DOES IT seem like every week brings more absurd and depressing instances of mob censorship? Last week, filmmaker Sanjay Kak was banned from screening his documentary Jashn-e-Azadi at a seminar on Kashmir at the Symbiosis College of Arts and Science, Pune, after the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) protested. Principal Hrishikesh Soman, who hasn’t watched the film, was told it was anti-national. Kak, 53, tells Yamini Deenadayalan why free speech must be accompanied by free listening.
EDITED EXCERPTS FROM AN INTERVIEW
How have you responded to individuals offended by your work?
I’m not really a serial offender of sensitivities. What is central here is that this is a film on Kashmir. That’s what arouses such primal instincts. Kashmir is one of the central faultlines in our democracy; it tests our notions of secularism. What I find troubling is that the role of the State seems to accede to the bully, and never to the ones who are threatened. That is a real perversion of the idea of reasonable restrictions on our right to free speech.
What did the principal tell you when he decided your film won’t be screened?
I have never spoken to him, so it was disconcerting to have him quoted in the papers, saying that the institute had asked me to keep my presentation free of “controversies”. I think it’s impolite to tell a guest speaker what he or she is “allowed” to speak on, isn’t it? After the ABVP ruckus, the teacher informed me that they could not screen the film, and that I use the time to talk to the students instead. They asked me to give them a title, and I did — “Speaking about Kashmir”. This is an established college, part of a recognised university, and this seminar was supported by the University Grants Commission. Isn’t it the police’s job to protect this event? Instead, they seemed to have been part of the reason why the screening was stopped.
Does your film have a censor certificate?
No. Never applied for one because I had no intention of screening it in public spaces or selling it in shops. Festivals and educational institutions don’t necessarily need censor clearance. Viewing on the Internet doesn’t. Screenings abroad don’t.
The film is available online. Was it the public screening that scared the ABVP?
It’s not public screening, but the idea that a real conversation about Kashmir is happening in a mainstream educational institution, that this conversation is getting the legitimacy it deserves: that is scary for them.
Haven’t you ever been offended by art?
I’ve been part of the campaign against censorship, and we had a credo of sorts: Free Speech, yes, but equally, Fearless Listening. That’s what we need to cultivate — an ability to listen to points of view, even those that enrage you. I’m offended by so much on our TV news channels every day, I’m not calling for a ban on them. I’ve just learned to stop watching them!
Yamini Deenadayalan is a Features Correspondent with Tehelka.