It is tragic that Hindu fundamentalists are behaving the same way as their Muslim counterparts.
The madness around the film Padmaavat makes one sad, and afraid as well. First, the set of the film was burnt, then the posters. Then, the Rajput Karni Sena threatened to cut off the nose of the lead-actress Deepika Padukone, and put a bounty of Rs. five crore on director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s head. It is similar to the fire that starts if someone criticises the Quran, critiques Islam, draws a picture of the Prophet Mohammed, or portrays him in a film.
The film is based on Queen Padmini of Rajasthan’s Chittor. Tales and imaginative recountings of the queen’s life are common folklore. Alauddin Khilji, the sultan of Delhi went to invade Chittor, where he saw Padmini, became obsessed with her and wanted to marry her. Rather than surrendering to Khilji and his conquering troops, Padmini and the other widowed women of Chittor immolated themselves.
Bhansali has based his film on Padmavat, an epic poem written by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi, and that is why the film was renamed as Padmaavat from Padmavati, its original name. This was done thanks to a suggestion from the Central Board of Film Certification, which also recommended many cuts, with which the director meekly complied.
Historians have written about Khilji’s occupation of Chittor and the killing of Hindu men by him, but they have not written about Padmini’s jauhar. It should not be misconstrued as an attempt to demean those glorifying her jauhar as vainglorious. Bhansali has clarified that there is no dream sequence involving Khilji and Padmini, but the Karni Sena is not convinced.
It is tragic that Hindu fundamentalists are behaving the same way as their Muslim counterparts. This kind of intolerance is not new to me as I have been witnessing it for almost three decades. I am astonished, though there is nothing to be astonished about.
In my case, politicians of different hues invariably kowtowed to the undemocratic, unethical and irrational demands of obscurantists, which not only impinge on the freedom of expression but are also anti-women to say the least, be it in Bangladesh, West Bengal, or some other states of India. Now when the tandav around Padmaavat is at its peak, politicians have once again given in to Hindu fundamentalists.
Since the Karni Sena demanded a ban on Padmaavat, chief ministers of many states announced a ban even before the film was cleared by the CBFC. It is baffling that a chief minister announces that the film will not be screened in his state even before watching it. And it’s surprising that many chief ministers have made such announcements.
I received the same treatment, when the West Bengal chief minister refused to telecast a mega-serial based on a script written by me. Posters for the series ‘Duhsahabas’, that had been pasted in the streets of Kolkata, were removed on the orders of Mamata Banerjee. Not just this, using her influence with the police, she even intimidated the producer and the crew of ‘Channel 8’.
It was again a case of whipping someone without knowing their crime, as the serial was banned even though Mamata knew absolutely nothing about the story of the TV series. Obviously, it was meant to appease a handful of Muslim fanatics. But lo and behold, the same Mamata has become so magnanimous about the freedom of expression that she has declared even if no other state screens Padmaavat, Bengal will.
When ministers from Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Gujarat are siding with right-wing nationalists, Banerjee has sided with an artist’s freedom of expression. This is the reality of India. Some appease Muslim fundamentalists, others Hindu. The aim is to get votes, votes, and more votes. Very few politicians actually think of the country and its people.
Muslim invaders came from outside India, destroyed Hindu homes and temples, plundered and looted villages, killed Hindu men, and put women in their harems. They became Sultans and emperors. Muslim invaders ruled India for centuries, and took jizya tax from Hindus who owned land. Hindus had to pay for being non-Muslims. This is history; those sultans or emperors don’t exist anymore.
Like Muslim obscurantists want to rule Muslim-majority nations, India too is a Hindu-majority nation that Hindu fundamentalists want to rule. Their fear is that ‘fast populating’ Muslims will take India away from them, the only place where they form a majority. This is why fanatics do not want to see the slightest vulnerability of their queen Padmini towards Alauddin Khilji.
They have glorified her act of burning herself, rather than giving in to the passions of a Muslim ruler. This sacrifice has been upheld by caste-proud Rajputs. If sati was still legal, these people would glorify the women who burned themselves even today.
Ministers, PMs and MLAs take an oath towards to uphold the Constitution of the country, but they have no qualms flouting a provision: the fundamental right of freedom of expression guaranteed by it. The government is required to provide food, shelter, healthcare, etc. to the people, and when it fails, it resorts to divisive and polarising politics between Hindus and Muslims. Political leaders let fanatics from both sides blindly attack each other. And then the government and myopic politicians reap the fruits of this division in elections.
India has witnessed a lot of riots between Hindus and Muslims, from the time of Partition when ten lakh Hindus and Muslims hacked each other. Politicians have taken advantage of divisive politics earlier as well. Partition itself was a culmination of those sordid politics. Unfortunately, today’s politicians refuse to learn any lessons from that bloodshed.
People who should have learnt the principle of ahimsa, are now attacking the very essence of democracy—the freedom of expression. And India’s well-wishers are watching this in a daze. Today, talking about Padmaavat‘s release is asking for trouble. Someone was killed and hanged from an old fort in Rajasthan. Deepika Padukone and Sanjay Leela Bhansali have had to take police security.
The Supreme Court ruled that the film would be screened all over India, and no state should ban it under the garb of security concerns. On the other hand, the Karni Sena is burning down cinema halls. Rajasthan and Gujarat are both opposed to releasing the film.
Very few artists, writers, intellectuals, politicians have opposed Indian fundamentalists – both Hindu and Muslim. They are either right wing or left wing. The ones who support Muslim fundamentalists stand next to those attacked by Hindu fundamentalists, but never say a word for the ones attacked by Muslim fundamentalists. Not just politicians, but artists and intellectuals, are also dishonest, two-faced, and fair-weather friends. They are only loyal to the political party that helps them.
Tollywood in Kolkata has demanded that Padmaavat be released. This is a welcome demand. But where were these intellectuals and artists when my mega-serial ‘Duhsahabas’ was banned by Mamata Banerjee? Someone who speaks out against a wrong, should speak out against all wrongs. But if your protest is selective, and for gaining political mileage, it is dangerous. Perhaps for these short-sighted politicians, only protests that have remunerations matter.
I have suffered for protesting against Muslim obscurantism in a Muslim-majority country, and I am misunderstood for speaking against Hindu fanatics in the Hindu-majority country that is India, which I love from the core of my heart as I consider it a liberal country. I excoriate fanaticism, irrespective of its religion and the country I reside in.
I am not asking anyone to learn about the freedom of expression from me. Anyone can learn freedom of expression from democracy. One can understand freedom of expression, if one understands democracy, the same democracy that one is so proud of.
Translated from Bengali by ThePrint journalist Neera Majumdar.