It is not often that one will find instances in the history of any civilised nation of mobs running riot, burning malls and buses as they perceive that their ethnic community will be defamed by a fictional film on a mythological queen.
In various BJP-ruled states, violence has led to large-scale loss of private and public property as buses, malls, vehicles and theatres became targets of arson and attack. All because mobs egged on by fringe groups set out to defy a Supreme Court order that said that states cannot ban Padmaavat, an epic film that chronicles a fictional story. The court said that the states should ensure law and order as it is released for public viewing.
More than anything else, the outburst of violence that was planned and the inaction of the government to stem it eloquently symbolised the complete collapse of governance.
Ironically, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the same time, was telling the World Economic Forum at Davos that India was a great destination for investors as it had wellness, peace and prosperity.
India, he said, would emerge as a 5 trillion dollar economy by 2025 as all areas of the economy have been opened for foreign direct investment. However, his party leaders back home were silently watching the ridiculous drama that was unfolding. Even a school bus with children was attacked in Gurugram, on the outskirts of the National Capital. Its driver had the presence of mind to dodge the mob and speed away as he saw that another bus had just been set ablaze.
The vandalisers were egged on by Rajput leaders like Lokendra Singh Kalvi, chief of the Karni Sena. He openly threatened violence along with other Rajput leaders who threatened that Rajput women would immolate themselves in protest. They were not arrested.
Why did the Karni Sena, which ostensibly fights for the dignity of Rajputs, not ever think of empowering their women by freeing them from feudalistic traditions or fight against female foeticide, which is so rampant in north India? Instead, they were fighting pitched battles on the streets, destroying public property in the name of safeguarding the dignity of a fictional queen.
They exposed themselves when they invoked the threat of Rajput women immolating themselves if the film was released. Who gave them the right to even say this? Are they not worried that Rajasthan has the lowest female literacy in India? Rajasthan also has a pathetic gender ratio as female foeticide is rampant. Do these stark facts about their women hurt them? Unlikely. We have never heard them protesting on issues that are so central to the dignity of women.
It did not matter to the Karni Sena that Padmaavat had been cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification. The mob leaders wanted to show that only what they wanted would be allowed.
As they moved from one news television station to the other, spewing hatred, there was no government move to stop them or even warn them. The Central government chose to helplessly look on as the violence terrified India. That hardly came as a surprise as the 2019 general elections are not far away. Fringe groups know that political parties will not risk taking them on. The silence in condemning the violence was deafening.
There were public calls for attacks and cutting off body parts of actress Deepika Padukone, who essayed the role of Rani Padmavati, a central character in Padmaavat. That itself should have been a wake-up call for the government. Nobody even got arrested for saying this against a public figure adored by millions. The millions who are India’s silent majority.
Is India in the vortex of a tsunami of irrationality, intolerance and senseless violence triggered off by a blind belief in myths and that too by fringe groups? It definitely seemed so, seeing the extent of violence that was spreading in different parts of Rajasthan, Gujarat and other states.
Strangely, the protesters had not seen the film as it had not been released. They turned a deaf ear to numerous public figures like spiritual leader Sri Sri Ravi Shankar who said that there was nothing in the film that would offend anybody. In fact, many others pointed out that it showed the Rajputs in a positive light and had chronicled the story so well. Obviously, facts did not matter.
The state governments of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Gujarat had said that they will not allow the film to be screened. Was it because they were unable to discipline a group of mobsters? If that is so, they must say that they failed with governance and the trust that the voters had in them.
What is worrying is that such instances of blackmail by fringe groups are silencing the silent majority. This majority was eagerly awaiting the film directed by celebrated director Sanjay Leela Bhansali as he excels in period dramas. They saw this just as a work of fiction and not a documentary narrating history.
Bhansali, who has been honoured with a Padma Shri, has directed acclaimed films like Bajirao Mastani, Devdas and Black. However, in this case, he was forced to insert ads saying Padmaavat was based on an epic by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, a Sufi poet, and “is a revered work of fiction.” The ad also underlined that the film was made as an ode to the famed valour, legacy and courage of Rajputs.
This shows how even creative freedom now is at stake.
Earlier, we had seen well-known filmmaker Karan Johar bowing to the diktats of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena that squarely told him not to engage artistes from Pakistan.
There have been instances of top publishers pulling out books from bookshops following threats from unknown fringe groups. Or even individuals with the ability to incite violence by fringe groups. Retired headmaster Dinanath Batra, 84, got Penguin in 2014 to withdraw and destroy all copies it had of The Hindus: An Alternative History, just by threatening them with legal proceedings. It was a scholarly work on Hinduism by American professor Wendy Doniger. Batra was a rightwing activist.
Fear is spreading. Fear of saying what you want. Fear of eating what you want. Fear of seeing a film you want. Fear of analysis. Fear of interpretation. Fear of creating a work of art. The list is growing.
What happens to the reputation of India as the world’s largest democracy? Of it being one of the best examples of liberalism and freedom? Cannot we see that India’s core values are being attacked and destroyed? Is that now why the ‘Not in my name’ movement resonated in so many hearts when they saw innocents were being slaughtered or attacked in the garb of cow protection or religion? What future will generations after us have if liberal India is allowed to die?
Too many questions. And disturbing answers.
It is not just the new aggression of the Rajputs that is exposing the muscle of fringe groups. There are numerous such groups that have surfaced in the last few years, attacking innocents, issuing threats and creating an atmosphere of fear. The silent, peace-loving, Ievel-headed Indian is at a loss on how to react. Or fight back.
Many of the victims of fringe groups are dalits and minorities. They wonder why the governments in their states have not cracked the whip on their tormentors. The official inaction has only strengthened the fringe groups. The Rajput-led violence is a glaring example.
Rightwing leaders Manohar Bhide and Milind Ekbote in Maharashtra, with their inflammatory speeches, set parts of the state aflame as violent clashes between dalits and Marathas broke out. But, they did not get arrested for what they did. It sends out a clear message that those indulging in hate speeches that divide society and sow seeds of long-term damage will not be punished for their crimes.
Adding fuel to the general environment of irrationality, Satyapal Singh, India’s Minister of State for Human Resource Development, brazenly rubbished the established Theory of Evolution by Charles Darwin. He said it had no scientific basis and called for an international debate on the topic. Modi must have been embarrassed in Davos.
When Gurmeet Ram Rahim, the Dera Sacha Sauda chief, was convicted of rape and sent to jail, BJP leader and MP Sakshi Maharaj said that only one person had accused him of rape but crores of followers considered him as a god. He felt the conviction was a conspiracy to defame the godman and Indian culture.
The toxic mix of present day politics and religion will sow seeds of intolerance, hatred and a combative politics that justifies violence and leads to divisions that will crack society. Most of this violence and hate mongering will snowball into something much larger than we can imagine today. A lot of the damage done will be irreversible. It will be a heavy price to pay.
(Ramesh Menon is an author, award-winning journalist, documentary filmmaker and a corporate trainer.)