Among the debilitating restrictions on freedom of expression during colonial rule in India was the censorship of dramatic performances. In its attempt to clamp down on messages about the freedom struggle, the Raj made it mandatory for scripts of plays to be cleared before they could be staged. Offenders invited long periods of incarceration.

Like several other arbitrary provisions, this restriction continued in independent India. As a consequence of this requirement that dramas be vetted, the police consider it their right to stop plays at any time, with no regard for fundamental rights and the rule of law.

Three cases of such police high-handedness came to light in Maharashtra this fortnight when Sahitya Akademi award-winning Jayant Pawar wrote an open to fellow artists urging them to speak up against against the “gagging”.

According to the letter, the police intervened in three anti-caste plays being staged by different groups in Pune and Mumbai. The police’s main aim seems to have been to stop the drama groups from talking about the situation in Jammu and Kashmir following the abrogation of its special status on August 5.

While two plays were were disrupted, with the police even recording the audience during the event, a staging to be held at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune was cancelled by the organisers. The next day at 2.30 am, the Qissa Kothi drama troupe alleged, police officers barged into their hotel rooms and conducted an unwarranted search, asking for one of the group members, Yash Khan.

While the law does provide the police the powers to maintain public peace and intervene when plays propagate hate or enmity, for officials to use these powers to clamp down on freedom of expression based on mere suspicion completely violates of the concept of free expression. The police clearly set out to intimidate the theatre groups to ensure they did not criticise the government.

The chilling effect on free speech of such actions is a threat to democracy. The Maharashtra government is duty bound to rein in its police force.