Journalist and author Kota Neelima is a Gandhian at heart, she says, which is why she's not going to balk at a threat issued by a protesting right-wing group, and instead unpack her things and head straight to the venue of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), an annual cultural event in Rajasthan's capital city that draws writers, publishers and readers from across the globe.
In a letter to a local television channel the Shri Rajput Karni Sena, the chief agitators against Sanjay Leela Bhansali's period drama Padmaavat, has threatened to stop Neelima from participating at the literature festival till she apologized for a column she wrote for the DNA newspaper highlighting crimes against women in Rajasthan and the misplaced sense of priority of the men defending them through protests across states, based on their belief that the film insulted Rajput pride.
"Frankly, I am baffled. I honestly don't know why they have taken offense," Neelima told HuffPost India over the phone from Jaipur. "There is a long list of crimes committed every year against hundreds and thousands of women in India as recorded by the National Crime Records Bureau. I simply mentioned that those fighting for the honour of Rajput women, should better employ themselves by taking up the fight for women's rights instead," she said.
"You can't identify honour in a way that's convenient to you. It can't be subjective to the interpretations of a community."
"You can't identify honour in a way that's convenient to you. It can't be subjective to the interpretations of a community. What I would consider honorable is a woman's right to walk freely on the road. When she can stay in a marriage and not face domestic violence. These revolutionaries should take up those causes."
In her 19 January column, Neelima writes:
Now, women can also be made to commit suicide; the Karni Sena has threatened that women will commit 'jauhar' or self-immolation if the movie, Padmaavat, is released. The protest is not against the death of Padmavati herself in the story, but against a creative interpretation of her exposure to the public gaze. Karni Sena has protested in the past against movies to safeguard the notion of women as symbols of 'honour' of a caste or a religious community. Questions arise; why doesn't Karni Sena protest against demeaning 'item numbers' done by women in movies? Why doesn't Karni Sena threaten violence to stop the use of sexual assault as a weapon in Indian cinema? Has Karni Sena protested against depiction of women as submissive and men in dominant roles?
"The discourse on 'jauhar' is a sad state of commentary, how can they fight for the honour of women by using a tool which is symbolic of subjugation," she said, referring to the centuries-old practice, especially among the aristocracy in warrior clans of India, of women's mass self-immolation after the death of their husbands. There's no absolute proof that the practice was purely voluntary and many historians believe that it was performed to "save" women from rape and plunder. Sati, a similar custom in which widows self-immolated in their husband's funeral pyre, was outlawed in 1829. The glorification of the practice as "an act of courage" could set a dangerous trend as is evident from the ominous vow by Rajput women to commit jauhar if Bhansali's film gets released.
"How can they fight for the honour of women by using a tool which is symbolic of subjugation."
Research by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) in 2017, based on the 2011 Census, found that Rajasthan had reported the highest numbers of child marriages. It ranked third in the country in the number of rapes recorded, and had the lowest literacy rate for women in the country.
A film's fictional depiction of Rajput women should have been the last cause for worry for any organisation from the state concerned about women affairs. The Sena objected to lead actress Deepika Padukone's titular character Padmavati's imagined dalliance with Muslim invader Alauddin Khilji, even before the release of the film, and despite repeated protestations from the filmmakers that there's no such plot point.
On Wednesday, protestors blocked Gurgaon's Wazirpur-Pataudi road and security was heightened in Chittorgarh, the backdrop of the epic poem by Malik Muhammad Jayasi based on the life of Rajput queen Padmini, or Padmavati.
News agency ANI quoted police commissioner of Ahmedabad, AK Singh, as saying that cops managed to stop protesters from entering multiplexes. Forty people were detained from various locations in Gujarat for rioting.
Here's the letter that the Sena sent to the FirstIndia News channel of Rajasthan:
The violence continued after Sena Chief Lokendra Singh Kalvi said his group "will not allow Padmaavat to be screened in India at any cost".
Neelima said she is was not worried in particular.
"I am at heart a Gandhian, if they (the Sena) stop me at JLF, I will try to reason with them. I truly believe I hope they see my point," Neelima, who has worked as a journalist for 22 years and is in JLF to talk about her new book 'Widows of Vidarbha, Making of Shadows', documenting the plight of women affected by suicides of farmers due to farm distress in Maharashtra's Vidarbha region.
Chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification, Prasoon Joshi, is also expected to get security cover at Jaipur lit fest after threats from the Karni Sena, angry at the CBFC for clearing the movie for release.