Assertion of caste, regional, ethnic, religious and national identities are characteristic of new democracies, as groups previously lacking consciousness wake up to their identity and seek a place in the sun.
The opening up of the power structure by the establishment of democratic institutions and the institution of elections helps mobilise there entities which had been inchoate and dormant.
But the assertion of these identifies may well abridge or wholly deny human and constitutional rights of individuals and other rival groups.
Numerically and economically strong and well organized social groups, tend to impose their particular will on the entire society riding roughshod over individual rights or the rights of smaller and weaker groups.
Constitutional guarantees of individual rights and equality before the law are disregarded. The State, which is meant to guarantee constitutional rights, wilts under pressure as these powerful and well organized groups arrogate to themselves the sole right to voice the “popular will”, which in fact, is only their “sectional will.”
Threats of violence are openly voiced and intimidation is brazenly resorted to, as the State abdicates from its constitutional responsibility to ensure the freedom of all and guarantee human and constitutional rights.
When the victims approach the courts for redress, the State would argue that individual rights have to be curtailed to lessen the chance of a disturbance to normal life or “law and order” as it claims. That it is the constitutional duty of the State to maintain guaranteed rights against threats to peace is disregarded. Courts often side with the State as the easy way out a messy situation.
A case in point is the on-going violent movement to get the INR 1.9 billion (US$ 30 million) Bollywood film Padmavat banned, because it allegedly shows Padmini or Padmavati ,the Queen of Chittor in Rajasthan, dancing in the dream of a Muslim Sultan, Allauddin Khilji, who was lusting for her.
How could a Queen who is a revered as a Goddess for ritualistically immolating herself to avoid capture by a Muslim Sultan be shown romancing with him? How could a Queen of Rajput caste be shown publicly dancing in the ‘durbar’ when such a thing would never have happened?
It was a fringe Rajput group, “Karni Sena”, which began the protest by vandalising the film’s sets. It accused film maker Sanjay Leela Bhansali of “distorting history” and hurting the self-respect of the Rajput caste. Bhansali’s plea that there was no romantic scene between Padmavati and Allauddin Khilji fell on deaf ears.
The Censor Board’s clearing the film with a few changes, and the Supreme Court’s refusing to ban the film, made no impact on the agitation and three states, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, banned it. (But have now been told by the Supreme Court to screen the film and obey its directives). A Rajput group in Haryana even put a price of INR 100 million (US$ 1.5 million on the head of Deepika Padukone who played Padmavati. It now says that 1098 Rajput women will commit self- immolation on January 24 in Chittor, if the film is not banned.
Although the 16 th. Century writer of the original story Padmavat, Malik Muhammad Jayasi, had himself said that it was a work of fiction, and historians are still not sure if Padmavati actually existed, Rani Padmavati or Padmini, had been made part of history and idolized as an embodiment of Rajput chastity and valor.
With caste identities being revived to serve political ends in the post-independence democratic era, the cult of Padmavati has been made to serve as a rallying point for the Rajputs, who are facing a challenge from other land owning castes like the Jats in several North Indian States.
Unlike in Western countries, where it is left to the individual to see or not to see a film, read or not to read a book depending upon his or her likes and dislikes, in South Asia and in the Indian sub-continent especially, communities often make decisions for individuals on these matters.
There was much criticism about the film, Victoria and Abdul which caricatured the British Queen Victoria in many places, but no one in the UK, least of all the Royal family, demanded its ban. But in the Indian sub-continent, notions of communal rights take precedence over individual rights. A community’s right to assert its identity and power is superior to other considerations.
Perhaps this is so in all nascent democracies in multi-ethnic states where the first socio-political groupings to be mobilized for political purposes are primordial identities like kinship, caste, ethnicity, religion, region etc. The political role of communities gets accentuated when the State and politics begin to play the dominant role in determining one’s status, power and economic position in the society. And in the initial stages of nation building, the State and State power play the dominant role in all matters.
High profile and even aggressive assertion of nationalism is another characteristic of emerging nation states in South Asia. Such assertion is considered necessary to establish the nation state, which is itself a new concept in these parts. The need to display and assert nationalism arises to main the new country’s identity as distinct from the rest of the world.
The need to assert “nationalism” takes place not only in wars with other nations but also symbolically. Forcing bans on products, films, artistes, writers and sometimes trade too are ways of expressing nationalistic sentiments.
Usually softer but high profile products or activities are targeted as bans on these are easy to implement. They also give maximum publicity. An example of this is the Indian ban on playing cricket with Pakistan or Tamil Nadu’s ban on Sri Lankan cricketers. It is easier to ban Pakistani players or artistes or to ban Sri Lankan cricket players, than to go to war with Pakistan or force Sri Lanka to yield to the Tamils’ demands.
Banning Taslima Naseen’s works or triple talaq is a way of mobilizing the support of Muslims in lieu of giving Muslims real and substantive help to advance in life through meaningful socio-economic schemes. A ban is a cheaper option to express a politically relevant sentiment.
And this cheap option is and has been exercised regularly. The first case of a ban in India occurred during British rule in 1936, when Katherine Mayo’s Face of Mother India was prescribed to placate the rising nationalist sentiment among Indians wanting freedom from British rule.
With nationalistic sentiments and passion for Indian symbolism running high immediately after independence, Aubrey Memen’s play: Rama Retold which urged readers to laugh at the Ramayana, was banned in 1956.
Nationalist and community leaders, who are hailed by the dominant political force of the day, cannot be criticized or their characteristics brought out with all the warts. Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama a book on the events just before Gandhi’s assassination, was banned in both India and Pakistan in 1962. In 1960, Arthur Koestler’s The Lotus and the Robot on a journey through India was banned as it described India as being “spiritually sicker” than the West.
Nehru: A Political Biography by Michael Edwards was banned in 1975 on the grounds that there were “factual errors” but actually because it hurt the then in the power Congress party. David Laine’s Shivaji: A Hindu King in Islamic India was banned by the Maharashtra government because it took a cold look at the Maratha and Hindu hero Shivaji. The Bhandarkar Institute in Pune, which helped Laine write the book, was vandalized. A storm of protest from Hindu nationalists led to Penguin India’s withdrawing Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History.
Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses and Tasleema Nasreen’s works were banned for “hurting the sentiments of Muslims” – who were a vote bank of the ruling Congress party.
The Gounder caste’s ire against Perumal Murugan’s Tamil work One Part Woman was so strong that the local police asked him to leave Tamil Nadu. Lacking State protection, Murgan withdrew his work and swore that he would not write again. However, after the Madras High Court ordered protection, for a change, he re-started writing.
Among films and documentaries banned are BBC’s India’s Daughter which featured a rapist and The Da Vinci Code. Some films have faced threat of a ban for featuring Pakistani actors. Hindu communal activists almost stopped Mani Ratnam’s Bombay.
Then there is a ban eating beef or transporting cattle for slaughter. Since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014, Hindu mobs State-backed “cow vigilantes” have lynched Muslims for eating beef or transporting cows.
Lawyers point out that though the Indian Constitution guarantees various freedoms, criminal laws have such a broad scope that anything can be portrayed as being objectionable. And the power to determine what is objectionable is with the well-organised, dominant and electorally significant socio-political groups rather than the constitutional institutions as such.