When Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis invited Raj Thackeray’s Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) and Karan Johar and other representatives of the film industry to his official residence on Saturday to broker a truce — after the MNS threatened to disrupt the showing of Johar’s film Ae dil hai mushkil starring Pakistani actor Fawad Khan — he diminished the fundamental pact between the citizen and the state. The “solution” arrived at, payment of Rs 5 crore by the filmmaker to an army fund, resembles the hafta given to assuage the local bully who has already intimidated the policeman. That there should be a price tag to law and order, that a filmmaker should have to pay money to ensure a violence-free passage of a film, speaks of the times we live in when nationalism is becoming a cover for an everyday assault on civility and freedom by assorted non-state actors. But most of all, it speaks of the stark abdication by the chief minister and his government of its responsibility to ensure and protect the rule of law.
But there was more than one cave-in in last week’s meeting in Mumbai. Karan Johar and other industry seniors had an opportunity — to take the moral high ground, to stand up to the bully, and to show up the cravenness of their government by refusing to compromise with the freedom of speech and expression. They failed, but what was far worse, they didn’t even put up a fight. Far from defending the liberty to make the film they want, with the actors they choose, Johar and Co. have let the MNS frame the issue as one that involves nationalism and patriotism. They did not point out the obvious: That the campaign of threat and blackmail, MNS-style, is not about anybody’s love for the nation. That it is, in fact, about the danger posed by the politics of hate and insularity to creative freedoms. The Fadnavis-led BJP may arguably have acted on the political calculation that propping up the MNS and legitimising its politics would help it undermine the Shiv Sena, which is becoming a competitive, troublesome ally. The film producers may have felt pressured by the large sum of money and the several livelihoods that ride on a film as big as Johar’s. But in the end, for their own reasons, both the chief minister and the film producer have let Raj Thackeray and his goons seize the canvas and stunt the frame.
Tragically, the Mumbai drama was devoid of any high principle, it was only about the tawdry terms of a monetary transaction, at a time when it could have been about Mumbai reminding the nation of the real power of the idea of India. It gets reaffirmed, and becomes larger, when artists from other countries, including and especially from Pakistan, flock to it, to work and to make it their home. That idea of India is made up of the promise of a system more open and free, institutions more rule-bound, and a society more liberal and tolerant of diverse ideas, minorities and dissent. It took a blow in Mumbai on Saturday.