Aravindan Neelakandan
Religious Censorship in India: a case study
This article originally appeared in CRI content has now been subsumed in The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the editors of

angels and demons

While fringe Hindu groups have ineffectually worked on censorship, there are other forces at work in India who decide what Indian public should see and should not see. These groups are well networked and highly placed and they work away from the glare of media limelight. More important, they are very effective. Here is a case study of how these groups work in India and how their ascendancy and proximity to power can really strip off India of her traditional liberal value and transform Indian society into the medieval society where the heretics were burnt along with their books.

On May 15 2009, Columbia pictures had scheduled the worldwide release of the movie version of Dan Brown’s ‘Angels and Demons‘. On March 25 2009, an email was sent to a group of Christian activists from an organization ‘The Catholic – Christian Secular Forum (The CSF)’. It explained why a ban should be sought on the movie:

The movie with its special effects is expected to have a disastrous the impact on the minds of millions of gullible viewers will be disastrous. It is bound to vitiate the social fabric of the country & create communal disharmony. It will result in a negative image of the Christian community & the Church, aggravating the discord that exists in Orissa, Karnataka & BJP-ruled states and does not harbour well for the future.

And then the email explained in detail what scenes in the movie were theologically unacceptable to Christians:

  • A Pope who fathers a child by artificially inseminating a nun, claiming both are virgins. The Pope is indebted to Science for this miracle and allows a priest to pursue science & even adopt a daughter.
  • Actions of various Popes with respect to ‘pornographic’ Vatican religious sculptures mocked, like sculptures of St. Teresa or Vatican’s male nude statues.
  • Lies about historical events, issues and persons, like the Church’s anti-Science stance, Illuminati, Crusades, Galileo, Bernini, CERN, etc.
  • Two Popes get elected, one happens to be the murdered Pope’s son, who is Pope for as little as 17 minutes, as per ancient Roman law.
  • Negative portrayal of Popes, as Murderers, Swindlers or Cheats and Vatican as a den of criminals & schemers for world dominion.
  • Free Masons and the Vatican alleged to be involved in a financial fraud, leading to even the murder of the Pope.
  • Cross, Christmas, Sun Worship, Canonization, Holy Communion… borrowed & repackaged by Christianity.
  • Catholic Church, the Papal institution & election of Popes ridiculed, trivialized & decried.
  • Desecrates religion, incites religious communities against the other & hurts sentiments.
  • Nefarious motives imputed to the Catholic Church, which is made villain of the story.

In a week’s time this was followed by another mail by the CSF (dated 30-Mar-2009) After revealing that ‘our protests have already starting bearing fruit‘ and that ‘the Censor Board says will look at it seriously‘ the mail urged the believers: ‘If we all work together on it and before time – the next month; I am confident the Lord will bless us with success‘. What the believers should do was detailed thus:

  • Advise/issue an advisory on the facts of the film and ask followers/friends to boycott and protest against Angels & Demons.
  • Send memorandums asking national/state governments, local administrations, police, etc. to ban the film.
  • Do also urge your bishop & local church to send at least an email to the ones in the PS marked with *
  • In India, you may write to the President, Sonia Gandhi, PM, HM, MM, CM, Censor Board, etc.

The * marked people were:

  • President, Smt Pratibha Patil
  • Smt. Sonia Gandhi
  • Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh
  • Home Minister, P Chidambaram
  • Minorities Minister, AR Antulay
  • NCP Chief, Sharad Pawar
  • Opp Leader, LK Advani
  • Minorities Commission Chief, Mohd Shafi Quereshi
  • Smt Sushma Singh, I&B Sec
  • VB Pyarelal, I&B Jt. Sec
  • Censor Board Chief, Smt Sharmila Tagore
  • I&B Minister of State, Anand Sharma
  • I&B Minister of State, MH Ambareesh

 For each person the official email id and contact numbers were given in the email. A brief was given as to which scenes the Christians should protest as objectionable in the movie and why (the scenes listed previously). The mail stated that the movie was ‘no regular science fiction film’ and was ‘anti-Religion, anti-Christian, anti-Catholic, anti-History, anti-Truth’ with ‘devilish machinations’.

