31/01/2017 12:24 PM IST | Updated 31/01/2017 1:03 PM IST

Trump's Muslim Ban And The 'Padmavati' Attack Show How Tough It Is To Hold On To Liberal Principles In A Crisis

Don't cede ground.

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Desperate times call for desperate measures. It's perfectly understandable that those facing the Donald Trump executive order juggernaut would try and slow it down by whatever means possible.

Thus one of the early responses to his travel ban from seven predominantly Muslim countries was to tell the story of Steve Jobs.

Jobs' father, Abdul Fattah Jandali, was born in Hons, Syria, now a hot-spot in the civil war. Twitter was awash with pictures reminding Donald Trump that if his executive order had been in place there would be no Apple today. David Galbraith posted a photograph of Jobs over the caption "A Syrian migrant's child". Walied Shater tweeted "@POTUS as U ban people, remember if U banned Syrian immigrants 50 years ago, there would be no Steve Jobs, no Apple."

The sentiment is understandable. At a time when Trump wants to scare the bejesus out of his countrymen by raising the spectre of the "Islamic terrorist" knocking at its doors, this is a reminder of how much poorer America would be without the likes of Jobs.

But it is a double-edged sword. America has to figure out how it wants to respond to the desperation of the Syrian refugee because it is the humanitarian thing to do, not because there might be a potential Steve Jobs in its midst. The famous inscription on the Statue of Liberty reads "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore." It does not say give me your Steve Jobs and Paula Abdul and F Murray Abraham and keep the rest. One should not need to be the father of the founder of a mega successful corporation or a Nobel laureate to find shelter from a civil war or just be allowed to travel to the USA.

America has to figure out how it wants to respond to the desperation of the Syrian refugee because it is the humanitarian thing to do, not because there might be a potential Steve Jobs in its midst

The example of Jobs packs a punch but it can also backfire by whittling away at the core principle behind it all. While no one is entitled to enter any country, and every country can vet those wishing to come into it, a blanket ban (and even Trump is using that word now) on the basis of nationality or religion is egregious. The ban is worth protesting against because it's a blanket ban, not just because the father of a Steve Jobs would be blocked by it. It would not become more humane if there was a Jobs exception.

Of course, the ban stings more for certain people. The translators who worked with American troops in Iraq, often at great risk to their own lives, now suddenly find the door to the US slammed shut in their faces even as Trump professes sympathy for Christian refugees from the region. That's Washington treating its own allies as entirely disposable. Permanent residents were incensed when initial statements from the White House suggested that even green-card holders from those countries and dual-nationality citizens could be blocked. But we have to always keep in mind that this is a ban targeting entire countries. Carving out a Jobs exception or a green-card exception or an Iraqi-translator exception only creates the illusion of mitigating something utterly reprehensible. Nor would it be more palatable or fair if the ban included countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Pakistan. That's not the point.

But in a time of crisis it's hard to hold onto the liberal principle at stake. That's clear if we look closer to home at a different kind of cultural brouhaha that's been occupying our news space — the Padmavati controversy.

After activists from a fringe Rajput group vandalised the sets of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film, it did not take long for the protests against it to lose sight of the principle at stake — artistic freedom. Deepika Padukone tweeted, "As Padmavati I can assure you there is absolutely no distortion of history", even as others claimed there is scant historical record of Padmavati herself. The real outrage is the violence and how in the name of Rajput pride a fringe group catapulted itself into the headlines by disrupting a film that had all the necessary clearances.

It was a flashback to what happened to Deepa Mehta many years ago while shooting Water in Varanasi. At that time too, the script had been cleared by the Information and Broadcasting ministry and Mehta had all the permissions needed. That did not stop hooligans from vandalising the sets on suspicion that Mehta's script was anti-Hindu. The shooting stopped and Water was filmed years later in secret in Sri Lanka. But it remains a shameful reminder of how might can be right and even the law is no protection against a mob. It worked then and it works now as Padmavati demonstrates.

But in a time of crisis it's hard to hold onto the liberal principle at stake

The CEO of Bhansali Productions has issued a letter saying there was "no romantic dream sequence" or any "objectionable scenes" between the lead stars and it stressed that it would not hurt the sentiments of the people of Mewar. But the protesters want the film to be shown to Rajput organisations before release for their version of extreme vetting. If that is allowed we are paving the way for the creation, by sheer muscle power, of mini-censor boards all around the country. Now we do not even have to wait for a film to be made to figure out if it offends us, we can be offended in advance.

Those who stand up for Padmavati should stand up for the right of a filmmaker to make his film once he has obtained the necessary clearances. If you do not like the film, boycott it by all means, but vandalism should not be rewarded by giving thugs credibility. Was it not Narendra Modi who tweeted "Art can't have any restrictions or limits"?

These are tough times for liberal principles. That's why it's all the more important to do our best to not cede ground on them. That principle remains bigger than a Steve Jobs or a Padmavati dream sequence.

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