The details of the mob attack and vandalism related to Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film Padmavati are well known by now. Without repeating those, this article attempts to stimulate a discussion about what it means for us to be a society where mobs assault other citizens without any fear of law, claiming that they were offended and emotionally hurt by the attacked party. Being part of such a society, it is high time we asked ourselves some really basic questions.
Whatever the debate is, is it morally justified for us as members of a civilised society to commit violence and bully others? Equally importantly, is it morally justified for us to support, either openly or covertly, those persons who perpetrate such actions? This particular introspection lies at the core of the entire issue of mob violence and bullying.
Do the religions we follow, or the historical figures we claim to protect, really encourage offended members to go and assault anyone they wish to...?
Almost each of us has our own special list of reasons for which we are willing to either support or turn a blind eye to violent actions, however unlawful and destructive they are. This has been proven time and again by the fact that mob violence incidents in India are rarely condemned by one and all; there are always some sections of society supporting this type of unlawful behaviour. In such a scenario, do we risk the possibility of creating a highly unstable society where every now and then some or the other person or group of persons will bully or beat up others? Do the religions we follow, or the historical figures we claim to protect, really encourage offended members to go and assault anyone they wish to, and then feel proud about doing so?
Offence, insults and "hurt sentiments"
These emotions are so subjective and varied that often even members of the same family are at opposite ends on whether, for example, a particular statement is offensive or not. In the Padmavati case also, while the attackers claimed to be offended (as members of a particular community) by certain aspects of the yet-to-be-released film, there were other members of their same community who dissociated themselves from the violent actions.
Besides, in any case, does feeling offended give one the right to commit violence?
Recently, for example, a Marathi play that allegedly justifies Mahatma Gandhi's murder has been in the news. The director and actor of that play, Sharad Ponkshe, was also associated with another play in the 1990s which dealt with a similar theme, and which claimed to provide a voice to the man who assassinated Gandhi in 1948. It is worth noting that there have been no reports of Mr Ponkshe being physically assaulted by people who admire and love Mahatma Gandhi, and that all the protests against the play have been nonviolent and lawful.
History is about interpretations, not "the truth"
We need to be aware that history as a discipline provides interpretations of the past, but does not, and should not, claim a monopoly on truth. To quote Romila Thapar, one of the most accomplished historians of our country: "Since the existence of the past is not entirely tangible, the presence of artifacts and monuments from the past being few, the past is constructed by putting together a variety of evidence." [From the book The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History.] So, different historians construct the past in different ways, and people have the choice to accept the arguments and analyses which they find the most rational and convincing, and look at other arguments with scepticism.
Is it justified for one group of citizens to use violence to force only their interpretation of the past to be accepted by everyone and portrayed as "the truth?"
Let us consider two examples. Firstly, a historical interpretation which has predominantly been rejected by people is one that claims the Taj Mahal to be a Hindu temple rather than a Mughal-era construction. While that claim has been around for many decades now, it has never found any great resonance with the general public. As a second example, there have been several interpretations of the events leading to the Partition of British India, and each has found resonance with a sizeable number of people. Thus, the "truth" around Partition is not at all universal or uniform, and changes depending upon, among other things, one's religion, one's nationality and one's geographic location. If an event as recent as this—Partition is not even 100 years into history—can give rise to so many perspectives, we shouldn't be surprised that much of our country's rich history, running several thousand years into the past, gives rise to numerous passionate debates.
However, the question we must ask ourselves is: In such a scenario, especially in a mind-bogglingly diverse nation as ours, is it justified for one group of citizens to use violence and threats to force only their interpretation of the past to be accepted by everyone and portrayed as "the truth?"