The real horror of the protests by the Shri Rajput Karni Sena was revealed in a grainy screenshot taken by an unknown person from a video shot on a mobile phone inside a school bus ferrying children in Gurgaon.
The image showed teachers crouching on the floor of the bus, hugging a crying child, surrounded by panic-stricken children. Days after the ongoing protests dissipate, as they tend to in India's never-ending cyclical news churn, that image will remain with many as a horrific reminder of the misplaced sense of community pride that triggered the violence and over a span of months catapulted a virtually-unknown, right wing caste group into national limelight.
Even after several film reviewers, who saw Padmaavat at special screenings a day before its release in theatres, wrote that the film had no objectionable scenes suggesting a dalliance between revered Rajput queen Padmini, or Padmavati, and Mughal invader Alauddin Khilji, the alleged members of Karni Sena showed no signs of halting their campaign. They attacked a bus transporting nursery school children and teachers in Gurgaon, set ablaze a Haryana Roadways bus, barely giving minutes to its passengers to disembark and sprint to safety, as the state police watched like mute spectators.
Elsewhere, alleged Sena members ransacked ticket counters, tried to storm multiplexes, burnt vehicles (and in one case, mistakenly, one of their own cars), wrecked public property and issued open threats of violence on national television channels that gave them the platform to defend their hooliganism.
The irony of their action is perhaps lost on these 'brave' defenders of a woman's honour, but not on the many commentators who questioned the dichotomy of standing up for a film that glorifies a centuries-old custom that saw women as properties of the men they married.
Time and again, right wing groups protesting the film have spoken out about defending the honour of Padmavati, a Rajput queen whose existence outside a 16th century ballad by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi is disputed. She is said to have committed self-immolation, along with several other women members of the warrior aristocracy, to prevent being captured, raped, and tortured at the hands of Muslim invaders. The local groups fighting relentlessly for days now to defend a possibly fictional queen's honour, have had no qualm in issuing threats to the woman who plays the titular role.
Bhuvaneshwar Singh, the Uttar Pradesh president of the youth wing of the Akhil Bharatiya Kshatriya Mahasabha had allegedly announced a reward of Rs one crore for anyone willing to toss Deepika Padukone into a furnace – a macabre and twisted modern day simulation of the outlawed practice of jauhar. An official from the organisation's Kanpur chapter said they have collected a bounty of crores of rupees for anyone who chops off Padukone's nose.
The irony of their action is perhaps lost on these 'brave' defenders of a woman's honour, but not on the many commentators who questioned the dichotomy of standing up for a film that glorifies a centuries-old custom that saw women as properties of the men they married and forced them to be burnt alive (there's no concrete proof that the practices of sati and jauhar were absolutely voluntary) than navigate a life on their own after their husband's death.
The choice, especially for women, is a tough one.
The choice, especially for women, is a tough one. On one hand, they'll be inclined to stand up against hegemony and come out in support of a filmmaker's right to free expression and a woman actor's right to work safely, while on the other, from all accounts, Padmaavat is a film steeped in sexism of the 16th century kind – a time when women from royalty were currency in battles between kingdoms, traded to maintain peace and stop hostile takeovers. They were part of harems designed to keep kings happy and women engaged in bitter battle for territory. But there's a way out – it is possible to stand in support of an individual's right to an idea, and yet criticize that very idea for being anti-women. It's called democracy, a word tom-tommed at international gatherings of global leaders to highlight the Indian march.
There's irony in director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's response to the threats. "Come, watch Padmaavat," he tells the Karni Sena in a letter, capitulating before the aggressors and negotiating for peace. When there's no existing blueprint of what is potentially offensive to a particular caste, clan, people, or community, especially in creative content subject to interpretation, the filmmaker and the producers created a sorry precedent by negotiating with their hostage-takers. Had they approached the courts from Day 1, and refused to humour the thugs who attacked his sets and assaulted him, perhaps they would not have been emboldened enough to branch out their protests to multiple states with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the helm.
There's volumes to be understood also from the silence of the state leadership. Despite the Supreme Court's instruction to the states to ensure that the film is released without incident, violence continued for over two days unabated. Scores of protestors were arrested and there was a clamour online to stop calling them activists and start calling them terrorists for what they have unleashed. Can it be possible that the might of a state's machinery is unable to contain a handful of vandals from burning scooters outside malls and at traffic intersections?
The Prime Minister, who's extolling India's glory at Davos at the moment, is yet to condemn the violence. So far, BJP leaderSubramanian Swamy said films such as Padmaavat "open old wounds", and that is why they should not be made.Junior Minister for External Affairs VK Singh said "freedom of expression doesn't give us any right to tamper history."
"We should pacify and resolve the situation by talking to the people, who are protesting against the film. They should be asked about their concerns and objections in the film. Whenever there are clashes of interest, things will certainly be messed up," Singh said. Except that a person's right to make a film cannot and should not depend on a community's objection to it. This will set a dangerous precedent for local protest groups willing to get their way through the blackmail of violence.
Make no mistake, the Karni Sena has much wider political ambitions. Since its inception in 2006, and Ajeet Singh Mamdoli's subsequent break-up with Lokendra Singh Kalvi based on political differences, the Sena has been desperately looking for a cause, apart from Rajput rights, to make their agitations mainstream.
Their growing clout would have given them just the right image booster ahead of Madhya Pradesh assembly elections to serve as foot soldiers of nationalism – a script we have seen play out over and over again in the past few years – for any party willing to side with them. They might just have been handed the perfect opportunity.