Padmaavat isn’t the first film, and it won’t be the last, to run into political trouble. The list is a long one, from Aandhi during the Emergency to Udta Punjab, more recently. The Supreme Court has fixed things this time around by lifting the ban on screening the movie in four states, coincidentally all ruled by the BJP—Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana. It remains to be seen, though, whether they comply or whether, instead, cinema halls in the state are persuaded to not screen the movie; that is, states will be compliant, but the cinema-hall owners will be informally told to fall in line with what the state governments want. What is worrying, and that has implications that go far beyond just screening a movie, is what this means for the idea of central clearances. Why have a central censor—in this case, the Central Board of Film Certification—if, after its clearance, each state government is then free to apply its mind on the suitability or otherwise of a film? Maybe it is time to have a censor board in each state, with representatives of the local politicians.
Since the states that have the responsibility of maintaining law and order, one argument goes, if the government feels it will cause tensions, it should be within its rights to ban a movie/play/book—this is when many will cite the example of how the central government banned Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses because it feared this would hurt the sentiments of the Muslim community. Apart from what this says about the lack of tolerance, there is also the question of what a move like this does for the concept of one India. If each state is free to ban a movie, then a pan-Indian censor board is irrelevant. If it is all right for the UPA to allow FDI in multi-brand retail when it was in power, but for the BJP-controlled states to say that they would not allow it, a central government law/clearance really accounts for precious little. Indeed, while this is the situation that prevailed when most states were levying their own slew of tax rates, the Centre/state governments tried to fix this by setting floor/ceiling VAT rates and now, to encourage the creation of a genuinely pan-Indian market, the states all agreed to create a pan-Indian GST. If this compact works in some areas, surely the attempt has to be to try and make it work in as many areas as possible? In the case of agriculture products, if states continue to impose restrictions on movements of goods, where is the question of the centre’s electronic eNAM market ever taking off? Film-makers can, as they have in the case of Padmavati/Padmaavat, try and cover their losses by buying insurance, but farmers and others trying to do business don’t have this solution to a market where separate permissions have to be got from 29 state governments.