(UPDATE: Updates story with the clarification that the Shree Rashtriya Rajput Karni Sena and the Shree Rajput Karni Sena have decided to keep the agitation going. They have said that members of the Mumbai unit of the Shree Rashtriya Rajput Karni Sena who issued a letter praising Padmaavat have been expelled.)
For months the Karni Sena, a caste group in Rajasthan, led a campaign of violence and destruction, alleging that a period drama directed by filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali tarnished the reputation of Rajputs and maligned the valour of a 15th century warrior clan queen, whose existence outside of a tragic ballad by a Sufi poet has been disputed by historians.
Bhansali and the film's producers, afraid that the film's financial prospects will be hit, repeatedly reassured the group that Padmaavat did no such thing, and even asked them to attend a pre-release screening to put an end to their violent campaign across several of India's northern states. All appeals fell on deaf ears. The Shree Rajput Karni Sena, led by its leader Lokendra Singh Kalvi, remained adamant.
Their initial objection, that Rani Padmini, or Padmavati, was shown having a dalliance with Muslim invader Allauddin Khilji, gradually branched out to various other associated grievances, all involving a slight to Rajput pride, even before Bhansali had finished shooting the entire film. They were reminded that pre-emptive protests against a film whose script they had not seen, and whose final outcome was undecided, was downright foolhardy. However various units of the group kept issuing incendiary statements, and even outright threats against the actors of the films, with little or no consequences.
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On Friday, according to a report by news agency IANS, Yogendra Singh Katar, a member of the Mumbai branch of the Shree Rashtriya Rajput Karni Sena, a splinter group, decided to call off their stir against the film. He said in a letter to the film's producers that a few members from his group watched Padmaavat on Friday and found that "the movie glorified the valour and sacrifice of the Rajput".
"There is no such objectionable scene between Delhi Sultanate ruler Alauddin Khilji and Queen Padmini of Mewar which hurts the sentiments of Rajputs," Katar is said to have written in his letter. However, after news outlets started reporting that the Karni Sena had called off their protests, Kalvi and Sukhdev Singh Gogamedi, the leaders of the two groups, on Saturday said the letter was fake and the members who watched the film "in their personal capacity" have been expelled. They said their agitation will continue.
While critics remained divided over Padmaavat — some said it glorified Rajputs and demonized Muslims, while others, including actor Swara Bhaskar, started a debate on women's portrayal in the film — the various fringe groups remained firm in their belief that the film distorted history, amicable debates with stakeholders be damned.
The Karni Sena's various breakaway groups have had 10 days to troop into a cinema hall and watch the film since it's release on 25 January. But they have chosen to continue with their protests despite several accounts from people who have watched the film stating that there was nothing in it offensive to Padmavati or Rajputs.
Here's a look at the ways their misguided campaign of months has cost the nation.
Back in April, 2017, when Bhansali was shooting the film at the Jaigarh fort in Jaipur, then titled Padmavati, Karni Sena workers barged into his sets, allegedly slapped the director, damaged equipment, raised slogans and used expletives. It showed how scarily easy it is for anyone who has a problem with cinematic expression, and if they have the numbers, can resort to vandalism without fear of retribution.
News agency PTI reported in January, 2018, that the Sena had named a six-member panel comprising erstwhile royals and historians to watch Padmaavat ahead of its release. The Sena demanded that the Central government bring in anordinance "within 24 hours" keeping in mind "public sentiments" to stop the film's release. As if the prior screening for the self-appointed keepers of India's honour wasn't a big enough nail in the coffin of freedom of expression, Maharashtra's tourism minister Jaykumar Rawal actually appealed to people not to watch the film.
"History cannot be played with for (the sake of) money. Commercial masala entertainers should not be (made) at the cost of 1000-year-old history," Rawal said. All of this, before the film even saw the light of day and people, the so-called 'public', given a chance to judge for themselves whether their sentiments were hurt. In the absence of a uniform yardstick of what hurt people's sentiments, it would be safe to assume that it had become a useful tool for any group that wanted a bit of attention to arm-twist opponents. What's next? Will a writer have to show the drafts of their books to the moral police before publishing?
In a bizarre twist, the censor board cleared Bhansali's period drama after the producers officially changed the title to 'Padmaavat', in keeping with Rani Padmini's lore in Malik Muhammad Jayasi's epic poem by the same name. But this tactical move failed to move the Karni Sena. What was lost in the process was precious artistic ground to a mob's veto. It set the precedent that if you had the tacit backing of politicians, raised your voice loud enough, and flexed your muscles, you'd get your way.
