The roots of Rajput anger are a combination of various events that have happened in the recent years. An accumulated past of wrongs finds a new fireplace on which to stoke its ire. Such perceptions are shaped by a sense of identity attack, and seeming irrelevance. Events have conspired to create this perception, and a sense of victimhood in Rajasthan is seamlessly transmitted to fellow Rajputs who share the digital space.
They, in turn, inform the unconnected. Hence the mammoth gathering of Rajputs in Gandhinagar to protest against the supposed visuals in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s upcoming extravaganza on Rani Padmavati. Voices are being raised in various pockets and parts of the country, wherever there is a Rajput presence. Discourse on community history in the age of social media knows no bounds.
Identity is rooted in those stones on which Rani Padmini performed ‘jauhar’ more than 700 years ago. Her sacrifice continues to reverberate through ballads and folk tales. And every year on that date, by the Indian calendar, a vast gathering takes place in Chittorgarh to remember her and the hundreds of women who immolated themselves. Rajputs predominate in the gathering, but are not the only ones there who pay their respects. The ‘Johar Kund’ in Chittorgarh occupies the same status as does, for example, the Ka’ba, the Wailing Wall, or the Church of Nativity. It becomes a principal of faith, and identity.
In a country that has been vivisected by faith, sensitivities continue to run high when it comes to matters of belief. History and memory shape belief. Not the textbook variety of history, but the one that is passed down through generations of village fireside talks and gatherings. The Shi’a marsiya has a Rajasthani equivalent, and it is through this medium that the message of Rani Padmini traveled hundreds of years, to become a sacred memory. So any visualisation, depiction, other than one rooted in popular perception comes to be taken as an affront, an insult, thus adding to the crisis of identity in the modern political milieu.
Rani Padmini’s ‘jauhar’ elevated her to goddess-hood. Though she is not worshipped in a ritualistic sense, the former Queen of Chittorgarh now resides in the sanctum sanctorum of the holy. Hers was the first of three major Sakas performed in Chittorgarh. The last of which happened during the siege launched by Akbar. It is for this reason that Akbar is not regarded as ‘The Great’ in Rajasthan.
Much like Tipu Sultan and the Kodavas of Coorg, there is a local version of story telling that prevails in the public sphere in Rajasthan. And the local tale overrides all other versions.
In the case of Rani Padmini it is the particularly hated Allauddin Khilji who is considered evil personified. Therefore any image of Khilji in the proximity of Rani Padmini is taken as an affront, to community, to identity, and to a self perception built up over centuries of story re-telling. A marsiya recounting the martyrdom of Imam Hussain in Karbala finds its local counterpart in Rajasthan, in pristine purity.
From her birthplace in Pugal, the romantically beautiful desert oasis in Bikaner district, to her immolation in Chittorgarh Rani Padmini remains a venerated figure. And when that venerated figure is shown near a despised marauding invader a short fuse can light the ire of a community that carries a feeling of being wronged, repeatedly. Thus the demand to review scenes from the movie before its release. In an India where faith prevails over logic, and precedence shows the way, this demand is sure to gain further traction. After all India is not a post-enlightenment post-reformation society where faith has receded from public space. In fact the partition of India has only added to the awe of faith. And coupled with the awe in which Rani Padmini is regarded it is a combustible concoction with an easily available trigger to set things afire.
On 15 October 1988 a Joint Secretary in the then Prime Minister’s Office announced that India would not allow the screening of Last Temptation of Christ, becoming the first country to do so. It remained one of the few countries to ban that famous movie. Months before that India has also banned Satanic Verses, the book that led to its author Salman Rushdie banishment from public view. In August of that year a play in Malyalam, based on Last Temptation of Christ, was also banned. This precedence encourages more to demand the same, but in this case the current call is only to delete scenes that are deemed offensive to the sacred memory of Rani Padmini.
Since matters of faith continue to occupy the elevated sphere, the hallowed space, it is only logical to cool matters with a compromise. Allauddin Khilji’s sweet dreams are no reason to incite a people for whom memory and history are intertwined with identity, and a diminishing sense of self. A combustible situation is best handled by hosing down that which is deemed to be offensive.
The almost 100,000 people who came to express that demand in Gandhinagar were motivated by the ire of their clansmen in Rajasthan. It is for the first time that such a community gathering has happened in Gujarat, testament to the veneration accorded to Rani Padmini. Fear that her standing is being encroached by freedom to film, and depict, is incendiary to a community fiercely protective of its heroes, gods, and also those who are deemed goddesses. Rani Padmini is the first amongst them, and should be allowed to remain untouched.