India/ 4. Current issues in cultural policy development and debate  

4.1 Main cultural policy issues and priorities

There have been numerous debates in the broad areas of cultural policy, or issues that we can see to have affected cultural policy. Here we focus only on two issues, where public debate has directly impacted instruments of government, and where indeed such changes would not have happened without the public debate. We provide two examples, one relating to amendments to the Indian Copyright Act of 1957 (discussed in this section) and governmental efforts to crack down on social networking initiatives (discussed in Section 4.2.6).

Copyright Act: amendments and rebuttals

The Copyright Act, 1957, replacing the original Copyright Act of 1914, cloned from the British Copyright Act, 1911, has been amended several times. However, in 2006, several significant proposed amendments (which have since come into force under the Copyright (Amendment) Bill 2012) were placed in the public domain, which permitted civil society institutions to respond with their concerns. One major critique of the proposed amendments, by a group of ten major institutions – Citizen Consumer and Civic Action Group, Independent Documentary Producers Association, National Association for the Blind, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Voice (Voluntary Organisation in Interest of Consumer Education), Consumer Online Foundation, Drishtiviklang Sangh (Association of the Visually Handicapped), M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Mahiti (International Open Source Network - India) and Tata Institute of Social Sciences – was of particular significance. This critique suggested bringing the Indian Copyright Act on par with the Berne Convention and the TRIPS agreement, both of which ‘enable access to knowledge and information by ensuring easy access to copyrighted materials in respect of educational, private or general use, and via any media or form’, and to which India is a signatory.

Suggestions were made to follow the provisions of the Berne Convention and the TRIPS agreement with respect to literary, dramatic, musical, photographic and artistic works apart from asking the Government to clarify its position on various fair use provisions for the benefit of educational institutions. The group also suggested changing the licensing policy of the Copyright Act to include newer Internet-based modes of licensing such as the creative commons. Further, suggestions were made to expand the scope of ‘public libraries’ in the Copyright Act to include any libraries attached to educational and research institutions. (These suggestions did not make their way into the amendments.)

Some alarming amendments that had been proposed to the Copyright Act to exclude media organisations (newspapers, magazines or similar periodical) from fair use provisions were strongly opposed as these might lead to restricting media information and curtailing freedom of speech and expression. (This provision has since been dropped from the final amendments.)

Amendments that sought to make cover recording of music possible only after five years from the date of release of the first recoding were opposed, on the grounds that such amendments would only benefit large companies, restrict smaller companies serving smaller marginalised markets and geographical locations, and cause monopolisation. It was further suggested that the proposed amendments stipulating a royalty for a minimum of 50,000 copies to be paid annually for the production of a ‘version’ regardless of number of copies actually produced or sold, would make this practice commercially unviable for small markets. (These amendments have been passed.)

Lastly, the introduction of Digital Rights Management (DRM) was opposed on the grounds that India was not under any statutory obligation to introduce such a measure, and that the DRM was extra statutory. The concern was that rights that were conferred by the law and enforced by the copyright holders themselves, through technological measures in order to prevent access to such digital media or software, might infringe the rights of copyright holders. On the other hand, the concern was that DRM might well permit copyright holders to restrict access to digital media or software under terms which are currently permissible under copyright law. (DRM was introduced in the latest amendments. See Section 5.1.5)

New funds or restructuring of available funds

As mentioned in Section 2, through the 1990s, following the threat of political and ideological interference into matters of culture, both India’s central and state governments have experimented with different models of arts funding. This was in part a direct consequence of the troubles ailing the central Lalit Kala Akademi and the failure of several other State art Akademies to fulfill their national or regional functions.

Zonal Cultural Centres (ZCCs): Between 1985 and 1986, seven Zonal Centres were started with the objective to preserve, innovate and promote the projections and dissemination of arts of the zone falling under the broad disciplines of Sangeet (Music), Natak (Drama), Lalit Kala (Fine Arts) and Sahitya (Literature).

These Centres were meant to be autonomous but more importantly, were meant to overcome regional divides, through combining several states under each Zonal Centre, and sometimes under more than one Centre. And so, the North Central Zone Cultural Centre, headquartered in Allahabad, would include Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Delhi, while the South Zone Cultural Centre would have two headquarters, one in Thanjavur (covering the states of Kerala, Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and the Union Territories of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep and Pondicherry), and a second in Nagpur (and covering the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh).

