Padmavati, protests and the role of the Government

Harini Calamur | 27 Nov 2017 09:52 PM

Even if you tried to avoid the pre-publicity surrounding the release of the Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Viacom 18 film, Padmavati, starring Deepika Padukone, Ranvir Singh, and Shahid Kapoor, you would have been unsuccessful.

Even if you tried to avoid the pre-publicity surrounding the release of the Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Viacom 18 film, Padmavati, starring Deepika Padukone, Ranvir Singh, and Shahid Kapoor, you would have been unsuccessful. It is like the combined ecosystem of a silent Union Government, a complicit State Government, publicity hungry film-makers, random groups trying to make a name, and an audience-starved media (both mainstream and social media) are conspiring to ensure that the fracas over Padmavati is wiping out all other news from the radar. And rightly so when members of the ruling party and community groups call for the beheading of actors and directors.

Since the establishment of the Republic of India, in 1950, there has always been a tussle between local pride and identity, with national identity. Be it protest – often violent – for the formation of linguistic states; or the opposition to Hindi that ran parallel to the ascendency of the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu; be It Bal Thackeray’s agitation against outsiders, or protests in Assam against outsiders, this battle was continuous. These led to local parties coming to the forefront, promising to take care of the interests of locals. In these battles, religious identity did not matter as much as ethnic or linguistic identity.

The local pride movements subsided in the 1980s – they weren’t completely erased – and were replaced by events that consolidated votes on religious and caste basis. There were four major events – the first was the Khalistan movement, and the schism between Hindus and Sikhs in Punjab, which saw in its wake the storming of the Golden Temple, the assassination of Indira Gandhi, and the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom; the second was the violent protests that followed the implementation of Mandal; the third was the rise of the Islamist identity in Kashmir, and the Kashmiri Pandit exodus;   and, the fourth was the lead up to the demolition of the disputed Babri Masjid, the Hindu-Muslim riots that followed in the aftermath, and the Bombay blasts.  This was a different set of political players who came to prominence in the wake of these events.

In the last decade we have seen a different sort of identity politics being played out. The rise of community-based cultural groups, who hark back to a fuzzy history to claim ownership, and the sole right to portray the events regarding their community.  With education, and upward mobility, communities, rightly or wrongly, believe the pride of their people is derived from their ‘glorious’ historical past, rather than a glorious economic future. These groups are different from the groups in the post-Independence era in one vital way. Those in 1950s and 1960s, be it the DMK, or the Shiv Sena,  looked at the economic progress of the people in their chosen area. You may disagree with their methods or intentions, but their economic focus was very clear.

The groups that have come to the fore in the last decade or so, are religious/social/cultural fundamentalists, who believe they, and only they, have the right to represent ‘their’ history. And, their targets are writers, academics, film-makers, even ordinary citizens. Be it the violent protests against Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, or against James Laine’s book on Shivaji, be it fear of violent protests against a movie on Indira Gandhi’s assassination, or indeed the violent protests against Mathorubhagan – the attempt of groups to stifle diversity of thought has been mostly successful. So much so, this author can fill an entire column of 800-odd words just listing all the attempts to block diversity of thought.

We can sit here and debate till kingdom come, indulge in whataboutery — what about Charlie Hebdo, what about jailed cartoonists, what about drawing the Prophet Mohammed, what about something else that bothers you. All of these are valid questions. And, they are valid because in each of these cases those who wanted to restrict free speech and diversity have succeeded. Groups have the right to protest against things that offend them. One is not questioning that right. One is questioning the right of groups to call for, or indulge, in violence, while the state looks helplessly on.

One major player in all this chaos is the media which enables the mainstreaming of every person, every group, calling for violence. Nobodies become the spokespeople of ‘their’ communities. But, while the media assists these groups in becoming important, the real culprit is the state that is silent. In all this, we have to ask, what should be the role of the state? Does the state look at violent protests and calls for beheading as ‘freedom of expression’ or does it see it as a threat to civil rights and liberties of the majority, and crack down on violent talk and action? In following a policy of ‘maun vrat’ (vow of silence) on anything that is contentious, the Government is abdicating its duty (Rajya Dharma) towards the citizens of India.

We have the right to thought, speech, and action and the role of the state is to protect those. This entire argument that ‘hurt sentiments’ has to be pandered to is irrational. Because hurt sentiments will not cease to be hurt, they will find new things to be hurt by. The current Government’s attitude towards agitating groups is akin to a parent who is unable to manage a child throwing a tantrum in the middle of the mall and gives in. The next time the child will throw a bigger tantrum. So will these groups.

(Harini Calamur is a writer, teacher and film-maker. She tweets at @calamur)

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