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Dissent and Gag

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A brief history of offence and censorship in India

The Censorious State


India is a state that takes itself very seriously. The nation is sacrosanct, and any offence, intended or not, is tantamount to sedition. We are particularly sensitive to the external gaze, equally quick to ban silly Hollywood films (3) where India features as a caricatured backdrop and thoroughly researched critical histories, such as Stanley Wolpert’s retelling (1) of Gandhi’s assassination. Sometimes even native genius is not spared—Satyajit Ray’s depiction of Sikkim (4) as a sovereign nation delayed its release by decades. Our ability to take offence at cartoons is practically expert, as was recently seen in cartoonist Aseem Trivedi’s arrest for ‘defacing’ the national emblem (5). Politicians don’t hesitate to prosecute at even the slightest joke made at their expense—as was superbly demonstrated by Mamata Banerjee in her arrest of a university professor who forwarded friends an email with a shabby cartoon (6) featuring her and fellow Trinamool leaders Mukul Roy and Dinesh Trivedi—and a film about a dam is easily construed as salt in the wound of a state dispute (2). Of course, censorship is not always met with silence, as was seen in the response to internet censorship last year, and most famously in The Indian Express’ blank editorial column in response to the Emergency (7)


Much of the banning by the Indian State is allegedly at the behest of its many minority groups, but what good it has done them or the country is doubtful. The film version of The Da Vinci Code was banned by a few states after copies of the book were burnt by some Indian Christians (1); a decades-old political cartoon (2) by a master of the art, K Shankar Pillai, was excised from Indian textbooks because it was offensive to Dalits rather than contextualised for its irony; Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses was banned for hurting Muslim sentiments (4); Shah Rukh Khan’s (3) nuanced and very personal essay about the balancing act of identity was denounced as a betrayal; and MF Husain was villainised (5) for his portrayal of Hindu goddesses nude in paintings

Nation of Prudes

Talking about sex counts among the best ways to get knocked off shelves and shut out of cinemas. Mira Nair’s Kama Sutra (3) never saw an Indian release because of its graphic content, nor did Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1), which dared suggest there were lesbians in Lajpat Nagar; Joseph Lelyveld’s highly controversial biography of Gandhi (2) got three strikes—sex, the Mahatma and homosexuality. Little surprise in a country of moral policing and prescriptions for rape-preventive attire

Hyper Hindus

India’s Hindu majority has a special talent for feeling affronted, whether by the ‘culture-corroding’ influence of Western greeting-card occasions such as Valentine’s Day (1) or any reinterpretation of sacred texts. AK Ramanujan suffered removal from university syllabuses because he said there were too many Ramayanas, noted Indologist Wendy Doniger had an egg thrown at her at a lecture in London for her erotic interpretations of sacred texts (3); Filmmaker Nina Paley couldn’t even screen her feminist retelling of the Ramayana, Sita Sings the Blues (2), in New York because of an outcry from Hindu activists there