Essay

Hysteria on history

Print edition : February 02, 2018

In February 1991, the Supreme Court directed that a disclaimer be made about the accuracy or authenticity of the episode while telecasting the serial “The Sword of Tipu Sultan”. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Leela Samson. In 2011, as Chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification, she took a principled stand on the film “Aarakshan”: “I don’t think the film is anti-Dalit.” Photo: K. Ramesh Babu

A scene from “Khap”, a movie on “honour killings”. The police actively prevented the screening of the film. Photo: The Hindu Archives

A still from “Ore Oru Gramathile”, a movie criticising the reservation policy. Photo: The Hindu Archives

How ancient hatreds are invented and the politics of identity and community, of religion, ethnicity and gender has begun to occupy the space vacated by political ideology.

History is the most dangerous product evolved from the chemistry of the intellect. Its properties are wellknown. It causes dreams, it intoxicates whole people, gives them false memories, quickens their reflexes, keeps their old wounds open, torments them in their repose, leads them into delusions, either of grandeur or persecution, and makes nations bitter, arrogant, insufferable and vain.

—Paul Valery, History & Politics, 1931.



IT would be suicidal for any democracy to ignore the repeated waves of mass intolerance which swept unchecked over several parts of the country, as they have in recent decades. They profess to set right imagined historical wrongs.

The outbursts have common features. The “wrongs” had long been forgotten until they were revived, all of a sudden, for manifestly political ends. In each case “the other” becomes a target of hate; extreme demands are made in the nature of surrender terms; and the state bows before mob hysteria and the violence it promotes. The waves engulf the fields of literature; the arts, especially films; politics; and academia, leaving few fields of creative endeavour untouched. Let alone the government, even the judiciary has been none too eager to quell such movements, not excluding its very apex, the Supreme Court.

The violence at Bhima Koregaon in Pune district of Maharashtra on New Year’s Day 2018 is but the latest, assuredly not the last, in a series of such ignoble ventures. The calculation in the madness is all too apparent. None analysed its root cause better than the scholar Shiv Visvanathan did in The Hindu (January 6, 2018), which was based on earnest research. Tersely, the Peshwa Balaji Rao II spurned an offer by the Mahars to serve in his army against the East India Company. He relied instead on the Marathas and the Brahmins and lost in the battle at Koregaon Bhima Tal. Thus ended Maratha rule. That was 200 years ago, on January 1, 1818.

It is not difficult to sense the event’s potential for arousing the emotions of nationalism and caste rivalry between the Mahars and the Marathas. Significantly, nationalist fervour is not evoked. We are rid of British rule and are happy. But the caste rivalry persists and memories of the 200-year-old battle can be pressed into service. As Shiv Visvanathan put it: “The battle now is not one of memory, it is a battle for identity and equality.” This is a battle that rages fiercely to this day. One cannot say that of other historical episodes which politicians exploit for petty gains at the cost of national unity.

One had thought that with Pahlaj Nihalani as Chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification, the office had touched its nadir. But we had not reckoned with Prasoon Joshi. He outsourced statutory functions to persons outside and wrecked the entire system, exposing it and himself to ridicule. All this over the film Padmavati, which aroused, ostensibly, the fury of persons who had not seen it over a person who never existed. The ridiculous Prasoon Joshi proposed and got accepted five cuts, including a change in the title of the film into the title of the book written a couple of centuries later by a Sufi. The Sufi’s work was entitled Padmavat, now the title of the film. In between he parleyed for a settlement left and right including some “royals” of Mewar and reportedly even suggested at one stage formation of a committee, outside the bodies set by the law to which he owes his office.

It is doubtful whether Prasoon Joshi read the statute which created his office and, if at all he did so, whether he understood it—the Cinematograph Act, 1952. The Central government framed the Cinematograph (Censorship) Rules, 1983, as well as the Censorship Guidelines. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Khwaja Ahmad Abbas vs Union of India (AIR 1971 SC 491; 1971 2SC 242) renders the entire system of film certification unconstitutional. The court was promised that a quasi-judicial independent tribunal would be set up. What the belated amendment of 1981 and 1984 along with the Rules of 1983 and the guidelines of 1991 do is to set up a hierarchy of daily-wage earners; right from the President of the Appellate Tribunal, generally a retired High Court judge, and the Chairman of the Board downwards. All hold office “during the pleasure of the Central Government”; i.e., the Information and Broadcasting Minister, the Secretary and the political bigwigs who support the government.

