Censorship in India
In general, censorship in India, which involves the suppression of speech or other public communication, raises issues of freedom of speech, which is protected by the Indian constitution.
The Constitution of India guarantees freedom of expression, but places certain restrictions on content, with a view towards maintaining communal and religious harmony, given the history of communal tension in the nation. According to the Information Technology Rules 2011, objectionable content includes anything that “threatens the unity, integrity, defence, security or sovereignty of India, friendly relations with foreign states or public order”.
In 2018, the Freedom in the World report by Freedom House gave India a freedom rating of 2.5, a civil liberties rating of 3, and a political rights rating of 2, earning it the designation of free. The rating scale runs from 1 (most free) to 7 (least free). Analysts from Reporters Without Borders rank India 133rd in the world in their 2017 Press Freedom Index 2016, the report Freedom’ by Freedom House gave India a press freedom rating of “Partly Free”, with a Press Freedom Score of 41 (0-100 scale, lower is better).
Laws related to censorship
Watching or possessing pornographic materials is apparently legal; however distribution of such materials is strictly banned. The Central Board of Film Certification allows release of certain films with sexual content (labelled A-rated), which are to be shown only in restricted spaces and to be viewed only by people of age 18 and above. India’s public television broadcaster, Doordarshan, has aired these films at late-night time slots. Films, television shows and music videos are prone to scene cuts or even bans, however, if any literature is banned, it is not usually for pornographic reasons. Pornographic magazines are technically illegal, but many softcore Indian publications are available through many news vendors, who often stock them at the bottom of a stack of non-pornographic magazines, and make them available on request. Most non-Indian publications (including Playboy) are usually harder to find, whether soft-core or hardcore. Mailing pornographic magazines in India from a country where they are legal is also illegal in India. In practice, the magazines are almost always confiscated by Customs and entered as evidence of law-breaking, which then undergoes detailed scrutiny.
The Official Secrets Act 1923 is used for the protection of official information, mainly related to national security.
Censorship by medium
The Indian press does not enjoy extensive freedom: in 2019, it was ranked 140 in the Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders. In 1975, the Indira Gandhi government imposed censorship of press during The Emergency; the day after, the Bombay edition of The Times of India in its obituary column carried an entry that reads, “D.E.M O’Cracy beloved husband of T.Ruth, father of L.I.Bertie, brother of Faith, Hope and Justica expired on 26 June”. It was removed at the end of emergency rule in March 1977.
Obscenity and defamation
In 1988, a “defamation bill” introduced by Rajiv Gandhi, but it was later withdrawn due to strong opposition. The Supreme Court while delivering the judgement in Sportsworld case in 2014 held that “A picture of a nude/semi-nude woman … cannot per she be called obscene”.
The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), the regulatory film body of India, regularly orders directors to remove anything it deems offensive, including sex, nudity, violence or subjects considered politically subversive.
According to the Supreme Court of India:
Film censorship becomes necessary because a film motivates thought and action and assures a high degree of attention and retention as compared to the printed word. The combination of act and speech, sight and sound in semi darkness of the theatre with elimination of all distracting ideas will have a strong impact on the minds of the viewers and can affect emotions. Therefore, it has as much potential for evil as it has for good and has an equal potential to instill or cultivate violent or bad behaviour. It cannot be equated with other modes of communication. Censorship by prior restraint is, therefore, not only desirable but also necessary.
In February 2013, in the wake of controversy over suspension of exhibition of the film, Vishwaroopam, the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting constituted a panel under the Chairmanship of Justice (Retd.) Mukul Mudgal, to examine the issues of film certification under the Cinematograph Act, 1952. One of the terms of reference for the committee is to examine “the requirement of special categories of certification for the purposes of broadcasting on television channels and radio stations.” But, the committee had not made any recommendations on this important matter.
The current classifications of films in India are as follows:
• अ / U – unrestricted public exhibition;
• अ/व / U/A – unrestricted public exhibition, but with a caution regarding parental guidance to those under 12 years of age;
• व / A – public exhibition restricted to adults 18 years of age and older only;
• S – public exhibition restricted to members of a profession or a class of persons (e.g. doctors etc.)—very rare.
In 1961, it was criminalised in India to question the territorial integrity of frontiers of India in a manner which is, or is likely to be, prejudicial to the interests of the safety or security of India.
• Several books of the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin have been banned in West Bengal.
• 1989, The import of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was banned in India for its purported attacks on Islam. India was the second country in the world (after Singapore) to ban the book.
• 1990, Understanding Islam through Hadis by Ram Swarup was banned. In 1990 the Hindi translation of the book was banned, and in March 1991 the English original became banned as well.
• Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India by American scholar James Laine was banned in 2004.
• Laine’s translation of the 300-year-old poem Sivabharata, entitled The Epic of Shivaji, was banned in January 2006. The ban followed an attack by Sambhaji Brigade activists on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune. The subsequent governments have not revoked the ban.
• R.V. Bhasin’s Islam – A Concept of Political World Invasion by Muslims was banned in Maharashtra in 2007 during the tenure of Vilasrao Deshmukh (ex Chief Minister, Maharashtra) on grounds that it promotes communal disharmony between Hindus and Muslims.
Internet Censorship Policies in India
In its first attempt at internet monitoring, the Indian Parliament created the Information Technology (IT) Act in June 2000, which provided a legal framework for regulating Internet use and commerce, including digital signatures, security, and hacking. The act criminalized the electronic publishing of obscene information and granted police the power to search any premise without a warrant and to arrest individuals in violation of the act. A 2008 amendment to the IT Act reinforced the government’s power, allowing it to block internet sites and content. The 2008 amendment also criminalized sending messages that the government deemed inflammatory or offensive. In April 2011, the “IT Rules 2011” were adopted as a supplement to the 2000 IT Act. The new rules require internet companies to remove, within thirty-six hours of being notified by the authorities, any content that is deemed objectionable, particularly if its nature “infringes copyright” or is “defamatory,” “hateful,” or “harmful to minors.”
A large number of people in India access the internet via cyber cafés. As per cyber café rules established in 2011, owners are required to photograph their customers, set up their cafés so that all computer screens are in plain sight, and keep copies of client IDs and their browsing histories for one year. All client data must be forwarded to the government each month. In 2003, India’s government established the Indian Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-IN) to ensure internet security. Its stated mission is “to enhance the security of India’s Communications and Information Infrastructure through proactive action and effective collaboration.” Internet filtering in India is also mandated through licensing requirements. For example, ISPs seeking licenses to provide internet services with the Department of Telecommunications (DOT) “shall block Internet sites and/or individual subscribers, as identified and directed by the Telecom Authority from time to time” in the interest of “national security.” License agreements also require ISPs to prevent the transmission of obscene or otherwise objectionable material. In a nutshell, while there is no sustained government policy or strategy for large scale internet censorship, central and state governments in India have adopted a number of measures and powers in order to remove internet content or block access to it.