Mass resignations hit censor board, as Punjab bans ‘MSG’ screening

New Delhi/Chandigarh (IANS): The censor board was Saturday hit by mass resignations a day after board chairperson Leela Samson quit citing coercion and corruption even as Information and Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley hit out at those quitting, calling them “UPA appointees” who had themselves to blame for any corruption.

Amidst the drama, the Punjab government Saturday banned the screening of controversial film “MSG – The Messenger Of God”, which features Dera Sacha Sauda sect chief, Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh, in wake of a central advisory and intelligence reports that it could lead to tension.

The film was cleared by the Certification Appellate Tribunal’s (FCAT) despite not getting clearance from the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and its revising committee. The film, written, produced and directed by Ram Rahim also has him in the lead role. He has also written and given music for the seven songs in the film, including one called “Love Charger”.

It is yet to be officially released.

Saturday saw eight of the CBFC members quitting. Ira Bhaskar, Lora Prabhu, Pankaj Sharma, Rajeev Masand, Sekharbabu Kancherla, Shaji Karun, Shubhra Gupta and T.G. Thyagarajan sent a joint resignation letter to Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore. By evening, two other members Mamang Dai and Arundhati Nag had quit too, Samson told IANS.

In their letter, the members said the events that led to Samson quitting were “merely the proverbial last straw” and also protested the “cavalier and dismissive manner” in which the board is treated by the government.

The CBFC, which has 23 members on its board besides the chairperson, is a statutory body under the information and broadcasting ministry “regulating the public exhibition of films under the provisions of the Cinematograph Act 1952”.

Jaitley, in a scathing Facebook post titled “Rebels Without a Cause”, dismissed allegations of “alleged interference by the government and corruption in the board” cited by Samson and the others, noting he and Rathore have neither communicated with any board member and never desired that any bureaucrat do the same.

“If there is any corruption, the UPA appointees have themselves to blame. I only wished that the fact of corruption had been communicated even once by the chairperson of the censor board to me. The non-functional chairperson never did so,” Jaitley added.

He said the charge that meetings of the censor board are not being held “is a self-condemnation. The meetings are to be convened not by the minister or the secretary, but by the chairperson”.

While many have claimed that Samson’s resignation was triggered by clearance given to Ram Rahim’s film, Samson told IANS Friday: “That is not the reason.”

Clarifying the legal regime with regard to the board’s functioning, Jaitley said: “If an Appeal Tribunal disagrees with the board, it is a part of the due process of law and not an onslaught on board’s autonomy.

“Can a subordinate judicial authority ever cry foul if its decision is upset by an appellate authority? The NDA government maintains arms length distance in all matters relating to film certification,” he said, accusing the UPA government of having “politicised the Censor Board”.

Jaitley noted that in 2004, the UPA dismissed the existing Censor Board headed by eminent film actor Anupam Kher merely because he was appointed by the earlier government. “We did not wish to do that. It is regrettable that the UPA appointees have decided to politicise routine issues.”

However, his UPA predecessor Manish Tewari retorted that the government’s “inability to finesse relationship with CBFC is being twisted by BJP ministers into a NDA vs UPA issue”.

“If BJP felt UPA had politicised CBFC appointments, they should have sacked the board,” said the Congress leader, noting that the government says the board was politicised but also hold that they are not vindictive.

The board members in their letter said they had tried to make the film certification process more uniform, transparent, consistent and sensitive to the freedom of filmmakers’ right to expression with responsibility but their struggle “has been extremely frustrating and disappointing”.

“It is our firm position that given the cavalier and dismissive manner in which the CBFC is treated by the government, it is impossible to perform this duty with even a modicum of efficacy or autonomy,” they said, adding they also objected to the way the chairperson has been treated by the ministry “which we feel has been humiliating for us all”.