article pub. in e-STQ by Keval Arora
[Jinnah was scheduled for performance at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi on 22 and 23 June 2005. With a month to go for their performance of Jinnah, Arvind Gaur’s group Asmita, like all other theatre groups in Delhi, applied to the police and other relevant authorities of the establishment for necessary permissions / clearances, which is the norm for theatre groups. On 15 June 2005 Gaur received a phonecall from the DCP (South) asking for the script to be submitted. What followed was a carefully worked out strategy for deliberate harassment of the group, with the police ‘requesting’ the group to ‘defer’ their performance, amounting to refusal of permission to perform.]
Yes Sir, CENSOR!
By Keval Arora
So, tell me, why isn’t everyone laughing?
The mess the Delhi Police created last week when it denied Asmita, a local theatre group, permission to stage its latest play Jinnah is just the kind of stupidity we’d find funny had it not been a long time coming. But, what else can one expect in a city that requires every theatre group to apply to the police for permission to perform? The police issue the licence in the form of a No Objection Certificate after they are satisfied that the theatre production constitutes no threat to law and order, does not violate public morality, poses no traffic hazard, and does not offend religious, political and social sensibilities. It’s tough being a policeman, I tell you!
But, can you imagine any play worth its salt doing none of these? Funnily enough, the most reasonable of the police’s concerns – that performances pose no traffic hazard – is administered by the Delhi Police in the most illogical manner. Groups are asked by the office of the DCP (Traffic) to furnish information about the number of vehicles expected and parking arrangements at venues that wouldn’t even have been built had their facilities not already been inspected and approved by the relevant civic agencies! (That this is a cruel trick to play on theatre performers facing the prospect of dwindling urban audiences is lost on our police friends, maybe because Dirty Tricks is chapter and worse in their police manual.)
I can’t think of too many plays constituting a threat to law and order. Not unless, that is, the plays are to be held accountable for the shenanigans of organised protestors who take umbrage at the slightest pretext and threaten violence if the performance is allowed to proceed. By that count, shouldn’t the police also blame me, when my wallet is stolen, for having carried money in the first place? Surely mine was the criminal provocation! Better still, shouldn’t the police ban all Republic Day celebrations, seeing the trouble they anticipate whenever that time of year comes round? The problem with our police forces is that they are inadequately trained to recognise the freedoms that need to be cherished in civil society, and that is why they invariably take the shortest route to ‘order’ by targeting the innocents. The only freedom of expression they end up thereby protecting is that of lumpens to express threats of wanton violence to property and persons.
What of those other perniciously vague clauses regarding offence to public morality and causing hurt to religious, political and social sensibilities? I say ‘pernicious’ because any cultural work that interrogates or even explores its environment with any honesty can be said to ‘offend’ someone or the other. Take any well-known play, peg its critique to contemporary social groupings, and hey presto, you have an aggrieved constituency on whose behalf the police feels itself duty-bound to display its censorious sensitivity. Remember George Bernard Shaw’s praise of Ibsen’s plays for their “immoral tendency”? “Immorality,” Shaw wrote, “does not necessarily imply mischievous conduct: it implies conduct, mischievous or not, which does not conform to current ideals." Undoubtedly, this is a grey area, one man’s meat being another man’s poison. But, silencing is no antidote. Let the laws of the land governing slander and so on be applied to offenders, if and after the offence has been committed.
So what have our custodians of public morality been doing when confronted by a serious theatre that aims to provide more than an evening of titillatory entertainment? It’s done nothing most of the time, which is about the sanest thing it can do. But these clauses exist, and are unfortunately brought out of the closet as and when it suits the police’s purpose, or when some official lacks the courage to let things be. As a result, consistency has been the first casualty. I can think of many, many other performances that should have been stopped by the police if Jinnah is everything they imagine it to be. Surely, as The Times of India argued in an editorial denouncing the police decision, it is the Advani storm in the BJP cup that has prompted some over-zealous police official to say ‘Jinnah yahan, to marna yahan’.
The story so far. When Arvind Gaur, the director of Jinnah, was asked to submit a script with just a week to go for its opening on 22 June ‘05, he did so despite the fact that in the past the police had not ever asked to see his playscripts. Even in the case of productions such as Final Solutions (on the Bombay riots) or Hidden Fires (on the Gujarat carnage). Apparently, the police can do so, though it had ceased this practice on the intervention of eminent theatre persons several years ago.
On 21 June, a day before Jinnah was to open, the police “requested” Asmita to defer its shows on the grounds that the script it received was in an illegible hand and had been submitted too late. The latter complaint was strange considering that it was the police who had delayed things — their request for the script came a full 3 weeks after they had received Asmita’s application. Also, Gaur points out that only 5% of this typewritten script was handwritten, and that too because these were the changes which had been made during rehearsals. ACP Anil Shukla’s insistence that the police was merely ‘requesting’ a postponement and wasn’t ‘banning’ the play was too clever by half — after all, Asmita didn’t have the freedom to treat the police’s request as just that and turn it down. The police obviously chose the word ‘request’ because it’s difficult to actually ban a play when you also claim that its script is unreadable!
Gaur’s offer to have the script read aloud or even performed at the police station was turned down. He was informed that a committee, whose members’ names would not be disclosed, rather than the police was looking into the matter. As the protests multiplied from various quarters, the police tried to clinch their case by trotting out their discovery that the annual municipal licence which permits the IHC to host performances was still under (routine) process, and therefore the IHC had technically no authority to rent out its auditoria. That other plays had already been staged at the IHC despite the pendency of the licence’s renewal didn’t bother the police since the business of the licence was evidently their alibi rather than their grouse. The result: IHC pulled down its shutters on all events as a precautionary measure.
Some strange arguments have emerged from all this. Gaur’s claim that his play bears no relation to the current controversy about Jinnah is not the point. So what if it did? Do we really believe that it’s all right for editors and columnists to have their say, but theatre and cinema should be denied the practice of persuasion? Protests against censorship cannot be founded upon claims to inoffensiveness or sanitised innocence. Similarly, Gaur’s comment that even a local Shiv Sena bigwig found nothing offensive in Jinnah is unpalatable. If constitutional policing creates so many problems, do we believe that accessing unconstitutional authority won’t? Hey, what would Gaur have done if our SS worthy had complaints about the script?
Don’t get me wrong, I do not advocate a free-for-all, unregulated space for the public exchange of ideas, be they through cultural forms or otherwise. (Such freedom, mechanically safeguarded, can easily be abused — by purveyors of hate speech, for instance.) But, surely, our regulatory methods ought not to be blindly mechanical or unaccountable, as those adopted by the police in the present instance. Cultural policing is never a good idea, regardless of the cut of the khaki cloth that its practitioners wear.
Keval Arora teaches at Kirori Mal College, Delhi University, and can be reached at email@example.com