Sound of silence and suppression

Aditya Mani Jha | Updated on January 03, 2020

Gag orders in 2019 on journalists, film-makers, activists and artists enforced a culture of self-censorship

Bandita Borah is a computer science teacher at Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya in Titabor (Jorhat district, Assam). Last week, several Assamese newspapers (and, later, newspapers across the rest of the country) reported that Borah had been sacked by the school authorities.

She claimed that her support of student protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act had been the immediate trigger — she had objected when a colleague had called the protesting students “illiterate”.

Eventually, the local unit of the All Assam Students Union (AASU) pressed the school authorities and Borah was reinstated.

But signs of similar clampdowns are evident elsewhere too. In West Bengal, chief minister Mamata Banerjee has forbidden government college teachers from speaking to the media. Teachers in Madhya Pradesh cannot air their grievances on public forums.

Meanwhile, prominent Kashmiri politicians such as Omar Abdullah have not been heard from in months, following a communication shutdown in the Valley after its special status was revoked on August 5, 2019.

Not just politicians or government employees, even the field of culture echoed with charges of censorship in the year gone by.

In January 2019, online streaming services Hotstar and Netflix India signed a self-regulation code after government officials reportedly expressed concern over “anti-Hindu content” in shows such as Leila, Sacred Games and Ghoul (all Netflix products). Earlier, the makers of Sacred Games had been sued for alleged defamatory content against the late former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi (the case was subsequently dismissed).

Amazon’s subscription streaming service Prime Video had opted out of the code, saying the existing regulatory laws in India were strong enough.

In November, however, Prime Video subscribers noticed that one particular episode (season five, episode one) of Madam Secretary, a CBS drama set in the US White House, was missing, with a ‘video unavailable’ message. This is an episode where the protagonist, Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord (Tea Leoni) is fiercely critical of the Indian government for not protecting its Muslim citizens from majoritarian violence.

A briefing that McCord receives from her team towards the beginning of the episode goes like this:

“(...) Intelligence indicates the Indian government has decided not to take any definitive actions to quell Hindu nationalists from violently attacking members of India’s Muslim minority. In fact, a variety of sources indicate the Indian government is siding with the Hindu nationalists, and has deemed any responses that could prevent further attacks as politically dangerous.”

Multiple attempts by BLink to ascertain from Amazon Prime Video whether it had received any communication from the Indian government regarding Madam Secretary failed to elicit a response.

Interestingly, earlier in October, information and broadcasting minister Prakash Javadekar had said there was a need to bring streaming platforms under a censor board. “They (OTT platforms) do fall under the IT Act, but have no government or self regulation. This happens nowhere in the world,” he said.

Then there was a news report in November that the chairman of the Railways’ Passenger Services Committee (PSC), Ramesh Chandra Ratn, had ordered vendors at the Bhopal train station to stop selling copies of writer Khushwant Singh’s book On Women, Sex, Love and Lust — an anthology of his newspaper columns. Ratn is reported to have said that the train station is a “family-oriented” space where “such obscene things” should not be displayed, lest innocent children “are corrupted”. The report sparked many jokes on the internet. However, there have been no reports of Singh’s books being removed from the station.

Meanwhile, even as a large section of netizens expresses concern over the menace of online fake news, Javadekar has already indicated that a regulatory board for online news portals is in the works.

It remains to be seen whether the proposed legislation is also expected to apply to pro-government websites which have been publishing articles debunked by independent fact-checkers such as AltNews.

As TV and print media become increasingly reluctant to report police brutality or corruption in local government, it is harder to hold those in power accountable. Historically disadvantaged groups like Muslims, Dalits, adivasis and so on will be marginalised even further.

Published on January 03, 2020

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