It is bizarre enough that a fictional film, based on a half-fantastical 16th century epic poem by a sufi poet whose own life is historically uncertain, has become controversial for twisting historical “facts”. But now, the Yogi Adityanath government of Uttar Pradesh, politically India’s most important state, is pleading for a delay in the release of Padmavati for fear of law and order problems. Maintaining public order is the first responsibility of a government. It is the cornerstone of the compact between government and the people. The state claims the monopoly over the legitimate use of violence on the assumption that it will assure citizens’ right to live and speak freely, without fear. If Yogi Adityanath’s government is informing the Centre of its inability to keep the peace, it should consider standing down in favour of a more capable government.
The proffered excuse is also a clash of dates with urban body polls, for which security would be required. But the government is expected to keep the peace to the best of its ability at all times. The fact is, freedom of speech is being repeatedly curtailed in several states, many of them BJP-ruled, with Rajasthan being a serial offender in this regard. The state’s Karni Sena has issued a threat of violence to actor Deepika Padukone, who plays Padmavati, and has made the dramatic declaration of writing to the censor board in blood. Elsewhere, the latest embarrassment is playing out at the International Film Festival of India, where three functionaries have resigned following the urging of their conscience over the I&B ministry withdrawing two films, one of them apparently for the offence of being titled Nude.
Chief ministers of several states are being tested for their ability and willingness to protect the freedom of speech in these circumstances. But Yogi Adityanath has a special history of his own. On his watch, madrasas have been singled out on the plea of cleaning up the education system, there was the undue enthusiasm with which he went after the state’s abattoirs, threatening an important sector of the economy, and intemperate and bigoted statements have been made by BJP leaders, most recently on the Taj Mahal.
In the case of Padmavati, Adityanath has put the onus of law and order on filmmakers and other creative people. The letter to the I&B ministry, authored by the principal secretary for home, advises the Central Board of Film Certification to consider the public mood while clearing movies for release. In effect, Adityanath’s government seeks to outsource the core compact between the state and the people to one between the censor and the public. It has abdicated its core responsibility to keep the peace.