Communalism

Script gone awry

Print edition : March 03, 2018

A poster of "Padmavati" in Mumbai, in November 2017. Photo: Rafiq Maqbool/AP

Sachin Pilot with Congress supporters in Jaipur on February 1, celebrating the party's win in the byelections. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje at a byelection campaign meeting near Ajmer in January. Photo: PTI

The political content of the protests around the film Padmaavat cannot be ruled out in a State where caste leaders pick issues that stoke communal sentiments rather than problems that affect people’s lives.

A FILM, a byelection and caste polarisation around the feudal notion of a woman’s honour. The controversy over the screening of Padmaavat, directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, is all about this and more, particularly in the context of Rajasthan. The film Padmaavat was finally slated for all-India release in the third week of January after the Supreme Court stayed the notifications issued by at least three Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-ruled State governments banning it. On February 6, in the course of hearing a petition filed by Bhansali in the Rajasthan High Court regarding quashing of the cases against him and his cast, a special screening amid heavy security was organised for a judge of the Jodhpur bench, the only screening to have taken place in Rajasthan. Despite the apex court’s green signal and the U/A certification and clearance by the Central Board of Film Certification, some State governments, including that of Rajasthan, declined to screen it. In some others, like Uttar Pradesh, also ruled by the BJP, it was released amid heavy security.

The official date of release of the film, which is based on a poem by a 16th century Sufi poet, Malik Mohammad Jayasi, was December 1. The film ran into trouble from the stage of shooting: Bhansali was roughed up on the sets in early 2017 on more than one occasion. The release was postponed as caste-based outfits such as the Karni Sena, founded and led by Lokendra Singh Kalvi, son of the late BJP leader Kalyan Singh Kalvi, took to the streets.

Kalyan Singh Kalvi, who was a Union Minister in the Chandra Shekhar government, was among the prominent Rajput leaders who courted controversy for glorifying “sati” in the aftermath of the infamous incident of 1987 in which 18-year-old Roop Kanwar died on her husband’s funeral pyre in Deorala, Rajasthan. Kalvi was part of the 70,000-strong mobilisation that glorified sati as upholding Rajput honour and pride. No prohibitory orders were issued by the then Hari Dev Joshi government. The Padmaavat protests were in brazen defiance of the law and the Supreme Court order. Lokendra Singh, in a sense, was carrying forward the mantle of “Rajput pride”, once exemplified by his father. A more influential leader is Sukhdev Singh Gogamedi, who hails from Hanumangarh and heads the Shree Rashtriya Rajput Karni Sena. Gogamedi contested from the Bhadra Assembly constituency in 2013 and has some following. The Karni Sena’s political ambitions cannot be completely ruled out.

Meanwhile, as it began to be said that the film actually deified Rajputs, the Karni Sena continued to step up pressure on the film. Gogamedi and Kalvi had to issue a clarification a day after there were news reports that the Mumbai branch of the Sena had withdrawn the ban on the screening as it had found that the film indeed glorified Rajputs. The ban, the two leaders said, would continue.

No screening in most BJP-ruled states

The movie was not screened in at least four BJP-ruled States—Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan—as film distributors were apprehensive of violence, especially as there were protests a day before the film’s release in January 25. Uttar Pradesh was the sole exception, and here there was heavy security presence on the first day of screening. In Gurugram, Haryana, protesters of the Karni Sena torched a bus on a national highway and stoned a school bus to articulate their vehement opposition to the film. The attack drew widespread opprobrium, but that did not deflate the Karni Sena. The film, in its opinion, had denigrated Rajputs and in particular shown Rajput women and the main female protagonist, Padmini, in a poor light. The specific objection was based on the perception that Alauddin Khilji, the demonised villain, shared some scenes with the queen, thereby sullying the collective honour of the community.

In fact, not only does the film as a whole repeatedly underscore Rajput valour, heroism and honour, but it also glorifies jauhar, the practice of mass immolation of the women of royal households to avoid violation by the enemy. The disclaimer that the film did not glorify sati or jauhar was unconvincing. It went to such ridiculous lengths to vilify Khilji that even the sultanate’s worst detractor in that era would have found it unpalatable. To that extent, both the Karni Sena and the director had taken immense “historical” liberties in the specific context of the individual characters, their real or imagined role in history, as well as historicity itself. By showing a uni-dimensional depiction of Khilji, the authenticity of which no medieval history specialist of repute has endorsed, the film panders to the popular imagination of the savage invader from “outside”. For example, Khilji has been shown as utterly unscrupulous and dishonourable. His characterisation replicates the stereotyped imagery of antagonists and more so if they happen to be from certain communities.

