13/07/2017 1:28 PM IST | Updated 13/07/2017 1:33 PM IST

With Its Censorship Of The Amartya Sen Film, CBFC Has Made A Case For Its Own Uselessness

The board decided to crawl, even when it wasn't asked to bend.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images

No arguments please, we are Indian.

It's no secret that the current dispensation is no fan of Amartya Sen and that the Nobel-winner returns the favour. The former is entirely within its right to do so. Freedom of speech does not mean the government has to indulge its critics and give them platforms even if they are Nobel Laureates. It can choose to ignore him or even sideline him. That's fair enough.

But now they choose to beep him out.

Technically the government does not. But the Central Board of Film Certification does. It has decided that a documentary about Sen must beep out the words "cow", "Gujarat", "Hindu India" and "Hindutva view of India."

It's not that the words are sacred cows per se. But rather, the context in which they are said is what troubles the censor board because that's exactly what it is, though it pretends to be the board of film certification.

It's no secret that the current dispensation is no fan of Amartya Sen and that the Nobel-winner returns the favour

Let's take just the word "cow", much in Indian news these days.

Sen brings it up while talking about the need for debate. Namely: "There was a kind of grandness of vision there, and an integrated picture which hangs together in trying to embrace each other, not through chastising people for having mistreated a cow or some other thing, but dealing with people in terms of argument."

Chastising people for having mistreated a cow? That's got the censor board in a tizzy? Sen did not even say "lynching people for having mistreated a cow".

People say far more incendiary things on television every night than Sen. But the problem is less about the cow than about Sen anyway. He's just a lightning rod, his comments touch a reflexive sore nerve in the powers that be and those who want to kiss up to the powers that be. He has a worshipful global audience and that rankles an image-conscious government whose Central Bureau of Investigation shoots off letters to the New York Times when it does not like its editorials.

The film board's decision has predictably been met with eye rolls all around.

Journalist Tavleen Singh, no great fan of all things liberal, has tweeted, "The Censor Board has become a joke! Its attempt to censor a documentary on Amartya Sen are beyond ludicrous. Gujarat, cow and Hindu bleeped!"

But really, it's not a joke.

As Angshukanta Chakravarty writes in Daily O, "(B)ehind this ludicrous exterior is the strong and powerful kernel of the Sangh machinery at its dubious best, erasing and saffron-washing India's past, present and future." As Jawahar Sircar, former head of Prasar Bharati says, "Were there no riots in Gujarat or is that also edited out?"

We laugh at the censor board's buffoonish ham-fisted attempts at sanskar and propaganda at our own peril. It's an ominous portent of a censor board that considers itself more the handmaiden of the government than a body that objectively considers what certificate a film merits. It is more censure board than censor board, weeding out ideas it deems unpalatable to the powers that be.

It's shocking not because it is happening to a Nobel laureate and a Bharat Ratna. That just makes it more newsworthy. It's shocking because this attempt at censorship and sycophancy is so blatant, so unashamed.

With its decision, the censor board has effectively made a case for its own uselessness. It has proved that in the name of film certification it considers itself part of the propaganda wing of the government in power. Pahlaj Nihalani faced much ridicule when he was appointed. But the government stuck to its guns and installed Nihalani and he has lived up to his critics' expectations, turning the board into an institution that's afraid of everything from the word "intercourse" to lipstick under the burkha.

We laugh at the censor board's buffoonish ham-fisted attempts at sanskar and propaganda at our own peril

Nihalani will claim his office is nothing if not bipartisan in its censorship. It wants 14 cuts in Madhur Bhandarkar's film Indu Sarkar about Indira Gandhi and the Emergency. Challenged about its scissor-happiness, Nihalani tells the Wire that producers attack the censor board to get publicity for their films.

He says, "Whether it is Anurag Kashyap or Prakash Jha or Mukesh Bhatt, they all have a lot of time to release a picture. Their marketing plan is first we will go to the Censor Board without fixing a release date. Then next we will claim that our movie has been refused a certificate. This is all content for the media and a marketing plan."

In a sense, he is right. As Amartya Sen himself has noted that until this point few people knew or cared about a documentary featuring a conversation with an elderly Nobel Laureate whose views are anyway extremely well-known. But now the controversy has given a film — which Sen himself calls a "pretty innocuous film" — a halo of sorts.

AFP/Getty Images

Sen told The Telegraph, "The censor board has now made it an interesting film and I am grateful for that."

Of course, he says the larger issue that it settles is whether the censor board is working "in the interests of the nation and its people or the interests of the ruling party and the government."

Hopefully this ridiculous decision will be overturned on appeal, as often happens with film certification, and the controversy will fade. But that it happened at all should be embarrassing for all concerned. As economist Kaushik Basu, who was part of the conversation with Sen in the film, says, "It will be disappointing if India begins to imitate the very countries it criticizes."

"Every single voice of the opposition is being muzzled. Now, Dr Amartya Sen. If somebody of his stature cannot express himself freely, what hope does the common citizen have?" tweets Mamata Banerjee.

To be fair, there's nothing here that can be laid at the door of the Prime Minister. It's not as if Narendra Modi has called for these words to be bleeped out. But as his own party leader LK Advani said in another context, during the Emergency when the media was asked to bend, it crawled.

As far as we know Pahlaj Nihalani's board of film certification was not called upon to bend. But even so it has decided to crawl.

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