On Wednesday, two days before Republic Day, a schoolbus carrying children became a target of violent protests against the film Padmaavat on the Sohna Road in Gurgaon, next door to the national capital. Visuals of terrified children crouched on the floor of the careening bus amid shards of shattered glass have circulated since, making a captive, helpless audience of all. Those images, the questions they pose, are what the nation carries into this Republic Day. All the pageantry and commemorations of the coming together of a diverse people under a shared constitutional pact cannot blunt the edge of the questions: How did we get here? Who is responsible? And what is to be done?
The law must move against the Sri Rajput Karni Sena, of course. But this alone cannot be enough. A web of complicities has ensured that a little-known outfit that claims to speak in the name of the Rajputs has today become the centrepiece of a dismal nation-wide prime-time drama that involves — and diminishes — many of the republic’s institutions. It began with the Karni Sena and other assorted outfits of the so-called fringe threatening the filming of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s latest feature in the name of hurt Rajput sentiment and pride, and getting away with it. Bhansali’s set was vandalised, he was assaulted, his lead actors threatened and movie hall owners intimidated. In response, one after the other, institutions buckled. The CBFC asked that Padmavati be renamed Padmaavat. It was done and, among others, senior film industry stalwarts remained silent. Then, governments in BJP-ruled states refused to show the film, and even though the Supreme Court ticked them off, reminding them of their responsibility to uphold the rule of law and protect artistic freedom, it seemed to make little visible difference. That violence and arson by groups protesting a film they have not yet seen has spread across six states today, that the film is finally released amid fear and school shutdowns, is a sum of several, serial abdications.
In this country, an industry of hurt sentiments has flourished for long, only its lead protagonists have changed. Political parties and governments down the years have shown little passion for upholding the freedom of expression or an individual’s right to choose. This has only partly to do with the fact that defining this freedom itself is a vexed, fraught exercise in a society of many diversities and great inequalities, where education is failing in its role of leveller and technology is drawing communities into the public sphere mainly through incitement. It has to do, mostly, with the failure to institutionalise shared rules of the game that transcend partisans and parties, specific contexts and power equations. In his address on the eve of R-Day, President Ram Nath Kovind laid out one such rule: “Where one can disagree with another viewpoint — or even with a historical context — without mocking a fellow citizen’s dignity and personal space. This is fraternity in action.” The republic must listen to its president.