If there was any doubt that the religious radicals have the upper hand in current Indian politics and that of the ruling party of India -- BJP -- the latest uproar over a film that portrayed a fictional character Padmavati should put an end to it.
The film is based on a pseudo-historical account of a Rajput queen and her defiant denial of the obsessive desires of Delhi Sultan Alauddin Khilji to win her which had been a legend in Rajasthan region.
The apocryphal story of Padmavati (alternatively called Rani Padmini) had been celebrated as an act bravery of the fictional queen and as an ultimate example of sacrifice as Padmavati immolated herself to save her honour when the Delhi Sultan’s army was about to capture Chittor fort, her husband’s domain.
There is no historical affirmation of this story or of Khilji’s obsession for Padmini, or whether she even actually existed. Yet, for centuries, people in the region have heard of Padmavati and her valour through songs and stories narrated by writers and poets.
There was, therefore, a lot of consternation both in India and overseas when protests of riotous proportion broke out against the movie that essentially built upon the fictional story, albeit with more embellishment cashing on the beauty and sex appeal of the actress who plays the eponymous character.
The protests were initiated in Rajasthan by an aggrieved group who called themselves Rajput Karni Sena who objected, among other things, to what they stated as trivialization of Queen Padmavati’s sacrifice by portraying her as an object of lust.
To them, Padmavati represented a god-like presence who was a role model for Hindu women and religion. To show her as an object of lust of a Muslim King was sacrilegious. The depiction of Padmavati in skimpy dresses and dances a la Bombay mode also incensed their religious feelings.
The protests spread like wildfire and since these struck at Hindu religious feelings, the support to the protesters came easily from Rastriya Sayamsevak Sangha (RSS), the right wing Hindu nationalist organization and ideological patron of the ruling BJP.
An RSS affiliate organization called the movie a “crime against Indian women,” and called for its ban in India.
The RSS supporters particularly were enraged at the portrayal of the Muslim Sultan Khilji in the movie and his evil eyes on the revered queen calling these as totally unacceptable. The Rajput Karni Sena and their supporters called for the heads of the film’s director and principal actors and actresses declared bounties for those who could deliver their heads.
The fight over the movie came to a head when people, siding with the protesters, went to courts asking for the movie’s ban. The Supreme Court, however, refused to be swayed by the religious sentiment part of the argument and came with a verdict declining to ban the movie.
In a compromise to soothe the conservative section of society, the Indian Censor Board asked movie producers to sanitize some of the more egregious parts of the movie (such as body display of the principal character) and remove some objectionable scenes.
The movie was released late January all over India and overseas, but even then the hardcore religious zealots created enough violence to make the movie one of the most fought and sought after films in recent history.
The most outstanding part of this movie’s protests and riots over the last few months in India is not the squabble over history and fictional heroes, but the role of the ruling party in India and its allies, either through action or inaction.
Throughout the entire series of violence and riots over this movie, at no stage did either the Indian prime minister or the Indian home minister raise their voices.
True, control of violence and political unrests are entirely a state affair in India’s constitution; but they morph into a central government responsibility when such protests adopt a national character.
The movement started by an obscure political group in Rajasthan would have remained local, had this not been subscribed to by the RSS affiliate in the name of preserving Hindu religious identity. Since then, it became a national issue, and trite as it may seem, a fictional character became a symbol of national honour for Indian women and womanhood.
This happened because the national government in India is now dominated by a group that derives its ideology from a single nationalism that is removed from the ideology of secularism and a national identity that was meant to embrace everyone across religion and ethnic identity.
Today’s India is tilting toward an identity that seeks its roots only from Vedic India ignoring the history that followed over the next centuries where rulers came from different parts of the world and enriched the culture and broadened the identity of India.
The ruling party in India today (and its hard core allies) would like to deny the contributions made by other cultures and religion and the succession of kings and emperors who ruled India over a thousand years.
The current politics in India and the patronage of the ruling party of the Hindu nationalists are radically changing the image of India to one that the founders of India never thought of.
It is a sad testimony to the heritage of India and its population that thrives on support of a plurality of religious faiths, that the current Indian cabinet has only one Muslim (and no other minority member) out of 27 ministers.
The 95-strong national executive committee of BJP has also one Muslim and no other minority in the august body. Half of the current ministers, including the prime minister himself, began their political career with RSS, the right wing Hindu nationalists. With such sympathetic people at the top, is there any wonder that an extremist group like the Rajput Karni Sena would run havoc all over a fictional movie?
No, the riot over the movie was a ploy. The real fight was display of muscle power, the power of religious militancy, and religious nationalism that seem to be at the core of current Indian politics which is gnawing at the fabric.
It is time that the current Indian rulers pay attention at containing the forces that could ultimately destroy the national integrity. India is not just a country for one religious community only; it has been home to a diverse religion and ethnic groups for centuries.
It is an icon of democracy for the world, and it is an embodiment of religious diversity. India cannot survive as an icon either of democracy or diversity if it ignores one fifth of its people and leaves them behind in its march toward progress.
It has to step in when a small fringe group tries to wrest away power in the name of religion or by denying its heritage.
A united India rising on the shoulders of all religious beliefs and ethnicities is the future that the Indian leadership should guide its country to.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.