Khosla Committee

The Report of the Enquiry Committee on Film Censorship, headed by Justice G.D. Khosla, is a forgotten classic. Among the committee’s members were R.K. Narayan, K.A. Abbas and Romesh Thapar. Men like Sohrab Modi, Satyajit Ray, E. Alkazi, V. Shantaram, Prithviraj Kapoor, Pahari Sanyal, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and leading distributors and film critics gave evidence. Two actors on the committee, Nargis and later Balraj Sahni, did not participate “owing to heavy professional commitments”.

The Supreme Court relied heavily on this report. The actors set a precedent of indifference. Like other Indians, members of the industry—actors, producers and distributors—wake up from their somnolence episodically, mostly when their own rights are affected. Those who protested over the cuts imposed on Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan seemed to have no time for Ajay Sinha’s Khap, a movie on “honour killings”. It could not be screened in the one State that needed its message the most, Haryana. In her article “Reality show” ( Frontline, August 26, 2011), T.K. Rajalakshmi remarked: “No one in the Mumbai film industry, save a few, bothered to back the beleaguered film director.” The police actively prevented the screening of the film.

On August 10, 2011, Amitabh Bachchan, who starred in Aarakshan, blogged: “If creative expression is to be curbed by institutes that wish to dictate their terms... above the conditions of... recognised constitutional formats... then we might as well accept that we live not in the sanctity of the tenets of democracy but a most unfortunate fascist conditioning.” The flamboyance is typical.

He must be congratulated on his belated discovery of a grim reality. A pity that it dawned on him only when his film was being brutalised. Our publicity-hungry civil liberty “activists” were conspicuous by their silence on the issue. The Athenian lawgiver Solon (640-558 B.C.), when asked how a people could preserve their liberties, said: “Those who are uninjured by an arbitrary act must be taught to feel as much indignation at it as those who are injured.” In India, such consciousness is absent; protests are episodic. They subside and things go on as before. There is no national, non-political civil liberties organisation or movement.

Do not trust our politicians to fill the void. As a foreign correspondent once remarked, the Indian politician wakes up to deprivation of liberty only when the prison doors are shut behind him. Khaps provide musclemen during election. In Mumbai, two Ministers and a politician extracted from Prakash Jha his consent to cuts in order to gain some brownie points. One regrets the cuts, but one cannot condemn him. The system is frail, and crores of rupees are involved. But what is it that prevents Bollywood from challenging the archaic Act in the Supreme Court as K.A. Abbas did?

Culture of intolerance

If film censorship is discussed at such length, it is because it exposes vividly the culture of intolerance. Illiteracy and intolerance written into the law. Rule 41(4) reads thus: “(a) In cases where the examining committee, after examination of the film, considered that a scrutiny of the shooting script is necessary or the authenticity of the incidents depicted in a film of historical, mythological, biographical or legendary nature is to be verified, a provisional report to that effect shall be submitted by the regional officer to the chairman within a maximum of three working days after such examination.” There is a fundamental objection to this bizarre provision. Evidently, its authors were ignorant of the very concept of historical fiction. Fiction based on history need not be historically correct. And who is to judge the accuracy of the historical narrative, the government’s hand-picked appointees? Expert opinion is as irrelevant as citation of sources. It is the richness of the imagination that matters, as does the style in the writing and in the depiction in the film.

