Aarakshan, a Prakash Jha directed movie, has raised furor in some parts of the country, with some State Governments – Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab , deciding to ban the screening of the film, even demanding cuts in the film on account of being provocative in nature and portraying a certain caste group in poor light.
Aarankshan became a free speech issue primarily because Mr. P L Punia, chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes decided to take anticipatory offence to what the film could offer. After the film was cleared by the censor board, Mr. Punia demanded that the board screen it for him. From there it was short distance for state governments to pick up the issue and declared ban after ban, in various parts of the country.
There are many important points that the censorship of the movie raises. Firstly, the movie is not wholly based on the caste-based reservation. It would have been a provocative movie had the entire script be based on the issue of reservation. The movie looses its focus of reservation in the second half and becomes a typical-good guy-bad guy Hindi movie. The film focuses reservation of seats, and the damage it is presumed to bring to the careers of many deserving students is one issue and the undermining of the educational system by mercenary private institutions is another. The title Aarakshan seems to be quite misleading as the film is fairly removed from the issue; at best it just touches it from a very superficial standpoint. Therefore, there is no reason for the board to censor the film, at all, hence the battle of free speech and expression should be used for more deserving materials and Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan, certainly doesn’t deserve to be debated on the issue of free speech.
Secondly, on the eve of 64 years of independent India, nation and its citizens should be able to handle the creative depiction of such a controversial issue. The constitution of India guarantees its citizens freedom of speech and expression with limited restrictions and the film’s theme was quite reasonable and not an extent provocative that it might lead to communal violence.
In its landmark judgment, over the banning of a Tamil film, of a similar issue called, “Ore Oru Gramathile, the Supreme Court had given major importance to the right of freedom and expression. In it, the board had granted “U” certificate for the exhibition of the film because, according to the majority opinion, the underlying theme of the movie — that reservation should be made on the basis of economic backwardness — was not in any way objectionable. An effort was made to ban the screening of the movie by a group of persons who regarded its theme and its presentation as hostile to the policy of reservation in favour of Scheduled Castes and backward classes. The Madras high court had revoked the certificate granted by the board of censors and restrained the exhibition of the movie. The SC promptly reversed the judgment and in its landmark decision, Justice Jagannatha Shetty, speaking for the court, laid down important principles of freedom of speech and expression saying: “Freedom of expression protects not merely ideas that are accepted but those that offend shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population. Such are the demands of the pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no democratic society.” Moreover, the judgment came against the fervent plea that the exhibition of the movie would lead to serious law and order problems because of the threats of violence. To this the SC had firmly rejected the plea and observed that “freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence. That would tantamount to negation of the rule of law and surrender to blackmail and intimidation”. The court further ruled that “it is the duty of the state to protect the freedom of expression since it is a liberty guaranteed against the state. The state cannot plead its inability to handle the hostile audience problem... freedom of expression cannot be held to ransom by an intolerant group of people.” The Court concluded with these memorable words: “We must practice tolerance to the views of others. Intolerance is as much dangerous to democracy as to the person himself.”
All in all, the fuss over Aarakshan was not only meaningless (because the main issue was not wholly based on caste-based reservation) but also about the importance to exercise our fundamental right of freedom and expression with reference to a creative depiction of a social issue, and showing maturity and tolerance after 64 years of Independence.