 The next e-mail was dated 21-Apr-2009. Here the CSF announced the statement of the ‘Most Rev. Stanislaus Fernandes SJ, Secretary General of the Catholic Bishop Conference of India (CBCI)’, the apex body of the Catholic Church in India. The Jesuit Bishop stationed at Gujarat had demanded the Government of India that the movie be banned:

 We ask for banning of the controversial film in India where Christianity is still in the process of being understood by large section of society. To present the Holy Bible and its sacred messages in a distorted manner is an insult to Christianity and its followers, not only in India but also all over the world.

 Again the believers were asked to write letters but this time specifically to Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, P.Chidambaram, VB Pyarelal (I&B Jt. Sec) and Sharmilla Tagore (Indian Censor Board chief). The CSF also gave a detailed instruction to its fellow travelers as to how to legally egg for banning the movie:

 You are urged to consider taking cognizance of offences under some / all of the following Sections, besides which, it also violates the Censor Board Rules for Film Certification & thus becomes liable – Sections 295, 295(a) read with section 34, 120(b), 153, 298, 153A, 153B, 505, 505(2), etc.

 On 4th April the next email from the CSF asked Christians if they had ‘done your bit on Angels & Demons’ and asked them to ’email/fax the authorities’ and ‘request your Bishop/group too’. The call was repeated again in the email dated 6th April.

 Then in the email dated on 19th April 2009, the CSF came up with a ‘Stop Press’ statement. It stated that CBCI had asked for a ban on the movie and informed the receivers that all concerned authorities ‘need to be flooded with emails of the hurt Christian sentiments’; once again select emails of the authorities and politicians were given. The CSF also listed the ground activities it was organizing calling for a ban on the ‘Angels and Demons’. ‘The protests against Angels & Demons has snowballed with the Catholic Bishop’s Conference of India throwing in its weight, by writing to the Censor Board Chief calling for a ban on the film’ the email receivers were informed along with a hyperlink to a report from ‘Hindustan Times’ dated 18-Apr-2009. ‘The CSF used the 21st Annual Lenten Pilgrimage on Good Friday to draw attention to the film’ the email said. Again on 21st April 2009 another email was sent by the CSF urging the Christians that they ‘need to do a bit more, before the Lord gives us success on Angels & Demons’.

 Then on 30-Apr-2009 the CSF announced its first major victory:

 The Christian community’s protest against Angels & Demons is reaching its final stage. The Censor Board Screening Committe has seen the film and have issued NO Certificate, in view of the contents of the movie. They have now referred the film to a Revising Committee and as urged upon, by The CSF, the chairperson, Smt. Sharmila Tagore will also be present.

In keeping with the High Court ruling, in an earlier writ-petition filed by The CSF, and also Official Guidelines, we have represented to the Censor Board, that in matter pertaining to Catholicism, the opinion of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) should be binding. The Censor Board has therefore asked for 4 representatives of the Catholic Bishops to see the film. The CBCI has also already written to the Censor Board calling for a ban on Angels & Demons. The ball is now in the Catholic Bishops’ court. If after seeing the film, it recommends a ban – Banned it will it be.

 Then it requested every Christian to write to the CBCI requesting a ban as those emails in possession of the CBCI would strengthen its case for a ban. The reasons given by the CSF are interesting. It says the film needs to be banned in India because Vatican has condemned it: ‘The Vatican has condemned it, thousands of Christians on Good Friday prayed & protested publicly against Angels & Demons, the media has widely covered the hurt feelings of the community.’ The CSF concludes with the most important observation:

A ban on Angels & Demons will ensure No More of such films against the Church/Christians/Christianity are released in India. This is our one chance to stop it.

In other words, Vatican will decide what Indians should and should not see about Christianity. And Indian Censor Board was giving in happily. And there was not even a murmur from the intellectuals at this well organized subversion of freedom of expression.

