Padmavati : Behind the purdah of piety

A vitriolic debate is raging throughout the country, especially in the Hindi-heartland. At the epicenter of this debate is the new Sanjay Leela Bansali film- Padmavati starring Deepika and Ranveer, a fictitious adaptation of the legend of Rani Padmini/Padmavati. In India for long we have sparred over history, how it should be told and more importantly what qualifies as history and what does not. We have seen petulant Hindu-Muslim, Invader-Hero, have-have-nots dichotomy creep into our interpretations of history, but the problem which Padmavati represents is fundamentally different. For one, it is no conflict of history, it is a debate about freedom of expression and of tolerance of opinions which even the majority find unappealing. And sadly, this time again freedom of expression has been sacrificed at the altar of majoritarian insecurities and petty vote-bank politics.

The Gujarat government issued a notification early this morning, banning the screening and distribution of Padmavati in egregious violation of freedom of expression. The states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh have expressed similar inclinations to ban the film, which they believe ‘hurts sentiments’ and ‘can pose law and order problems’. Death threats, protests and arm-twisting by several organisations who claim to speak for Rajputs like Karni Sena have taken the country by storm. It is important therefore to examine the debate first from the prism of free speech. Later in this blogpost I will talk about the historicity of the issue.

Free-speech, Truth and the Right to offend, shock and disturb

Without having watched the film, it is wrong to comment on the contents therein and create brouhaha over it. The organisations mentioned above seem to have done just that. Protesting the contents of the movie and trying to build a case against it is a reasonable and a welcome course of action, but to call for a complete ban or ban of any kind for that matter, I will argue is against basic tenets of free speech.

In their defense these organisations and their political ambassadors argue that the movie presents a skewed picture of the legend of Rani Padmavati. Even if that is true, it does not justify banning the film. For no one has monopoly over truth. Different narratives and counter-narratives must jostle for space and compete against each other in the market-place of ideas for truth to be discovered. This marketplace of ideas, according to J.S Mill forms the basic grundnorm for protection of civil liberties and free speech. This is the reason why people have the freedom to deny the Jewish Holocaust and contest well-documented history. No one, not even the claimants of Rajput history and self-proclaimed protectors of Rani Padmini’s honour can claim monopoly over the narrative. That doesn’t mean the narrative of the movie is true, it merely means that it is necessary for that narrative to exist for discovery of the truth.

Any attempt therefore to stifle that freedom to build a counter-narrative by the makers of Padmavati, does not deserve censorship. Rather it deserves cool attention and if necessary a counter, not by death threats but by reiterating the narrative which these organisations feel is the true narrative.

Free Speech and law and order

Now to the argument advanced by several states that the movie vitiates law and order. The banning of the movie on this ground is arbitrary given that the Supreme Court in S Rangarajan v P Jagjivan Ram has said that merely law and order problems cannot be the ground to ban a film.

Further the test applicable in cases of curtailment of freedom of expression if one of proximate nexus [Rammanohar Lohia v Suppt of Prisons, Bihar]. That is to say that the anticipated danger should not be remote, conjectural or far-fetched. It should have proximate and direct nexus with the expression. The test is one of clear and present danger. Mere tendency to harm public order is not sufficient ground to ban a film. The danger should be like a spark in a powder keg.

In the present situation therefore mere law and order concerns or speculations of vandalism cannot be grounds to ban a film. Free Speech occupies a special status in the fundamental rights of India, therefore only when the speech goes beyond the realm of advocacy and into the realm of incitement, can speech be curtailed. Hence the legal basis for the ban is unfounded and patently arbitrary.

The unfortunate Invader-Hero dichotomy

In the recent past there has been a tendency to name Muslim kings as Invaders and cast them in shades of black, and dehumanise them. The present rhetoric behind the purdah of saving Rani Padmini’s honour hints at a similar understanding. It is unfortunate that the syncretism we cherished in the past is being eroded by stereotyping Muslim rulers as tyrants and Hindu rulers as saviours and heroes. Truth is that it will be wrong to judge conduct of kings by 21st century ideals of fair and just.

We see this tendency to Brahminise history down south in the caustic debate over Tipu Jayanti and in the Hindi-Heartland in the over-glorification of Shivaji by doling out huge sums to build mammoth statues. There is no US v. Them in Indian history, because of the simple reason that those invaders who settled in India became US, there was cultural exchange out of which emanated shared cultures of Sufism and the beautiful language of Urdu(from Persian and Hindustani). Taj Mahal is as much a part of Indian culture as the Jagannath Temple at Puri, Allauddin Khilji as much a part as the legend Rani Padmini.

Ironically the first documented mention of this legend is by Mallik Muhammad Jayasi, a sufi poet in his poem Padmavat. Numerous artists thereafter have written and borrowed from this story and it survives in different narratives in the folklore of Rajasthan and elsewhere. The historicity of Padmavati is challenge-able, but the legend nevertheless remains as a testament of the plurality of our land.

Vote- Bank and Rajput honour

Yet it is sad how much this issue has been politicised and capitalised for narrow gains. The State of Gujarat which is heading for polls spared no time in banning the movie. Even Congress led Punjab government has voiced apprehensions about the screening of the film. All states which have a sizable Rajput population have stoked the issue. All this begs the question what is the point of all this ?

Assuming that it is the Rajput honour that they seek to protect, is the honour of Rajputs so fragile as to break on the weight of a work of cinema? Why the needless impetus to intolerance and endorsement of death threats to actors and directors?






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