The public discourse over Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmavati has taken a worrying turn. Feigning ‘hurt sentiments’, thuggish right-wing groups are indulging in mindless violence, vandalism, blocking tourists from Chittorgarh Fort, announcing bandhs, threatening on-camera to cause grievous bodily harm to the film’s actor and director.
Mainstream political parties, meanwhile, are either pandering to the violent fringe or staying steadfastly silent. One would have imagined the spectre of right-wing goons running uncontrolled and intimidating everyone over the release of a Bollywood movie is a godsend for the Congress in the middle of an election season.
However, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who leaves no opportunity these days to prick Narendra Modi with his shiny new acerbic tongue, is staying curiously quiet. The prime ministerial aspirant’s Twitter feed, instead of calling for the immediate arrest of Karni Sena activists, has no mention of the word ‘Padmavati’. Has the cat got his tongue? Why isn’t he putting the prime minister on the mat over his failure to ensure creative freedom for artists?
During the controversy over Tamil movie Mersal, the Congress vice-president had warned Modi against trying to “muzzle” dissenting voices.
This is all the more reason, then, to ask why he isn’t performing the role of an Opposition leader this time. The deeply disturbing answer takes us to the heart of the controversy over Bhansali’s beleaguered film.
Politicians of all hues are ideology-agnostic. Their only true allegiance is towards power. BJP, Congress and other mainstream political parties in India would have noted that Indian polity has reached an inflection point.
Decades of vacuous minority appeasement in the name of “secularism” has run its course. This poll tactic seems to have become politically inexpedient. Instead of self-correcting to the middle, however, the polity is taking a turn to the right, and the mainstream political parties — regardless of their ideological disposition — are eager to be on the right side of it.
In several states including Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana and Jharkhand, right-wing fringe groups across various states have been stepping up the rhetoric— and in some cases violence—without any censure from party leaders or administrators.
It is not as if the threats are implicit. One Mahipal Singh Makrana of the Rajput Karni Sena, which has courted overnight infamy over its strident stand against the movie’s release, in a self-propagated video threatened to maim Deepike Padukone.
One Thakur Abhishek Som from a little-known Akhil Bharatiya Kshatriya Yuva Mahasabha offered a bounty of Rs 5 crore on the heads of Padukone and Bhansali. These open threats should have been taken seriously, acted upon and these hoodlums should have been immediately arrested and made to face the full might of the law.
Instead, we have Union ministers and prominent leaders pussyfooting, tiptoeing around and even justifying the violence.
Speaking to CNN-News18, Nitin Gadkari blamed the filmmakers for not respecting cultural sensitivities and distorting history. He sermonised that freedom of speech is not absolute and pointed out that people have the right to get offended.
We don’t need the Union minister to tell us that freedom of speech is subject to reasonable restrictions. He needed to open up on why the goons are getting a free pass from state governments, many of which are ruled by the BJP, but he didn’t.
The Congress tried to skulk around the controversy and somehow blame the BJP—not for failing to punish the goons—but allowing the film to go through.
“I have not watched the movie as yet, but definitely the Central Board of Film Certification formulated and formed by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has seen it and passed it without cuts… But any movie that hurts the sentiments of any community… a film is not made to hurt any community,” Congress spokesperson RPN Singh said.
This attitude from politicians has ended up incentivising violence, threat of violence and vandalism from thugs. The media has played no small a part, playing into the hands of these fringe groups by magnifying manifold their voice and threats. The space for a rational debate on creative freedom has been completely squeezed in favour of a macabre spectacle. When criminals threaten to kill someone, their place isn’t TV studios but prison cells.
It is important that the movie is released on time. The right message needs to be sent. There is space in a democracy for creative freedom and dissent, but absolutely no space for violence.