Print edition : June 17, 2005

Bombs explode in two cinema halls in Delhi during the screening of a film that had attracted protests from various Sikh groups.

SIDDHARTH NARRAIN in New Delhi

At the spot where the explosion took place in the Satyam cinema in New Delhi.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

THE opening scene of the film Joh Bole So Nihaal begins with a bomb explosion when people are celebrating on a crowded street. Sunny Deol plays the role of a Punjab policeman who unwittingly allows the person responsible for the explosion to get away and spends the rest of the film tracking him down in the United States. Little would one have guessed that the film would have to be pulled out of most cinema halls in the country because of two bomb blasts in cinema halls in West Delhi that left one person dead and over 50 people injured.

The bomb blast in Liberty cinema in Karol Bagh and Satyam cinema in Patel Nagar occurred within 15 minutes of each other at around 8 p.m. The bombs were placed under a seat in the rear stall of Liberty cinema, which was the more badly affected of the two cinema halls. The impact of the explosion resulted in the false ceiling collapsing. Shards of glass from the shattered windows lay outside, and the police cordoned off the area, even as anxious relatives of those injured waited for information about which hospital the latter were taken to. Within hours, the scene of the blasts was surrounded by broadcast television cameras, police personnel and curious onlookers. At Satyam cinema, the explosion took place in the women's toilet on the ground floor just after the interval. The false ceiling of a subway outlet that shares a wall with the toilet collapsed.

No one has claimed responsibility for the blasts. Investigation by the Delhi Police's Special Cell, which specialises in anti-terrorist operations, has not led to any breakthrough. The Special Cell suspects that the damage was caused by plastic explosives, which cannot be detected by metal detectors which probably explains how they were smuggled in. Deputy Commissioner of Police, Special Cell, Ashok Chand, said: "The exact nature of the explosives used will be clear only after the forensic experts and the National Security Guards submit their reports." The Delhi government announced an ex gratia payment of Rs.1 lakh to the family of the person who died and Rs.50,000 each to those who would be disabled. It also announced that Rs.20,000 would be given to those seriously injured and Rs.1,000 to those with minor injuries.

The blasts in the two cinema halls were followed by a third explosion, near a railway crossing in northeastern Delhi, when a person picked up a wallet from the road. He was injured. Although this blast appears to be unrelated to the two in the cinema halls, the Special Cell has not ruled out any possibilities.

There are two theories that are doing the rounds among the police. The first is that the explosions were caused by a Punjab militant group. The second is that the blasts were an attempt by the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) to create mischief in an already tense situation. The police are yet to confirm any of their suspicions. They are looking for a Sikh couple who are said to have left Liberty cinema just before the interval.

Though the Special Cell has not confirmed the link with the blasts and the film, the fact is that both the cinema halls were playing a controversial movie that had angered Sikh groups and had already led to protests in Amritsar, Jalandhar and Lucknow. Sikh groups such as Shiromani Akali Dal (Mann) and the United Kingdom-based Dal Khalsa objected to what they called the "negative portrayal" of Sikhs. The Political Affairs Committee of the Shiromani Akali Dal condemned the bomb blasts but also asked for a ban on the film.

The scene of anxiety outside the Liberty cinema hall after the explosion.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

Shiromani Gurudwara Prabhandak Committee (SGPC) chief Bibi Jagir Kaur condemned the explosions but said that the government was responsible for not preventing the screening of the film. The SGPC had objected to the posters of the film, which, according to it, showed "skimpily clad girls" with Sunny Deol. It also objected to the title of the movie which, it said misused words that formed the concluding part of the most sacred daily prayers of Sikhs. Bole So Nihaal, Sat Sri Akal is often said at religious congregations in gurdwaras.

The SGPC claimed that the movie distorted the Gurbani, the holy Sikh scripture. A petition filed by Hardeep Singh, a member of the SGPC, in a Division Bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court was dismissed by Chief Justice D.K. Jain and Justice Hemant Gupta. The petition claimed that the movie was "damaging to the Sikh psyche" and that the title of the movie should be changed keeping in mind the "historical aspects and traditions of the Sikh religion".

The film had been cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). According to the main distributor, liquor baron Ponty Chadha, it had been informally cleared by a panel constituted by the Akhal Takht, the supreme temporal body of the Sikh faith. But the film was withdrawn from cinema halls in Punjab and Haryana after the SGPC demanded that the objectionable portions be removed. The SGPC has also formulated a "code" to be followed by film producers who depict Sikhs or Sikh religious matters. The "code", which applies to both films and television serials, prohibits the portrayal of the "parkash" of Guru Granth Sahib. It also says that no non-Amritdhari Sikh should play the role of an Amritdhari Sikh and that no Sikh can be shown to be committing a crime or drinking liquor.

Within days of the explosions, the film was withdrawn from cinema halls across the country. In West Bengal, Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee instructed the police to ensure that the movie was not screened in the State. The movie was withdrawn from 65 of the 80 cinema halls in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. The only city where the movie continued to be screened in most cinema halls was Mumbai, where the movie was screened amid tight security. The Mumbai Police decided to provide protection to Sunny Deol.

Producer N.R. Pachasia and director Rahul Rawail have refused to change the title or withdraw the movie from cinema halls. While it is still not clear who is behind the explosions, one thing is for sure- if the aim of the explosions was to stop the screening of the film, they have definitely succeeded in achieving this.

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