The Ban That Was

 By Rimsha Falak (Literature Editor)

 

 

 

 

 

On the Twenty-fifth of May, the Indian government, specifically the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, enforced a broadcasting ban on Comedy Central India; which was supposed to last for ten days but was temporarily lifted on the twenty-eighth.

The programming was prohibited due to the following two reasons – a comedian’s act in the show Stand Up Club and a prank show Popcorn TV that simulated sex with a dummy. According to the Delhi High Court, the show had “obscene dialogues and vulgar words derogatory of women and hence appeared to offend good taste and public decency. The portrayal in the program did not appear suitable for unrestricted public exhibition and children.” However this ban was lifted after Viacom 18, the owner of the channel, filed an appeal which argues that this ban violates the freedom of speech provisions of the Indian Constitution and is out of line with international practices.

This really shouldn’t have come as a surprise, what with some of the incidents in the past that have sparked an intense debate over freedom of speech and the governments apparent complicity in restricting it; examples of which would include:

  • An incident in February when 78 URLs or web links were blocked on the orders of the government by all Internet Service Providers (ISPs). 73 of these web pages hosted material that was critical of a privately run business school – Indian Institute of Planning and Management (IIPM) and/or its head. The blacklisted URLs included articles in leading and credible newspapers and magazines as well as blogs. The publishers claim that they weren’t informed before these pages were shut down. The University Grants Commission, a government organisation, was among the web pages to be shut down, as it had published a notice highlighting that it does not recognize the IIPM as a university.
  • Last November, Mumbai police arrested a 21 year old girl over a Facebook status update and her friend for ‘Liking’ the status. In the status update, the girl accused, questioned Shiv Sena’s call for a strike for the funeral of its leader, Bal Thakeray.
  • In December 2011, Aseem Trivedi’s website – cartoonsagainstcorruption.com was suspended after a complaint from the Mumbai Crime Branch which stated that it displayed defamatory and derogatory cartoons. In September 2012, he was arrested on charges of sedition related to the content of his work. He was granted bail but his case is still pending in a local court.
  • India was the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses, A.K. Ramanujan’s essay Three Hundred Ramayanas was dropped from the Delhi University’s syllabus, movies like Deshdrohi, Bandit Queen, Da Vinci Code, Fire  and many others were banned by state governments.

Nevertheless, the banning of the broadcasting of Comedy Central India, still came as a surprise; older television audiences were gripped by unwelcome nostalgia while remembering the times when such a thing was common during a power outage or some technical problem – and this was when Doordarshan and Prasar Bharati dominated the Indian media scenario.

One reason for this feeling of surprise is that, while the government has never shied from exerting control over other broadcasting media, the history of television and channel broadcasting has been more or less free of this stigma. For example, the newspapers were highly censored and outright banned during the emergency while the radio has always been in control of the government and even the internet as we can see, is starting to bend as per the wishes of the government of India.

The one prevalent example that does come to mind while talking about the government’s control over television is an incident that took place last year in December when the government banned 24 foreign television channels from being broadcast in India as they had either not sought permission for down-linking or were anti-India programmes. A wide majority of these were Pakistani channels. Furthermore, the fact that the Indian government used vague framing of the constitution regarding free speech laws, enforce these restrictions just as it had done during the Emergency of 1975, is not a welcoming prospect. Rather it only serves to drive home the fear, that this was just an ominous trailer and the worst, perhaps, is yet to come.

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