The release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s extravagantly opulent film Padmaavat almost overlapping India’s 69th Republic Day is possibly an inadvertent irony. The coincidence is not premeditated, because the date was unquestionably chosen with moolah — which could be raked — in mind. It is after all an “extended” weekend and it was presumed people who have not headed off to heady destinations would make a beeline for the halls. Padmaavat’s release this week is also paradoxical because violent opposition to its screening, preceded by shambolic protests accompanying its making and pre-release, underscores how perilously close India is to cease remaining a republic in the true sense of the term. It’s a double whammy that this awful realisation is being delivered in brute style. Even fatalists would not say that “we the people” really deserved this.
Instead of lofty objectives — penned down so painstakingly in the Constitution — that formally came into effect in place of the colonial-era Government of India Act 1935 on this day in 1950, India is unabashedly on the way to becoming a mobocracy. India today images a nation where the government is not just unrepentant over failure to follow the directives of the nation’s highest court, but its leaders additionally make no public effort to ensure the rule of law. Eventually, it will be argued that this is due to the people’s will. But which people — the majority or a miniscule, violent, intolerant, unreasonable and sectarian minority? Sadly, the government has allowed customs, opinions and practices to be decided by this minority in the name of democracy.
By classical definitions, democracy and republic aren’t exactly synonyms — the former is characterised solely by either majority opinion or in “abused” circumstances by a vocal minority. On the other side, a republic is where rights and laws, though shaped considerably by the dominant section or group with majority support, has its functioning regulated and governed by various wings or institutions, which includes the judiciary, various divisions of the executive, including those with quasi-judicial status, the legislature and of course the media, which plays a crucial role although it is not part of the State apparatus.
In this delicate balance between various wings comprising the nation, the Constitution plays a vital role as the nation’s conscience and acts like a beacon of light. It is pertinent to remind readers at the critical juncture of our nation’s history that in its landmark Kesavananda Bharati case verdict, the Supreme Court, while giving back to Parliament the right to amend the Constitution, ruled that its “basic structure” could never be altered. In the 2,500 years since the concept or term of res publica was first coined in Rome, the notion of republic has undergone several alterations but the divestment of its basic character has not been so severe as in India over the past 44 months.
What has happened with Padmaavat is not the first instance when a legally cleared artistic creation or commercial product has been vandalised and people remotely associated with its conceptualisation, design, production, carriage, marketing or circulation have been brutalised. Padmaavat is not just a film, an indulgence of an overenthusiastic picture-book maker. Regardless of whether people wish to watch the film or not, it must be allowed its run for being officially cleared. This time the target is a multi-crore Bollywood epic film, but lesser mortals have been targeted earlier in similar fashion by mobs who have been allowed a free run by a State that fanned these bush fires, announcing arrival of mobocracy.
Previously, the victims of hate were either members of a religious minority suspected of carrying, storing or consuming legally-sold meat, or people were under fire for exercising the essential and democratic right to protest against government policy. Now the opposition to Padmaavat is to prevent denigration of “their” culture and to “protect” history. But who is to sit on judgment, and who is to allow this right of self-conferment? Will it be a group guided by irrational considerations or a body like the Central Board of Film Certification, established under the Cinematograph Act 1952, duly enacted by Parliament? Will the government respect the decisions of bodies like CBFC and its own product inspectors and ensure that these “certificates” are respected and people get an opportunity to watch the film or buy a product if they choose? Or will leaders like Vijay Rupani and Manohar Lal Khattar become soldiers of constitutional abuse while going “missing”? Or will they, like Narendra Modi, maintain a deathly silence when a simple declaration — “I am going to watch Padmaavat with my ministers” — will take the steam out of this obnoxious protest?
There are two connecting threads in these episodes of mindless violence. First, there is small group of people who have been permitted to dominate the public discourse and confer on themselves the right to pass indictments on legally established institutions and decide what is permissible for public consumption and what is not. Second, the government chooses to become voiceless when they violate executive orders, artistic judgments and judicial verdicts. In addition, the government and political leaders have given wind to these groups by making questionable assertions. India has seen the emergence of countless state-backed ayatollahs.
This government’s representatives have time after time blurred the lines between history and mythology, reason and unreason and between trust and falsity. Leaders of the government and the BJP have mounted full-throated campaigns arguing that the right to expression cannot be abused without taking into consideration that there are ample laws to prevent hate and enmity against any community or the nation. Since this government assumed office, India has steadily promoted an unscientific temper, where everything that is believed to have happened in the mythical Hindu past is the ultimate truth. The Padmaavat story is yet to run its course, and how the government and its leaders respond to the challenge will determine if it is assessed by future historians as partners in hate and violence, and in subversion of the Constitution and the nation’s federal polity.