THE BLOG
06/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Indian Heroine Tulsi Falls in the Battle For Freedom of Speech in Karzai's Afghanistan

On a snowy Afghan evening, I had to watch Agha Jan and his son fix my car in a make-shift garage in Kabul. As Agha jan the mechanic (mistari) was fumbling with wrenches and pliers, his phone burst into a Bollywood-music ring tone. With greasy hands, he laboured to pull a blackened cell phone out of his large side pocket. Moments later I overheard a female voice urging him to rush home.

"The mother of my kids," he said to me smilingly while preparing to wrap thing up. Realizing that Agha Jan's stop-work-alarm-bell had rung, I acquiesced to bring the car the next day. Meanwhile Agha Jan continued muttering his evening to-do-list: he had to wash up, buy groceries, and drive home and watch the "un-miss-able" episode of Tulsi -- an Indian Soap Opera, about which he had spent a good part of his day speculating.

The drama of Tulsi broadcast by a private TV channel (Tolo) had become the talk of the town and an incredible commercial success by the time my car was to be fixed by Agha Jan. Millions of Afghans across assorted demographics would huddle around their TV sets to watch the opera acted out in indoor settings by jewelry-covered Indian stars.

Little did these millions know that the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture were to ban the drama soon -- "on religious and national security grounds." Needless to mention that the opera is no Sex and the City, nor is it Fahrenheit 9/11. In fact Tulsi would make a G-Rated American movie look 'obscene'.

The government's decision to ban the opera has not gone unchallenged though. It has at least opened up a vigorous and somewhat heated debate dividing Afghans into pro and cons of what constitutes freedom of speech. The "freedom of speech" argument however has missed the point. At the end of the day, it has failed to bring back Tulsi and remove the prospect for its fans that the status quo would end soon.

A different argument relates but is not exclusively centered on the definition of "freedom of speech." It is to go back to the basics and remind Karzai's administration that the decision to ban an innocuous drama is anachronistic, discriminatory, un-Islamic and undemocratic. Regardless of the motive (political, religious or cultural), it is particularly cruel to ban a family-oriented drama in a country whose populations were deprived of all legitimate entertainment opportunities for over half a decade under the Taliban.

Banning a truly popular drama hits the poor harder than the elites of the Afghan government. It deprives people like the mechanic, Agha Jan, his wife and kids of a joyful moment that they would share over dinner. The poor could barely afford to buy a TV set to watch national channels, but those with means already have or would readily substitute to international channels accessible through cable networks or beaming satellite dishes.

The dish-like antennas are widely available at "affordable" prices in almost every Afghan marketplace. It is not uncommon to see big dishes hypocritically hanging from the rooftops of the very 'elites' who allegedly lobbied for the ban. Assuming that the lobbyists genuinely cared for Afghan religious and cultural values, the ban would not only have no effect to preserve Afghan culture, but it would also entail unintended substitution effects -- which would undermine its very intent and purpose. That is, those who could afford it are likely to substitute towards even more "destructive" international programs completely alien to Afghan religion and culture.

For Karzai's administration, mimicking Ahmadinejad's cronies in Iran and their notorious penchant for censorship is not a shrewd political strategy. Nor does the ban broadcast the piousness of his administration as he attempts to win the hearts and minds of god-abiding Afghans ahead of the 2009 presidential elections. A better strategy might be to put principles before politics, human nature before mob mentality and the global and technological realities before alarmist delusions.

Policing people's private space is against the Islamic concept of privacy (Harim), principle of individual liberty and a clear indicator of the State's messed-up priorities. As the late Canadian prime minister, Pierre Trudeau famously said, "The state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation." To Karzai's ministry of Information and Culture, however, it is obvious that not only the State has a place in the nation's bedrooms but in their living rooms as well.