Dramatic Performances Act, 1876

Dramatic Performances Act, 1876 a repressive measure of the colonial government against Bangali creativity and public opinion. The Dramatic Performances Act was enacted against the background of growing anti-British feelings among Indians which found expression through the medium of drama and theatre. The rise of the western educated middle classes in the late nineteenth century Bengal was not accompanied by the creation of new opportunities for them. The civil services were practically a monopoly for the white. The Anglo-Indian community controlled trade, commerce and industries. Capitalist commercial cultivation of indigo, tea, tobacco etc was also in the hands of the Europeans. The merchants and planters were exploiting the toiling people, and the white magistrates were clearly in favour of the planters.

The oppression and injustice of the indigo planters and magistrates were the theme of many dramatic works. The dramatic performances of dinabandhu mitra's Nil-Darpan, madhusudan dutt's satires Buro Saliker Ghare Ro and Ekei ki Balay Sabhyata, Kiran Chandra Bandyopadhyay's Sarojini, Jyotirindranath Tagore's Purubikram, Dakshina Charan Chattopadhyay's Cha-kar-Darpan, Upendra Nath Das's Surendra Binodini and other works had been drawing large audiences. The shocking scenes of oppression and inhuman treatment in such plays aroused anti-imperialist sentiment. The Lieutenant Governor of Bengal, sir richard temple, interpreted these dramatic performances as subversive activity. He reminded the central government of the role of rumours in causing the sepoy uprising of 1857. He also cautioned the government that the country was already experiencing widespread localised peasant uprisings which could someday be organised into a national revolution. The government took particular note of patriotic and anti-British dramas staged at the annual conferences of the hindu mela. Richard Temple advised the government that since under the existing law the government had no power to ban a drama of this kind, a law prohibiting the writing and staging of libellous and subversive dramas should immediately be enacted.

On 29 February 1876, the Government of India proclaimed an ordinance empowering the government of Bengal to prohibit certain dramatic performances. The ordinance stated that whenever the Lt. Governor was of the opinion that any play, pantomime or other drama performed or about to be performed was (a) of a scandalous or defamatory nature or (b) likely to excite feelings of disaffection for the government or (c) likely to deprive and corrupt persons present at such a performance or (d) otherwise prejudicial to the interests of the public, the government might by order prohibit such a performance. The ordinance further stipulated that not only producers, directors and actors defying such a prohibitory order but also spectators and owners or occupiers of the theatres would be punishable under the law. The Ordinance was duly enacted into a law on 14 March 1876.

The enactment of the law provoked protest by many organisations and individuals. The nationalist organisations and personalities took it as a detestable black law. They tried to create effective public opinion against the law, but failed to enlist the general support of the people. The British Indian Association, an organisation of the zamindar class, remained quiet about it. The newly born indian association was critical of the law, but refused to make any issue out of it. The mohammedan literary society remained silent about the law. Only the Hindu Mela and the press supporting the forum made considerable noise against the law. The vernacular press and public opinion took it as another instance of government high handedness against the people of India.

After the partition of India, the Act was declared ineffective by Madras High Court in 1954, by Allahabad High Court in 1956, and by the Punjab High Court in 1958. In 1962 the Government of West Bengal prepared a new bill entitled West Bengal Dramatic Performances Bill, but it was ultimately withdrawn in 1963 in the face of vehement public protest. The Dramatic Performances Act of 1876 was abrogated in Bangladesh by the jatiya sangsad on 30 January 2001. [Sirajul Islam]