The world’s most populous democracy is trying to stifle freedom of speech and religion yet again.
India’s Central Board of Film Certification—the main governing body of all movies and films released in the country—cracked down on a documentary by Harvard economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, according to the film’s director. Board members asked director Suman Ghosh, he told journalists, to censor the word “cow,” as well as references to Hindutva (right-wing Hindu) ideology.
The forthcoming documentary, The Argumentative Indian, based on Sen’s book of the same name, is about—ironically—the power of public discourse and intellectual pluralism in India. This kind of censorship is the latest in a string of attacks on public speech by right-wing Hindu nationalists who have been empowered by the Narendra Modi administration, elected in 2014.
The cow—an animal held sacred in Hinduism—has been especially polarizing in the diverse country. Some state governments have banned beef, even though India is a secular country where Muslims, Christians and many Indigenous communities have consumed the meat for centuries.
“This new instance of censorship makes satire unnecessary—censoring the word ‘cow’ really is a load of bull,” Karuna Nundy, a Delhi-based lawyer who has defended freedom of speech cases at India’s Supreme Court, told me. “In my view it’s a huge violation of free speech.”
For now, even talking about cows and beef gets people in trouble. When Jeetrai Hansda, a drama professor in the state of Jharkhand, wrote a two-sentence Facebook post looking for beef for a “beef party,” right-wing groups were outraged, according to Scroll. Youth Congress members in Kerala, India’s largely Christian and atheist state, were also arrested for holding a beef festival.
“Censoring the word ‘cow’ really is a load of bull”
Sen’s documentary isn’t the only on-screen censorship. The word ‘beef’ was bleeped out in a Friends episode that aired on Indian television in 2015, were words like ‘ballsy,’ ‘butt’ and ‘condom,’ according to Public Radio International. The board even tried to stop the Bollywood movie Udta Punjab—premised on the state of Punjab’s real-life heroin problem—but was overruled in a court case last year after the judge rejected the idea that it questioned India’s sovereignty by painting the state in a negative light.
While India has been a relatively conservative country when it comes to on-screen and online sexuality, cursing, and nudity, the current administration’s moral policing has enraged liberal and moderate citizens. It has also seeped into every system within the country, from commerce to education.
Nundy said past Supreme Court decisions may help free speech advocates, and filmmakers like Ghosh, defend their message against censorship. A 1971 judgement, for example, ruled in favor of a filmmaker depicting harsh scenes of poverty: “The standards that we set for our censors must make a substantial allowance in favour of freedom thus leaving a vast area for creative art to interpret life and society with some of its foibles along with what is good.”
“On the bright side, this level of absurdity has prompted the Supreme Court to look at the Board’s ability to order such cuts, and consider whether it meets the standards of constitutional free speech,” Nundy said.
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