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What the Debate on the Ban on 'Kerala Story' Needs to Acknowledge

Talk on the ban is a distant conversation when there's an immediate need for the disincentivisation of anti-Muslim hate that offers economic, social and political advantages to so many people.
A poster for 'The Kerala Story'.

The uproar over a supposed infringement of the right to free speech held by the makers of the recently released anti-Muslim propaganda film, The Kerala story, has started a debate, the central argument of which is flawed.

The controversy was kindled when Prime Minister Narendra Modi endorsed the film during the Karnataka election campaign and really escalated with Mamata Banerjee’s ban of the film in West Bengal. 

The Wire had reported that even as the producer of The Kerala Story told the high court on May 5, that the controversial film would remove the misleading claim that 32,000 women from the southern state converted to Islam and joined ISIS, Prime Minister Modi claimed on the same day at an election rally in Karnataka that it “exposes” the designs of terrorists. 

And now with Banerjee’s ban on the film, the debate has been reduced into a convoluted binary of pro-freedom and anti-freedom.

I believe there are four sides to this debate.

  1. The Hindutva ecosystem that is weaponising this film to whip up anti-muslim hate and violence.
  2. Liberal commentators who believe that the contents of Kerala Story constitute free speech despite it being offensive to Muslims. They further argue that bans don’t work in this day and age.
  3. Muslims who view the film as an attempt to see all Muslims as evil – to further a genocidal propaganda.
  4. Another group which believes that the right to free speech cannot be absolute as long as a society is not a free marketplace of ideas with minimal state interference. They also agree that all the components of a hate narrative cannot be criminalised and that bans are a bad legal strategy to counter propaganda that enjoys explicit state patronage.

Before engaging with the arguments of each side, I want to confess that the reactions of Muslims and the BJP supporters are unsurprising. Naturally, most Muslims are supporting the ban by the West Bengal government because they strongly feel that the film demonises them. On the other hand, Hindutva groups are opposing it because they either feel that the film represents the reality of Muslims or that the content benefits their political rhetoric. 

It’s only the position of the liberals that requires scrutiny.

”Don’t watch it if you don’t like it”, they say but they are not ready to acknowledge that there are people who are ready to act on what they are watching. Some others say that we need to watch better films to counter this. But arguments like these ignore that when viewers of these propaganda films see their intended fictional targets, a hatred is born which can translate into real life events.

In a country where an actor like Arun Govil begins to be treated like a deity for playing the character of Lord Ram, it is naive to think that fiction will not be given the status of reality. The case for Kerala Story’s perceived and non-existent truth is further bolstered by the endorsement of the PM, which renders it impervious to fact-checks on WhatsApp groups. 

Already, the Sangh Parivar’s bogey of love jihad has been weaponised to allow horrific crimes. More people choosing to act on such a wrong belief will only worsen things.

Let’s be clear that even if one family has been destroyed by ISIS, their story must be told. But such an exercise can be undertaken without stoking hatred through propaganda films. 

This is where the defence of Kerala Story rings hollow to me.

To quote an angry Muslim friend, “I can disagree with what you say but I will defend to death your right to say it sounds cool when the possibility of actually dying is not involved.” 

However, there is a degree of merit in the argument that outright bans don’t work. If criminal action against fictional content that a particular section finds offensive is allowed, then it may aggravate the ongoing erosion of democratic protections to all kinds of opinions and expressions. But isn’t it too late? This line of argument would have been even more convincing had our institutions and democratic processes been running fairly and equally for all, particularly for marginalised minorities. 

Responding to the counsel’s submission about the lack of evidence of love jihad, the judge said that though ghosts and vampires do not exist, they are shown in films too. Can the court’s response be applied to other fictional plots? Recently, a BJP worker in Kerala was injured while allegedly making a bomb. Can any filmmaker in this country make a film about “32,000” such workers? In March, the UP police exposed Hindu Mahasabha men running cow killing and extortion rackets. Can any film-maker make a fictional film about “32,000” such workers? And would these films be allowed by the censor board? 

We have seen the gross abuse of Sections 153A and 295A, particularly by various BJP state governments in recent years. For instance, a Muslim man was jailed after a motivated complaint by members of a Hindutva group accusing him of hurting sentiments for literally wrapping fried chicken in a newspaper with pictures of Hindu deities. 

Fact-checker Mohammad Zubair was arrested over his four year old tweets which were maliciously cited out of context. 

