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On Babri Masjid demolition anniversary, exploring post-liberalisation Hindutva, through the lens of cinema

Today, 6 December 2018, marks the 26th anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid by a large group of Hindu Kar Sevaks. While the normal course in writing about the event is only to regard it as a ‘black day’ in Indian history, my own inclination is to wonder if more cannot be made of it, even if it is speculative.

1991 was a key year for India economically and politically because it marked the transition of India from its ‘socialist’ moorings to a more market-friendly future, and a question that comes to one’s mind today is whether the two happenings — about a year apart — cannot be connected. At that time no association could be made, but social and economic processes are usually related. My proposal is that the Hindi film can become useful here since it has consistently registered public anxieties and expectations with regard to socio-political happenings, and the economic liberalisation of 1991 transformed it — pointing to a change in the mindset of the public. The Babri Masjid demolition itself did not apparently leave a mark on film although the subsequent riots did, notably in Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (1995); still, a change in the public mindset can initiate disparate processes, seemingly unconnected.

If one was to characterise the mainstream Hindi film before 1991, one could say that it was marked by a strong element of social concern: virtually every film identified with the powerless against the powerful, the poor against the rich and it was granted that social conflict was widely prevalent.

Agneepath (1990), one of the films of the period still recollected, continued with the same ‘angry young man’ formula made popular by Amitabh Bachchan in which a boy from a poor family rises to prominence in an unjust world and rights the wrongs done to his family by someone powerful. Although the economic liberalisation was heralded in 1991, it took several years for the Hindi film to transform itself in accordance with public feelings, which had to become known. The regime of social concern continued in films like Damini (1993), in which the daughter-in-law from a rich business family sides with the maid who has been raped by her brother-in-law, and assists in sending her conniving in-laws to jail.

(L) Damini and (R) Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! were released just a year apart but the differences in how they portray the rich are miles away from each other

(L) Damini and (R) Hum Aapke Hain Koun...! were released just a year apart but the differences in how they portray the rich are miles away from each other. Posters via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps few comparisons would be more startling than the one between Damini and Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (1994) in their portrayals of the rich, and the latter film may be taken to be the first to register the neo-liberal era. Once it was publicly understood that the grand narrative of Indian history had seen a paradigm shift in 1991, Hindi cinema swiftly shed its earlier social concerns. In HAHK, the poor are installed as servants of the rich with the proviso that the rich are mindful of their well-being. HAHK is a landmark film but the aspect one finds repellent is the discourse that a class dependent on the charity and goodwill of another in the social hierarchy is only the natural order. Where social conflict was (rightly) seen as inevitable earlier HAHK banished the notion from film narrative.  Film narratives took different courses from then on but none of them admitted it back as indispensable. Films like 1942: A Love story (1994) and Border (1997) took recourse to patriotism — conflict only with external agencies like colonial Britain and Pakistan — while gangster films like Satya (1998) replaced conflict between social categories like classes with unbridled social Darwinism. Where conflict between social categories implied an eventual equilibrium materializing (through the resolution), these new films tended to see the ultimate submission of weak to the strong as the only resolution.

Whatever discourse the Hindi films of the period furthered may be taken to be only a reflection of the way people saw economic liberalisation. Economic liberalisation was a measure to get rid of the ‘license raj’ but it was probably misrepresented as a ‘withdrawal’. The state may pull out of areas in which it has needlessly invested (like the hotel industry and various unviable public sector enterprises) but its strong presence is necessary as regulator and enforcer. A misunderstanding by the public of what ‘liberalization’ meant is suggested by a key film of the period Baazigar (1993) in which the heads of two business families (played by Shah Rukh Khan and Dalip Thahil) battle it out with lethal weapons, while the police watch from a distance, as if declining to intervene. The result of the misinterpretation was the sharp weakening of the state after 1991. Since then, even public figures have been calling for more ‘withdrawals’ by the state, deeming these as essential to the nation. Business managers frequently celebrate the preference of the poor for private education and healthcare.

This piece pertains primarily to how the forces of Hindutva conducted themselves after the economic liberalisation of 1991, which was to take their earlier tendencies to a head. There had been communal violence throughout the 1980s but there was a new aggression in 1992. Hinduism is not an aggressive religion since it has tended to look inward rather than outward; Hindu systems of thought have been preoccupied with how to live in the world rather than remake it — least of all in accordance with ‘Hindu belief’. Hindu social practice has insisted on hierarchy rather than equality but it has also relied on a code of ethics (dharma) by which people at different levels have collaborated, traditionally content with their station. People of different jatis have their own origin myths that have enabled them to take pride in what they are, regardless of their position in the hierarchy.

Whether this is ‘right’ can be questioned, but it has still led to an enviable level of social stability. But my proposition here is that the social equilibrium brought about by the notion of dharma had a political counterpart in ‘Nehruvian socialism’ — as publicly understood (and reflected in the mainstream Hindi film). Dharma (an ethical notion infusing people of all religions) is perhaps too complex to be left to the public to act upon and the state therefore became arbiter; under ‘socialism’ the state was considered essentially just, regardless of its inefficiency and the lacunae in its functioning. In 1980s Hindi cinema (Tezaab, Pratighaat), the law is weak but nonetheless well-meaning. The crisis in Damini, one recollects, is resolved when the law triumphs — despite official collusion.

With the perceived withdrawal of the state from the public space after 1991, the conclusion of ‘socialism’ and the end to ‘equilibrium’, I propose, the importance attached to dharma as a relevant notion also weakened. Rather than groups negotiating with each other, they also began to seek ‘victory’. While the BJP’s more hard-line stance may have been inaugurated when LK Advani began his Rath Yatra in September 1990 and its popularity was growing (its Lok Sabha tally increased from 85 in 1989 to 120 in 1991), the newly aggressive forces let loose by liberalisation may have transformed the polity. That the aggression is not only confined to jingoistic and communal forces (Gadar: Ek Prem Katha) is suggested by Hindi films that defend dishonesty in pursuing enterprise (Bunty Aur Babli), assassination as a means of cleansing government (Rang De Basanti), and amorality and self-interest as natural in the socio-political order (Kaminey, Raajneeti). The new patriotism subsequently let loose is also different from the old kind and can justify the murder of innocents (Raazi).

Economic liberalisation could perhaps have been presented very differently to the public but it unwittingly created a milieu where aggression was turned loose, where the codes of dharma were weakened.

The ‘no holds barred’ electioneering in which the basest falsehoods and invective are not disallowed is only the natural consequence of this process — as are the political animosities in the public space. When Narendra Modi assumed Prime Ministership it seemed to some people that he would set about strengthening the state, and the demonetisation of 2016 could (charitably) have also been regarded thus. But none of this led very far; to all appearances the Prime Minister has been overcome by the forces of disorder/adharma to which he currently seems not unaccommodating. Instead of promising to make India a global power, 2019 is a reversion back to cows, statues and temples; still, rather than blame his party primarily, I would see this as the long term consequence of 1991, of which the demolition of the Babri Masjid was perhaps only the earliest violent manifestation.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.

Updated Date: Dec 09, 2018 10:00 AM

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