A couple of weeks ago, IBN-live ran a report stating that the producer of a Gujarati play titled 'Aa NaMo Bahu Nade Chhey' (This NaMo creates obstacles) was told by the Gujarat state cultural board to change its title as the word NaMo was associated with the State’s CM Narendra Modi and, in their opinion, the title could create trouble.
Upon reading this report, I was deeply disturbed for two reasons: first, when did any state’s cultural board get blanket power to ban or change a play’s title based on their opinions; and secondly, on a related note, I thought that the Bombay High Court judgment on the ‘Nathuram Godse’ play had settled the idea that freedom of expression cannot simply be curbed by the State without giving reasonable grounds under the following sections of the Penal Code: Sections 124-A (sedition); Section 153-A (promoting enmity on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc. and for the maintenance of harmony); Section 153-B (to protect national integration); Section 292 (against obscene books); Section 293 (obscene objects); and Section 295-A (acts meant to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.)
Seeking some clarity, I contacted the Gujarat State cultural board using the phone numbers on their website, and also a few lawyers practicing in Gujarat. The cultural board proved to be entirely unhelpful, clamping up at the mere mention of the play. One of the lawyers I spoke with defended the intervention by citing Section 95 (1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, and further promised that they would provide me with a copy of an order that they were certain had been rightly passed by the State. I never heard from the lawyer after this conversation. This became entirely understandable when I later discovered that no order under any provision was passed by the State government.
Finally I decided to speak with the producer and lead actor of the concerned play, Mr. Sanjay Goradiya. During our conversation, he cleared up my first query regarding the state cultural board. Mr. Goradiya told me that as per guidelines, scripts have to be submitted to each state’s censor board and they are cleared once the censor board decides that the script doesn’t touch any of the grounds I mentioned above (i.e. sedition, obscenity, and incitement.)
Accordingly, his play was also sent to the Maharashtra and Gujarat censor boards, and while it was cleared in Maharashtra, it was the Gujarat censor board that approached him and said that while the script was not objectionable, the title was a cause for concern. They told him that they would ban it unless he changed the title.
For perspective, here’s a synopsis of Mr. Goradiya’s play: The ghost of a man whose name is Narottam Morbiwala (hence the NaMo) takes over his grandson’s body at 6p.m. every day. NaMo, in this case the deceased man, is an ill-tempered character who uses the time he’s taken over his grandson’s body to create trouble for his son. Troubled by these events, the son’s wife takes to doing pooja in all the temples of Gujarat asking for the ghost to calm down and not fight. An official in the Modi government hears of these poojas and mistakes the family for supporters of the opposition party praying that Modi himself not win the next elections. A comedy of errors that loosely resembles Oscar Wilde’s ‘Importance of being Earnest’ ensues.
So, let’s go through the list of constitutional grounds to ban a work of art once again: Does this synopsis sound like sedition? Not to my mind. Does it sound like it’s trying to incite hatred between different religious or ethnic groups? Again, I’d opine in the negative. Are we to call this obscene? Doesn’t sound like it, does it? I think the censor board might agree with me on these points since they’ve not changed a single word, not one dialogue of the script itself. As far as Goradiya knows, their only issue is with the word NaMo in the title. Goradiya tells me that his play indirectly praises the Gujarat Chief Minister rather than degrades him or the State government.
Is it that NaMo has become synonymous with Modi to the extent that it’s now worthy of state protection? As far as I know, Namo can’t be trademarked by Modi any more than Li-Lo can be trademarked by Lindsey Lohan. Nor can its use be curbed carte blanche on the basis that the acronym can only refer to Narendra Modi. In fact, if it does solely refer to Narendra Modi, shouldn’t political discourse in the form of art be encouraged rather than stopped in a democrasy?
Goradiya tells me that he doesn’t even think Modi knows about this move by agents in his government. According to him, “The people under Modi think that the issue may blow up, may cause trouble and then they’ll come under fire from Modi later. To avoid getting into trouble with Modi later, they’ve asked me to change the name of the title.”
The play’s title has been changed now to a title that was suggested by the censor board itself. Roughly translated the new title means ‘This NaMo doesn’t want to fight.’ When I asked if he agrees with the title change, Goradiya replied, “What can one man do? This is how I make a living. If I object they’ll ban my play stating law and order issues. If I was a bigger name, had more money I might have fought the change but I don’t have the money to go to court on this issue. I’d rather just release my play.” Sound like blackmail to you? Sounds like blackmail to me.
What’s worse is that this isn’t even the first time the Gujarat Censor board has jumped the proverbial gun in order to protect their revered CM. Back in 2004, a documentary titled Final Solution, which followed 2002 riots in Gujarat, was also banned. The censor board justified that ban by saying it was “highly provocative and may trigger off unrest and communal violence". This begs the obvious question- any more than the unrest that was availing in the State already? The ban was lifted in October 2004 after a sustained campaign
Both these bans have come in after the 2001 Bombay High Court judgment in the case of Anand Chintamani Dighe & Anr. vs State Of Maharashtra And Ors, where the court quoted Justice Krishna Iyer in laying out the guidelines for exercising a State’s power to ban works of art under Section 95(1) of the CrPc, “A drastic restriction on the right of a citizen when imposed by statute, calls for a strict construction. Explicitly, the section compels the government to consider it a clear and present danger in the shape of promoting feelings of enmity and hatred between different segments of citizens or as to its strong tendency or intendment to outrage the religious feelings of such segments.”
The court has clearly said that the state MUST give grounds for their opinions as to why the work of art (in this case it was the play I am Nathuram Godse speaking) falls under the purview of section 95 (1) of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The Gujarat censor board’s only reason seems to be that the title contains the word ‘NaMo’, which is a common acronym for Narendra Modi.
I’ve given you a synopsis, the Gujarat censor board has proved by itself that there’s no clear and present danger since they haven’t changed the script at all. What worries me now is the idea that Modi’s underlings are so interested in protecting their CM that they’ve lost all interest in protecting their citizens’ right to freedom of expression; they’ve lost interest in the idea of democracy; they’ve simply lost faith in the Gujarati citizens’ power to focus on the content of a play rather than just a headline, or even their ability to understand satire. Is this what we can look forward to when and if Modi is elected into power in 2014?