 Then in its email dated 03-May-2009, the CSF made a revelation that the Church representatives had managed to make deletions to the film, a disclaimer that it was only an act of ficton & also an ‘A’ (Adults only) certificate, which they felt would ‘make the film, less anti-Catholic and acceptable’. However the CSF was not clearly satisfied. It declared:

 We would certainly have expected more, but one accepts their wise discretion, since there could have been reasons, which led them to such a decision. The CSF however, needs to learn lessons from the Angels & Demons episode, especially since, we understand another film – Corpus Christi, featuring a homosexual Jesus is being produced. Surely, the Church cannot clear Corpus Christi, agreeing to cuts of gay sex with the apostles, with a disclaimer & obviously an ‘A’ certificate? Or can we expect it to do so?

 What did happen exactly?

 In a separate group posting dated 04-May-2009, Dr. John Dayal, a fanatical Christian propagandist revealed what had actually happened:

 Mrs Sharmila Tagore, the Chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification, called for a review screening of the controversial film Angels and Demons, a sort of a sequel to Da Vinci Code, at the Films Division Auditorium, Mahadev Road, New Delhi. Apart from the review committee of the Board which included two men members – the Congress leader Tom Vaddakkan and the public relations guru Dilip Cherian, Ms Tagore also invited representatives of the Catholic Bishops conference and me. CBCI officials who attended the special screening included the Official Spokesmen, Fr Babu Joseph, svd, the executive secretary of the CBCI media commission Fr George Plathottam, sdb , Delhi Media Commission director Fr John Paul Herman svd, the Principal of St Columba School, New Delhi and two others. …

The Censor board made it clear they were in no mood to ban the film which will soon have a global premier. It was also hinted that commercial issues are involved if films are banned. It was let known that the film may erase out some offensive words, but the film will be released with a disclaimer at the beginning saying it is a work of fiction with no relationhip to reality.

 In that long message John Dayal was a blueprint for a PR exercise. He glossed over the outright demand of CBCI to ban the movie: ‘The CBCI had earlier apparently called for a ban, but did not insist on it at the screening while condemning the film…..’ One should note the softening of the sentence with the inclusion of ‘apparently called for a ban’ though John Dayal should have well known how the apex body of Catholic Church had indeed demanded the ban in no uncertain terms. Then John Dayal went on to suggest something extraordinary:

 I gave a written note to the Secretary to the Chairperson in my capacity as a Member of the national integration Council, a former President of the All India Catholic Union, and the current secretary general of the All India Christian Council. The Censor Board is a statutory body and should have the courage of its own convictions. It has its guidelines and its duty, and if it thinks a film, any film, disparages a religious community or hurts religious feelings, it should take action under its code.

The Censor Board should not pass the buck and the responsibility even in an advisory capacity, to organisations such as the CBCI, to take the infinitive. It puts CBCI and religious organisations in an awkward spot – they are made to appear as moral police and library burners if they call for bans or restrictions, or weaklings if they do not protest.

The Church is not a censor or a moral police, but is indeed a part of the civil society system which makes for a nation’s conscience. The Board must consult it on larger issues of civilisation and moral codes in entertainment, science and depiction of communities as stereotypes, which the Board never does.

 What John Dayal does suggest is this:

  •  Indian Censor Board should do the dirty work without the public even coming to blame the CBCI for the censoring.
  • The CBCI would remain the moral police and the book burners they had been throughout the history, but only behind the curtains.
  • Instead of calling the Church and CBCI for such individual cases, the Censor Board should make the Church part of the Censor Board in a statutory manner so that they could decide what Indian public should and should not see in every sphere of life whether it is entertainment, science or other ‘larger issues of civilization.’

 Sure enough this suggestion by John Dayal was taken up earnestly by the CSF in its next email communication dated 05-May-2009:

 Its not over yet with Angels & Demons. This week is crucial. The CSF agreeing to go by the Catholic Bishops’ decision, only means that subject to certain conditions, the film can be released in India. The Bishops should refuse to sit in judgement & boycott such screenings, since the Censor Board is abdicating its responsibility & is painting the Bishops, as villains. The Censor Board should decide on a film that deals with Christianity, as it would decide a film on any other religion. Its screening committee did that initially & could not certify the film for release.

