It is difficult to understand why the Central Board of Film Censors (CBFC)—itself out of place in a democracy—was presumed to be the definitive authority about what celluloid offering would be permitted to get screened in public, and which completed movie would be returned unexhibited into the cans storing film reels. For, this is clearly not the case. An organisation terming itself the “Karni Sena” has given itself the responsibility of certifying whether a movie that none of its members has seen should be shown within the country. They have also grabbed for themselves the CBFC’s power to censor and edit the film, Padmavati. There are several who sought to jail Subramanian Swamy for writing an oped years ago that dropped out of view almost as soon as it was published. These individuals seem, however, reluctant to go to the police to complain about the threats made against the producer and actors of Padmavati. A public threat to cut off Deepika Padukone’s nose has been made by an individual claiming to represent the Rajput community, but who seems to instead be a disgrace to this or any segment of the country’s population. Another “Karni Sainik”—who is clearly aeons distant from the chivalry of the Rajput community—has offered a reward of Rs 5 crore to any individual who would be barbaric enough to do grave harm to producer Sanjay Leela Bhansali or actress Deepike Padukone. A munificent sum, when murder “suparis” of Rs 5 lakh are considered generous in Mumbai, given the city’s expanding population of illegals. In a country where FIRs rain down like confetti, none has been initiated against the members of the Karni Sena. Rather than on television screens, the Karni Sainiks should volunteer to go to Syria and Iraq to do battle against ISIS, judging by the ferocity and the fighting spirit they exhibit in television studios against a somewhat less formidable foe, Deepika Padukone.
Prisons in India are crowded by those who have never had the privilege of a day in court or even been formally charged. A young undertrial, who finds himself in jail for lack of money (to ensure that the police work for the truth, rather than follow the path designed to secure a bribe), may find himself moving past the threshold of senior citizenship before finally managing to extricate himself from a prison environment that destroys productive capacities through conditions that are exceptionally harsh. As they were when our country became free of colonial masters who regarded the people they ruled as trash, and behaved to them accordingly. Across much of the governance system, very little has changed in the laws and practices since 15 August 1947. In particular, most of the effective control over the administration is as firmly in the hands of the IAS, as it earlier was under the ICS, the traditions of which the successor service has followed with pride since 1947. As for the politicians who in theory run the system, these are regularly sent off Yes-Minister-style on grand tour after grand tour, moved from dazzling event after dizzying event, the news headlines they get being in inverse proportion to their success in imposing their preferences over those of the bureaucracy. Seeking to wrest control from the bureaucracy is a battle almost all politicians give up within weeks of assuming office.
An interesting result in a country that was divided on the basis of the toxic Two-Nation theory is that during some periods, those belonging to Community X get a much higher dose of immunity from prosecution for offences than others, while in other times, that benefit flows to Community Y. Depending, of course, on the particular composition of vote relied upon by a ruling party to cross the 35% threshold that almost always ensures victory in the Westminster “first past the post” system so faithfully copied in India. Or in other words, substantial power for a period of five years of huge financial resources and vast powers. The impunity with which the “Karni Sena” has been agitating against the release of a yet-to-be-screened film is indicative of the gap between formal and effective power. Another example is the way in which groups of unemployed youths stop vehicles transporting bovines, and in some cases, murder those at the wheel. These are of recent vintage, but those who trumpet that such conditions represent a change from the past, are themselves oblivious to the reality that similar takeovers of power have long been endemic in India. How else could state-owned banks give so many loans to individuals who clearly had not the faintest intention of repaying the same? How else could resources such as spectrum or coal been allocated on the shadowy preferences (expressed in yellow post-it stickers) of those devoid of formal positions of power who left powerless those with impressive formal titles?
After having stood by Victorian values and codes in matters such as criminal defamation or consensual relations between adults, the Supreme Court has fortunately defended freedom of speech. Hopefully, the Government of India will gain courage from this stance and put an end to the tandava of those who seek to prevent any expression of opinion that does not meet their standards or pander to their taste. A good place to start would be to stop the Karni Sena from its numerous acts of intimidation and worse. The UPA lost the confidence of the voter because of its supine attitude to serial misuse of authority by government agencies. The situation now is different, in that it is not government agencies but non-state usurpers of their authority who are working hard to make this country a global laughing stock. Refusal to take action against them must not be an option for a Prime Minister as committed to the imperatives of the 21st century as Narendra Modi.