Movie violence threatens India's freedom of expression

Police guard theaters after Hindu mobs vandalize theaters and set fire to vehicles over feature film that 'distorts history'
Movie violence threatens India's freedom of expression

Armed policemen guard a movie theater in New Delhi on Jan. 25 as a controversial Hindi movie hit screens across India. The government took action as fringe group Shri Rajput Karni Sena violently protested the movie, saying it distorted history. (Photo by IANS)

Armed police stood guard at movie theaters across northern India on Jan. 25 to ward off violence from Hindu groups over the release of a controversial film, raising questions about freedom of expression and tolerance in the country.

A day earlier, mobs vandalized theaters, set fire to vehicles and engaged in violence on the eve of the release of the Hindi movie that features the relationship between a Muslim king and a mythical Hindu queen.

A hard-line Hindu organization, Shri Rajput Karni Sena, has been spearheading the protest against Padmavati for several months on the grounds that the movie offends their ethnic sensibilities and distorts history.

Since Jan. 23, unruly mobs have rampaged on the streets of several cities, particularly in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh states, after India's Supreme Court rejected an appeal by these states to help them ban the movie.

The state governments, run by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), wanted the court to retract its earlier order that stopped the states from banning the screening of the movie.

India is now witnessing "an unprecedented situation" where mobs are "enforcing their will rather than the state executing law," Archbishop Leo Cornelio of Bhopal, the senior Catholic bishop in Madhya Pradesh, told ucanews.com.

"There is no doubt that we should respect the sentiments of the people. But when the Supreme Court has passed an order, we are duty-bound to accept it rather than indulging in arson and violence."

He said the open threat defying the top court order "spells danger to the nation and it amounts to a violation of the right to freedom of speech enshrined in the constitution."

The controversial movie is based on a 16th century poem, Padmavat, and narrates the story of Hindu warrior clan queen Padmavati.

The poet describes how the 14th century Muslim ruler of Delhi, Alauddin Khilji, invaded Padmavati's Rajput kingdom because of his carnal love for her. After all her men were killed, she and other womenfolk immolated themselves to avoid being captured by Khilji, the story goes.

Several BJP-ruled states such as Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Haryana banned the movie's release even before clearance for screening from the Central Board Film Certification, the federal agency.

The movie has been cleared for release with some changes including tweaking the name from Padmavati to the poem's title, Padmavat.

The Supreme Court was stern in rejecting the appeals. "We passed an order and our orders are required to be complied by all," said Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, according to media reports.

The judge also said states cannot ban a movie citing "law and order problems" because it was the duty of state governments to maintain law and order. The exhibition of a movie, certified by the censor board, cannot be crippled, Judge Misra said. 

Political observer Gulzar Singh Markam said the controversy was politically motivated to suit the BJP, which controls the government in New Delhi and 19 of 29 states in the country.

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Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan states, where most violence is being reported, hold provincial elections at the end of this year as the terms of their BJP governments end. Rajasthan is also the home state of the ethnic Rajput people.

"The BJP presents itself as the champion of Hindu cultural pride. Such controversies will help the party to consolidate Hindu votes, especially when their governments have almost nothing to claim as administrative gains," Markam, based in Madhya Pradesh, told ucanews.com

The controversy erupted ahead of Gujarat state assembly polls last December. The BJP, in power there for 22 successive years, won a slender majority with 99 seats to retain power in the 182-seat house.

"This is a very dangerous situation. We live in a state where people are not ready to follow even the orders of the Supreme Court," said Bishop Jose Chittoopramapil of Rajkot Diocese in Gujarat.

"The mob fury and demand for a public ban of the movie are nothing but signs of growing intolerance," said the bishop.

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