No one wept for the scrapping of a host of legislation last month by the Parliament, which for over centuries had remained in Indian law codes. But GAUTAM KAUL* has found merit in expressing a lament for one such law which was also scrapped.

As the sun set down on the year 2017 in one sitting and show of hands, the Lok Sabha in the last Winter Session of 2017, scrapped over 1520 legislated law which spanned the period of India’s history between the years of 1820-1920. It was one of the achievements of the present government and a promise fulfilled to get rid from the books of law, all old legislation, which over the time had lost its relevance.

The reading of the scrapped laws indicate how the British Administration in India came to deal with the myriad of issues of social and cultural challenges which were quite unique to say the least.

One such law which was scrapped was historic in its time and which shall remain in mentions on the development of Media history in the country. The legislation brought in to the books was called, the ‘Dramatic Performances Act of 1876’.

There was much drama which went into the emergence of such a law.

Early history of the rise of the English speaking Press begins with the printing and publishing of the first newspaper sheets to serve the interests of the small population of British settlers who came down to the Subcontinent to work of the British East India Company, or took to private business in the princely States and kingdoms of the times.

James Hickey published the first English newspaper in India in 1780, called “The Bengal Gazette”. Warren Hastings had this Englishman arrested for printing stories of Hastings’ corruption and the nasty little sheet was promptly seized. Then followed the beginning of new ventures such as ‘The Friend of India’ (1818), ‘Bombay Samachar’(1822), ‘The Englishman’(1833), ‘The Times of India’ (1836), ‘Indian Mirror’ (1861), ‘The Pioneer’(1865), ‘The Mail’(1868), ‘Amrit Bazaar Patrika’(1868), ‘Civil and Military Gazette’ of Shimla-Lahore ( 1872), ‘The Hindu’(1878) ‘The Tribune’ of Lahore- Ambala -Chandigarh (1881), and others.

While the world of literature in print grew slowly, other forms of arts also came into being. The events of 1857 had led to the reorganization of urban society and begin to attract new commercial activities in towns. An incidental off shoot of this activity was the demand to hold dramas in both English and vernacular languages. The demand for more and better entertainment was first made in Calcutta in 1872. Arguably, the Gaiety Theatre of Shimla was the only available stage in India to enact dramatic plays by drama companies on tours in India, and be also used as a ballroom floor for social dancing. Constructed in 1840 for the entertainment performances of the British population which had taken residence in this up-coming hill station, news of its existence and apparent good features to enact plays, reached Calcutta and the idea was expanded into the need to have a better theatre which had wings, and good lighting. The ‘Indian Mirror’ in 1872, was the first newspaper to put this demand. Calcutta also discovered a ready audience which assured theatre business, and new drama writers came forward with their scripts. But while the original demand for theatres and drama performances was for entertainment, the drama writers soon wrote plays which were far from the popular concept of having an evening of fun with the families. They took on issues of topical concern; wrote satire, skits and also occasional comedies and musicals.

Theatre which was till recently confined to the large rooms in the home of the rural zamindaars, and elite bhadralok, now found a new urban patron in National Theatre which became a famous centre for all Europeans and vernacular dramas.

An upcoming drama writer in 1875, wrote a script called ‘Neel Darpan’. The theme highlighted the exploitation of Indigo workers in East UP and Bihar where indigo plantations were located. Most of the indigo planters were British traders or Indians in the employment of British traders who lived in Calcutta. The play was staged in Calcutta’s National Theatre during 1875. It led to open discussion between those who pleaded for reforms in the exploited group and those who supported the employers. The issue was also discussed in newspaper columns. ‘Amrit Bazaar Patrika’ took issues of labour exploitation and commended the play for the realistic depiction, while ‘The Englishman’ demanded a ban on the performance of the play in theatres. Amrit Bazaar Patrika also suggested that the play should also be staged up country.

In 1876, this play was staged in Lucknow. At one stage of the performance, the local Englishmen and the natives in the audience got into a violent fracas between themselves leading to a police intervention. The State administration now moved that dramas and plays must for future be subject to scrutiny and given license to perform them in public places . A set of rules for the control of all theatre in public was created and sent to the Viceroy. This became the ‘Dramatic Performance Act’ of 1876.

The new Act was immediately criticized for its draconian features. The educated Indians took cudgels against it stating that it impaired freedom of expression in public, curtailed sharing of ideas and acted as censors of public taste in culture and arts. No changes in the Act were made, save for some clarifications in the definitions. In future all drama scripts needed to be submitted to the police for content scrutiny which thereafter suggested the approval of the District Magistrate. Drama scripts particularly in various vernaculars were scrutinized more closely and many writings were confiscated under the Act.

Until cinema appeared in India in 1896, there was no one to oppose the application of the Act on all public performances. Cinema shows proved something of a new challenge, as there was no human performer on stage. Early Silent Cinema still found its use in adult education as a documentary document to inform of distant happenings. In 1904, a news reel showing the defeat of the British army by a tribal army in the Zulu Wars, found protest marches against the British in Calcutta. This led to the further enlargement of the definition of public performances under the Act, and the appointment of censors in the local police department to review all cinema material that was earmarked for public exhibition.

Provisions in the Dramatic Performances Act got diluted when the new laws under which the Commissionerates of Police were established in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. The Police was made incharge of censoring all material it felt was treasonous, seditious or liable to cause civil unrest. By 1920 more laws were enacted relating to spread and control of information due to the rise of public protest. The Press Regulation Act of 1918 was also promulgated.

Cinema also dealt a near fatal blow to the art of theatre, and the Act controlling it, went into disuse. After Independence, the Act was considered redundant, and allowed to be put to ‘sleep’.

But the devil’s soul would not rest in peace.

It found resonance in the specific Police Acts of the metropolitan town and in new administrative orders enacted to maintain public peace. Theatre, print media, cinema of all sorts and holding of public meetings were now all subject to scrutiny. India was declared a democracy after 1947, but most of the laws controlling the media were left untouched and even enlarged to plug loopholes. The time came that the country discovered it was over legislated and the mischievous learned advocate began to use the same weapons on records of law to create obstacles in public reforms. The cobwebs created by the State now needed to be done away with, and the idea grew to remove selectively such legislation which had outlived its original objectives. The latest show of hands to wipe away more than a thousand legal Acts was the second round of clean up in Indian law.

With so much criticism being heaped upon the likely screening of fi lm Padmavat and citing laws which exist to temper display of dramatic performances, the passing away of the Dramatic Performances Act, seems an irony of sorts. No one recalled the old Act still in force when the fi rst protest erupted; even the provisions of the Cinematography Act of 1952 and its various amendments were not recalled to support the ban. Perhaps that was because the clever lawyer had not been approached to meddle in this case of public entertainment. For the State, the doing away of the Act of 1876, was indeed an argument to say, it believed in democratic principle of free expression of voices in public.

But then, that was not the argument used while scrapping it.

*The writer is a veteran film historian, author and a former IPS officer. Trade Magazine