Pratap Bhanu Mehta


The controversy over the film Padmavati once again reminded us that the fragility of our identities, the layers of resentment that constitute our sense of self, the emboldening of the most lumpen elements in our society, intellectual confusions over the law, and the sheer lack of constitutional courage in most of our politicians make India increasingly unfit for liberty.


Let us begin with a couple of traps we need to avoid. Arguments over history should be more or less irrelevant to the question of law and freedom. Some historians have muddied the debate by making the following claim: There is no historical record of Padmini; she is a figment of Jayasi’s imagination. At best she is part of cultural memory, not historical truth. Therefore, artistic licence is permissible. But this argument is a trap for three reasons. In an era when state governments are promoting a lot of weird history, it is important to defend protocols that insist on some fidelity to facts. But even as we do this, we have to admit that the modes in which a historical consciousness are expressed in India, and the nature of historical evidence itself, are a lot more complicated than many historians admit. Sometimes cultural memory is the mode in which “facts” are preserved. But we protect free speech so that those claims and counterclaims can be debated.


Second, this argument falls into the trap of pitting “history” versus “cultural memory”. If the choice is put that way, there is nothing irrational about saying, “well so much the worse for history, I am fine with cultural memory”. It simply shifts the question to an even more intractable question of why history should matter more than cultural memory. It is a very unhistorical move to think that the answer to this question is self-evident. So whether this is history or cultural memory is neither here nor there as far the issue of adjudicating rights and freedom goes. Whether you revere Padmini or whether you are sceptical of the moral and historical claims of her story is irrelevant to your freedoms.


Third, some historians have often fallen into the same trap as their communal counterparts of linking the contemporary project of citizenship to the past. Both sides seem to agree that what rights people have, who belongs to India, must turn on some narrative or facts about medieval India: One side wants to show this is a narrative of benign assimilation. The other side wants to show this a narrative of community conflict and atrocity of which Padmini becomes a totem. In a way, all sides in the argument want to create a cultural memory serviceable for their political projects. But both sides peg the fate of the modern Indian project, or the freedoms we defend, on “getting history right”. But this is a fool’s errand. Any nation that ties its liberties or its future to the uncertain, contestable, interpretable debates over medieval history is fated never to grow up. We distort both history and the meaning of citizenship by tying them together so closely.


This is a plain truth we have to understand. In a free society with millions of people, there will be a lot of trash production we do not like. Some will even intend to offend or shock. How much impact they have is not a function of their power; it is a function of our responses. Most politicians betray a deep distrust of their fellow citizens’ abilities. This is funnily displayed in the self-contradictory argument used against Sanjay Leela Bhansali: That he made the film, and is keeping the plot secret for box-office gains. Of course it is a truism that hundred and sixty crores is being invested for box-office gains. But what is the anxiety about the box office that politicians have? If the film is popular what will it prove? That Indians don’t share the same cultural memory as our politicians? Or that we are quite capable of both revering a cultural memory and seeing new imaginings, even awful ones? In fact, the anxiety about the box office betrays the real truth: Politicians are not representing our sentiments. It is rather that in the name of protecting our sentiments, they wish to control us. The so-called act of democratic deference to people’s sentiments is a wish to control the narrative about their identities. The usurper of people’s liberties will always speak in the name of their sentiments.


But even more deplorable is the spectacle of chief ministers, cutting across party lines, presenting an astounding spectacle of sheer cowardice, complicity with hoggishness, and a total abdication of their constitutional duties. In a country where mere Facebook likes get you arrested, open incitement to violence elicits no official or legal response. It also reminded us that the Congress is no knight in shining armour in protecting freedom. In fact, it is the politics Congress played around figures like Basavanna in Karnataka, which led to the banning of award-winning novels, as much as the Rushdie affair, that has also set the paradigm for the kinds of protests the Karni Sena is engaged in: Where totems of community identity become figures you cannot write about. Bollywood has commercial interests and it is too embedded in networks of power and patronage to be a genuinely independent voice. But the cowardice and silence of so many of its leading lights is still shocking.


The fragility of our community identities, the layers of resentment that constitute them are spawning a politics of intolerance. Threatening to vandalise property, announcing bounties on actresses is what is now passing off as courage, not standing up for constitutional values. You have to wonder what has happened to the nature of our identity formation where maharajas and the Rajput’s sense of pantomime honour get all riled up, when people point out they were on the losing side of history, but none of them has the courage to condemn the desecration of constitutional freedoms. In this newspaper Tarun Vijay wrote: “His (Bhansali’s) depictions on celluloid shouldn’t make India look as regressive as Saudi Arabia, where women got the right to drive in an era when women from India are sending satellites to Mars”. This is an Orwellian inversion. I have no idea what Bhansali has made. But is Bhansali making India look like Saudi Arabia or those who threaten their fellow citizens, and the chief ministers who put up with them? Yes, Padmavati may be sideshow in the context of India’s challenges. But it is an ominous one: For it shows India under a weight of suffocating cowardice.


The writer is vice-chancellor, Ashoka University.


November 23, 2017

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