ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Unofficial Censors

New forms of resistance to suppression of free expression are needed.

This was not the stuff of headline news but what happened on 25 August is worth noting. In small rooms and open spaces, a documentary film was screened simultaneously at an estimated 50 locations across India. It was a small effort of resistance against bullying and censorship that sends out a larger message. Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, a 136-minute documentary film by Nakul Singh Sawhney, has not gone through the official process of censorship. But it has borne the brunt of the unofficial censors that are at work in India today. The documentary is about the communal riots in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli Districts of Uttar Pradesh in September 2013. It depicts the harsh realities of death and displacement in a region that had been free of communal strife, of the blatant role of politicians in stirring the communal pot and of the indifference of the state government. The victims are mostly Muslims but also some Hindus; the perpetrators cut a swathe across all political parties. What the film depicts is hard to refute and impossible to justify.

On 1 August 2015, members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, disrupted a private screening of this film in a Delhi college. They insisted that the film, which needless to say they had not seen, hurt Hindu sentiment. A few days later, the ABVP unsuccessfully attempted to stop a screening at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. To protest against such unofficial censorship, simultaneous screenings of the film were organised on 25 August. The date, incidentally, marks the first death anniversary of Shubhradeep Chakravorty, a noted documentary film-maker whose film on Muzaffarnagar, En Dino Muzaffarnagar, was denied a certificate by the censor board last year. The film was cleared earlier this year by a panel set up by the Delhi High Court but has yet to get the official document. On 25 August, some screenings of Sawhney’s film were stopped by the police—in Chennai, Madurai, Thiruchirapalli, Mumbai and even at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan—on the grounds that the film could lead to trouble. However, in the majority of locations, the screenings went through without interruptions allowing an estimated 7,000 people to view the film. Ironically, the unofficial censor has ensured that many more people will now want to see this film.

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