The freedom of expression is one of the most cherished rights in a modern democratic state. India has been one of the first nation in the world to recognize the importance of this valued principle by incorporating it into her Constitution. The Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India grants the freedom of speech and expression to all the citizens. It is though subject to the conditions of public health, morality, security, the integrity of India, defamation, incitement of an offense, etc.; but by and large, the right allows for the creative expression and dissemination of ideas. The judiciary has also played its cardinal role in upholding this right from the malicious attacks of skewed interests. Recently, this principle has been at the heart of the controversy surrounding the Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmavati. The film which is supposedly based on the story of Queen Padmavati who bravely gave up her life by committing ‘Johar’ to save her honor, has been facing a lot of difficulty in securing its release. Various associations notably Karni Sena of Rajasthan has been demanding the ban on its release as it fears that the film tarnishes the prestige of their community. The allegations of blatant distortions of the truth in the name of ‘cinematic freedom’ have been leveled by the associations. Various political parties have taken up the said issue to milk votes in the Gujarat elections.
The community associations emboldened by the support of the political parties (both ruling dispensation and opposition parties) have gone to the extent of issuing death threats to the actors of the film. The film theatres showcasing the trailers of the movie have been ransacked and exorbitant sums of money have been offered for the head of the director and nose of the actress. Unfortunately, both the state governments (particularly Rajasthan) and Union Government have failed to stop this ruckus and bring the culprits to book. It gets even murkier with vituperating and obnoxious remarks being made about the female lead of the film. This has brought ill-repute to the entire nation with many Hollywood stars been surprised at this callous disregard by the government in checking the hooligans. What is most surprising is that neither the protestors nor the political leaders have seen the film, because it has not been released till date, yet they are obstinately demanding a ban on the film. The Central Board of Film Certification which grants the requisite permission to the films under the aegis of the Cinematography Act, 1952 has not taken a decision on the fate of the film. The deeper question which is being discussed here is the tendency of the political parties and leaders to selectively interpret India’s historic heritage for their petty gains and take extreme positions without thorough analysis.
Milking issue for Political Mileage
The dispute regarding the film Padmavati has brought to the fore the unscrupulous tendency of the political parties to milk contemporary issues for their electoral profits. Many political parties have come forward in support of the ban on the movie, but their backing seems to emerge more from the elections perspective, rather than a genuine concern for the distortion of historical facts. The main victims of this myopic tendency have been the writers and artists. There are many instances where the movies have been banned by the governments without proper scrutiny of the allegations. The political leaders must perform their task of airing people’s grievances, but must not add kerosene to the issues without any serious thought. It must be remembered that if somebody has a bona fide claim against the contents of any film or art, he/she has the option to approach the courts to secure justice. The nation is to be governed by the rule of law and cannot be subjected to the caprices or fancies of anyone.
Inherent Question of ‘Freedom of Expression’
The main contention in the Padmavati conundrum has been of the freedom of speech and expression that is guaranteed to the citizens by the Constitution itself. Freedom of expression is one of the most important ideas that must be preserved in any democratic country. It is inscribed in the form of the ‘Fundamental Right’ in Part III of our Constitution. The question of the distortion of the historical facts by the filmmakers must be objectively perused. The practice of demanding a ban on the film at the slightest allegation is indeed regretful. The feelings of every community must be respected, and any tampering with the history for commercial gains must not be allowed. But the decision on the misrepresentation of the historical facts must be taken by a competent authority established by the law. The observations of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in a similar petition seeking a ban on the film ‘An Insignificant Man’ is worth mentioning. The Court while dismissing the petition said, “Courts are to be extremely slow to pass any kind of restraint order in such a situation and must allow the respect that a creative man enjoys in writing a drama, a playlet, a play, a book on philosophy, or any kind of thought that is expressed on the celluloid or theatre.” The Apex Court has done a commendable job in upholding the freedom of expression and its sage remarks must be followed by the people. The artists need a certain amount of space for showcasing their talent and their creative freedom must be nurtured for the benefit of the entire society.
Political Meddling with Historic Past
The political interference of the historic past of the nation is bound to hamper national unity and create a communal divide between the people. The political intercession in the historical events has been an attempt to earn petty brownie points from a certain section of the population by maligning or defaming some other segment of the people. In the Padmavati, the aggressor Alaudin Khilji is being interpreted as barbaric and immoral who tries to damage the honor of Queen Padmavati. Such a superlative explanation of history is not prudent and must not be accepted. The question of the linking of the ruler to his religion is also bad in taste. The socio-political situation of Medieval India was different from the present times and the idea of a secular nation was non-existent then. The political parties have tried to link the controversy to the religious identity of the king in order to attain petty political gains. The issue as regards the celebration of the anniversary of Tipu Sultan in the state of Karnataka was also a similar case. While some political parties have portrayed him as ‘Anti-Hindu’, it is also true that he was an extremely benevolent ruler. His inventions in warfare, especially rockets were the best in the world even in the eighteenth century.
The political slugfest even tried to portray the Taj Mahal as an embodiment of repression and brutality. It was termed as a ‘foreign monument’ and not part of the Indian culture. The dispute arose when the Taj Mahal was removed from the Manifesto of the Tourism Department of Uttar Pradesh. But we must remember that the same Taj Mahal is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It is a national pride for which all Indians voted in 2007 to secure the first place in the world in an election that led to its crowning. Not just the Taj Mahal, but all the monuments of the Mughal Empire, Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra Fort, Moti Masjid, etc. are world famous tourist attractions and an inextricable part of our shared cultural heritage. The contribution of the Mughal dynasty to India’s art and culture is unparalleled by any other dynasty, even not by any local king. The new styles of Indo-Saracenic architecture, music traditional like quawali, sitar and khayal, school of painting, Urdu language and uniform administrative system are all part of the legacy of the Mughal dynasty. The practice of labeling the invading king as ‘evil’ is not wise as even Pallavas and Marathas invaded into the territories of other empires.