The hope in all this was that cultural kinship could take place along the lines that transcended the territory occupied by the different states. The idea was to arouse awareness of local, as against regional cultures, and it was hoped that the participation of states in more than one zonal cultural centre according to their cultural linkage would be a feature of their composition.

Among the crucial functions of the Zonal Centres, several were the old State requirements of Culture: ZCCs have, for example, been responsible for folk artists’ participation in the Republic Day Folk Dance Festival, which usually happens on either the 24th or25th January of each year, just before the Republic Day of India, at the Talkatora Indoor Stadium in Delhi. A Crafts Fair is also held in the various zones along with the Republic Day Folk Dance Festival. On the other hand, some of the more innovative ZCC projects are the National Cultural Exchange Programme (NCEP) which exchanges artists, musicologists, performers and scholars between different regions within the country, and the Theatre Rejuvenation Scheme to provide an opportunity to students, actors, artists, directors and writers to perform on a common platform.

The National Culture Fund (NCF): NCF was established as a funding mechanism distinct from the existing sources and patterns of funding for the arts and culture in India. It enabled institutions and individuals to support arts and culture directly as partners with its government. Created as a Trust in November 1996, it has sought to protect tangible and intangible heritage in partnership with the community and at present does a more credible job than most other agencies, having formed innovative partnerships with a number of agencies. The NCF works through sanctioning grants to government and non-government Organisations largely out of interest accrued on the corpus fund and out of the contributions of the donors. Interestingly, they also receive donations from agencies that identify a project along with any specific location or aspect for funding as well as an agency for execution of the project while making donations to NCF.

Recent or emerging debates and action concerning ethical and human/cultural rights issues in the domain of cultural policy making

The growing present of what are known as second-generation rights or Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ESCR) in India, has been extensively discussed, in relation to whether such rights need to necessarily be mediated through the prism of fundamental rights (especially Articles 19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution, see Section 5), or whether they could be better shored up through an emphasis on Directive Principles or the State’s Duties.

This issue has been discussed several times (see Section 4.2.4 for more specific versions of the problem of cultural rights). Here we summarise one key, and influential, framing position on the question of Cultural Rights by sociologist Satish Deshpande to provide a flavour of the emerging debates in this area, to show that such rights are often a clutch of earlier caste-based entitlements than anything contemporary. This is, of course, not the only view on the subject, but it is here primarily to show the extremely contentious nature of cultural rights in India.

Deshpande admits a shift in recent years, and that there appears to be a decline in the importance of economic rights (from their Nehruvian position of dominance) and a corresponding ascendance of cultural rights. He proposes that such a divide is illusory, and proposes instead an exploration of the concept of ‘cultural capital’, as something that bridges economics and culture. Taking the example of the Mandal Commission Report[1] (1990, also discussed in Section 4.2.4), commonly projected as a cynical piece of casteist vote bank politics, the event could also be understood as one which helped make visible sedimented practices and arrangements that were previously placed below the threshold of explicit social recognition. This is evidenced in the way the controversy implicates a certain form of ‘property’. The overwhelming dominance of the upper castes in the professions and secure state sector jobs is out of all proportion to their share in the general population, and proves beyond doubt that there exist stable social mechanisms which consistently place India’s upper castes at an advantage relative to others in the recruitment procedures.

Such a notion of cultural capital, says Deshpande, fulfils at least three attributes of property: it confers tangible and psychological benefits; it can be privatised, that is, others can be excluded from enjoying its benefits; and, finally, it can be transmitted across generations. Does this imply that the state has a legitimate right to regulate this form of ‘property’, in the same manner that it regulates other forms, through a spectrum of measures ranging from taxation to expropriation? This was, Deshpande says, clearly denied by the upper caste opponents of the Mandal recommendations, who were protesting the abridgement of what they regarded as their customary right to the benefits of cultural capital in the form of (what from a non-upper caste perspective might look like) more-than-equal access to government jobs. The proponents, on the other hand, were demanding the right to equal access to these jobs, even at the cost of overturning the customary, already-legitimised ways of regulating access.

