India is nominally a country with a Constitution guaranteeing Freedom of Speech (Article 19). But there are also clauses in the Indian Constitution (such as Article 25) which effectively cancel that right, because they allow the government to restrict speech that might inflame religious tensions. It is a Partition-era provision, and therefore quite understandable; one could argue it has done as much good as harm over the years.
The Film Censor Board is famous for restricting displays of explicit sexuality in Indian films, but what is less known is that one of its primary responsibilities is the censoring of films that could inflame religious communalism. Thus, even the religious sentiments of the films of the late 1990s -- the Golden Years of Hindutva -- were kept in check somewhat by the demands of the Censor Board.
Whether it does good or harm, the net effect of these restrictions is that the idea of freedom of speech in India is extremely limited when it comes to entertainment for the masses. (In other media--in print, for instance--it seems to me there is effective Freedom of Speech. Printed texts are censored quite rarely.) It is absurdly easy to get a film banned. Slightly offensive or objectionable moments that the Censor Board might allow to pass (at least, until they receive a complaint) also form the basis of massive protest campaigns that themselves inflame religious tensions more than anything in the films themselves. Censorship thus seems to have the oppositve of its stated intention.
The latest incident is the film Jo Bole So Nihal, which led to a pair of terrorist bombings in movie theaters in Delhi yesterday. One person has been killed, and dozens are injured. It's really a sham of a free speech case, because the film at issue can't be construed as "offensive," not in comparison to religious caricatures routinely seen in other Hindi films, and certainly not in comparison to a credible incidence of what in would be called "hate speech" in the U.S.
The little kernel of bad taste in the film is its title, which is part of a Sikh prayer (the Ardas). It is a prayer that, as far as I know, does not originate from the sacred Sikh scripture (the Guru Granth Sahib), so I doubt whether by any fair standard it is "sacred." It is a blessing that comes at the end of the prayer ritual, roughly akin to an 'Amen'. For these reasons, it seems like a stretch to see its use in a secular film as a problem. Furthermore, Jo Bole So Nihal is a comedic film, in which the Sikh protagonist heroically attempts to stop a terrorist (who is a Christian, interestingly) from assasinating the U.S. President. It is a much more positive representation than, for instance, Mission Kashmir a few years ago.
Thus, the main political organization of the Sikhs, the SGPC, was last week lobbying aggressively -- even hysterically -- to ban a movie that has a sympathetic Sikh hero, played by a widely-respected Punjabi actor, in which the symbols of Sikhism are represented positively. Until yesterday, the invocation of "blasphemy" seemed pretty laughable. Only a contentious fool, or an organization composed of contentious fools, could possibly construe things that way.
For me today, then the bombs aren't the issue so much as the irresponsibility of the SGPC's campaign against a film that, in the bigger picture, did not constitute a threat to Sikhism or the Sikh community. The SGPC seems increasingly like an organization desperate for direction, now that their established enemies -- the Congress Party, the Nehru family, the Indian Army's counter-terrorist measures in Punjab -- have either dwindled or transformed. In an era when the Prime Minister is himself a practicing, if secular, Sikh, Sikh organizations in India can no longer claim exclusion or discrimination. They have as a result chosen to mimic the world-wide rhetoric of religious outrage, exemplified in India by the RSS and by conservative Muslim groups. The rhetoric of outrage is, it seems, the primary way in which religious leaders -- around the world, and in every major religious community -- attempt to make themselves relevant to modernity.
Sad to say, this turn to the Politics of Censorship will probably work for the SGPC. The fact that the SGPC's (unsuccessful) campaign against the film was followed by bombings -- awfully convenient, isn't it? -- means that the future campaigns they undertake, no matter how frivolous, will have to be taken seriously. What's more, the bombing will appear to many followers and potential followers as hard evidence of the influence and strength of the SGPC. Terrorism works.
Insofar as no one can publicly challenge the drift towards fundamentalism amongst -- seemingly -- the leadership of all the major religious groups, we are in for more misdirected outrage, more censorship, and yes, more religious violence. It is the surest way to political power.