President of the Shree Rajput Karni Sena, Mahipal Makrana, said that a 'janta curfew' will be imposed and roads and highways will be blocked. Girraj Singh Lotwada, president of Jaipur-based Rajput Sabha, called the situation "an undeclared emergency". Despite a Supreme Court direction allowing the release of the film, several theatre owners decided not to screen the film — self-censoring for fear of vandalism. State governments watched as mute spectators.
Police arrested several protestors for vandalising a Haryana Roadways bus and attacking a school bus in Gurugram. The video of terrified children and teachers crouching on the floor of the bus went viral, triggering a stream of furious reactions from the civil society. The Sena later strongly denied attacking the bus. Kalvi said his organisation would never harm children and blamed Bhansali for the bus attack instead.
However several fringe group's months-long disregard for the law continued over the imagined cause across Gujarat, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh. In Bhondsi area on the Gurugram-Alwar highway suspected Sena workers attacked public transport, in Gujarat's Ahmedabad, at least 30 motorbikes were set on fire, protestors poured into a mall and attacked the staff manning ticket counters at the cinema theatres, damaged vehicles parked outside, and other fringe groups, inspired by Sena's success in holding the nation's attention, started copy-cat protests.
The Sena said repeatedly that they were defending the honour of Padmavati, whom many in Rajasthan worship as the queen 'mother' who committed jauhar, or mass self-immolation, along with several other women of her palace to prevent being captured alive by Sultan Alauddin Khilji's marching army. Padmavati's existence, though disputed by historians, is firmly engraved in the Rajput consciousness as a beacon of courage, chastity, and sacrifice. It is also the source of a massively hypocritical campaign on social media to abuse any woman opposed to the idea of what Padmini stood for.
For example, it did not stop the Sena, so deeply concerned about the honor of a historical figure, from issuing a threat to Deepika Padukone, a very real one, playing the titular role.
Rajput Karni Sena member Mahipal Singh Makrana put out a video in which he claimed he will not hesitate to "do to Deepika what Lakshman did to Shurpanakha," in other words, mutilate her.
In the course of their conversations with HuffPost India's Piyasree Dasgupta, the women of 'Jauhar Kshatrani Manch', a group that vowed to commit self-immolation like their role model Padmini if Bhansali's film was released, decried everything from Padukone's clothes and lifestyle to the positive portrayal of a Muslim woman in the film.
Over the course of the past many days, state governments had moved the SC seeking recall of its order allowing the release of the film. There were petitions seeking a stay on Padmaavat filed by various parties. Add to that the petitions filed by the producers seeking its release. Petitions requesting contempt proceedings be started against state governments that failed to provide protection to theatre owners despite an SC direction asking them to safeguard interests of the common public. In a country where the courts remain burdened with a towering caseload, it's almost criminal to file frivolous cases against movies that hurt imaginary sentiments before it even had a chance to be screened. And once the petitions are allowed it then becomes the court's duty to uphold free speech.
The Mainstreaming Of Hate
Every time there's a clash of ideologies that has roots in religion, history and indigenous cultures, the hate spills into social media platforms and mutates into a labyrinth of factual fallacies. Journalist Madhu Kishwar posted a tweet claiming several Muslim men were responsible for the Gurugram bus attack. She later apologised and retracted her tweet after the Gurugram police rejected the assertion. But not before the message spread like a virus on right-wing groups on WhatsApp, further straining the fabric that binds India's communities in peaceful co-existence.
Bhaskar's criticism of the film spiralled into an ugly troll-fest spurred on by other members of her fraternity. Counters to her debate were in the form of name-calling and expletives on her timeline. When she said she felt reduced to a vagina, or just a sexual tool, at the end of the magnum opus, right-wing trolls bombarded her and any one supporting her with identical messages highlighting the plight of ISIS sex slaves, implying that those against jauhar must be in favour of sexual slavery. There were several follow-up arguments put forth by writers on women's agency and recourses available to them in those times, however they were drowned under a targetted hate campaign. Troll handles attributed false quotes to Bhaskar and attacked her craft and her moral integrity.
Karni Sena's stand on Padmaavat proves that in India, the 'shoot-first-ask-questions-later' model is here to stay as long as hurt sentiments are allowed to disrupt democracy over and over again.