Valorises Rajputs; glorifies jauhar

Dialogues valorising Rajputs were aplenty in the film. Sample these: “ Chinta ko talwar ki nok pe rakhe, woh Rajput...! Ret ki naav leke samdar se sart lagaye, woh Rajput...! Aur jiska sar katein phir bhi dhad dusman se ladta rahe, woh Rajput” (A Rajput is one who keeps worry at the tip of his sword, bets with the ocean with a boat of sand, and keeps on fighting after getting beheaded). In one of the scenes, the king of Chittor tells his queen: “ Itihaas apne panne badal sakta hai par Rajput apne usool nahi” (History can be rewritten but a Rajput cannot change his principles).

The dialogues of Rajput women were equally steeped in valiant and deeply patriarchal idioms that showed off caste superiority and their own relative inferiority vis-a-vis the men. Before taking the decision to commit jauhar, Padmavati tells her husband that she cannot even take her life without his permission. In another scene, he menacingly tells her not to cross her limits when she suggests that she would happily sacrifice herself so that the kingdom might endure. With such clear-cut expressions of conformist behaviour depicted by the director in the screenplay, it is pertinent to ask what the Karni Sena and other Rajput outfits were objecting to. The film glorified Rajputs, demonised Khilji and scripted female roles on expected lines. It is also relevant to point out that such outfits have never taken up real issues confronting women in Rajasthan: the low child sex ratio or low literacy rates among women. Rajasthan has the country’s lowest literacy rate for women.

A movie and an encounter

Recent Rajput mobilisation in Rajasthan was not entirely centred round Padmaavat. In June 2017, there was a controversy over the death of Anandpal Singh, a gangster belonging to the Rajput community, in an encounter with the police. It became a catalyst for caste organisations such as the Karni Sena, the Shree Rajput Sabha and the Pratap Foundation to take up the cause of the community. Their supporters took to the streets in large numbers to protest against what they called a “fake encounter” and demanded an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). For 12 days, the protesters refused to allow cremation of the body. After clashes with the police, a first information report was registered and the investigation was handed over to the CBI. The episode acquired a distinct caste colour. Anandpal Singh’s deification by Rajput organisations, despite his dubious background, was an assertion of caste identity vis-a-vis other communities, especially Jats, who are numerically stronger in the Shekhawati region.

Caste mobilisation

In 2012, too, the death of one Dara Singh in an encounter led to caste-based mobilisation by Rajputs. A former Minister of the BJP was arrested in connection with the murder. The community’s waning influence, in contrast to aggressive posturings by Gujjars and Jats in recent years, coupled with the general economic crisis and sectional political ambitions, gave rise to caste outfits such as the Karni Sena and its many offshoots.

Amra Ram, vice president of the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), said that the general agrarian crisis in the State had also affected the Rajput community. “The economic situation has been bad for them as well, but outfits like the Karni Sena never pick these issues,” he said. In addition, the participation of Rajput women in agricultural activities is negligible compared with women from other communities. The consequent economic marginalisation is exploited by caste leaders.

In September 2016, more than a year before the film’s slated release in December 2017 and before the Gujarat elections, one Giriraj Singh Lotwara, president of the Shree Rajput Sabha, wrote to Bhansali advising him to “strictly adhere to the authentic historical facts” in his upcoming film. Rani Padmavati, he said, was “a famous historical icon of Rajputs’ age-old culture, valour and tradition. Aan, Baan aur Shaan”. The film, he wrote, should be based purely on authentic historical facts. He warned that “there should be no deviation or distortion of history in the projection of the iconic character of Rani Padmavati and the related chronological events in the projection of the film”. It turns out that Bhansali more than obliged him. Three disclaimers precede the beginning of the movie.

After the Central Board of Film Certification went through the cuts and approved the release of the film for January 25, Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje issued a statement to the media that the film would not be released in the State as “Rani Padmini’s martyrdom and sacrifice were an honour for everyone” and that Padmini was “more than history”. The Rajput vote base, comprising around 9 to 10 per cent of the State’s votes, has been for long a BJP bastion. Therefore, with three byelections round the corner and Assembly elections at the end of the year, the ruling party clearly did not want to risk anything by annoying its traditional vote base.

