In the Indian democracy, censorship is one of the uglier expressions of the state’s insecurities. It shows the political establishment and its institutions of repression in a curiously double light. They are not only powerful in their license to bully and stifle, but also full of a pitiable nervousness, beset with numberless fears and prejudices — insecure, defensive, irrational and arbitrary. The Central information and broadcasting ministry now wants all short films and documentaries cleared by its censors before being screened at the Mumbai Film Festival early next year. This applies only to Indian documentaries and not to the foreign entries. It is the first time in the history of the festival that such a thing will be happening. Nowhere else in the free world are short-film festivals subjected to state censorship. The censor board’s arbitrariness is usually associated with sexual puritanism. And this is largely true in this case. A film on Indian sex-workers is stuck with the censors for a year; another one on sexuality was prevented from being shown at a digital film festival in New Delhi.
But the indiscriminate censoring of dissent and objectivity in documentary films is revealing the unabashed political partisanship of the censor board. Most film-makers feel that this year’s rule leads on from the Central board of film certification’s long battle with Mr Anand Patwardhan’s film, War and Peace, last year. Mr Patwardhan had won this battle earlier this year when the Bombay High Court deemed his film worthy of being shown uncut. The CBFC had wanted 21 cuts in this anti-war and anti-nuclear film. These included footage showing the assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, all mention of the Tehelka arms scandal, statements by Dalits and references to the Bharatiya Janata Party, and an outrageous order to “delete the entire visuals and dialogues of all political leaders, including the President, Prime Minister and Ministers”. The panel also refused to discuss these cuts with Mr Patwardhan, as is the custom. On appealing to the Central certification appellate tribunal, the cuts were reduced, but the director petitioned the Bombay high court. The CBFC then challenged its own higher tribunal, wanting all 21 cuts re-imposed. And this is what the high court prevented, reprimanding the government for fostering an “anti-thesis to basic human values, instincts and creativity”. Since then, several films on the Gujarat genocide have faced similar harassment. It is hardly surprising that a government getting increasingly unused to public accountability will perceive documentation as dissent, which must, in turn, be suppressed.