Modern India has an embarrassing history of government censorship. Its latest episode occurred last week when populist politics and a low tolerance for artists' inquiry of social issues combusted over the release of the film "Aarakshan."

"Aarakshan," meaning "reservation" in Hindi, is a film by producer, director and screenwriter Prakash Jha, who is one of the more socially-conscious filmmakers in Bollywood. It is about so-called reservations: Affirmative-action programs for the 160 million Dalits, the "untouchables," who make up the lowest caste in India.

Caste is a complex form of social stratification specific to India. And it remains a major source of conflict in India's democracy. The Indian Constitution, written in 1950, makes reservation the law. Specifically, at least 22.5 percent of government jobs and seats at public education institutions are reserved for those from low castes and tribal communities. While there is still much more to do, reservation has greatly improved the lot of lower castes the past  60 years.

In a concise but comprehensive summary of "Aarakshan" in The National, Suryatapa Bhattacharya explains:

The film focuses on the tension in a college campus between lower-caste students, who stand to benefit from a quota policy just upheld by the Supreme Court, and their more affluent classmates, who now have to contend with the reservation policy.

One of the characters from a higher caste mocks his lower-caste compatriots for getting into a top university on the basis of his birth, not his marks.

In the days leading to the release of "Arakshan," some groups squabbled over whether it slandered lower castes or merely depicted the reality of upper-caste sentiments toward them. In The National,  Bhattacharya reported that the film "ignited protests across the country and brought criticism from politicians and low-caste minority groups." These protests and demonstrations were enough to keep the curtain down on the film in some parts of India.

India’s Central Board of Film Certification -- an institution, some critics argue, that must be dismantled -- approved Jha’s film. Two separate High Courts also passed it. But on the eve of its scheduled August 12 release, three Indian state governments -- Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh  -- banned "Aarakshan."

Bhattacharya explained that the film was banned because:

Local governments feared it would spark communal violence .... Days before the release of the film, demonstrators in Chennai, Mumbai, Bangalore and Mysore burnt film posters, vandalised cinemas and chanted slogans against the director, Prakash Jha.

The state government officials who outlawed the film (one of them being India’s most prominent and powerful Dalit leader, Mayawati, who governs Uttar Pradesh) reasoned that the film was derogatory to Dalits. By doing so, these officials suggested that artistic work dealing with controversial subjects should only be allowed to adopt the position of official textbooks.

To them, "Aarakshan" was inflammatory, not inquisitive. But the decisions to ban the film were both morally patronizing and legally dubious. They also had historical precedent. Most recently, in March 2011, the government of Gujarat banned Joseph Lelyveld’s recent biography of Gandhi on the charge that the book slandered its subject.

Today, much of middle-class India, which tends to derive from the upper and middle castes, resents the reservations' expanding reach over government jobs and seats in higher education. But the lower castes believe that despite the legal concessions given to them, psychologically, their place in Indian society remains unchanged. A genuine engagement between the higher castes and lower castes is yet to be seen in modern India.

Early reviews of the film suggested that it did not offer an especially perceptive reading of the debate over reservations in public education. Although, as a form of mass entertainment, "Aarakshan" surely has the power to stimulate debate on the issue across the country -- if people can watch the film. Instead, the theme has become less about caste and more about censorship.

The Hindu reported that the chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, P.L. Punia, stated that the premise of the film, overall, was not objectionable, but specific dialogue in "Aarakshan" was “derogatory”:

He pointed to a scene where two businessmen remark that they don't want their children to study with those from Dalit communities “who stink” and have no manners as particularly “humiliating.” He added that rather than condemning such an attitude, [a] character  merely replied that he would not take two sets of classes for Dalit and non-Dalit students…

Mr. Punia asked the censorhip board to order some changes to the film. But the board chairperson, Leela Samson, responded that it would "defend Mr. Jha's right to free expression." She continued, “When you show a certain situation, you must show reality as it is…  I don't think the film is anti-Dalit.”

On August 13, the governments of Punjab and Andhra Pradesh overturned the bans after special committees they had set up to examine "Aarakshan" reported the film as being unobjectionable.

This latest controversy was an example of Indian government officials' tendencies to arrogate to themselves all arbitrary powers of judgment. Columnist Kanchan Gupta, in his piece for the Pioneer, "Banning 'Aarakshan' Is a Denial of Freedom," wrote:

We are once again witnessing State Governments tripping over each other to ban a film in the hope of deriving political mileage -- a hope based on the astounding presumption that the people must be treated as chattel and denied the freedom to watch films and read books of their choice lest they be led astray ... It is a sad commentary on the state of freedom in India that such denial should be officially sanctified on the eve of the nation’s 65th Independence Day; we may be a free nation, but we are yet to achieve freedom of thought and expression, the right to hold and publicly state an opinion that could run counter to a prevalent opinion or militate against conventional (and convenient) wisdom ... Prakash Jha may have made a film that merits notice, or it could be eminently forgettable. That, however, is irrelevant. What is relevant is his right to screen Aarakshan and let people decide its worth or otherwise.

Various interest groups in India, too, exercise a second rung of censorship. They demand, for instance, that they also pre-screen films so that they may pass them.

In Mumbai, for example, the center of India's film industry, a group of politicians, including several prominent lower-caste leaders, attended a special advance screening of the movie . They then suggested a few cuts to the film if they were not to officially protest it. Many other panels across India also advised edits in order to give the film their approval.

Ramdas Athawale, a Dalit leader, took the debate to a ridiculous extreme when he complained that his committee could not watch "Aarakshan" in advance. He argued:

It is not necessary that the Censor Board is always right. Our concern is that the positive environment towards reservation should not be disturbed by a film. That is why we said that if Aarakshan supports reservation then we will also back the film ... If they don’t show us the film, then my people will create trouble in all the theatres. We have also told theatre owners not to screen the film until we grant clearance to it.

Earlier this week, India celebrated its 64th anniversary of independence. But the mood of incomprehension, obscurantism and obstruction seen in this latest episode suggests that the autonomy of the arts and the free pursuit of inquiry are yet to gain a solid foundation. In the near future, artistic production will likely play victim to governmental paternalism, excessively sensitive religious and caste sentiments, and plain political cynicism and expediency.

This is a potent cocktail of suffocation for the spirit of questioning through the arts -- a necessary element in any mature, free society.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this blog post: Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Katherine Brown at kbrown114@bloomberg.net