Vishwaroopam Episode and Free Speech Rights in India

During the last few days, discussions about Vishwaroopam, the movie has occupied the Indian media and have opened up debates on Free Speech as well as the Responsibility of the Police and State Governments as well as the power of Muslim fringe groups to dictate political will.

To record the facts, a well known artist in India by name Kamala Hasan produced a big budget movie called “Vishwaroopam” in Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and English languages. The subject of the story is “Terrorism” and appears to cover the Alquaida type of terrorism. The film has been already released in Los Angeles and was set to be released in India in multiple centers when it hit a controversy as to the contents being objectionable to the Muslim community. Presently it is running in some places but is yet to be released in Tamil Nadu the home state of Mr Kamala Hasan.

The film was set to create history by being the first film to have a premier release in the DTH as Mr Kamala Hasan had planned to release it through DTH channels a day before it was to hit the theaters. This was first objected to by the theater owners and hence did not materialize. In the meantime Mr Hasan invited a group of Muslim organization representatives and showed the film to them which Mr Hasan now claims was with a desire to use their references for the promotion of the film. The move backfired or appears to have backfired as it developed into an action by the Tamil Nadu Government which blocked the release of the film all over the State. The matter went to the High Court and after the Judge made a strange suggestion that Kamala Hasan should negotiate with the Government for a settlement, it was followed by the judgement ordering that the movie can be released as it had already been cleared by the statutory Censor Board. Th Government immediately went on appeal and a full bench of the High Court stayed the judgement of the single judge and ensured that the movie is still in cold storage in Tamil Nadu.

Pained by the developments, Mr Kamala Hasan announced in a press conference that he was considering shifting out of Tamil Nadu which was not a “Secular State” and if he cannot find any other State in India where an artist could live peacefully, he would shift out of India. This statement branded Tamil Nadu as a State which was not secular and did not support artistic freedom.

Some also alleged that the stand of the Government was dictated by the refusal of Mr Kamal to provide rights of the film for a TV channel which is believed to be controlled by the Chief Minister.

Stung by the implications, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Ms J Jayalalitha held her own press conference stating inter alia that Mr Kamal wanted to release the film in 500 theaters and according to the intelligence reports, there was a possibility of Muslim groups opposing the release and the State did not have enough police personnel to be deployed in all the locations to curb possible violence and hence they had taken a stand to stop the release. She also denied that there was any consideration as alleged about TV rights in the decision. She also passed wry remarks on Mr Kamala Hasan allegedly having spoken in support of a “Wasti-clad Prime Minister” (A reference implying his preference of Mr P.Chidambaram- who is a political rival of the Chief Minister, to be considered for Prime Minister ship). She also passed some uncharecteristic remarks that Mr Kamal was unwise in taking up a large budget film at the age of 60.

Mr Kamal who initially contemplated going to Supreme Court challenging the High Court decision has now announced that he would wait and negotiate with the Muslim groups. He refrained from taking a stand against the Chief Minsiter and appeared to be diplomatically submissive. In between these controversies, pirated copies of the film appeared on the Internet and were quickly blocked.

The episode is a sad reflection of the state of Indian democracy and the status of “Freedom of Expression”. The fact is that our democracy is critically dependent on “Appeasement of the Minorities” and even persons like Ms Jayalalitha who was hitherto suspected to belong to the BJP camp and strong in administration has now shown that the policies of the Indian government authorities in both the State and the Center are guided only by the electoral considerations. If they see a group that consitutes a potential vote bank, they will do whatever is necessary to attract them whether it is unethical or illegal. The TN State Government expressing its inability to maintain law and order against a threat perception is also a development which raises a question of what is the responsibility of a Government in administration. In the current episode, after the initial singe judge verdict there was no justification for the TN Government to go on appeal abdicating its Governance responsibilities.

TN Government has by its action given a new undesirable guideline to other State Governments to take similar stand in future. I would not be surprised if Karnataka Government puts up the same argument namely- “We anticipate public unrest. We donot have adequate police machinery to handle the situation” when TN raises the Cauvery issue in future.

The incident has also exposed the weak belly of the Indian political system and if a strong leader like Jayalaitha can succumb to the temptation of Vote Bank politics, the possibility of other leaders standing up for principles is remote. There is also a possibility that Ms Jayalaitha would have sensed the opportunity to play politics, first imagined and then ignited a religious opposition where there was none to get political milege. This sort of intelligent manipulation of an event for a political advantage is the hallmark of current day politicians in India.

If a reputed person like Mr Kamal considers surrendering to the whims and fancies of fundamental muslim elements and or scheming politicians, then others stand no chance. By opting not to go to Supreme Court, Mr Kamal has prevented the only opportunity that was there to salvage the reputation of the system to come in support of Free Speech. Free Speech in India is therefore dead and gone. If the matter had been referred to the Supreme Court and it had dismissed the opposition with a guideline on the State’s responsibilities in similar situations, we could have seen a positive outcome of an ugly incident. But this has not happenned.

If this is the situation in the physical space in India, we can expect the Cyber Space to be no better.Today it is about speech that hurts the Muslim sentiments. Tomorrow it could be other reasons. Ultimately we can only speak in cyber space or physical space in “Diplomatic language” and nothing else.

If therefore Netizens need to survive in the Cyber Space of India with self respect, they need to organize themselves in Cyber Space without getting divided by language, caste and community and form a cohesive group which represents a significant voting strength in any future elections. An opportunity to forge such an organization is being debated separately in www.aifon.org.in and I invite interested persons to participate in the discussion.

Naavi

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About Vijayashankar Na

Naavi is a veteran Cyber Law specialist in India and is presently working from Bangalore as an Information Assurance Consultant. Pioneered concepts such as ITA 2008 compliance, Naavi is also the founder of Cyber Law College, a virtual Cyber Law Education institution. He now has been focusing on the projects such as Secure Digital India and Cyber Insurance
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