The way the controversy surrounding the release of the film Padmavati, now renamed Padmaavat, has re-ignited itself ahead of the film’s release on Thursday, it appears as if it’s one of the most important issues facing the country. When the truth is, it’s nothing more than a case of a group of rowdies flexing their muscles, testing the limits of State patience, and all in the garb of protecting the Rajput community’s honour. In a country riven by caste and creed, any subject “advertised” to be hurting the sentiments of a community spread across large swathes of northern and western India, can be a political hot-potato. As a result, the governments that were asked to lift the ban on the film by the Supreme Court have gone into a state of limbo. Through their inaction they are allowing the Karni Sena and similar fringe groups to issue daily threats against those involved with the making, distributing and screening of the film, with bizarre news coming of thousands of women threatening to immolate themselves if the film is shown. Surely, Rajput honour is not so fragile that it can be dented by a mere film, and that also when the protestors have not even watched it. An imagined slight cannot be ground for such hysterical outbursts. In fact, even if there is an actual insult to a community—a charge that has been stoutly denied by the director—let them lodge their protest by refusing to watch the film. Let them convince their brethren not to venture anywhere near the hall where the film is being shown. But let not a rabid handful besmirch the name of a community that has a history of valour spanning centuries; or take away everyone else’s right to watch the film.
Just as the freedom to protest is fundamental to human existence, so are freedoms of choice and expression. It is these strains that give a democracy the right to call itself mature. But the moment protest descends into issuing physical threats, the minute it takes the form of hooliganism, it loses its place in a democracy. For, then it is a law and order problem, and has to be treated as such—with as much force as possible at the state’s command. The mob cannot be allowed to control the narrative or dictate the terms, which is what is happening in this case. It is the respective state governments’ job to provide protection to the halls willing to show the film and the audience wanting to watch it. Pleading helplessness to control the situation will be seen as complicity. If needed, the governments must confer with the true representatives of the aggrieved groups to gauge their anger—if the anger is as widespread as it’s being claimed to be. Attempts must be made to dispel the rumours swirling around the film. It also must be found if there is some devious conspiracy ongoing to ensure that the film’s makers incur huge losses.
Surely no one wants this country’s people to get equated with the radicals abroad who indulge in mayhem at the slightest hint of “blasphemy”. At the end of the day, it’s just a film.