12-18 Dec, 2012
small world
Birth Pangs of the Malayalee Moral Police

KOCHI ~ In God’s own agitated country, there is now one more strange form of cultural policing at work. Conservative Malayalees are trying to ensure that a movie scene that shows a real birth delivery is not screened. 

Shwetha Menon, a former Miss India runner-up and an award-winning film actress, recently gave birth to a baby girl at Nanavati Nursing Home in Mumbai and the delivery was shot on camera for her upcoming Malayalam film Kalimannu (Clay). For the filmmakers, the hard part is what followed.

Mahila Morcha, the BJP women’s wing in the state, has said it would not allow the screening of the film because “it is an insult to motherhood”. G Karthikeyan, Assembly Speaker and former cultural minister of the Congress, too, said it was “immoral”. In a television interview, he went a degree cheesier than the BJP and said that the director and actress would also shoot “the acts that lead to a woman’s pregnancy”. Liberty Basheer, president of Film Exhibitor’s Federation (FEF), also declared that his organisation would not facilitate the film’s screening. This makes it tough for the director Blessy to screen the film since 350 theatres in Kerala are attached to the FEF.

For many cinema viewers in Kerala, a delivery shot live on camera is not new.  Thousands who flocked to the many film festivals hosted by Kerala have watched Nine Months (by Hungarian director Marta Meszaros) and Tin Drum (by German filmmaker Volker Schlöndorff), which have extensive shots of childbirth. They have been shown in Kerala’s cinema halls too. “Screening of such foreign films at festivals is a different matter. They are meant for a different category of audience,” says Basheer.

In 1994, Shwetha became famous in Kerala when she emerged as second runner-up in the Miss India pageant (Sushmita Sen won that year and Aishwarya Rai was first runner-up). In 2001, too, she had shocked conservative Malayalees as a model in an advertisement for condom brand Kama Sutra. Neither she nor Blessy wanted to comment on the issue.

Take Two
A Critique of Pure Unreason

There’s a little joke and it goes like this. A woman calls up a police station and complains that the man next door is a pervert. The cops come. She takes them through her garden, climbs over the fence, scales the wall of the neighbour’s house, pries open the bathroom window, points out the man under the shower and triumphantly says: “Look how he’s exposing himself to me.” The case of the Air India cabin crew employees is a little like that. Except that it is multiplied by two.

In May this year, KVJ Rao and Mayank Sharma were arrested and spent 12 days in jail based on a complaint against them for derogatory online posts. They were also suspended from their jobs. The posts were made in a closed forum, which can be an online equivalent to a private table inside a bar, and when people speak to each other in private, they don’t refer to the Indian Constitution after every sentence. Three sections, one of the Indian Penal Code and two others of the IT Act, were slapped on them. This included 66a, which is fast becoming the most infamous clause in Indian legal history.

Last week, after belated bad press, the Mumbai Police realised that they had been deluded. The complaint against the two was by someone in dispute with them for control of the cabin crew association. The police, therefore, did something equally moronic to make amends. They slapped Secton 66a on the complainant.

For someone who’s spent 12 days behind bars, that really does not help. Naturally, Rao and Sharma, when they come on television, have little to say about the complainant; instead, their vitriol is at the police. For the online community and activists, this is all the fault of Section 66a. For some reason, they seem to think that its provision of ‘causing annoyance’ allows a free hand to the police. This is slightly blinkered thinking by those who think we are a society governed by law.

Consider the sequence of events. The two are arrested in May and it doesn’t make a dent to the conscience of the nation. It takes an entirely different case six months later—the arrest of the Palghar girls over the Thackeray Facebook post—to bring their case into the limelight. Also note the difference between the two cases. In the Palghar one, there are two teenage girls, there is Shiv Sena vandalism, there is Thackeray’s death—it’s an explosive cocktail of middle-class outrage. It is too big to miss. In the case of Rao and Sharma, it’s just two adult men caught in an inter-union crossfire. Thousands of innocent men get sent to jail daily. If Thackeray had not died and if the Palghar girls had not been arrested, then Rao and Sharma were not even a statistic.

What does that say about justice in India? That its levers move lethargically, without any reason and on pure reaction—‘This is now shocking, so let’s fix it’. The Rule of Law is the opposite. As a principle, it has evolved over millennia of civilisation to remove arbitrariness. In the case of the crew men, it has been arbitrary from start to finish. This is true even of the justice they now get.

If Section 66a was not there, nothing would have changed. Rao and Sharma would still have spent time in jail under some other section of some other Act, and there are many of them. The Palghar girls would also have been arrested on some other section of some other Act with precisely the same national outrage. You don’t need ‘annoyance’ to arrest someone. There is, for example, ‘mischief’ in the IPC.

For the last two weeks, in Bangalore’s Cubbon Park, the police have decided that couples cosying up in public couldn’t be allowed. In some North Indian towns,  they call the media and start slapping couples in public. In Mumbai, they take a couple of hundreds as bribes and that (as all traffic cops would agree) is the perfect solution—there is punishment as well as profit. The Cubbon Park police are more virtuous. They send cops with empty videocams to go near the couples as if they are recording them, thus putting the fright of both the law and an MMS scandal into them. Now, if someone can say which section this bizarre antic is done under, we can all agree there exists Rule of Law.

The All-Knowing Police Commissioner

If you are the Mumbai Police Commissioner, it is likely that if you have questions, you probably know the answers too. During a recent event in a five star hotel in Mumbai, attended mostly by socialites and actors, where the Dalai Lama was invited to speak on animal welfare, a question-and-answer session with the spiritual leader was organised towards the end. Chits with questions, including one by Sonam Kapoor, were to be passed to the moderator, Chetan Bhagat, who would then read them out. But when Satyapal Singh, Mumbai’s police commissioner, expressed interest in asking a question, he did not send a chit. He walked right up to the stage. Despite Bhagat’s constant reminders that Singh take less than two minutes, the commissioner held centre stage for much longer. Not only did he ask a question (why do individuals who follow different religions continue to promote hatred and violence?), he provided its answer too (the only true religion is humanity, which can only be attained once one becomes a vegetarian). When the police commissioner finally left the stage, Bhagat had a wisecrack up his sleeve.

“Thank you for allowing us to safely post Facebook status messages,” he said.