Guwahati: The Assamese television serial on syncretic culture that had been banned after rightwing groups cried ‘love jihad’ can now be screened again, thanks to an order by the Gauhati high court.

The Guwahati Commissioner of Police had prohibited Begum Jaan from being telecast for 60 days, after rightwing groups amped pressure, saying that the serial was “affecting the secular ethos of Constitution of India”.

Accusing the serial of promoting ‘love jihad’ — the phrase Hindutva groups have invented to further their conspiracy theory of Muslims converting Hindu women by marriage —  and hurting the sentiments of Hindus and of Brahmins, Hindu fringe groups took to the streets in July to protest the telecast of Begum Jaan. The end result of the vociferous clamour against the serial which is about a Hindu woman being rescued by a Muslim man was that the serial’s star, Pretty Kkongana, was trolled and abused online with death and rape threats issued against her. She was also accused of ‘selling her own religion’. Kkongana had to lodge an FIR against those who abused her online.

A 10-member district monitoring committee was constituted and headed by the Police Commissioner to observe the serial’s content. After the nod by the monitoring committee, the Commissioner issued an order to ban the serial for the stipulated time. He also issued a show cause notice to the makers and broadcasters of the serial. A ‘socio-cultural’ organisation named United Trust of Assam had also moved Gauhati high court for legal action against Begum Jaan.

Meanwhile, Sanjive Narain, the proprietor of AM Televisions which produced the serial, moved court to challenge the ban.

The court, on September 3, set aside the Commissioner’s order dated August 24 by stating that “it not only violates the mandate of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting but also the principles of natural justice.” It also chastised police for “non-application of mind.”

The court in its order also observed that “there was no mention of as to which part of the TV serial was found to be objectionable and the reason thereof.”

“Neither the minutes of the meeting of the district monitoring committee held on August 22 recommending action against Begum Jaan or the Commissioner’s order dated August 24 remotely makes any mention as to which part of the complaint has been found to be sustainable and for what reason,” it said.

The court, however, has also asked makers and broadcaster of Begum Jaan to make sure that any objectionable content in the serial which may harm religious sentiment be deleted before it is telecast.

The Commissioner of Police on August 25 informed the high court that “he has prohibited the telecast of the serial under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation Act) for a period of 60 days”.

Section 19 of the Act empowers an authorised officer to “prohibit transmission of certain programmes in public interest” if they are “likely to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, linguistic or regional groups or castes or communities or which is likely to disturb the public tranquillity.”

The ban has effectively lasted for 10 days. AM Televisions head Narain told The Wire that the court’s judgment is a big win for freedom of expression.

“There is nothing in the serial to censor or delete. We were accused of promoting ‘love jihad,’ which was totally false. The story is about humanity,” said Narain, adding that shooting had stopped since August 24, when the Commissioner ordered the ban.

The court order also mentioned that the district monitoring committee did not include a representative from electronic media.

The petitioners had held in court, “That the non-inclusion of a representative from the electronic media has rendered the monitoring committee incompetent in the eye of law.”

They also said, “As per relevant guidelines issued by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, government of India, it is the Central government which alone is authorised to initiate action in the matter and the District Monitoring Committee is only empowered to make a suitable recommendation to the Central Govt., that too, after hearing the versions of both parties. However, in the present case, not to speak of any opportunity of hearing to the writ petitioners, the authorities did not even forward the copies of the complaints received by it to the petitioners before issuing the impugned order banning the telecast of the serial for a period of two months.”

The court in its order further observed that records reveal that no copy of the complaints were furnished for the petitioners nor were they heard in the matter before issuing the order.

“Indeed, there was nothing that was informed to us. We were not even aware that a committee had been constituted. The Commissioner’s order was out of the blue,” added Narain.

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