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Security Vs. Free Speech: India Blocks Film On Assassination

Kuam De Heere, or Diamonds of the Community, depicts the assassination of Indira Gandhi and focuses on the personal lives of her killers. Critics say it glorifies them. The film has been screened in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia, but its release has been blocked in India. (Kaum de Heere)

A new film projects a decidedly different perspective about one of the most convulsive episodes in India's modern age.

Kaum De Heere, or Diamonds of the Community, looks at the 1984 assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi — through the lens of her assassins.

Producer Satish Katyal rejects the criticism that the film eulogizes Gandhi's killers. "It has a human angle," he says. "It's about their personal lives. Why did they suddenly commit this act?"

Gandi's assassins, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, both Sikh, were also her bodyguards. The pair unloaded their weapons into the 66-year-old Indian leader on the morning of Oct. 31, 1984, to avenge an event a few months earlier — an army storming of the Sikh's holiest shrine in a bid to flush out Sikh separatists hiding there.

Sociologist Surinder Singh Jodhka says the assault on the Golden Temple in June 1984 shocked the community. Gandhi's assassination in turn provoked riots, centered in New Delhi, in which Hindus hunted down and killed Sikhs. Estimates of the number dead "vary from 4,000 to 10,000-plus in the country," Jodkha says.

Thirty years on, Jodkha says, "what happened in either in the Golden Temple or in Delhi is not something that will be forgotten."

That's evidently what concerns the government.

India's Home Ministry, which oversees the country's security, stopped the release of the film last week, concluding it "was highly objectionable," according to the Press Trust of India. The film's producers have appealed for its release. It's already been screened in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia.

India's Congress Party, headed by Sonia Gandhi, the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi, objects to the release of the film in India. Party spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi says both his party and the ruling BJP Party have deep misgivings about the movie.

"The very title of it clearly suggests an inflammatory, a provocative re-creation of completely unnecessary tensions. The important thing is India has pulled together. We have got over that state of affairs, and I think that's the way it should be left," Singhvi says.

But civil liberties activist Gautam Navlakha says the Indian government historically has justified banning films using the claim that a particular picture could "hurt the sentiments" of a community, or that it departs from mainstream orthodoxy on issues such as religious fundamentalism or Indo-Pakistan relations.

"This is a choice that authorities have to make. On whose side of the divide are they standing? On the side of freedom of expression? Or those who want to censor it or ban it?" Navlakha says.

Navlakha says that the body that determines whether a film is banned is a relic from the British colonial era, when the Film Certification Board was a tool to crush dissent. Last week allegations of corruption hit the board when the CEO, Rakesh Kumar, was arrested on charges of soliciting bribes to speed the certification process.

Some 16,000 films are certified by the board each year, with the help of panels that screen them. The 80 or so films that have been refused can be appealed.

Documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan says he has had to "incessantly" battle the system to get his films released. "Regardless of which government has been in power, the censor board" — his term for the Film Certification Board — "has been used to curtail or modify dissent," he says.

India has long struggled with bans on films and books. It barred the import of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, a work that ignited a furor in the Muslim world.

Leela Samson, the chairwoman of the Central Board of Film Certification, says film approval must take into account the range of sensitivities in a place as breathtakingly diverse as India.

"Look at the complexities. You have multiple languages, multiple religions, multiple social strata, multiple advantages, disadvantages. It can be very problematic," Samson says.

But free speech advocate Gautam Navlakha laments that India has not made more strides since gaining independence.

"One would have expected that in 67 years that we would become more democratic, more tolerant — rather than become more intolerant and narrow-minded," he says.


Follow NPR's Julie McCarthy on Twitter: @JulieMcCarthyJM.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

"Diamonds Of The Community" is a film about the 1984 assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It was slated to open in India this month, but the government is blocking its release. From New Delhi, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports on the objections to the film and the tricky balance between what is censorship and what is in the public interest in the world's biggest democracy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language).

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: The trailer of this film comes with the music, melodrama and pyrotechnics typical in popular Indian cinema. The focus of the movie is what sets it apart. It takes the killing of an iconic prime minister and looks at it through the lens of her two assassins.

Producer Satish Katyal.

SATISH KATYAL: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: It has a human angle, it's about their personal lives - why did they suddenly commit this act, Katyal says.

Both Sikh, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh were Indira Gandhi's. The pair shot Gandhi to avenge an army storming of the Sikh's holiest shrine, to flush out separatists hiding there. Sociologist Surinder Jodkha says the assault on the Golden Temple in 1984 shocked the community and Gandhi's assassination, in turn, provoked Hindus to riot and kill Sikhs.

SURINDER JODKHA: Estimates vary from 4,000 to 10,000 plus in the country.

MCCARTHY: Indira Gandhi's daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, heads India's Congress Party, which objects to the release of the disputed film. Party spokesman Abhishek Manu Singhvi says both the Congress Party and the ruling BJP Party have deep misgivings about the film, including it's title, "Diamonds Of The Community."

ABHISHEK MANU SINGHVI: The very title of it clearly suggests inflammatory and provocative re-creation of completely unnecessary tensions. The important thing is that we have got over that state of affairs, and I think that's the way it should be left.

MCCARTHY: Civil liberties activist Gautam Navlakha says the Indian government historically has justified banning films, using the claim that a particular picture could hurt the sentiments of a community or depart from the mainstream opinion on issues such as religious radicalism.

GUATAM NAVLAKHA: This is a choice that authorities have to make. On whose side of the divide are they standing - on the side of freedom of expression, or those who want to censor it or ban it?

MCCARTHY: Navlakha notes that the body that determines whether a film is banned is a holdover from British rulers who used the Film Certification Board to crush dissent. Last week, allegations of corruption hit the board when the CEO was arrested for soliciting bribes to speed the certification process. Some 16,000 films are certified by the board a year, with the help of panels that screen them. The 80 or so films that have been refused can be appealed. One producer who has had to routinely battle the system is documentary filmmaker Anand Parwardhan.

ANAND PARWARDHAN: Yeah, incessantly. I mean, regardless of which government has been in power, the central board has been used to curtail or modify dissent.

MCCARTHY: India's Home Ministry, which oversees the country's security, stopped the release of the Gandhi film last week, concluding it was highly objectionable according to the Press Trust of India. Producers have appealed. India has long struggled with bans on films and books, including Salman Rushdie’s "The Satanic Verses." The chairman of the Film Certification Board, Leela Samson, says film approval must take account of the range of sensitivities in a place as breathtakingly diverse as India.

LEELA SAMSON: Look at the complexities. You have multiple languages, multiple religions, multiple social structure, multiple advantages and disadvantages. It can be very problematic.

MCCARTHY: Gautam Navlakha laments that state of affairs.

NAVLAKHA: One would've expected in 67 years that we would become more democratic, more tolerant rather than become more intolerant and narrow-minded.

MCCARTHY: Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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