Mobs and Governments Are Silencing Freedom Of Expression

Mobs such as the ‘Rajput Karni Sena’, various BJP leaders, and BJP State Governments of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are acting in tandem to suppress freedom of expression and prevent the screening of the Hindi feature film Padmavati.

The mobs are claiming “insult” to the “honour” of Queen Padmini on the grounds that the film depicts some interaction between Padmini and the Muslim king Alauddin Khilji, whereas the traditional story of Padmini depicts her committing ‘jauhar’ (burning herself alive) to avoid being captured by Khilji. The mobs are threatening to burn down theatres and to “cut the nose” of actor Deepika Padukone because she condemned the threats to the film and said “the country is regressing”. A senior BJP leader Suraj Pal Amu has offered a Rs 10 crore bounty on the heads of Padukone and the filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

More worryingly, the Chief Minister of MP, Shivraj Singh Chouhan demanded deletion of some scenes as a condition for the movie’s release, and the Government of Rajasthan also demanded that the movie’s release be delayed. The UP CM Yogi Adityanath has gone further to say that Bhansali is as guilty as those issuing threats, and that if action is taken against the latter, then action must also be taken against the filmmaker! Meanwhile the Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh of the Congress has also accused the film of “distorting history.”

The fact is that there is little historical evidence for the Padmavati story. The origins of the story lie in the sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem, and there have been many retellings of the story since. Whether the Padmavati story is historical fact or fiction, any storyteller, poet, or filmmaker has a right to narrate their version of it, without threats of censorship or violence. Any narrative can be critiqued, but it is atrocious that filmmakers and actors should be threatened with violence.

What is notable in the Padmavati issue, apart from naked threats to freedom of expression, is that the self-proclaimed guardians of “Rajput honour” – from the Karni Sena to the RSS, in the name of opposing the movie, are pushing their communal and misogynist agenda of painting Muslim rulers as cruel, lustful oppressors who threatened Rajput womanhood. This agenda ties up with the RSS-BJP “love jehad” narrative that opposes relationships between Muslim men and Hindu women. The Rajasthan Government has recently made it compulsory for schoolchildren to be taken to a fair organized by Hindu right wing groups where such communal propaganda is openly peddled. Whether the Padmavati film also panders to these communal and misogynist stereotypes remains to be seen; but even if it does, the answer cannot lie in demands for a ban.

The CPI(ML) opposes all calls for censorship of Padmavati, and demands action against those threatening violence over the film. The CPI(ML) also condemns the decision of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to drop two films – S Durga and Nude – from the Indian Panorama section of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), though these films had been selected for screening by an independent jury of experts.