 Here one should remember that neither the CSF nor John Dayal expressed their reservations or opposition to the representatives of the Church when they were invited and sat with the Censor Board members and deciding the fate of a movie. It was after the representatives of the CBCI compromised for the deletion of scenes in lieu of a ban that they woke up to the danger of a bad press of running a moral police and charged the government Censor Board was abdicating its responsibility. So the next line of action was initiated:

* Represent to the Chief Minister of your state to ban A&D locally. This is possible & happened in case of Da Vinci Code, especially in states with substantial Christian population. However, this needs to be done ASAP, we did not advise it earlier, as we thought it would not become necessary.

* Meet your MP, MLAs & politicians, especially from ‘secular’ parties, like Congress, Left, NCP, DMK, BJD…. & ask them urge the Chief Minister not to release the film, in your state. They should also be advised to promote an Anti-Blasphemy Law, which will prevent insults to any religion.

* Urge your Bishop to issue an advisory or a boycott call, in order that innocent minds are not corrupted. You can use material from The CSF website or call for printed material that is being prepared, to educate Christians & others about the truth.

* Educate Christians, especially children & youth, that the Devil is no longer a mythological figure & these are his works.

 Here one should note the following:

  • that ‘secular’ tag is not secular but only ‘pro-Christian'(note how the CSF almost mockingly puts the word secular within single inverted commas;
  • that the CSF expected the Censor Board to comply with the demand for complete ban and were not even satisfied with the deletions of the scenes in consultation with their religious authority(‘we did not advise it earlier, as we thought it would not become necessary’);
  • that the CSF wants every Christian fundamentalist dream like the blasphemy law to become part of the ‘secularist’ agenda.

 More importantly the CSF ‘India’s only ISO 9001:2000 certified NGO for undertaking community development programmes for human rights, social service, medical aid, education, charity & relief of the laity, supported by the clergy’ wants the Christians to teach their children that anyone with a contrary view of history is actually a puppet in the hands of ‘Devil’ who according to the CSF ‘is no longer a mythological figure’.

 However there was a problem. John Dayal had noted that in his group message:

 In 2006, seven states (Nagaland, Punjab, Goa, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh) banned the release or exhibition of the Hollywood movie The Da Vinci Code although India’s Central Board of Film Certification cleared the film for adult viewing throughout India. However, the respective high courts lifted the ban and the movie was shown in the two states.

 So on 9th May 2009 the CSF expressed its satisfaction that the movie ‘Angels and Demons’ would be released with scenes objected to by the Church members removed, and with a disclaimer that it was only a work of fiction and with an ‘Adults Only’ certificate. So the CSF announced the believers that the battle is essentially over and that they have won:

 ‘This could well be our last take on Angels & Demons, since our objectives have been met.’

And all the voices of freedom of expression remained silent at this high powered campaign for censorship and Indian government body meekly complying with the clergy demands as to what Indian people should and should not see. Since then John Dayal of AICC and Joseph Dias of the CSF have drifted in their view of how to impose censorship.

 In a veiled reference to Sister Jesme (author of ‘Amen’ which exposed the systematic abuse of nuns almost institutionalized in the Church) John Dayal disparagingly called such whistle blowers ‘social pariahs’ (‘Many bishops, sisters, priests and lay leaders have told me that even in Kerala, these books mean nothing, and their authors are now social pariahs.’, ‘) and advised Joseph Dias: ‘Let not the government turn us into censors, and intolerant community’. (John Dayal asks: what is important for the community at this juncture in history?, 6-Aug-2012).

 On the whole what is important is how the Church and its various organizations play behind the curtain deciding what you and me should see and not see, read and not read. And one needs to contrast this with the attitude of L.K.Advani who upheld freedom of expression and stood against book banning. Yet in India’s perverted political parlance, L.K.Advani and his party would be ‘communal’ while those who align with the CSF are ‘secular’.