Children are at the heart of the celebrations that commemorate India’s Republic Day, the day the country officially adopted its brilliantly progressive Constitution on Jan. 26, 1950. They come freshly scrubbed and brimming with wide-eyed enthusiasm to march in the customary public parade. The bravest among them are given awards by the prime minister. They are usually the most excited attendees in the stands on a misty January morning as India puts her full military might on display.
The events of this week have cast somewhat of a shadow over the celebrations. Millions of otherwise proud Indians felt betrayed, enraged and disappointed as we watched thugs armed with sticks and stones and bottles of petrol turn their fury on children and assault a school bus ferrying toddlers home. Sobbing children ducked under the bus seats, cowering in fear as they were pelted with stones. The mobs who terrorized the kids were “protesting” the release of the movie “Padmaavat,” a story set in medieval India, which they claim is offensive to the pride of their caste community of Rajputs. The film is based on the much revered Rajput queen, Padmini or Padmavati, who first appears in Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi‘s poem “Padmavat.” The vigilantes describe themselves as a self-appointed private “army” called the Karni Sena who have even threatened to cut off the nose of lead actress Deepika Padukone.
The bus attack was the latest in a series of incidents of arson and hooliganism that have erupted across the northern states of Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana, in a depressing abdication of law and order by the ruling BJP administration in these states.
The unrest began a year ago when the film was still in production — meaning that these governments had 365 days to contain and crack down on any violence and mob mobilization. Yet these self-appointed militias, whose men sometimes brandish swords in a desperate attempt to claim grandeur, have been able to get away with virtually every coarse act of boorishness.
That’s up until now, when the 19-second bus video has become a sharp inflection point in the “Padmaavat” debate. The bus attack has cut horrifically close to the bone for middle- and upper-middle-class Indians. The site of the attack was in Gurugram, home to high-profile tech companies, fashionable expatriates, swanky skyscrapers and much-vaunted new-age entrepreneurship — a symbol, as it were, of New India. This open-for-business energy also found mention in an impressive speech by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the opening plenary at Davos this week, where he offered the world “a red carpet over red tape” in a country that will be the world’s fastest-growing economy in 2018, according to the International Monetary Fund.
But Modi’s messaging was unfortunately undermined by the atavistic mobs on the rampage in states governed by his own party colleagues. In addition to investors at Davos, the heads of 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations states, invited to be special guests for the Republic Day parade in India, were witness to this bizarre — and willful — administrative collapse all over one movie.
In India’s chaotic but always vibrant and argumentative democracy, crises fade as fast as they come, and so, too, shall this one. But this crisis raises a fundamental question: Where are India’s liberal politicians? Where are the authentic absolutists whom we can count on to stand for liberty every single time? Is there even one politician, across parties, who will consistently speak for the rights of Indians to eat what we want, have sex with whom we want, drink what we wish, wear what we want, read as we please — and, yes, make and watch the movies we desire? Is there any party that can plead not guilty when it comes to banning books and films in pursuit of a tiny sliver of electoral power?
When schoolchildren become the target of bricks and rods, it becomes immaterial whether “Padmaavat” is an incredible or inane film, or what part of it is myth and what part history. After this macabre episode, the political response has been incoherent and uninspiring. Sure, there has been perfunctory condemnation of the thuggish violence; opposition leader Rahul Gandhi blamed the BJP for “setting the country on fire.” But, with one eye on the Rajput vote and an imminent election, the India National Congress party has been as reticent as the BJP in directly taking on the lumpens of the so-called Karni Sena. Their spokesmen, usually daily fixtures on rambunctious TV debates, have mostly stayed away from prime-time discussions on the movie. Two senior politicians across the trenches, union minister (and former chief of the Army) Gen. V.K. Singh and Congress veteran Digvijay Singh have called for respecting the sentiments of the vigilantes, thereby effectively legitimizing them. Of course as the party in power in the states where hooligans ran amok, the BJP is primarily answerable for how arsonists came to hold law and order ransom. But the opposition cannot claim an ideological higher ground either.
And that’s how it’s gone down almost every time individual liberty has collided with group sentiment. Take all the raucous politics around banning beef. Even after the horror of mob violence in which innocent Muslim cattle traders have been lynched to death over false rumors, none of the major parties is ready to tell the state to get off our plates. Ditto for prohibition in some states, where women have been used to front the government crackdown on alcohol consumption.
Even liberal causes that should have been snapped up by a younger generation of politicians — decriminalizing homosexuality, for instance — were ducked by our parliamentarians and palmed off to the judiciary. Our legislators united when it came to marital rape; they simply declined to recognize it as a crime.
So, whether it was forcing acclaimed artist M.F. Husain into exile or putting a ban on books (Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses,” Taslima Nasrin’s memoirs, BJP leader Jaswant Singh’s book on Pakistan founder Mohammad Ali Jinnah, or James Laine’s book on 17th-century warrior king Shivaji — I could fill pages and pages with examples), India’s politicians, across parties, have let parochial caste and religious sensitivities set the boundaries for free speech.
On our 69th Republic Day, we may want to remember a word mentioned in the very preamble to our Constitution: liberty. We the people need to preserve it, fight for it and celebrate it much more fiercely.