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A controversy has been raging over the release of the Hindi film Padmavati. As community leaders oppose its release on the grounds of hurt sentiment, others have offered huge bounties for beheading the filmmaker and the female lead. Various political leaders across states have spoken in favour of protesters. What is the political motivation behind this support? In this Business Standard Special, Mrinal Pande looks at why Padmavati has been used as a political weapon in the year 2017.
In today's India, one does not need to ask for history lessons. They come all the time from unexpected places, uninvited and longwinded. All castes, clans Gotras and Khaps seem to have discovered their own fantastical historical heroes and villains whom they would proudly whip out and flash to strangers like friends’ selfies, as filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali discovered – perhaps too late -- in Rajasthan. For the past eight centuries, the blade of Rajput history has been sharpened on the flint of myth and is now a deadly knife that politicians will use shamelessly against films and books based on myths and fairy tales, to carve up vote banks and people. Communities, both majority and minority, have at least one thing in common -- leaders who spare no excess in pursuing violent agendas. In Hindi, they have an evocative phrase gadey murdey ukhadana, or digging up ancient corpses, for the melodrama over an operatic film about a mythical figure, the Rajput queen, Padmavati. The astounding ease with which public minds are being inflamed and manipulated by playing upon imagined insults and fears, is facilitated by the very nature of our masses still reeling under economic chaos and endemic joblessness among the young. We Indians are prone to taking life as it comes: literally and fatalistically. All the great events in history (wars, revolts, dethronings of tyrants), and in nature (wars, floods, earthquakes) remain to us our unavoidable Karma to which we must adjust. And since we mostly receive, not seek and research history, we become easy game for those who will strike the flints of myths of age old grievances against invaders from the West and light bonfires under the fragile fabric of a state poised for elections. And once the flames roar, no one buys the argument that barbarism in the name of historical justice is still barbarism. Not, it seems, even the Chief Ministers in many states who have taken an oath upon assuming office to maintain law and order and uphold secular values.
The Chief Ministers of important states: Rajasthan, Haryana, Punjab and last but not the least, Uttar Pradesh (two of them scions of erstwhile royal families, one a Thakur and one who has been a Pracharak for the Sangh for many years) are all educated and have been launching many programmes for “the upliftment of women”. All claim to have progressive views about saving and educating each girl child. But truth more complex than appearances is, that underneath their dissimilar political ideological garments they are all the same.If you wish to create a perfect stereotype based on a successful top Indian politician today, you could do no better than Yogi Adityanath, the Chief Minister of India’s electorally crucial state, Uttar Pradesh. According to records publically available, he is a Yogi from the Natha sect set up by Guru Gorakhnath who has taken a vow of asceticism but also has a college degree. He holds the top Gaddi in his sect headquartered in Gorakhpur where he goes routinely to perform various rituals. In Gorakhpur he has raised his own Yuva Vahini, a band of armed young men willing to lay down their lives supposedly for mother cow and the nation in that order. Yogi is smart, able to tear into his political rivals in an astoundingly bald language and considers the state’s use of violence to quell whom the state judges to be law breakers, quite justified. What is compounding the problem of a politicisation of a film based on a historically unsubstantiated myth, is that each of these very powerful leaders creates many imitative clones as they make public speeches about hurt sentiments of a community and the need to ban the film even by violent means if need be. The clones then fan out all over the states mimicking the leaders’ body language and expressions. It is no coincidence that neither the BJP nor the Congress leadership has stepped in to shush their satraps. In parties where there are few scaffoldings and most power has come to rest with the top leadership, these incidents help the middle rung leaders hang on to power and run for a second or third term later. In the ultimate analysis how would history judge them; as power hungry politicians or genuinely tortured souls from royal houses and martial castes or simply good soldiers of their parties? Even as they meet world leaders and discuss issues like global environment, famines, malnutrition or net neutrality, they set their crusty soldiers on duty through winks, nods and euphemisms to capture the largest chunk of majority vote bank in their states. It can be said that by fulminating against and asking for a ban on Padmavati, these soldiers are only finishing off the work started by their top leaders and carrying out their duty obediently.
Mrinal Pande is a journalist and author. She is the former editor of Hindi daily, Hindustan. She tweets as @mrinalpande1