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A 360 Degree View Of The 'Padmavati' Controversy

Ulterior motives?

10/12/2017 10:56 AM IST | Updated 10/12/2017 10:57 AM IST
Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
A security guard walks past a poster of the upcoming Bollywood movie 'Padmavati' outside a theatre in Mumbai, India, November 21, 2017. REUTERS/ Danish Siddiqui

A 21st-century movie based on the mythological-fiction of the 16th century about a 14th-century queen has ruffled political feathers in India. The members of Karni Sena, a politico-cultural group of Rajputs, man-handled Sanjay Leela Bhansali, movie's director, vandalized cinema halls and openly threatened a high-intensity violence if the movie is released. The protesters allege that the movie distorts the Rajput history, glorifies a barbaric invader as a lover and a brave warrior. Rumours are galore that the movie shows a love-affair between the Queen Padmavati and the invader Allaudin Khiljhi.

However, the truth is far more complex than what appears on the surface. Eminent journalists like Dr. Ved Pratap Vedic and Rajat Sharma have stated that the movie has absolutely nothing that is objectionable and insulting to the pride and culture of Rajputs. The fact that the above-mentioned journalists did not find anything objectionable with the movie shows that the ongoing agitation is not just about the alleged distortion of history and restoring the Hindu pride.

The entire saga smacks of ulterior motives which do not appear to be very clean.

The entire saga smacks of ulterior motives which do not appear to be very clean. So far the main agitators like Karni Sena and their leaders have not shown any gesture that shows their intent for any rational dialogue to sort out the issue in the light of evidence. Gujarat government has banned the movie; Yogi Adityanath has condemned the movie and even the Congress-led Punjab government has also banned the movie. It seems there are strong political stakes in the controversy.

Gujarat elections are on and Gujarat has roughly 6% Rajputs. Traditionally, they have been aligned with Congress. BJP for obvious political reasons preferred the Patidar community as they are numerically superior. Off late, because of the Patidar community's angst with BJP over the reservation issue, BJP has been wading in troubled waters which resulted in a major dent in BJP's traditional Patidar vote bank. Further, because of demonetization, the business community is already annoyed with Modi.

After Modi's departure to Delhi, the performance of the state government has been lacklustre. Modi's successor Anandi Ben did not enjoy the same popularity among the state BJP cadre as Modi did. Her handling of the Patel agitation further alienated the Patidars. As a result, she had to be dispensed with and replaced by Vijay Rupani. But the succession was not without frictions and controversies.

Since 2002, in the absence of any major communal riot, it has been difficult to cash upon the communal sentiments of Hindus for electoral gains. No one denies the fact that BJP has been losing ground in Gujarat ever since Modi has assumed the Prime Ministerial mentor. But Modi can't afford to lose Gujarat. It is indeed a prestige point for Modi, being his home state. Further, if BJP wins Gujarat, it will be a big psychological boost confirming the faith of the people in the leadership of the Modi in his home turf.

This psychological boost will be a boon for 2019 national elections. A prominent journalist from Dainik Bhaskar media group told this author that in the Padmavati controversy BJP sees an opportunity to rake up Hindu nationalism and dormant communal sentiments of Gujaratis. This controversy might put to silence disturbing questions on demonetization and job-creation, driving away people's attention from drab economic worries to volatile and passionate concerns of nationalism, Hindutva and a larger objective of regressive course correction in history. Further, in such difficult times if minor appeasement baits to Padmavati protestors swings even a small portion of Rajput votes to BJP, then, politically it could be the deal worth going for.

In such difficult times if minor appeasement baits to Padmavati protestors swings even a small portion of Rajput votes to BJP, then, politically it could be the deal worth going for.

Superficially, the entire drama may look like a display of power by the fanatic fringe of Hindu rightwing. Generally, among the left-of-the-center public intellectuals, the tendency will be to perceive the entire episode as an assertion of fascist Hindu rightwing elements under the allegedly favorable BJP government.

