Karan Johar controversy mirrors rising populist politics

The agreement hammered out between the producers and Raj Thackeray, under the auspices of the Maharashtra government, is reminiscent of an incident in 1969.

Written by Gyan Prakash | Updated: November 4, 2016 12:23 am
fawad khan, karan johar, fawad khan ban, ae dil hai mushkil ban, pakistani actors ban, dharma production, karan johar production, cinema hall protection, ae dil hai mushkil screening, indian exrpess news, india news, latest news, ae dil hai mushkil release, entertainment news Even more disappointing was Bollywood film producers’ subsequent surrender to Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray’s demand that they not include Pakistani actors in films.

It was painful watching Karan Johar’s video, proclaiming his nationalism, pleading for the peaceful release of his film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil. Even more disappointing was Bollywood film producers’ subsequent surrender to Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) chief Raj Thackeray’s demand that they not include Pakistani actors in films, Karan Johar pledging to donate Rs 5 crore to the Army Welfare Fund. But perhaps the film industry should not be faulted. Their submission speaks of a larger and longer historical failure of the ruling political class to defend democracy.

The agreement hammered out between the producers and Raj Thackeray, under the auspices of the Maharashtra government, is reminiscent of an incident in 1969. Then, Bal Thackeray declared that if the Central government did not cede the Marathi-speaking districts of Karnataka (then Mysore) to Maharashtra, he would ban New Delhi’s leaders from entering Mumbai. He carried out his threat in February 1969, when Morarji Desai, the deputy prime minister, visited. As Desai’s motorcade attempted to avoid the Shiv Sena crowd, all hell broke loose. Thackeray and other Sena leaders were arrested. Sena activists went on an angry rampage, burning shops, torching buses, attacking police stations. The army was put on alert. The Congress government stood helpless. Ultimately, it had to suffer the ignominy of requesting Thackeray to issue an appeal for calm from his prison cell. The government distributed his statement. The Sena tiger had become the keeper of the zoo.

The Congress government’s failure to maintain order was not new. Immediately after its founding in 1966, the Sena under Bal Thackeray emerged as a populist force. In the name of pressing the claims of the Marathi manoos, it attacked South Indians, targeted Muslims and rioted on the streets. Maharashtra’s government under V.P. Naik watched the Sena’s rise from the sidelines — and even encouraged it because guns were trained on the Congress’s political enemy, the communists.

The Sena grew from strength to strength, practicing the politics of violence on the streets. In 1998, the Srikrishna Commission indicted the Sena and several police officers for their role in the 1992-93 communal riots and recommended their prosecution. The Congress-NCP government, however, had little appetite to uphold the rule of law. It zealously prosecuted conspirators of the 1993 bomb blasts — but lost its nerve in holding the rioters to account.

It stood by when the MNS ran rampant in 2008, cadres beating up people from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Under pressure, the government briefly arrested the MNS chief, but did little to uphold the rights of North Indians. Two years later, Bal Thackeray’s grandson, Aditya, set fire to copies of Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey, demanding its exclusion from Mumbai University’s curriculum. Instead of standing up to intimidation, the vice-chancellor meekly surrendered. The Congress chief minister went along.

Protest and demonstrations are a vital part of democracy. But the populist politics perfected by Bal Thackeray, now practiced by his nephew Raj, is something else. Democracy thrives on difference. A discussion of dissenting opinions, a negotiation between varied groups and divergent ideas, are the stuff of democracy. The Constitution provides for expression and settling of differences through political parties, the press, courts, civil society organisations and, of course, street protests and demonstrations.

Populist politics, on the other hand, thinks of difference only in terms of “us” versus “them”, the “people” against their “enemies”. There is no acknowledgment that the “people” may hold varied opinions — no, the “people” are a homogenous body whose opinions and demands are singular and expressed in direct physical action. The authorities must immediately acquiesce, for the “people” have spoken. There is no place for constitutional rights and legal procedures; the “people”’s grievances require swift redress, without the intervention of democracy’s mediating institutions.

With the ruling political class unable or unwilling to vigorously defend democratic rights, civil society institutions retreated. Bombay became Mumbai officially — pressure grew on the city to shed its multicultural heritage. Bollywood buckled; leading actors and producers regularly appeased Bal Thackeray during his lifetime. Recently, populism has taken on the toxic colour of hyper nationalism too. With Hindutva leaders and television channels fanning the flames, populist fires now threaten to consume any difference as “anti-national”. The nation demands, as one television anchor regularly thunders, that its enemies be identified and eliminated. Raj Thackeray spotted one in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and demanded that its screening be halted. It did not matter that the Censor Board had granted its certification to the film.

What is particularly troubling is that the Fadnavis government orchestrated the agreement between MNS, film producers and Karan Johar, blessing Raj Thackeray’s populist outrage. But then, the rot set in nearly five decades ago. The decay has only worsened as dominant political parties have privileged short-term gains over democratic principles and institutions. The only silver lining in the present mess is that several retired service officers have chosen to defend democracy and refused to play along with faux nationalism.

Gyan Prakash teaches history at Princeton University

For all the latest Opinion News, download Indian Express App

  1. T
    Trump Rules
    Nov 4, 2016 at 2:40 am
    This Ghan does not have courage to write against Yrump who will ban all Muslims. He is a stupid leftist professor at Princeton and he will be thrown out of USA soon. Then he can move to Porkistan and talk about human rights.
    1. K
      K SHESHU
      Nov 4, 2016 at 3:28 pm
      The K jihad govt deal reflects blackmail politics and corporate compromise by money exc change for running of ifilm industry
      1. a
        Nov 4, 2016 at 1:59 pm
        It's a complex situation---gt; govt headed by a guy who intellectually and ideologically is stuck in 1960s and 70's Manoj-Kumar's style of Deshbhakti movies......his visions, of Jawaan, Kisaan, Bhau-Beti, Bharat Desh Ka Garv, Bharat Mataa etc......are not just dated but also mythical / unreal----gt; and he is imposing both consciously and sub-consciously his views on the nation...... and many of his views are at conflict with the principles of democracy and our consutions....lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;and at the whiff of their master's wish---gt; his bhakts go on the rampage implementing these archaic and unreal visions of Bharat-Maata ki Izzat....and often times they have tacit support from the govt..and many times by the time govt realizes....too much damage is already done.......We have democratically voted this bufoon and his bhakts to power and have to bear him for 2.5 more years unless a divine internvetion takes out this govt earlier
        1. A
          Nov 4, 2016 at 8:41 pm
          Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera (c. 22 BC – AD 40) was a Roman soldier whose tombstone was found in Bingerbrück, Germany, in 1859.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Based on the claim of the ancient Greek philosopher Celsus, Jesus was born as a result of an affair between his mother Mary and a Roman soldier. He said she was \"convicted of adultery and had a child by a soldier named Panthera\". Tiberius Pantera could have been serving in the region at the time of Jesus\'s conception. Both the ancient Talmud and medieval Jewish writings and sayings reinforced this notion, referring to Jesus as \"Yeshu ben Pantera\" (Jesus, son of Pantera).
          1. G
            Nov 4, 2016 at 3:50 am
            Because Indira hi was por, so 1984 riots. Ram Mandir was made a por issue. Burhan, Kanhaiya, Hardik were made a por figures by none but Govt !!
            1. Load More Comments