Coming as it from this angle, says Deshpande, perhaps it is possible to appreciate the difficulties that cultural capital creates for the language of rights. The Mandal controversy, according to him, is instructive because it is the first time in independent India that a privileged group facing adverse regulatory intervention by the state felt able to proclaim its moral outrage in so publicly aggressive a manner. Perhaps the most important factor at work was the very invisibility of cultural capital qua capital. Simply put, the problem with cultural capital has been that it does not look like capital at all; rather, it takes the form of ‘merit’, a peculiarly Indian word which, he points out, is also the common translation of the Hindu notion of punya. As the harvest of past virtuousness or disciplined striving and renunciation, then, cultural capital is fortified by a much stronger and deeper claim to legitimacy – to having been earned and deserved – than any other form of property.

This ‘thicker’ claim to legitimacy derives from the peculiarities of cultural capital: its inseparability from the person and conduct of its owner, so that it is most often deployed in a ‘performative’ mode; its dependence on prolonged apprenticeship and training involving extensive investments of time, effort and money; its imbrication in crucial, highly legitimate institutions such as the family; or its tendency to deflect attention from itself by constantly taking on the appearance of other (often co-present) factors such as innate ability, skill, training, competence, and so on. (summarised from Deshpande, 1998).

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the period that massively faced what we might call the threats of State excess, starting with the declaration of national Emergency (1975), but culminating in the period of Hindutva[2], the attacks on the film ‘Fire’, the ban on Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ and the vandalism and efforts to ban the work of artist M.F. Husain, when the role of the State in cultural nationalism was strongly questioned, cultural rights arrived for the first time within national debate, and strong movements against state censorship emerged.

Though the declaration of Emergency lasted only for 21 months (from 25 June 1975 to 21 March 1977), it was a crucial phase in history that witnessed and provoked intense public debate around state censorship of the media and the arts. During the Emergency, one of the key Constitutional rights – that of Freedom of Speech and Expression – was briefly suspended, directly affecting the freedom of the Indian press. Subsequent to the Emergency, state regulation and censorship of media and cultural productions become an important public issue and the State is increasingly seen as discredited, incapable of being unbiased, representative of specific communal/casteist/ideological groups, and thus incapable of arbitrating on a range of important public matters, including cultural matters.

In many ways, the Emergency opened up the possibility of something that the Nehruvian period had never envisaged, namely the dangers of state interference. It also therefore opened up two new areas of cultural practice, namely ‘cultural autonomy’ and ‘cultural rights’. Such a danger, which would surface again and again, e.g. with the pro-Hindutva BJP government (1998-2004) sought to revise Indian history textbooks published by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) in accordance with the ideology of the Hindu right, and sections from the books where Hindus were represented as unpatriotic or cruel were deleted.[3] Or when the Marxist government of West Bengal declared singer Usha Uthup’s music as ‘apasanskriti’ (‘not our culture’) or when the Maharashtra Government’s Culture Minister, Pramod Navalkar, mounted a campaign against plays, paintings and advertising that he considered obscene.

The discrediting of the State post-Emergency, followed by the perception of communalisation in the Indian polity, underlies the emphasis on arms-length intervention as the model for state’s approach to culture in the Approach Paper to the National Policy on Culture (1992). This model was already indicated in the Haksar Committee Report (1990) that reviewed the giant cultural institutions, including the Akademies and the National School of Drama. Both these documents contain recommendations that strongly emphasised either no intervention at all, or at best minimal intervention, by the State in cultural practice and production. It also advocated the depoliticisation of culture, promotion of diversity and protection of minority cultures in the spirit of Indian democracy. The Approach Paper was never eventually passed into Law, but the draft document is worth outlining in some detail:

1.1  Culture permeates every sphere of human activity, determines and governs life and pattern of Indian society in diverse regions and equally diverse fields. It is a crucial part of development deserving careful attention and substantial investment.

1.2  Although the government of India has spent in the last 35 years 600,000 crores[4] on development, the amounts spent on culture have usually been around 0.11 % of its annual expenditure. It is evident that investment in improving that aspect of the quality of life namely the cultural dimension has not been commensurate with the broad social needs and its intrinsic value.

