A series of events last week, leading up to the postponement of a period drama about a Rajput queen, has polarized opinion and shifted the focus of prime time news from pressing matters such as an ongoing farmers' agitation in the heart of the national capital, to a raging discussion on Hindu pride.
In a recent conversation with HuffPost India, Hanif Lakdawala, a doctor based in Ahmedabad, recalled the events with shock and disbelief, particularly the threats of violence made against Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Deepika Padukone, the director and lead actress of the film Padmavati — based on an epic poem by Malik Muhammad Jayasi.
"How can people saying that they are going to chop off someone's nose and head over a movie. Still, no one is coming forward to defend free speech or even to condemn such hateful statements. What is going on in this country?" he said.
The 66-year-old activist, who has devoted four decades of his life to improving public health in urban slums, added, "I'm aghast."
Lakdawala was referring to the all-around tacit approval of the threats issued by Karni Sena, a fringe group of Rajputs leading the protest against Bhansali's movie about the 13-14th century queen.
Even though Padmavati may or may not have existed in real life, detractors have said that the Rajput community will not tolerate a film that even hints at a romance between their brave queen and the Muslim ruler Alauddin Khilji.
For Lakdawala, it came as no surprise to see the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party taking a stand against free speech, with some of its leaders even backing the threats made by the Karni Sena. But it is the Congress Party's silence on the controversy that has rattled many Muslims, who see it as further evidence of the Grand Old Party adhering to BJP's core tenet of giving primacy to the Hindus and appeasing the majority.
For Muslims in Gujarat, the Congress's silence is especially grating because it comes on the heels of an election campaign in which they have been completely sidelined by the Congress. The Congress, meanwhile, seems to have taken for granted that most Muslims, who constitute 10 percent of Gujarat's population, will vote for them as opposed to the Hindu nationalist BJP.
Long time observers of the Gujarat state election cannot recall the last time that a Congress leader had visited so many temples as Rahul Gandhi has in the past few weeks, without making it to a single dargah.
In this backdrop, there are Muslims in Gujarat who see the Congress's silence over Padmavati not just as a electoral strategy to appease the Rajputs, but the beginning of a slide towards Hindutva.
As Lakdawala puts it, "I think it is part of the larger Hindutva issue, not just an issue of Rajput sentiments," he said. "If there was no election tomorrow and no votes to worry about, I still don't think they would speak out."
The doctor continued, "There is a deep sense of helplessness in the Muslim community, rich and poor. We don't have any say in forming the government. We don't have a say if someone is threatening to cut off someone's nose in our country. We have no voice anymore."
There is a deep sense of helplessness in the Muslim community, rich and poor.
Congress and Hindutva
While the BJP has always accused the Congress of appeasing the minority for votes, political analysts believe that the Congress has practiced "soft Hindutva" since the eighties.
In 1985, then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi nullified the landmark judgement that granted alimony to a Muslim wife from Indore named Shah Bano, just to appease orthodox Muslims who opposed the Supreme Court's interference in their personal laws.
To restore the balance, a few months later, Rajiv Gandhi ordered the lock on the Babri Masjid to be removed, giving Hindus access to the birthplace of Lord Rama. But long time observers of the Gujarat elections say they have never seen anything like the current campaign.
In the 2007 state election, in a move that backfired, Sonia Gandhi used the term "maut ka saudagar" to describe Narendra Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat at the time. In 2017, the Congress has not mentioned the religious violence that consumed Gujarat in 2002, claiming over 1000 lives, mostly Muslims.
Speaking on the Congress campaign, Ghanshyam Shah, a leading political analyst in Gujarat, said, "They are not even mentioning minorities. It is scary for Muslims. It is scary for all of us. The liberal space is shrinking. There is all kinds of anti-Muslim propaganda in the social media here. Even civil society can't do anything."
They are not even mentioning minorities. It is scary for Muslims. It is scary for all of us.
Like Lakdawala, the former Jawaharlal Nehru University professor believes that Congress's silence over Padmavati went beyond the election. "I believe that that Congress has lost its capacity to speak on issues like free speech."
For Mujahid Nafees, a 35-year-old Muslim man from Ahmedabad, the Congress is playing a "dangerous game" in not condemning the agitation against Padmavati. "Today, they are quiet about Padmavati. What will it be tomorrow? What's the limit of looking the other way," he said.
Nafees, who runs an advocacy group called the Minority Coordination Committee, continued, "Right now, the Congress believes that Muslims will always vote for them. Eventually, Muslims will just have to stop voting and that just hurts the democratic system that we live in. It is dangerous."
Eventually, Muslims will just have stop voting and that just hurts the democratic system that we live in.
The old guard
There are political analysts who believe that Congress is already gaining on the BJP by focusing on issues like poor governance, the problems around the Goods & Services Tax (GST) and demonetisation-related suffering, while steering clear of anything that could be construed as appeasing the minority.
On the other hand, some social scientists like Nadeem Hasnain, a leading anthropologist from Lucknow University, believe that Congress leaders are making a mistake simply because they will never be able to beat the BJP at Hinduvta.
"They can never say the things that BJP says. They can never do the things that BJP does. They have to take a strong secular stand otherwise they will lose out on their core supporters," he said.
They can never say the things that BJP says. They can never do the things that BJP does.
Meanwhile, there is a tussle inside the Congress. Those at the grassroots believe that the party is still not going far enough to curry favour with the Hindus. Others believe a line has already been crossed.
Ammar Rizvi, a Congress leader in Uttar Pradesh for five decades, said that he felt "sorry" about the current Congress campaign in Gujarat. In a conversation with HuffPost India, he said, "It hurts the sentiments of those who have been with Congress for so long. Congress has never changed its stand on secularism, socialism and the fight against communalism."
And while Rizvi believes that the movie Padmavati should be screened for leaders from the Rajput community before it is released, the 78-year-old leader called on his party to condemn the violent threats made the Karni Sena. "Even if the Congress has not any raised objection, I would like to do it. I would like the leaders of the Congress to courageously and boldly condemn those who threaten criminal action," he said.
I would like the leaders of the Congress to courageously and boldly condemn those who threaten criminal action,
Rahul Gandhi an "Atheist"
Interestingly, even though Rahul Gandhi is the face of the Congress's campaign in Gujarat, there are few who doubt his secular credentials.
Nafees, for instance, firmly believes that Gandhi is an "atheist."
Shiv Visvanathan, a leading political analyst and professor at the Jindal Global Law School, said that Gandhi is one of the last few leaders who believed in the "secular" brand even though it was regarded as dirty word by most politicians.
Instead of resorting to a quick fix like majority appeasement, Visvanathan said that Gandhi would have to learn to talk about subjects like Padmavati, explaining its nuances and preventing the debate from degenerating into "Rajputs versus movie makers."
"Right now, the Karni Sena has better debaters than the Congress. Rahul Gandhi needs to learn to talk about religion instead of coming across as cryptically illiterate," he said. "What Rahul Gandhi did to GST is what he should have done to the movie Padmavati."
What Rahul Gandhi did to GST is what he should have done to the movie Padmavati.
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