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Three takes from the ‘Padmaavat’ saga

Prof Rajeev Bhargava, CSDS and Institute for Social Justice

This article has been originally published by The Hindu


Worse than the bland denial of the equality of free expression is a rude assertion of naked domination

What does the continuing painful saga of Padmaavat tell us about ourselves and about social and political life in contemporary India? At least three messages are getting conveyed. First, that freedom of expression is important, not only to those who publicly affirm its value but paradoxically even to those who show scant respect for it.

Why do I say this? All groups baying for a ban on the film know that they could not have moved even an inch towards their goal if their freedom to express themselves was restricted, and if the fullest possible range of media tools — print, electronic, and digital — was not at their disposal. If they were prohibited from using public media, they would be able to neither build public opinion nor put pressure on the government. Just imagine if state power was in the hands of a group with zero tolerance towards the very idea of ‘jauhar’ and who were so incensed by even the slightest hint of its appreciation that they slapped a gag order on its proponents! Would this issue then ever come in the public eye? Has not the constitutionally guaranteed right to free expression enabled these groups to nurture their views in the past or to articulate them today?

The need for free expression

And this, indeed, is how it should be. For, human beings are fundamentally expressive creatures. Expressing themselves is as important to them as eating or sleeping. Conveying their beliefs, desires and feelings through bodily performance, oral and written speech, in some public medium, is quite simply a human necessity. We take this so much for granted that its centrality is recognised only when we are deprived of it. Since in contemporary democracies, the opinion of each person matters and can be included in the decision-making process only when publicly expressed, this wider human need to express freely has acquired a greater salience than ever before. Those who think that freedom of expression is a luxury only for English-educated liberals, a preference of a small westernised elite, are deeply mistaken. Equally off-target are those who think that, because their sole aim in life is to make two ends meet, the poor have no need for free expression. It is now widely recognised that man-made disasters affecting the poor have been averted only because of the presence of a free press — famines began to disappear when committed journalists were able to publicly highlight the distress of those affected by droughts. Indeed, free public expression by the powerless and the vulnerable is a condition of every popular struggle against injustice and oppression. For instance, our anti-colonial struggle against British imperialism depended fundamentally on the free exercise of speech. The less controls there were on popular expression of grievances, the more the struggle for independence grew.

Reassertion of hierarchy

So, if virtually everyone recognises the importance of freedom of expression, what’s the current fuss about? Alas, the second message transmitted through the Padmaavat episode is that the right to free expression of some groups is more important than that of others. The underlying belief of groups like the Karni Sena is that freedom of speech should not be content-neutral but be tied to their own preferred content. So only those people who toe our line, who have only positive things to say about us, are free to say something; any speech that sheds a different light on our views, that even mildly question our favoured narrative should be stamped out. Virtually anything deemed disagreeable hurts our sentiment, and what hurts communal sentiment has no place in public life. ThePadmaavataffair demonstrates that any group that musters power and rustles up a mob has the freedom to communicate to others that relative to their own right, the rights of others have little or no value, no matter how reasonable or sensible the latter’s approach, and even when done in the fictional domain of the arts. In short, what we are witnessing today is reassertion of hierarchy: freedom of expression is a right that can be exercised only by those with a particular mindset or ideology. Others can go fly a kite. And for groups with such a mindset, everything is permitted — even violent threats routinely regulated in civilised societies.

A third message alarmingly conveyed today is even worse than the bland denial of the equality of free expression. At issue, it seems, is no longer freedom of expression but the rude assertion of domination. The very significant value of free expression of most is sacrificed to install domination by a few. If representatives of a particular group can get tacit support from the party in power, then every other group, every institution including the guardian of our constitutional values, the Supreme Court, must bend to its will. As if calls to behead an actor of Padmaavat were not enough, both a respected, senior lawyer of the Supreme Court defending the public screening of Padmaavat and the head of the Censor Board that passed the film have been threatened. The film industry, a national treasure and one of India’s greatest exports, has been humiliated by, and made to grovel before, so-called fringe elements. In short, on display is the bizarre spectacle of a small group holding the entire nation to ransom.

And frankly, I fear for the State governments pandering to this group. Have we not, so often, seen Frankenstein devour its own creator?

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