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India: Censorship in the nuclear age (M. V. Ramana)

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  • Harsh Kapoor
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 27, 2002
      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.)
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