The Hushing Laws: Censorship in India

Censorship as an act of government is exercised through legislation or an unprecedented suppression of ideas, speeches and actions. Censorship can be better understood if we look at it as a two-dimensional operation - acts involving the expression of dissent and dissatisfaction for the government and its workings fall under the first dimension. The other dimension of censorship consists of all acts of state or individual(s) that harm the beliefs and sentiments of another individual. When J.S.Mill talks about the 'harm principle' where an individual's liberty can be restricted if it harms the liberty of any other individual, this restriction can be referred to as censorship under the second dimension.

The colonial rule undoubtedly impacted the idea of censorship in India. The National Liberation Struggle in India was based on freedom and the free exchange of ideas. However, acts of censorship are visible not just under the colonial state but also under the social dynamics of Indian society. Analysing the examples of the Indian caste system or various kingdoms that ruled the subcontinent, traces of censorship can be seen in all epochs of the history of India. Under Aurangzeb's reign, morals and ethics were taught to censor particular acts like prostitution and gambling. Regardless of what form it takes or what Spatio-temporal dynamics it has, the definition of censorship as the suppression of ideas and expression that is deliberate and mediated is most relevant.

Under the theory of social contract, the state is responsible for protecting the liberty of its citizens, and the citizens, in return, are expected to perform specific duties. This two-way relationship as established by the social contract between citizens and the state offers a valid justification for censorship laws because the state ought to protect all individuals equally. As utopian as it sounds, these expectations need a legitimate rule of law that lays down rules and regulations, rights, and duties of the citizens and the state.

Censorship Laws in India

Article 19 of the Indian Constitution grants its citizens the freedom of speech and expression, freedom of assembly, freedom to form associations, and freedom of movement. Article 21 ensures protection of life and personal liberty and writes that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law. While these are the fundamental rights and enforceable in the Apex Court, there are also limitations to these rights. These restrictions are deemed reasonable under the purview of the protection of India's sovereignty, security, and integrity. These "reasonable restrictions" propose what can be called a moderate form of censorship because, essentially, these restrictions limit the freedom of expression, whether justifiable or not.

Censorship is exercised through legislation such as Section 95 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, which can declare certain publications forfeited and issue search warrants. Similarly, section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, criminalises sedition - "Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the government." This sedition law has been used to censor expression since the National Liberation Movement and continues even after 73 years of independence.

The constitutional validity of Section 124A of the IPC was questioned in cases like Tara Singh Gopi Chand v The State, Sabir Raza v. The State, and Ram Nandan v. State in 1950 and the enforcement of section 124A was declared void. However, in 1962, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of Section 124A of the IPC in Kedar Nath Singh v. the State of Bihar. The verdict stood on the principle that if the stability of the state is harmed, then the very existence of the state is harmed. The viability of the sedition law and Article 19(1)(a) is defended because this right is upheld only as long as there is no incitement of violence or harm to the state's existence.

Section 153A of the IPC is another vaguely worded clause that criminalises any speech that raises questions or objections against a person in the opposition. Section 292 of the IPC prohibits the sale of books that are classified as 'obscene.'

The most important medium and source of information are the Press. The fourth pillar of democracy is the Freedom of the Press. However, censorship laws pose a serious threat to this democratic pillar by curbing freedom on unreasonable grounds. In 1995, the Parliament enacted the Cable Television Act, which awarded vast powers to the government. They have the right to ban cable operators as well as news channels. For example, NDTV was banned for a day by the Government of India back in November 2016. Censoring press freedom involves banning news headlines or news channels and includes threatening and detaining journalists, internet shutdowns, mass trolling, and suspension of social media channels. According to a study by Reporters Without Borders, India has ranked 142 among 180 countries on the 2021 World Press Freedom Index.

Censorship has also been seen in other forms of media like entertainment media. Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), which comes under the purview of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, is responsible for restricting the scope of this medium. The Board regularly instructs to eliminate anything it deems offensive or as being politically subversive. The Cinematograph Act, 1952 governs the censorship of films. It assigns various certifications such as Universal, Adults, and Parental Guidance to films in India before the public exhibition. The recent decision of the government to bring OTT platforms under the purview of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is another example of censorship in India that aims to curb freedom of expression and limit the creative content generated by the people of India.


In the fundamental sense, censorship involves the suppression of speech, information, and ideas that might be considered objectionable, sensitive, or divisive. There exists a fragile line between justifiable and non-justifiable censorship. Neither the Constitution nor the people of India see censorship as black and white. The social, political and ethical factors together add to the justification of censorship laws. However, when dissent is curbed and the people in power are protected on the grounds of "peace and order", democracy is exposed to the dangers of totalitarianism.

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