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Lessons from the Vishwaroopam imbroglio

Kamal Haasan and his artistic freedom is the smaller issue. How will the world view us when a handful of demonstrators terrorise our governments to ban a movie? Who will invest in India when a few truckloads of fanatics can cause the closure of the highly protected and centrally located US embassy in a prominent city of the country.

Post-Independence, the 21-month Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi between June 1975 and March 1977 was the darkest period for India. Civil liberties were drastically curtailed. Leaders were summarily incarcerated. Many innocent people were detained under Maintenence of Internal Security Act. Press censorship was introduced overnight.

The indomitable and noted political satirist Cho Ramaswamy, editor of the weekly Thuglaq, refused to yield to this censorship. Instead, he simply stopped publishing his magazine for two weeks after the imposition of Emergency. When the publication resumed, the issue was published with a black front cover.

Thuglaq was probably the only magazine in India whose advertisements were censored during those times. While most in the media caved to the excesses of the government, a few like Cho refused to budge.

Approximately four decades later, the ghosts of the Emergency simply refuse to be exorcised. And it reappeared in Tamil Nadu last week in connection with a movie produced by noted thespian Kamal Haasan titled Vishwaroopam.

Based on representations from nearly two dozen fringe groups, 31 district collectors in Tamil Nadu passed identical prohibitory orders across the state under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code ostensibly aimed at maintaining law and order.

Section 144 of the CrPC, it must be understood, is of British vintage. Accordingly, wide powers have been conferred by the statute on the administration to deal with emergency situations by imposing restrictions on the personal liberties of individuals, where the situation has the "potential" to cause unrest or danger to social peace and tranquility.

A powerful tool for the British masters to restrict protesting Indians prior to our independence, of course in my opinion, Section 144 is an anachronism and hence has no role in Independent India.

Hang on. Have I jumped the gun? Am I guilty of over-simplification?

It may be recalled that the state capital Chennai was witness to the fury of some fanatics in September 2012. This was in connection with the release of a controversial movie titled The Innocence of Muslims in the US.

As the administration watched helplessly, the mob went on a rampage, vented their anger on the US embassy and stalled traffic on the arterial Anna Salai. Crucially, business and business sentiments were affected. But who cared?

While this was a perfect case for the imposition of Section 144 of the CrPC, the administration dithered. Did it chicken out for obvious reasons?

There is an important message for all of us here. First, a motley group of people arranging themselves at the street level can decide what is correct or incorrect for a country of a billion plus, let the law be damned. Second, the administration, state or Centre, have a wonderful tradition of willingly buckling to such fringe elements. Third, whatever be the provision of law, administration will use draconian provisions of law only against soft targets.

In short, let us not at least proclaim that in India the rule of law prevails.

Karma theory? Or is it chaos theory?
Kamal, as is well-known, is a multi-faceted personality. Being an actor is one, social reformer is another. A self-proclaimed rationalist, Kamal has more often than not been needling others' sensibilities, notably that of the majority community. It is quite possible that the continued silence of this community emboldened the artist in Kamal to experiment more. In Vishwaroopam, possibly, he bit off more than what he could chew.

Surely, the licence of an artist ends where it begins to hurt the collective sentiments of a good number of people.

But questions arise. How could the portrayal of some fictional event in distant US and Afghanistan hurt the sensibilities of some religious groups in India? Is their faith so brittle that a movie can cause incalculable harm to them or their faith?

Let me turn the question around. How could a mere screening of a movie endanger peace and tranquility in the state? If the administration had information that some groups were planning on some violence, what action was taken?

What is galling is the collective silence of the Tamil movie industry, not now, but when fanatics lay siege to the US embassy in Chennai last September. Their track record in similar circumstances when it involved attacks on various artists and their works of art is nothing to crow about.

And that includes Kamal himself. Probably, the actor rationalised that such random events would never be aimed at rationalists themselves, little realising that when it involves fanatics there is no rationale.

Now all this takes me to the actor's earlier flick -- Dasavatharam. Intriguingly, that movie questioned some age-old beliefs of Hindus. Crucially, it sought to dismiss the traditional Hindu idea of correlating the present to the past through the "Karma theory." Instead, the main protagonist there seemed to suggest random happenings should be attributed to the more logical, scientific and rationally appealing "chaos theory."

Is it bad karma -- of needlessly needling the sentiments of the majority -- that has brought Kamal to this state of despair? Has the law of karma finally caught up with him? Or is it simple "chaos" theory? Is all this merely a coincidence? What explains the desertion of his "secular" brothers at his hour of need? Karma or chaos? Whatever be it, the choice is entirely on the readers.

But what about the idea of India?
Kamal, his artistic freedom and his alleged idiosyncrasies are the smaller order of things.

The larger question is the idea of India, its government and governance. How will the world view us when a handful of demonstrators terrorise our governments to ban a movie? Who will invest in India when a few truckloads of fanatics can cause the closure of the highly protected and centrally located US embassy in a prominent city? How does all this impact the business sentiments of India?

This is where upholding the law, especially by the government, becomes crucial. It may be understood that the basic function of any government is to strengthen rule of law by simply upholding it in totality. While strong governments uphold the law of the land, weak governments abdicate their responsibility.

It is in this connection the Rule of Law Index contained in the World Justice Project focuses on how countries uphold law using quantitative assessment tools. The index assesses a nation's adherence to the rule of law and how "law deficit" could impact the lives of its citizens.

The nine different dimensions used by the index include powers of government, absence of corruption, order and security, fundamental rights, open government, regulatory enforcement, civil justice, criminal justice and informal justice. The outcome of this novel yet important exercise at a global level measures the extent to which countries adhere to the rule of law -- not in theory but in practice.

Expectedly, India is ranked a poor 83 [out of 97 countries] when it comes to the absence of corruption. Interestingly, we are ranked a poorer 96 when it comes to order and security, 79 on regulatory enforcement, 78 on civil justice, 64 on criminal justice and 64 on fundamental rights. So much for the proclaimed adherence to the rule of law by our government!

All these have a profound impact on the working of the Indian economy. Economists (and that includes the prime minister too) have failed to factor this crucial aspect in their reforms calculus. And this is where India has been a spectacular failure in the past decade or so -- where government has failed to uphold the rule of law.

There is another darker dimension to this debate. As governments abdicate their responsibilities, the courts in India fare far worse. The Ease of Doing Business 2013, a co-publication of the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation sheds light on how easy or difficult it is for a local entrepreneur to open and run a small to medium-size business when complying with relevant regulations.

It measures and tracks changes in regulations affecting 11 areas in the lifecycle of a business: starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting electricity, registering property, getting credit, protecting investors, paying taxes, trading across borders, enforcing contracts, resolving insolvency and employing workers.

The 2013 report ranks India at 132 among 185 countries on an overall basis. But when it comes to enforcing a contract through courts India is ranked 184 -- yes 184 -- out of 185 countries. On dealing with construction contracts we are ranked 182 and 173, on starting businesses.

Needless to emphasise, from war-torn Afghanistan to a civil strife-plagued Zimbabwe, most countries are ranked above India. Remember, most of them are not governed by an economist prime minister, do not have a sublime Constitution, trained administration, modern legislations and independent judiciary. Yet, all these have individually and collectively contributed to this mess in India.

If only Kamal the entrepreneur had known all this, in all probability, he would not have ventured to make Vishwaroopam in the first place. And that is the lesson of this imbroglio.

Last modified on Sunday, 07 July 2013 07:36

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