Selective Interoperation of Historical Facts
The use of historical narratives in politics to divide the people in the name of religion or community has been repeated much time in the history of independent India. The political parties have taken an extreme position with respect to the historic events to placate a set of voters. The mix of contemporary politics with the misrepresentation of historical facts leads to a dangerous concoction that tries to subvert the identity of a Modern India. The partial quoting of history to create cleavages in the minds of the people have led to communal tensions in various parts of the nation. The famous explanation to the skill of interpretation of history is given in the seminal work “What is History?” by historian E.H. Carr. He says that while interpreting the different events of the history, we must realize that there are different sides to the explanation of every event. Every historian has his personal biases and the same get inscribed in the writings. He also warns that since the socio-political scenarios of different periods in history are not same, it is naïve to take extreme positions and brand someone any ‘evil’. The history of India is a unique example of various influences working together while creating a new synthesis. India has seen the rule by various kings and dynasties. It has been subject to foreign invasions and colonial tyranny, thus, it is very difficult to describe someone any evil or bad.
An example of Ashoka of the Mauryan Dynasty is apt to quote. While he is revered throughout the nation as a great king who cared for his subjects and devoted his life to the welfare of the people, he may be seen as an aggressor in some parts of modern-day Odisha where he conquered various local tribes by force. We should remember that the idea of ‘India as a nation’ has developed only in the last two centuries through our struggle against the British. Before that period, India didn’t exist and there was a multitude of kingdoms and states which existed independently. The national consciousness had arisen largely due to the shared struggle of Indians of varied castes, religion or linguistic affiliations against the British colonialism, which finally culminated into the birth of ‘New India’ of common aspirations and dreams of the citizens.
Global Phenomenon: Troubling Colonial Past
The difficulty of interpretation of the history in the contemporary sense, with varied identities and strong nationalism, is a global problem. Recently, there have been violent protests in the United States of America against the symbols of White supremacy. The protests have been largely organized by the black people rights organizations in a bid to remove the statutes and facilitation of White leaders from various academic institutions. The agitators even defaced the statutes of civil war generals which suppressed the local people in their times. The colonial past of the nation is a disturbing baggage of emotions which a nation must carry even after its independence. The people must learn to deal with the differences and past atrocities is a benevolent manner. The shared idea of the nation must not be tarnished by skewed interpretation of history.
Interpreting India’s History through ‘Colonial Prism’
The problem of the idea of the ‘evil foreign invaders’ having conquered the local kings to rule over the nation was originally perpetrated by the British historians who tried to malign the image of the rulers by portraying them as barbaric and indifferent. British also introduced the notion that Mughals or their predecessors were outsiders. British followed the vicious policy of ‘Divide and Rule’ to sow the seeds of enmity in the hearts of people of different communities. It is indeed startling to see that though the political leaders are ready to attack Mughals for their rule, the similar contempt of the imperial British is absent. The truth is that while the Mughals conquered the nation through battles; the English unscrupulously captured the power in the disguise of the trading community. They made use of the local rivalries to create tensions between different rulers and acquire territories. The colonial legacy of viewing somebody as ‘outsider’ in terms of India’s cultural heritage is erroneous. While Mughals assimilated into India’s culture and influenced it as well, British destroyed India’s rich heritage and followed a policy of racial superiority. They subjected the people to inhuman brutalities and indignation through their regressive policies. The very idea of ‘Modern India’ originated through the nationalist struggle of the countrymen against the tyranny of the Britishers. The long and grueling Independence movement crystallized people belonging to various religions, castes and linguistic backgrounds into a common identity. ‘India as a nation’ was born in the consequence of the freedom movement which culminated in India attaining the beloved Independence on 15th August 1947.
Need of ‘Indian Ethos’
The practice of interpretation of history for the political mileage in the elections has disastrous consequences for the nation’s unity and integrity. The leaders must show restraint in indulging in placating one community at the cost of another. The history must be dealt cautiously and any selective application of the chronology is bound to create problems in the society. The idea of a shared nation of people having diverse religious, caste and traditions must be cherished by the political representatives, for the ‘unity in diversity’ is our strength. The nation faces grave problems of poverty, corruption, poor healthcare, pollution, sanitation, and hygiene, etc. which need a concerted effort by all the citizens for their amelioration. The Padmavati controversy highlights the importance of the freedom of expression which is a starling feature of the Indian Constitution. The words of Voltaire, a famous French Revolution philosopher are poignant to quote, “I may not agree with your words. But I will defend to my death, your freedom to do so.” This statement sums up the gist of the freedom of expression which must be guarded against any unwarranted restraint. It is indeed ironic that while Voltaire advocated defense of the cherished freedom even to the cost of one’s death, the political leaders and organizations have issued death threats to the film actors for the roles in the said film. The need of the hour is to give up the narrow mindset and seek recourse to the law in case of any grievances. Only if we are able to rise above the politics of misrepresentation of historical facts for trivial gains, then we as Indians will be able to progress and herald a golden future for ourselves.