India: Censorship in the nuclear age (M. V. Ramana)
- The Hindu
Friday, Jul 19, 2002
Opinion - Leader Page Articles
Censorship in the nuclear age
By M. V. Ramana
Censorship denies people alternatives to the propaganda put out by
Governments and hawks.
SHORTLY AFTER the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the
United States' strategic bombing survey hired a Japanese film unit to
record the physical and medical effects of the bomb. They were then
edited to produce a documentary entitled "The Effects of the Atomic
Bombs Against Hiroshima and Nagasaki". The finished film was shipped
to the U.S. in May 1946 with much publicity. It was declared `top
secret' and locked in a vault, never to be shown to the American
public. Only in the late 1960s was it returned to the Japanese.
Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell in their insightful book
"Hiroshima in America: A Half Century of Denial" suggest why American
officials were uncomfortable with the footage: "The Japanese newsreel
team had gone into hospitals to document the burn and radiation
effects. They not only photographed a burned-out trolley car, but the
rows of bodies and bones that surrounded it. Even the footage of
strictly physical phenomena featured troublesome imagery: radioactive
sand clogging wells used for drinking water; dead stalks of rice
seven miles from the hypocenter; the silhouette of a painter on a
ladder, his brush outstretched, permanently etched onto the surface
of a concrete wall by the flash of the bomb."
America's reluctance to deal with the human impact of the only cases
of atomic bombing of civilian populations has persisted. In 1995, the
Smithsonian museum in Washington had planned an exhibition featuring
the "Enola Gay", the airplane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. The
exhibition was to not only recall the events surrounding the bombing,
but also examine the bomb's impact on people, and feature documents
showing that high-ranking military leaders had doubts about dropping
the bomb. In response, the American Air Force Association, supported
by several right wing politicians, launched a major campaign
attacking the exhibit as revisionist and defending America's use of
the atomic bomb. The exhibition in its proposed form had to be
It is poignant that Anand Patwardhan's epic documentary "Jang aur
Aman" (War and Peace), which chronicles, inter alia, censorship at
the Smithsonian museum, must itself run into trouble with the Censor
Board. This when the film, like many of his other films, won awards
at the Mumbai International Film Festival and the Earth Vision Global
Environment Festival in Tokyo. Mr. Patwardhan, one of our most
accomplished filmmakers, is no stranger to controversy. In the past
he fought and won three court cases to get films of his - "Bombay Our
City, In Memory of Friends and Ram Ke Naam" - shown on Doordarshan.
"Jang aur Aman" explores the many effects of the acquisition of
nuclear weapons by India and Pakistan: the problems faced by people
living near the Pokhran test site and the Jaduguda uranium mines, the
human toll in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Sangh Parivar groups and
their hate crusades, the Kargil war, and the global commerce of death
offered by arms traders. But the film also offers hope by recording
the growing peace movements, both in India and Pakistan.
That such a film offering rich fare for thought has been held up at
the Censor Board is unfortunate. What is worse is that some of the
Censor Board's objections are quite illogical. For example, it has
called for deleting speeches by Dalits and neo-Buddhists attacking
the upper-caste biases of the ruling elite, and visuals or dialogues
about the Tehelka expose. These seem to suggest the influence of the
Sangh Parivar and its agenda rather than anything particularly
relevant to the nuclear issue.
Sangh Parivar groups have, of course, done their bits of censorship
many times. In 1993, for example, the VHP attacked an exhibition on
the Ramayana mounted by the Safdar Hashmi Trust (SAHMAT) and got it
banned. (The Delhi High Court struck down the notification last
year). Other examples in the last decade include the Shiv Sena's
objections to an advertisement for shoes featuring two nude models
and the destruction of several of M. F. Husain's paintings by members
of the Bajrang Dal.
The Censor Board also objected to scenes involving pronouncements on
nuclear matters. For one, it wanted Mr. Patwardhan to delete an
interview with a leading nuclear scientist saying that China was a
possible enemy against which nuclear weapons could be used. This is
utterly absurd. Several political leaders, most notably the Defence
Minister, George Fernandes, have publicly called China the chief
threat requiring the development of nuclear weapons.
Indeed, the Chinese nuclear programme - and not Pakistan's - was the
rationale that hawks originally offered to advocate nuclear weapons
for India. (Arguing that countering Pakistan requires nuclear weapons
would have been counterproductive since India held (and holds) a
conventional military advantage that would be annulled by both India
and Pakistan going nuclear.) So to ask Mr. Patwardhan to delete
something that has been stated repeatedly by many policy-makers is
The Censor Board has also demanded the deletion of a much larger
portion of Mr. Patwardhan's film by issuing the blanket diktat -
"Delete the entire visuals and dialogues spoken by political leaders
including Ministers and the Prime Minister". That much of this has
appeared on Doordarshan and seen by crores of people - many times the
number who can be expected to see Mr. Patwardhan's film - only
underscores the Orwellian irony.
India is not alone in suppressing efforts at chronicling nuclear
matters. In 1993, Israel's military censor banned the publication of
an academic monograph by Avner Cohen, an Israeli citizen and then a
research fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, on the
early history (1949-67) of the Israeli nuclear programme. Not just
parts of it, but the whole thing. And in 1999, a Russian military
court convicted Grigory Pasko, a former naval captain and an
environmental journalist, for passing film footage of the Russian
navy illegally dumping nuclear wastes into the Sea of Japan to a
Japanese TV station. He was amnestied, but the Federal Security
Service (FSB) - the former KGB - asked for a re-evaluation and got
him sentenced to four years hard labour.
Thankfully, circumstances in the subcontinent are better.
Nevertheless, censoring Mr. Patwardhan's film would be unfortunate.
Most Indians have not been exposed to images of Hiroshima or
Nagasaki, of the accident at Chernobyl or the plight of uranium
miners around the world that shed light on the dark underbelly of the
nuclear age and allow people to make crucial decisions about their
lives in an informed manner.
The Japanese historian, Seiji Imahori, once observed that by
silencing the voice of the atomic bomb survivors "an important
possibility to decisively influence the world situation was lost."
Likewise the situation in South Asia, with nuclear war a possibility
that cannot be ruled out, demands influences like Mr. Patwardhan's to
positively change the situation towards peace and true security.
Censorship denies people alternatives to the propaganda put out by
Governments and hawks about the wickedness of the "other" and the
need to be able to reduce them to radioactive rubble.
(The writer is research staff member, Program on Science and Global
Security, Princeton University.)