But, the pass was sold by none other than the apex court of the land, the Supreme Court of India, in the case of the telecast on Doordarshan of the film The Sword of Tipu Sultan. In February 1991, the Supreme Court directed that the following announcement be made along with the telecast: “No claim is made for the accuracy or authenticity of any episode being depicted in the serial. This serial is a fiction and has nothing to do either with the life or rule of Tipu Sultan. The serial is a dramatised presentation of Bhagwan Gidwani’s novel.” Evidently the judges did not know at all that historical fiction retains its character as fiction even if it is based on history. What if it professes to be a depiction of history such as the 1857 Mutiny or Dunkirk? The producer is no more bound to establish its accuracy than a historian is in respect of his book. And it is not for a court of law to act as a supervisor of the thesis in either case.

But now the floodgates were opened—by the highest court of the land, none else. In 2011 came another notable case, the film Aarakshan thanks to the arrogant intolerance of the politician who headed the National Commission for Scheduled Castes, P.L. Punia. Aarakshan had scenes that show how the S.Cs were treated in the past—the businessmen who did not want their children to sit with Dalit children “who stink”. It is sheer illiteracy to suggest that the film extols such conduct. Quite the opposite. A film on Gandhi’s struggle for the eradication of untouchability will perforce have scenes showing the disgraceful treatment meted out to them for centuries.

The then Chairperson of the CBFC, Leela Samson, deserves high praise for her principled stand: “When you show a certain situation, you must show reality as it is.” She added: “I don’t think the film is anti-Dalit.”

Punia’s cat came mewing out of his tattered bag when he said: “The film ridicules the rights given to the underprivileged by the Constitution as well as the Supreme Court.... This is a matter of shame for the nation as a whole.” The intemperate language and the shameless violation of Article 338A brand him unfit for the office. He held a press conference and issued a press note after sending cheekily a summons to Leela Samson. Constitutionally, Punia had no business to intervene in the matter at all. Article 338A, which establishes his office, imposes three precisely worded duties under Clause (5): namely, “(a) to investigate and monitor all matters relating to the safeguards provided for the Scheduled Castes... and to evaluate the working of such safeguards; (b) to inquire into specific complaints with respect of the deprivation of rights and safeguards of the Scheduled Castes; (c) to participate and advise on the planning process of socio-economic development of the Scheduled Castes.” The law was no deterrent, evidently. Punia was courting his constituency.

Movie on reservation

As it happened, in 1989 the Supreme Court itself had ruled in a case involving reservation in the case of the film Ore Oru Gramathile (S. Rangarajan vs P. Jagjiwan Ram & Ors (1989) 2 SCC 574 at 598). The court said: “We find it difficult to appreciate the observations of the High Court. We fail to understand how the expression in the film with criticism of reservation policy or praising the colonial rule will affect the security of the State or sovereignty and integrity of India. There is no utterance in the film threatening to overthrow the government by unlawful or unconstitutional means. There is no talk for secession either. Nor is there any suggestion for impairing the integration of the country. All that the film seems to suggest is that the existing method of reservation on the basis of caste is bad and reservation on the basis of economic backwardness is better. The film also deprecates exploitation of people on caste considerations. This is the range and rigour of the film.

“The High Court, however, was of opinion that public reaction to the film, which seeks to change the system of reservation, is bound to be volatile. The High Court has also stated that people of Tamil Nadu who have suffered for centuries will not allow themselves to be deprived of the benefits extended to them on a particular basis. It seems to us that the reasoning of the High Court runs afoul of the democratic principles to which we have pledged ourselves in the Constitution. In a democracy it is not necessary that everyone should sing the same song. Freedom of expression is the rule and it is generally taken for granted. Everyone has a fundamental right to form his own opinion on any issue of general concern. He can form and inform by legitimate means.”

The court’s censures on the State government are all the more relevant now. “In the affidavit filed on behalf of the State government, it is alleged that some organisations like the Tamil Nadu Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes People’s Protection Committee, Dr. Ambedkar People’s Movement, the Republican Party of India have been agitating that the film should be banned as it hurt the sentiments of people belonging to Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes. It is stated that general secretary of the Republican Party of India has warned that his party would not hesitate to damage the cinema theatres which screen the film. Some demonstration made by people in front of The Hindu office on 16 March 1988 and their arrest and release on bail are also referred to. It is further alleged that there were some group meetings by Republican Party members and Dr. Ambedkar People’s Movement with their demand for banning the film. With these averments it was contended for the State that exhibition of the film create very serious law and order problem in the State.