Unfortunately for the BJP, it lost heavily in the two Lok Sabha seats of Ajmer and Alwar and one Assembly seat of Mandalgarh in the byelections held on January 29, despite pandering to caste sentiments. The Karni Sena had declared open support to the Congress. In Alwar, which was the epicentre of more than one incident of cattle vigilantism, the Congress nominee defeated Minister Jawant Yadav by 1,96,496 votes, almost the same margin with which Yadav was elected in the 2014 Lok Sabha election. In Ajmer, Raghu Sharma of the Congress defeated the BJP candidate by 84,414 votes. The margin in the Mandalgarh Assembly segment was around 12,000 votes; the Congress said it would have been more but for a rebel candidate eating into its votes. In all the eight Assembly segments in both the parliamentary constituencies, the Congress candidates secured leads. Jaswant Yadav, who was Minister for Labour in the Vasundhara Raje government, lost in Behror, his own Assembly segment, by 23,000 votes. It is worth noting that Rajasthan was the first among various BJP-ruled States to initiate major labour reforms and amendments making it easy for any industry to fire up to 300 workers without taking the government’s permission.

Major setback for the BJP

The defeats came as a major setback for the State government. The Chief Minister had herself campaigned for the candidates. A Jan Samwad yatra was launched in November to reach out to voters. It clearly did not have the required effect, in contrast to the Sankalp Yatra launched by Vasundhara Raje in April 2013: in the Assembly elections held later that year, the BJP secured more than two-thirds majority with 163 seats. (The party also won all 23 parliamentary seats from the State in 2014.) In that yatra, she promised many things, including the generation of 15 lakh jobs and a war on corruption. With less than a year to go before the next elections, people are asking what happened to those promises. Of seven lakh government employees, teachers comprise around five lakhs. The move to privatise senior secondary and higher secondary government schools has not gone down well with teachers as they fear large-scale changes in their terms of employment.

Gains for the Congress

For the first time in many years, the BJP could not secure a lead in any one of the 17 Assembly segments in the January 29 byelections, pointing to a downward spiral in the party’s popularity. The Congress, which hardly has played the role of an effective opposition in the last four years, became by default the main gainer in the bipolar elections. Far from intervening constructively in the controversy over Padmaavat, it sought to gain from the agitation as the Karni Sena declared its support to Congress candidates in the byelections.

Sachin Pilot, Pradesh Congress Committee president, told Frontline: “Over the last four years, the Congress has been winning in all the local body elections. It is not only about anti-incumbency; the Congress has emerged as a robust alternative. We have been taking up farmers’ issues through foot marches. In these elections, the Congress received support from all sections of society. The huge margins are evidence of that. Rajasthan leads in atrocities against tribal people; it is number two in atrocities against Dalits, and in the third position in atrocities against women.”

Yet, the only mass movement of farmers that ruffled the State government was not led by the Congress. For instance, a 13-day farmers’ agitation in September 2017, spread over 16 districts, was spearheaded by the AIKS, the farmers’ wing of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Amra Ram, a four-time MLA of the party, said: “When we were on the streets for 13 days, the Congress did not issue a single line in support of the agitation. They did a two-day dharna within the Assembly after the government made an agreement with us, which it hasn’t fulfilled. The government announced a market intervention price for onions but did not procure them from the farmers. The Leader of the Opposition, Rameshwar Dudi, now says that the Congress will waive farmer debts once it comes to power. The debt situation has been there for long. The Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations could have been implemented when the Congress was in power at the Centre and in the State.”

The AIKS also took to organising peasants against cattle vigilantism, especially after the murder of Pehlu Khan on April 1 last year. “The Congress has become a party that only issues statements. The Padmaavat issue was raised with the Gujarat elections in mind. Now the focus of the protesters is on the Rajasthan elections. The Congress with its silence over the issue may still gain from this situation. When protests broke out after Anandpal Singh’s death in an encounter, more than one lakh people were allowed to assemble. Section 144 [of the Code of Criminal Procedure] was not imposed. It was a free-for-all,” said Amra Ram.

As the Assembly election approaches, caste consolidation across groups is expected to harden. And new formations are already on the anvil. A huge farmers’ rally was held in Bikaner, led by Hanuman Beniwal, the independent MLA from Khimsar, and Kirori Lal Meena, MLA from Lalsot. The furore over Padmaavat may fizzle out in the next few months. Yet in the scenario of a tightly contested election, no party wants to lose out on the support of any caste formation, even if that support is at the cost of sustaining a non-issue.

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