that the members of this Board of CBFC and Chairperson stood for," she said in her resignation letter.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government has not appointed replacements for existing members of the censor board. In July, it had asked them to continue until further notice. Samson's term was previously scheduled to end April 2014.
Samson said that clearing the movie for release was a mockery of the censor board.
The censor board is a statutory censorship and classification body under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. It is tasked with "regulating the public exhibition of films under the provisions of the Cinematograph Act 1952".
A member of the Censor board, Nandini Sardesai, said that the movie was cleared in haste. "We all saw the movie. It was the collective decision of eight of us that the movie was not suitable for public viewing. Usually the Tribunal takes 15 to 30 days to clear a film, but this case was cleared within 24 hours," Sardesai told NDTV.
The Union Home Ministry has been concerned that the release of the film may evoke violent protests from some quarters as certain Sikh organisations, such as the ruling Akali Dal in Punjab, have been opposing the movie. The ministry had sent an advisory to states that release of the movie might disturb communal harmony and lead to clashes between groups.
Asked whether she was aware about news reports that the appellate film certification tribunal has cleared the film, Samson had said last night, "I hear so. Nothing in writing yet. It is a mockery of CBFC. My resignation is final. Have informed (I&B) secretary."
She had stated the decision to quit was taken because of "recent cases of interference", "coercion and corruption of panel members and officers" of the Censor Board.
"Now when this particular film has come into discussion, the Censor Board would realise that the final call lies with the FCAT, the film appellate tribunal," Rathore said. Asked whether the I&B ministry had received Samson's resignation, "No, we are not aware. We heard this on TV, and so that the public is not misled, hence we are briefing you."
He said very eminent persons constitute the appellate tribunal and emphasised that the government does not interfere in the entire process of film certification.
Rathore demanded that Samson should back her claims of coercion of CBFC members or officials with evidence and then the government would take proper action.
"The Chairperson talks about coercion, we as the government would like to see that SMS, or a letter where she or any other member has been coerced. Then we would take appropriate action," he said.
Referring to the allegation of corruption, Rathore hit back saying the CBFC chairperson was herself part of the selection process (that) selected a particular officer who was later arrested for allegedly accepting a bribe.
"He has been removed, about six-seven months ago and a new officer has been put in charge. The government is absolutely hands away from all decisions of the Censor Board.
"They are an independent body and they need to behave like one," he said.