The actors behind the scenes

Print edition : July 15, 2005

Members of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee in Lucknow protest against the use of the sacred Sikh chant in the film. -

The controversy over Jo Bole So Nihaal provides a useful rallying point for the Akalis, who dominate the SGPC, a year ahead of the Assembly elections in Punjab.

SOME films are born to be controversial, while others have controversy thrust upon them. Two bomb blasts and a series of police incidents later the director, producer and distributor of Jo Bole So Nihaal, all devout Sikhs, must have felt like they had shot themselves in the foot, fallen into their own trap, and managed to get egg on their faces while barking up the wrong tree.

Jo Bole So Nihaal was supposed to be an unabashed celebration of `Sikhdom' and `Punjabiyat'. The script required a turbaned Sunny Deol to wear a tight uniform and run around shouting at the top of his voice - a part much appreciated by both the Punjabi cinema audiences and the actor himself. The title was mildly controversial, but the producer took the precaution of getting separate Censor Board certificates for Punjab and the rest of the country.

What followed was something that the makers of the film never anticipated. The chairperson of the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC), Bibi Jagir Kaur, accused the film of showing "the Sikh community in a bad light" and demanded that the film be withdrawn from all theatres with immediate effect. Apart from the title, several scenes showing Sunny Deol drinking, dancing and romancing skimpily clad women were deemed outright blasphemous. The call of the SGPC was taken up by a number of student groups across Punjab and some "public-spirited citizens". In spite of a few incidents of stone-throwing at cinemas, the film ran for about a week in Punjab. On May 23, two bomb blasts greeted the film's opening show in Delhi, after which it was withdrawn.

Sunny Deol at a promotional programme of the film.-

It was the bomb blasts that really made headlines. The SGPC condemned the blasts; suspects were quickly apprehended and were alleged to have connections with the Babbar Khalsa International (BKI). The story was immediately labelled a "terrorism" story and the mode of dissemination acquired that perfect mix of breathless voices speaking of the plight of the victims, and stern baritones stressing the need to crack down on fundamentalism and terrorism in all its forms.

Jo Bole So Nihaal became just another story of intolerance, fundamentalism and terrorism, shorn of any nuance or subtlety.

The film is an interesting case study of "intolerance", "politicisation" and "censorship". Whom are these accusations being levelled at? Who is intolerant, censorious or politicised? Is it the state, civil society, or the religious right? Before such adjectives are applied, it is important to identify the functions that these entities are supposed to fulfil.

TECHNICALLY, the SGPC is supposed to be an administrative organisation that overlooks the affairs of the Sikh religion: The supreme religious head is the Jathedar of the Akal Takht at the Golden Temple, Amritsar. However, the SGPC appoints the Jathedar and is also charged with the preservation and global propagation of Sikhism. Thus, the SGPC is de facto a religious organisation, with the responsibility to protect the faith and guide the faithful.

Unlike the leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), SGPC members are elected by the Sikh community. Elections are held every five years and any Sikh, above the age of 21, is eligible to vote. Thus, the label of "self-appointed custodians of the faith" is not applicable in this case. Bibi Jagir Kaur can claim to speak on behalf of the Sikh "Kaum" because, quite simply, they elected her. She can also condemn a film as blasphemy because the SGPC is functionally in charge of protecting the faith.

While the articulation of minority views is important in a democracy, the legitimacy of the agents of this articulation must also be established. In the majority of cases, the state retains the sole privilege of granting legitimacy. Since the SGPC was created by an Act of Parliament - the Sikh Gurdwara Act of 1925 - it enjoys a great degree of legitimacy. In an interview to Frontline, Bibi Jagir Kaur repeatedly spoke of "mandate" and the Sikh Gurudwara Act, in an attempt, mostly successful, to validate her stand on the issue.

Bibi Jagir Kaur, chairperson of the SGPC.-ANI

But does that mean that the SGPC stands vindicated? Not really. The argument can be undermined by questioning the legitimacy of the SGPC mandate. While the SGPC is an elected body, it has a very restrictive definition of the term "Sikh". It defines a Sikh is someone who does not trim or shave his beard or hair, does not smoke and has never consumed alcohol. This effectively reduces the SGPC electorate to a small section of Sikh society. Harish Puri, author of Social and Political Movements in Punjab, says: "The SGPC is not the sole mouthpiece of a homogeneous Sikh society. There are at least 1,500 competing gurus who collectively command a following far greater than the SGPC."

The Jo Bole So Nihaal controversy, and the SGPC's role in it, is a classic example of the use of religion as a political instrument. It is of a piece with the well-known pattern of homogenising heterogeneous groups of believers, emphasising the unchanging, inflexible nature of the scriptures and appropriating social and religious markers of society. By appropriating the chant "jo bole so nihaal" and the nature of the outward appearance of every member of the Sikh community, the SGPC controls all forms of depiction of the Sikh community, thereby wresting the privilege of censorship from the state. By doing so, the SGPC steps out of the clearly demarcated domain of religion into the more ambiguous territory of politics.

SO what are the political compulsions of the SGPC? The most basic compulsion is, as mentioned before, the struggle for legitimacy within the Sikh community itself. The electoral process and competing gurus imply that the SGPC must constantly appeal to its core constituency - the hardline vote. This ensures that the SGPC's rulings on most matters will be conservative and orthodox. Being the first woman chairperson of the SGPC, Bibi Jagir Kaur is personally under great pressure to prove herself fit for the seat that she occupies. The controversy over the death of her daughter makes her position even more precarious.

At present, the major Opposition party in Punjab - Prakash Singh Badal's Akali Dal - dominates the SGPC. With Assembly elections due in late 2006 or early 2007, the Akalis have already started mobilising their cadre. The Jo Bole So Nihaal controversy provides a useful rallying point to attract the conservative, upper caste Jat vote. As the Punjab State secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Balwant Singh, points out, "The Akali base is far removed from the ordinary peasant farmer in Punjab. Both the Congress and the Akalis have failed to address grassroots issues like unemployment and inequality." The film is only a minor cog in the campaign machinery. Even more grandiose plans are afoot. The most controversial proposal of the SGPC is the construction of the `Minar-e-Shaheedan', a memorial to those killed in Operation Blue Star. A memorial of this sort is bound to have an impact of some sort. Whether the strategy will prove politically useful is uncertain.

The third possible motive for the ban could be Ponty Chaddha. Known to be close to Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh, Ponty Chaddha had the misfortune of being the film's sole distributor for Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. Banning the film has given the Akalis a number of reasons to celebrate - a premature end to the film's run at the theatres has meant that Ponty Chaddha, an ardent supporter of the Congress, has lost at least Rs.2 crores by his own admission. Further, his close association with the film (and the Chief Minister) has, in the eyes of the Akalis, exposed the Congress' inability to divine the Sikh "psyche".

What is clear is that the Jo Bole So Nihaal controversy is not so much an example of "intolerance" as of carefully thought out realpolitik. The efficacy of such a strategy however, is open to conjecture. Most of the people interviewed by Frontline felt that the film was far from controversial; the most frequently heard grouse being that it was unredeemably boring. A student of Khalsa College explained that the All-India Sikh Students Federation (AISSF) had issued a call for protest, and most students went simply out of a sense of solidarity with the Federation. A large number of people had not even seen the film. "I would like to see the film," said Harjeet Singh, a taxi driver in Jalandar, "but the screening was stopped on the very first day."

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