1.6 Culture is a central instrument of discovering, integrating and asserting the national identity of India which is truly and inevitably pluralistic. Our culture, while being Indocentric, has always been open to global influences and interaction. While resisting any colonization of mind, the policy believes, our culture should remain in constant dialogue with the world at large in the realm of ideas, perceptions, media and expressions.

2.7 The old notion of patronage should be replaced by that of public support and there should be effective coordination between the activities of various agencies in the states and the Centre with a clear recognition that more than anywhere else decentralisation is a key factor in cultural promotion and that an important role is and should continue to be played by individuals and voluntary agencies.

Policy debates and priorities

Through the 1990s and 2000s, there have been several major controversies involving the defence of the right to freedom of speech and expression (Article 19 1a of the Constitution).

Among the major recent debates:

Controversies around painter M.F. Husain: Husain’s troubled life in India with threats and legal cases that target his work as hurting the religious sentiments of the Hindus led him to eventually surrender Indian citizenship and accept Qatari citizenship. In 1996, a Hindi publication wrote a provocative article on Husain’s depiction of Hindu deities. A series of court cases were filed across the country alleging that Husain’s portrayal was blasphemous. These cases, which are said to number about 900, along with constant threats by Hindu right wing groups and the failure of a legal system to provide protection led Husain to live in self exile in Dubai and London. 

The ban on scholar and poet A. K. Ramanujan’s essay, ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation’. This essay appeared originally in ‘The Collected Essays of A.K. Ramanujan’, ed. Vinay Dharwadker (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999). A controversy erupted in Delhi University when the essay was made part of the readings in one of the history courses and, in 2008, activists of the far right Hindutva attacked teachers in the University’s history department demanding that the essay be removed from the reading list. The history department teachers refused to comply. The issue ended up in the Supreme Court which wanted the opinion of an academic expert committee. Three out of the four members of the committee stated that the essay ought to be read by students. However, the Vice Chancellor and the Academic Council overruled the opinion of the history department, as well as the expert committee and removed the essay from the list of recommended readings.

Controversies around writers Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen at the literary festivals at Jaipur and Kolkata, 2012: The Jaipur Literature Festival, held in January 2012, was marred by protests by a few extreme Muslim groups threatening violence if author Salman Rushdie attended the festival, which is Asia’s largest literary gathering. Subsequently, police intelligence informed him that there might be a threat to his life and hence dissuaded him from coming into the country. Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ was banned in 1988 after Iran’s leader Ayatollah Khomeini alleged that the portrayal of Prophet Mohammad hurt the sentiments of the Muslim community.

In February 2012, Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen’s scheduled book launch at the 36th Kolkata International Book Fair was cancelled following protests by some Muslim fundamentalist groups. The book ‘Nirbason’ (Exile) which is part of Taslima Nasreen’s autobiography series narrates how she was forced out of Kolkata in 2007 after some Muslim groups sparked of riots in Kolkata and that the rioters were never brought to book by the law. Though the book was launched with less fan fare, following the Jaipur Festival, it reiterated the commonplace nature of such protests today.  

Media censorship: Cinema has been traditionally the only medium with regard to which the government established a regulatory and censorship body to oversee and certify films before it enters the public domain. The Central Board of Film Certification is a Statutory body under Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and under the provisions of the Indian Cinematograph Act 1952 it can ask for the removal of anything it deems offensive, including sex, nudity, violence or subjects considered politically subversive. Justification of film certification in India has been upheld even by the highest court of the land.

Internet surveillance has been a major issue in recent months. Internet censorship was relatively rare till 2008 when the Mumbai bombings took place killing 171 people.  Subsequently, the Indian Parliament amended the IT Act enacted in 2000 that gave the government more powers in monitoring and regulating internet, to criminalise the sending of messages that were seen as inflammatory and block sites and users who can potentially harm ‘national security’.



[1] The Mandal Commission was established in 1979 to ‘identify the socially or educationally backward’ castes and determine the portion of seat reservations in government jobs and public universities as a means of affirmative action. Although massive protests followed initial attempts to implement the recommendations of this committee, some of them have been implemented as recently as 2008.

[2] Hindutva (Hinduness) has come to represent a form of cultural nationalism as practiced by the right wing in India.

[4] Equivalent to INR 6 trillion


Chapter published: 22-04-2014


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