Padmavati controversy: Drama over Bhansali's film reflects collapsing democracy where State defers to fringe

Once upon a time, India had a lunatic fringe. The hotheads living on this periphery would sporadically attack individual freedoms, stalk couples on Valentine's Day as foot soldiers of the moral police, and bully painters, writers and filmmakers for "offending" Indian culture.

There was a time when these thugs would be called out for what they were — goons operating on the margins. Back then, no political party would give these hoodlums political legitimacy, give their demands credibility by endorsing them.

The fringe, as the Padmavati row proves, has now been mainstreamed. It now has the blessings and support of not only the usual suspects, but also the state, and politicians from across the ideological divide. Padmavat's creator Malik Muhammad Jayasi would be ashamed of himself. His 16th-century fictionalised poem was meant to be an account of the ultimate union of the soul with the almighty. Instead, several centuries after his death, it has united India in a chorus of irrationality and illegality, led to a union between the fringe and the mainstream.

 Padmavati controversy: Drama over Bhansalis film reflects collapsing democracy where State defers to fringe

The fringe, as the Padmavati row shows, has now been mainstreamed

That the Karni Sena is demanding a ban on Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film is, per se, not the problem. In a democracy every group has the right to raise its voice and demand its grievances, imagined or real, be addressed. The real problem is that instead of resorting to legitimate means — dialogue, debate and protests — the Karni Sena has unleashed violence and created an environment of fear, which, incidentally, has always been its modus operandi. In the past, its members have defended the brutal burning of Roop Kanwar on her husband's funeral pyre, ex-communicated the Jaipur royals for allowing their daughter Diya Kumari to marry someone of her choice and unleashed terror in election rallies of chief minister Vasundhara Raje. It is a separate story that both Raje and Diya Kumari, former victims of Karni Sena's penchant for violence, are now supporting their demand and tactics.

Mature democracies find legal, rational and democratic ways of dealing with demands and protests. Invariably, this process begins with the state turning into an arbiter to find out if the demand is legitimate and can be addressed within the legal and constitutional framework. But, even if a demand is legitimate, the state does not allow violence, threat, thuggery and blackmail. When that happens, it deals with the perpetrators with a steely resolve and firmness. It comes down on them with its full might.

The Padmavati saga shows that India has degenerated so much that instead of acting as an arbiter, the custodian of law and order, the state and its principle actors have genuflected to the fringe. They have not only abdicated their responsibility but have also added their voice to their illegal and irrational chorus for a ban on Padmavati.

Where else in the world except for in medieval caliphates run by terror groups, banana republics and tinpot dictatorships would threats of violence and murder be ignored in the manner that it has? Lumpen elements, office bearers of political parties, members of the Karni Sena are openly threatening to physically harm artists, offering bounties on their heads. And like the darbaris watching the disrobing of Draupadi in silence, the custodians of law are not only watching but lending political and moral support to the fringe.

The Madhya Pradesh chief minister is now officially their leader. Without bothering to explain what is wrong with Padmavati, acting on hearsay, bowing to thuggery, Shivraj Chouhan has arbitrarily banned the film. Forgetting his responsibility of separating fact from fiction, rhetoric from rationale, he has pronounced his verdict and punishment without a fair trial. The governments of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan too would have done that, but Chouhan has managed to get off the blocks first.

What is scary here is that politicians across the divide have suddenly morphed into defenders of their faith and imagined histories, not the rule of law, and freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution. Notice how Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh has joined the clamour for saving the honour of Rajputs, and by inference, the perceived history of former rajahs and maharajahs like himself? In doing so, he has betrayed his feudal mindset, sent out a message that when former rajahs and maharajahs line up to defend their past, even democratically-elected chief ministers would break the ranks to join the battle; that the former royals would put their identity ahead of their job.

What exactly is Rahul Gandhi's opinion on Padmavati, especially when a chief minister of his party chief ministers is backing the demand for a ban on freedom of expression, adding his voice to those of the bullies attacking artists and artistic freedom? Just a few days ago, he was mocking the NDA government for replacing stand up India with "shut up India". Why exactly has the putative president of the Congress now shut up, preferring to watch from the sidelines as freedoms are attacked by his own men?

This conspiracy of silence and cacophony of violence is scary. It tells us that when it comes to vote bank politics, caste identities and imagined histories, India's democratic institutions can be silenced and its guardians can be co-opted. That, when it comes to protecting its own interests, the political class can forget its differences and become a part of the dangerous fringe.

It is ironic. Padmavati's story, ultimately, is that of a woman who puts her honour above the love for life, who prefers death over surrender to a bully, who remains defiant in the face of adversity. If only our political class had an iota of her courage, resolve and self-respect, we would not have been watching the horrifying spectacle of India's core values being consigned to flames.

Padmini's story was of jauhar. The drama around Padmavati is about the blatant murder of democracy.

Updated Date: Nov 21, 2017 15:24:55 IST