The Indecency of Decency

Ravi Shanker Kapoor

That intolerance has become the defining feature of the governance becomes evident, if any more evidence was needed, from the so-called advisory the Information & Broadcasting Ministry recently issued to TV channels regarding Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Independence Day speech this year. It may be the first ‘advisory’ in history that is accompanied with the threat of “penal provisions.”

The ‘advisory’ said that “it had come to the notice of Ministry of Information & Broadcasting that certain TV channels attempted to denigrate the Office of the Prime Minister of India by constantly trying to compare the speech of the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India with the speech of other political leaders on 15th August, 2013.” The charge is based on two assumptions. First, “the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India” is a heavenly figure whose utterances need to be grasped in a state of reverence, while other political leaders are lesser mortals. Second, comparison is denigration.

While the first assumption is anti-democratic, the second one is outright arbitrary. The prime minister is not a celestial creature with a divine right to rule. Therefore, the Ministry’s contention militates against even the suppositions of the government. And it surely is an affront to basic principles of democracy: the prime minister is one of us and is elected by us; he enjoys the high office so long as we, the people of India, deem him fit to rule the country; he derives his powers from our consent, and not from gods as many kings claimed to do in the past.

As for the second postulate, equating comparison with denigration is as idiotic as it is arbitrary. In fact, it is nothing but an abuse of language, just as calling a threat an ‘advisory.’

The operative part of the Ministry’s advisory was in the third paragraph: “…as per Section 5 of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, read with Rule 6(1 Xa) & (i) of the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994, as amended from time to time, no programme can be transmitted/re-transmitted on any Cable Service which contains anything [that] offends against good taste or decency; and criticizes, maligns or slanders any individual in person or certain groups, segments of social, public and moral life of the country.”

To begin with, the rules mentioned are patently illiberal on two counts. First, they tend to bar anything that is offensive to “good taste or decency.” It is a well-known fact that offense to good taste and decency is highly subjective and arbitrary; and there is ample evidence to demonstrate that the line of argument seeking to ban anything that offends sensitivities and hurts sentiments has been used to curb the freedom of expression. For example, something as innocuous and non-offending as ‘barber’ has been used to force a filmmaker to change the name of his film. Second, any rule that criminalizes criticism undermines the foundation of liberalism and democracy. This can—as it does in the present instance—banish criticism of government policies, ministers, and political leaders.

Any government claiming to be liberal, should have annulled such rules. Instead, it has sought to use these anti-democratic rules to root out criticism and dissent.

Like the Bourbons of yore, the government has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing from history. Though it did acknowledge “the curbs on freedom of expression and personal liberties” during the Emergency, it strives to recreate the conditions prevalent during that dark period. The Emergency was not an aberration; it was, and is, a natural corollary of the party’s hubris. Hence the desire to silence dissent.

While the Congress-led government’s disregard for the freedom of expression is outrageous, it is scarcely surprising. A regime whose hallmarks are corruption, incompetence, and insensitivity is desperately trying to tame the media, especially electronic. In the name of “national integrity, patriotism, and national fervor,” it wants to force news channels to avoid adverse comment on Prime Minister Singh, despite the ignominy of his rule; and it wants us to bear his patently bland and mendacious speeches.

And in the name of good taste and decency, the I&B Ministry wants to eliminate any criticism of the most venal government our country has suffered in the last one and a half centuries. Never before was decency used to defend indecency with such disingenuousness.

Views expressed are personal.

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