Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 36, Dated Sept 13, 2008
A democracy must protect rights, not
muzzle free speech
THERE IS no worse enemy of democracy than censorship.
There is no patriotism greater than protecting free
speech and freedom of expression. Sadly, in India
today, while our government claims otherwise, there is
a constant, deliberate and violently vitriolic attack on
free speech and freedom of expression for individuals
and groups alike.
To be sure, none of our other freedoms and rights — to assemble
peacefully, of religious expression, of political dissent, to seek justice
etc. — are even remotely possible without our freedom of speech
and rights of free expression, guaranteed under the Constitution.
I write about this from a very particular point of view, with a very
personal set of experiences. Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal and I are the
producers/directors of the path-breaking play The Vagina Monologues
by Eve Ensler. Right from the start we have faced problems trying to get
the play mounted — producers walking out at the last minute,
sponsors balking at the title, actors who wear skirts short enough to
expose their vaginas refusing to say the very
word. Yet, nothing compares to the ways in
which theatres and individuals have tried to
silence the play.
In Mumbai, even after getting a fullycleared
script from the Censor Board (a prehistoric
idea to begin with), theatres still refuse
us performance permission, nothwithstanding the fact that after
192 house-full shows, audiences are still clamouring to see it. A
Mumbai college professor sued us in court because she thought we
were responsible for the moral decay in the city!
The worst blow has come from Chennai, which, to date, has refused
us entry to the city with this play on four different occasions. In 2003
when we had brought down the playwright, along with two Oscarwinning
actors — Jane Fonda and Marissa Tomei — we were told, a
mere two hours before boarding the plane that the police commissioner
had declined permission to perform because we would disturb
the law and order situation in Chennai. First of all, it is only in fascist/
totalitarian states where the police are in charge of artistic expression.
Secondly, how perfectly non-violent people, preaching non-violence
towards women, would violate the peace of Chennai is baffling.
Thirdly, we were raising funds for women’s shelters and charities.
Then, just this past week, we were off to Chennai to perform the
play as part of the Times Of India Festival. Less than 48 hours before
the show, once again we were barred entry by a group of women who
said that they would not allow the play to be performed in their city.
Having narrated the most personal aspects of the horrors of
censorship, let me say that my fight for this cause is larger. I know
that when I cannot speak, there are millions others, too, who find
their mouths gagged, their plays/films banned, their books burned
and their paintings vandalised.
The really insidious part of censorship in India is not simply
that we silence necessary voices, but also that those who censor
resort to violence and vandalism. This is the sure sign that opponents
of free speech actually have no tenable arguments, no logical
ideology, and that violence is their only resort to winning the day.
When that barbarism wins, you may as well
What the anti-free speech crowd doesn’t
understand is that while they have the right to
dissent against any way of thinking and doing,
or the right to protest any work of art, they do
not have the right to prevent individuals from
expressing themselves, nor others from enjoying this very same art. I
support, with every fibre of my being, anyone’s right to protest my art.
I cannot stomach anyone trying to silence mine, or any other, voice.
We may snickeringly find comfort against China’s meteoric
economic rise by saying that they are totalitarian. My fellow Indians,
just look around you. The truth is that in many ways we are no less
totalitarian or fascistly brutal in our tactics against those we disagree
with. And yet, we profess to the world that we are its largest democracy.
Democracy is not to be evaluated by a country’s headcount,
but rather by its avowed and daily insistence upon and unmitigating
protection of the rights of all its citizens.
Kotwal is a writer, producer, director, and actor who teaches in the US