Similarly, there have been attempts to purge media content that the Hindu right disapproves of, the latest being the BBC documentary on PM Modi. 

Some have asked that if the BJP government’s banning of the BBC documentary was wrong, then how is the TMC government’s ban on Kerala Story in Bengal right.

But this argument hides the fact that the documentary allows adequate space for pro-BJP opinions despite having a critical slant. [Note: The author is featured in the documentary] It also includes opinions of Hindus who disagree with the BJP. On the other hand, The Kerala Story does exactly the opposite. In not showing even one Muslim character who finds the terrorist venom of ISIS repulsive, it enforces a wildly hateful idea, erasing Muslims who have died in standing up to the ISIS.In the film, all Muslims, whether an extremist preacher or a regular college student, have the same extremist mentality. 

There are videos of reactions by audiences who say that they are now scared of Muslims or want to harm Muslims. In one such video that went viral on Instagram, a viewer graphically described how he wanted to murder the Hijab-clad characters for allegedly disrespecting Hinduism. Some of these videos are scripted by vox pop actors at New Delhi’s Palika Bazaar – who are a major part of a thriving online anti-Muslim media ecosystem. The Wire had identified similar characters and hate campaigns following the release of the Kashmir Files

It would be puerile to assume that these films are an aberration and the situation will not escalate further when there is burgeoning anti-Muslim media economy that actively demands it. 

This isn’t a far fetched hypothesis.

There is a film that portrayed overtly Hindu characters exhorting people to become hangmen against so-called love-jihadis (read Muslims). There are films being made that accuse Muslims of breeding like rats under the pretense of commentary on population explosion. In Nazi Germany, such cinematic liberties were defended for films like The Eternal Jew and Süss the Jew. It’s been over eight decades and Germany is still debating if such films that once caricatured Jews as evil criminals and were endorsed by Hitler’s inner circle, should be publicly available or not. 

Outside the cinema world, many hate speeches by Hindutva leaders use similar plausible deniability to their advantage. They often start with statements like, “If they do this then we will…,” suggesting that their hatemongering is a call for self-defense rather than genocide. However, there have been instances where leaders have openly suggested a “Myanmar-like solution.”

Also read: Hindutva Leaders at Haridwar Event Call for Muslim Genocide

Already, Hindutva pop has emerged as a popular medium of hatred, spewing hits like: Door karo janjaalo ko, goli maaro saalon ko (clean the mess, just shoot the traitors), Jo naa bole Jai Shri Ram, bhej do usko kabristan (bury those who don’t chant the name of Ram), Topiwala bhi sar jhukakar Jai Shri Ram bolega (Muslims will bow their heads and chant Jai Shri Ram) and Hind k sapole ko pehchan lijiye (identify the traitors).

Most liberals will agree that these songs, while creative expressions, call for violent action which is unlawful. Then how is hate speech couched as a film not perceived as harmful?

India’s own constituent assembly debates on freedom of speech acknowledge the need for some reasonable restrictions. Jawaharlal Nehru, B.R. Ambedkar, and Sardar Patel shared the same opinion on this issue. John Stuart Mill, whose work forms the foundation of liberal talking points on free speech, also included exceptions like “the harm principle.”

In the pursuit of free speech absolutism, one can’t let hate narrative strengthen. 

The real problem at hand is the lack of a constitutionally defined interpretation of hate speech, especially to tackle a long run rhetorical campaigns like “love jihad” or “land jihad”. The recent 267th law commission report acknowledged this problem of undefined hate speech and the wide scope to misuse existing laws. It attempts to deal with hate speech as systemic, and something which is directed at marginalized groups.

The Supreme Court of India gave its own definition of hate speech in the Pravasi Bhalai Sangathan v. Union of India (2014) case. It defined hate speech as an effort to marginalise individuals based on their belonging in a group, seeking to delegitimise them in the eyes of the majority, reducing their social standing and acceptance within society.

Writing in the Wire, Advocate Shahrukh Alam had made a distinction between offensive speech and hate speech, “‘Hate speech’ does not refer to offensive, or foul-mouthed speech directed at a person. It is speech that can cause actual material harm through the social, economic and political marginalisation of a community.”

The debate on a ban is a distant conversation when there’s an immediate need for the disincentivisation of anti-Muslim hate that offers economic, social and political advantages to so many people.

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