“We are amused yet troubled by the stand taken by the State government with regard to the film which has received the National Award. We want to put the anguished question, what good is the protection of freedom of expression if the State does not take care to protect it? If the film is unobjectionable and cannot constitutionally be restricted under Article 19(2), freedom of expression cannot be suppressed on account of threat of demonstration and processions or threats of violence. That would tantamount to negation of the rule of law and a surrender to blackmail and intimidation. It is the duty of the State to protect the freedom of expression since it is a liberty guaranteed against the State. The State cannot plead its inability to handle the hostile audience problem. It is its obligatory duty to prevent it and protect the freedom of expression.”

Custodians of morality

The rebuke had no effect on our thick-skinned politicians. It could not, for obvious reasons. In a press interview published on December 9, 1998, the veteran film star Dilip Kumar remarked apropos of the Shiv Sainiks’ attacks on December 4 on the cinema house screening Fire: “How can you appeal to the government when Chief Minister Manohar Joshi is himself encouraging threats of violence... by congratulating the miscreants?” On December 12, Shiv Saniks in their underwear surrounded his house and hurled abuses. The obscenity of such behaviour arouses no censure from the pretentious custodians of morality; some, indeed, have approved of it.

We never had such problems before, on Sohrab Modi’s historical films Pukar (on Emperor Jehangir), Sikandar-e-Azam (on Alexander the Great) or Prithvi Vallabh, based on a novel by K.M. Munshi, or K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam (on Akbar the Great). We must ask ourselves to what do we owe this newly acquired frenzy? It is surely not because of increased interest in the historical truth. In 2014, the highly regarded Penguin Books had to pulp The Hindus: An Alternative History by the distinguished Indologist Wendy Doniger. One hopes her forthcoming book will fare better.

If building a Ram temple at Ayodhya was a matter of “national honour”, how come men like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Lala Lajpat Rai and Madan Mohan Malaviya never realised it. It was raised in the last quarter of the 20th century because the Bharatiya Janata Party sought to retrieve its lost support. As Sushma Swaraj admitted, it was raised for political reasons.

‘Modern hate’

Around that time two of the finest American scholars on India, who had deep empathy for the country, Susanne Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd I. Rudolph, wrote a brilliant analysis of the phenomenon in The New Republic of March 22, 1993. Aptly entitled “Modern Hate”, it exposed “how ancient animosities get invented”. They wrote: “Ancient hatreds are thus made as much as they are inherited. To call them ancient is to pretend they are primordial forces, outside of history and human agency, when often they are merely synthetic antiques. Intellectuals, writers, artists and politicians ‘make’ hatreds. Films and videos, texts and textbooks, certify stories about the past, the collective memories that shape perceptions and attitudes.... If there was no standard version of Hinduism until yesterday, then when and how did the day before yesterday end? How did it happen that the Bharatiya Janata Party was able to hijack Hinduism, replacing its diversity, multivocality and generativity with a monotheistic Ram cult?...

“As political ideology recedes with the collapse of communism, the politics of identity and community, of religion, ethnicity and gender have begun to occupy the space vacated by political ideology. Directly and indirectly, religion, ethnicity and gender increasingly define what politics is about.... Which identities become relevant for politics is not predetermined by some primordial ancientness. They are crafted in benign and malignant ways in print and electronic media, in textbooks and advertising, in India’s T.V. mega series and America’s talk shows, in campaign strategies, in all the places and all the ways that self and other, us and them, are represented in an expanding public culture.

“The struggle in India between Mandal and mandir, between quota government and Hindu nationalism, reminds us that in America too, the politics of interest is being overtaken by cultural politics, the politics of gender, family values, race and sexual orientation.... ‘Ancient hatreds’ function like the ‘evil empire’. That term too was a projection on a scrim, obscuring the motives and practice that lay behind it. The doctrine of ancient hatreds may become the post-Cold War’s most robust mystification, a way of having an enemy and knowing evil that deceives as it satisfies. The hatred is modern, and may be closer than we think.”

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