However, the truth might actually be far more complex and nuanced. After Indira Gandhi stopped privy purses, and with the strengthening of the grassroots democracy in India, the Rajput community faced a major decline in their socio-political clout. Their numbers have declined fast in the government services.

This has a led to a feeling of insecurity among them and some shrewd community leaders have been smart enough to cash upon such sentiments to advance their political careers. With these violent protests, they want to show that they have the street power and they can bring the state machinery to its knees. This author feels that this agitation has more to do with caste-based identity politics of Rajputs then with core ideology of Hindutva.

And, one can witness a revisionist tendency and a crude form of cultural assertion among the Rajputs in myriad ways. The young Rajput lad Om Banna has almost acquired a sacred status because of some supernatural stories surrounding his death and now he has become a strong instrument of political mobilization. Recently, over the police encounter of a dreaded criminal Anandpal, a Rajput, the community leaders made a big hue and cry and the matter had turned into a political hot-cake.

Caste Dynamics

One can find amateur historians trying to prove Maharana Pratap's victory over Akbar in Haldighati for petty political interests. Hence, at a deeper level there are very subtle and strong casteist undercurrents but since the Rajputs are Hindus, it becomes easier in the existing jingoistic socio-political milieu, for the Hindutva fringe and their twitter brigades to pile on, for socio-political gains.

But, the intellectuals have to be honest here. A broad-brushing analysis that this is just a fascist Hindutva business is very superficial and smacks of their personal hatred for the ongoing ruling establishment. Any honest and objective inquiry will explore the caste dynamics and dig into the socio-cultural roots of such developments.

Was Padmini a real character or a fictitious character that has acquired a sacred status?

According to the written sources, Padmavati is not mentioned in any of the historical sources of Rajasthan. The character finds its first mention in a text named Padmawat written 250 years after the Khiljhi's Chittor invasion, by a Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi who lived in Faizabad, separated from Mewar by more than 1000 kilometers. And, it is basically a Sufi text that cannot be treated as a source of political history of Mewar.

But then it deserves to be mentioned that Padmini might be a fictitious character but the practice of Jauhar by Rajput females is a historical fact. The Rajput females captured in wars were often ill-treated, their dignity violated and they were either sold in the slave markets of central Asia or confined to Harem of invader kings. In order to escape that humiliation and protect their honor the females often immolated themselves which came to be known as Jauhar.

Distortion Of Historical Facts?

In this entire saga, the main issue that has often been raised is the distortion of historical facts. This issue could have been seen in an objective manner too but most often such issues immediately acquire a saffron color and become a question of Hindu identity. This is so because Hindus feel that Marxist historians in India have maligned their heroes like Sivaji and Maharana Pratap and made heroes out of bigots and murderers like Aurangzeb, Tipu Sultan and Allauddin Khaljhi.

I have myself studied in the elitist bastions of higher education in India and found them to be left-dominated. During the last five to six decades of Congress rule, they got the patronage from the establishment. The left-liberal cluster that is derisively called as 'pseudo-secular' these days, had turned dictatorial and allegedly banished the alternative schools of thoughts from the academia.

In fact, this is one of the reasons why the right-wing forces in India got the popular support. They were successful in spreading the message across the wider sections of the majority community that for petty political reasons minority appeasement has crossed the limits and it would result in wiping out the socio-cultural roots of Hindus. In this entire controversy, one comes across vandalism by lumpen elements holding state machinery to ransom. Even their baseless arguments and political chicanery get a pass because at deeper levels Hindus feel that their history has been tampered with.

In this entire controversy, one comes across vandalism by lumpen elements holding state machinery to ransom. Even their baseless arguments and political chicanery get a pass because at deeper levels Hindus feel that their history has been tampered with.

Finally, a democratic and secular state like India cannot allow a group of violent elements to ride roughshod over the constitutional guarantees like freedom of expression.

We are setting a very wrong precedent by allowing such Taliban-styled fringe groups to acquire social legitimacy and a political clout. In a multicultural society like India, such violent extremism has no place if we are to keep our communal harmony intact and sustain ourselves as a vibrant democracy, safeguarding basic human rights.

(The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author's and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.)

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