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BEARING HIGH THE FLAG OF PROTEST

When violence rocked Gujarat during March and April, most dissenting voices in the state were sought to be forcefully snuffed out by the sheer ferocity of the attacks. Things appear to have returned to “normal”, but there is now a more subtle form of pressure on those unwilling to conform to the views of the advocates of militant Hindutva. Ironically, these attempts at “censorship” have occurred not only in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies, but even in places where the Congress is in power.

Most striking of these has been a series of measures taken by the Mumbai police against those advocating a strong secular response to the Gujarat violence. Two particular incidents stand out — the controversy over a poster exhibition on Gujarat put up by the Satyashodak Vidyarthi Sanghatana, and the forcible cessation of the screening of two documentary films on Gujarat at the DAV College in the city.

In the former case, the police gave permission to the organizers of the National Convention for Peace and Secularism to hold their meeting after they promised to ensure that the SVA exhibition would not be displayed. Since the exhibition had not been officially banned, the police action was unwarranted. The same was the case with the screening of Junoon ke Badhta Kadam by Gauhar Raza, a film already screened in Mumbai, and not on any official proscribed list. Screenings of both the films and the exhibition were allowed after a series of public protests.

Unjustified steps

Similar incidents have taken place in Gujarat itself — the attack on a peace meeting at the Sabarmati Ashram in April and the threat to individuals involved in a campaign launched by the Citizen’s Initiative for Peace are cases in point. The BJP-ruled Goa too has had its share of such muzzling. Screenings of Raza’s film were banned in May on the eve of the state assembly elections there. More recently, the state authorities have obstructed the distribution of issues of Communalism Combat, particularly its special issue on Gujarat.

Elsewhere in the country, new forms of “censorship” are being increasingly imposed. Two incidents best symbolize this growing intolerance. One, the obstacles placed before the screening of Anand Patwardhan’s award-winning documentary, War and Peace, and the demand by the censor board that vital portions of the film be cut. The other is the move to scuttle the Hoshangabad-based Science and Social Science school programmes of Eklavya, a project that had been fully supported by both the Madhya Pradesh government and the National Council for Educational Research and Training for years.

Signs of the times

What are we to make of these seemingly small and scattered incidents' A warning that the dark days of the Emergency may soon return' A sign of the times' After all, similar frenzied responses were evident in some of the reactions by authorities in countries like the United States of America, Britain, Hong Kong, Germany and so on to dissenting literature or even imagined dissent. Remember the fate of the popular American television host, Bill Maher, who was axed from his show, Politically Incorrect, for daring to suggest in passing that the September 11 hijackers had the courage of their conviction'

Perhaps it is still too early to predict where these events will eventually lead us to. Nevertheless, civil society appears to have woken up to the potential danger in letting such incidents go unchecked. In Mumbai, a number of protests were organized both against the arbitrary police actions and the events of Gujarat. New coalitions like Insaaniyat have brought film personalities on a common platform with lawyers, teachers, journalists, human rights campaigners, trade unions and women’s equality activists and young, concerned citizens. Similarly, the Open Circle Arts, a group of Mumbai-based artists, celebrated August 6 to 14 as the “Reclaim our Freedom” week. It has chosen the kite as its symbol. There have been similar responses elsewhere. Obviously, the kites are being buffeted both by the winds of censorship and dissent.The coming days will tell whether they will be allowed to fly or not.

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