Indians have not overcome the tendency to make history moral
The saga of Padmavati, now called Padmavat, seems to be sputtering to a close. The Central Board of Film Certification can pretend that there was something so objectionable about the film that it had to bring in two historians and a gentleman of princely descent for advice to make it fit for an infantile public. Perhaps by changing its name into that of the romantic poem on which Sanjay Leela Bhansali professedly based his film, the CBFC feels that it can justify passing it by distancing it from what rumour claims is history. But the CBFC's reasoning is unimportant. What matters is that an institution of the government complied with the demand of vigilante mobs. Even the "panel" of historians and a blue-blooded gentleman was a show for the mob, which needs to be satisfied before it will allow the film to be shown. Thugs rule.
This frank avowal of the power of vigilantes, whether with the name of Rajput Karni Sena or any of the numerous others, was some time in the making. The controversy around Bhansali's film, when it was still being shot, was triggered by a rumour that Padmini, the Hindu queen and symbol of Rajput honour, was to be seen in a love scene with the invader, Alauddin Khilji, in a dream sequence. It can be inferred that the violence that followed was deliberately contrived - the rumour was an excuse - for a purpose. It muddled the idea of history, something that any dispensation with a specifically edited version of nationalism needs. History must be emptied of its generally known contents and filled in with myth, fancy, imported notions of honour, morality tales, new heroes and wishful thinking posing as fact to make it easier in the present to glorify 'Hindu' achievements and values, revive old hostilities and construct boundaries of exclusion. The redefinition of culture is allied to this programme. For the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the most important instrument for both is religion: in the case of the film, the mobs pretended to suspect that Hindu Rajput honour was being sullied by Khilji's lust in a dream.
What else did the vigilantes achieve? They reminded the populace of the power of violence in everyday life, and that creativity, scholarship and critical thought are irrelevant. The last has been made amply obvious by violence in universities, the murders of rationalists and critics and threats to others - the Humans of Hindutva site had to be withdrawn - and the repeated attacks on art, entertainment and literature. The hatred behind the attacks on artists and film makers should not be underestimated. Mobs did not stop at disrupting the shooting of Padmavati and destroying the sets; they slapped Bhansali. The threats to cut off noses and heads followed.
But this is not the first time that such a thing has happened. That it continues with increasing frequency over the years says something about the non-BJP, non-RSS population. This includes the collusion - willing impotence? - of non-BJP governments and institutions. Why could an entire country not prevent M.F. Husain's departure from its shores? Have any of those who destroyed his paintings and threatened him been punished? Named? What about those who forced Deepa Mehta to shift the shooting of her film, Water, out of the country because it featured Hindu widows? Have we been alert and active? Have we persistently demanded that such acts be punished or have we let repetition dull our resistance, even bore us a bit, as vigilantes, and the institutions behind them, chip away at the foundations of freedom and sanity?
It is as though somewhere deep down, we are not surprised. Especially when it is a work of art or a book or a film that is the cause of the apparently righteous rage. The tendency to moralize history and, consequently, ideas of culture is an old one, lying dormant to be excavated by a regime which wishes to whip up targeted ideas of patriotism and identity for its own use. Even when nationalism was thought by many to be a necessary emotion to build up resistance against British rulers, artists fell prey to the confusion between a moralized, identity-ridden history and creative freedom. "It should be understood, drama and history are not the same thing. In no play in any country is history perfectly delineated," wrote Jyotirindranath Tagore in Bengali in 1901 in a modest defence of his 1879 play, Ashrumati, set in Rajasthan. "...it is not proper to associate prominent historical characters with matters quite foreign to them," shot back his correspondent. "Everything has its limits, and even dramatic and poetical imagination with its great latitude is no exception to it." This is just one of the enraged letters and reviews (in the Bharatmitra for example) to which Jyotirindranath composed patient replies, drafting an apology (this letter has not been found) to "H.H. The Maharana of Oodeypore" as advised by a friend, who also mentioned how anger against Bengalis among influential Rajput circles was being fanned by writers in another language.
The main plot of Ashrumati, while celebrating the heroism of Rana Pratap Singh, presents the story of his fictitious daughter. She is kidnapped in infancy by the Rana's foe, brought up among Bhils, and later rescued from miscreants by Prince Salim, whom she reveres as her saviour and begins to love. Many of Jyotirindranath's admirers found this unacceptable. Some were leaders of society in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Rajasthan, where his plays, translated in Marathi and Hindi, were being performed. A Rajput princess, on top of that the daughter of Rana Pratap, indomitable in the face of Mughal incursions, loving a Mughal prince? Jyotirindranath's claims for creative freedom, his repeated assurances that the girl's story was entirely imagined, his effort to explain that art has its own logic - a girl unaware of her birthright, her religion, friend or enemy, could innocently love her rescuer - did not matter. Instead, he had to reiterate his great reverence for Rana Pratap and keep quoting an excerpt from his play to show how the Rana's honour remained unsullied. Not only had Salim not touched her, but she would also become a hermit as her father ordered her to expiate the sin of having loved him. That Jyotirindranath's attempt to create a proud past included a generous and honourable Mughal prince too became irrelevant.
Have we moved on at all? Jyotirindranath walked into the trap of moralized history and identity politics in his enthusiasm to 'create' feelings of patriotism and pride in the past. He, like many writers of his time, before it and after, drew on the material for stirring tragedies and romances provided by the depiction of history in James Tod's Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, published in 1832. In his earlier play, Sarojini, a Rajput princess is saved from an Iphigenia-like fate by her fiancé. When later, as her husband, he is killed by Alauddin Khilji's soldiers, she commits jauhar in a rousing climax for which a youthful Rabindranath provided a song. That was a runaway hit, perhaps because it did not unsettle prevalent notions of honour and distinct cultural identities. Jyotirindranath may have mistaken it for the triumph of imagination in art.
Even though the circumstances of Jyotirindranath's time no longer exist, when over-excited sensitivities may have had some excuse, Indians, for whatever reasons, have failed to place faith either in the objective possibilities of history or in the freedom of creativity and thought. The resultant confusions and moral timidity are there to be exploited by political parties and outfits focused on division. Since the history of people's evolving psyche cannot be altered by magic, the only way forward is unflagging resistance to every act of coercion and suppression of art and thought, and insistence on the use of law against those who destroy and kill in the name of nationalism.