Politics behind Indian film protests

By Wang Li Source:Global Times Published: 2018/2/4 22:23:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Late last month, the controversial Bollywood film Padmaavat was cleared for release by India's Supreme Court and has since hit screens across the country. The film, which tells the story of the 14th century Hindu queen Padmavati, has been accused of distorting history. Protests, riots and calls to boycott the movie have swept across India. Just who is this queen and how can a film stir such controversy?

Padmavati, who lived in the early 14th century, was a queen of the Rajput - numerous warrior castes in northern and western India. She reigned in Chittor, which was one of the most fiercely contested seats of power in Indian history, and is now a city in western India. Facing invasion by the Delhi Sultanate ruler Alauddin Khalji, Padmavati committed jauhar, or self-immolation, to protect her dignity and honor. It is a well-known story based on an epic poem, written in 1540 by Sufi poet Malik Muhammad Jayasi. Although historians are divided over the authenticity of Rani Padmavati, she has become a symbol with multiple meanings in contemporary India.

Ramya Sreenivasan, an associate professor at University of Pennsylvania said in her book Many Lives of a Rajput Queen: Heroic Pasts in Indian History (c. 1500-1900), Padmavati is widely considered as "the perfect model of Indian womanhood." She was mild, loving, loyal, faithful, unyielding amid calamity and ended up sacrificing her life for dignity. Such personality traits easily bring us back to Sita in Ramayana, another protagonist frequently upheld as the ideal model of feminine morality in traditional Indian society. During recent protests, women from Rajput claimed they would burn themselves as Padmavati did to oppose any distortion of the image of the queen in the film. This shows that even today, they remain victims of a male-dominated society, who are willing to sacrifice themselves to maintain an antiquated sense of loyalty.

While accusing the film of distorting history, some say the dignity of Hindu was trampled in the movie. In November last year, Janajagruti Samiti, a Hindu organization, said the film shows "contempt of Indian culture, traditions, civilization" and hurt "the religious sentiments of Hindus."

Analysts also noted that riots caused by the film stemmed from political considerations and politicians have turned the movie into a political tool. As Aditya Mukherjee, director of Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Advanced Study, Jawaharlal Nehru University, put it in The Washington Post, "This has got nothing to do with history and everything to do with politics. It's an attempt to mobilize support and votes on the basis of identity issues."

Among Indian states that have fiercely boycotted the film, 37.5 percent of people come from Rajput groups in Himachal Pradesh and 6 percent from Rajput population in the state of Gujarat, according to media reports. There are also quite a few Rajput groups in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, which will have legislative assembly elections in late 2018. Some parties are attempting to use the controversies over Padmaavat to draw votes, or at least dilute their concentration on issues such as education, poverty or employment. Sociologist Rajiv Gupta said in Hindustan Times that "to turn attention away from its political and economic failures, the BJP is directly or indirectly giving support to religious and caste identities."

Meanwhile, Lokendra Singh Kalvi, leader Shri Rajput Karni Sena, an organization that has been leading protests against Padmaavat, has lost the last two elections. But his organization is now gaining influence, which will no doubt be useful in Kalvi's next election. Jayasi's "Padmavat" exquisitely explores the relation between Atma (self) and Paramatma (supreme principles) through secular and devout love. The acts of violence motivated by political and religious ideologies are a great distant from the poet's spirit.

The author is an associate research fellow of the Center for Indian Studies at China West Normal University and a postgraduate at Jawaharlal Nehru University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn


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