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When popular culture is used to divide the Indian people

It has become an everyday experience in India.

Somebody or the other is offended by a book or a film. The people who are offended have not necessarily seen the film or read the book in question.


But they believe that it should be banned because, if they were to see it or read it, they are pretty sure that they would be offended.


   So, a politician can call for a ban on Pathan because he has heard that in one scene, the heroine wore a saffron bikini and this is clearly an insult to Hinduism. Even before a film is ready (say, Padmavati) activists will object to it without having read the script or without knowing very much about it. So they invade the sets or threaten violence at the cinema halls when the film is released.


   It would be a mistake to see this issue as the prerogative of Hindu fundamentalists or eager publicity-hounds. There has always been an intolerant streak running though Indian society. Pandit Nehru’s government banned books and magazines. Rajiv Gandhi banned the import of The Satanic Verses after protests from Muslim organisations. The film of Jesus Christ Superstar was denied a release in India because of Christian objections. More recently, Christian organisations petitioned the Manmohan Singh government to ban the film The DaVinci Code.


   Religion and identity-politics are nearly always involved. The calls for a ban in Kashmir Files and now, The Kerala Story, are framed in terms of standing up for Indian secularism and fighting communalism. The demands for bans come from those who believe that the films will create hatred against Muslims.


   The traditional liberal response to all calls for bans has been “if you don’t like it, don’t watch it. Don’t deny others the right to express themselves.”


   So far, most liberals have stuck to that position even when they are deeply opposed to the films in question. The campaign to ban The Kashmir Files never got off the ground because of a lack of support from liberals. And now, even as Bengal has banned The Kerala Story and others have advocated boycotts, liberals have held firm. The likes of Shashi Tharoor and Shabana Azmi have come out strongly against any ban on the film while making it clear that they do not approve of the way in which the movie portrays the situation in Kerala.


   While this is a position that is entirely consistent with liberal values it is also, in the medium term, a pragmatic stand. Once prominent liberals start calling for bans on films that express a Hindutva point of view, they will lose the right to complain if the government (which loves The Kerala Story; the Prime Minister even praised it on the campaign trail) starts banning films that advocate a more inclusive, less hate-filled view of the communal situation.


   Nevertheless, there is a growing backlash against the liberal let-the-people-decide point of view. If you look at responses on social media you will note that some of the objections to the liberal position are from the hard left (which has no tradition of respecting freedom of expression anyway) and from organised troll operations, based perhaps in neighbouring countries which have a vested interest in inflaming communal tensions in India.


  But many of the responses are genuine and authentic. They come from Muslims who fear that cinema, the most potent instrument of popular culture, is being used to paint them as jehadis and fanatics, as people hostile to Hindus or to India itself.


 "But what happens when the next lot of films comes along? What do we say when films become even more openly anti-Muslim? And rest assured, they will."

   It is all very well for liberals to talk about freedom of expression, they say, but what about ordinary Muslims who feel targeted and helpless in the face of this sort of portrayal?


   What about Muslim children who are treated as jehadis or enemies of Hindus by other children who have been brainwashed by such movies? While liberals will keep patting themselves on their backs for their adherence to their values the vitiated atmosphere will ensure that ordinary Muslims pay the price for liberal grandstanding.


   And there is a second argument. It is a variation of that classic question that haunts liberals: should they support those who want to destroy a free society by treating them as just another lot of people with a different point of view? Surely, a free society must deny a platform to those that would destroy it?


   The Indian version of this argument is: are liberals letting a secular, pluralistic and diverse India down by supporting those who would destroy such an India and by allowing them to spread communal poison?


   Both are serious and valid arguments. While I am clearly on the side of the liberals, along with the Tharoors and the Azmis, I do see that the road ahead is filled with dangerous challenges. We can say that The Kashmir Files is okay. That The Kerala Story is fine even if it distorts facts. That’s very liberal of us.


   But what happens when the next lot of films comes along? What do we say when films become even more openly anti-Muslim? And rest assured, they will. Both The Kashmir Files and the Kerala Story have made money and received governmental praises. Other film-makers will want to make more such films. And they will now be even less restrained.


   Do we then say: no, this is now going too far?


   Because what is ‘too far’? Who decides that? Clearly you can’t leave it to this government which will co-opt such films into its politics.


   What objective criteria do we have for saying: “this movie shows Muslims in a bad light but is not openly communal so it is okay whereas this other one which shows Muslims in an even more negative light is communal and hence should not be released “?


   My sense is that very few liberals have thought that far ahead. We have offered up knee-jerk ‘freedom of speech’ responses to The Kerala Story based on our own liberal instincts. And at most times, this would be fine.


   But are these normal times?


   What does the future hold for the diversity and plurality that have characterised India’s democracy? By allowing this caricature of Muslims as the Other to advance further and further each year, are we not acquiescing in the normalisation of hatred and prejudice?


   People have pointed to the way in which the caricature of Jews as greedy blood-suckers who bled the Aryan nation dry was planted in the minds of Germans before the open persecution began. Or how, American popular media consistently portrayed black people as unintelligent and hardly the equal of white people till the Civil Rights movement started.


   Personally, I think these parallels are far-fetched. It is much too easy trot out Nazi Germany references. They don’t apply to today’s India. But I do accept that there have been times in world history — especially when confronted with prejudice and communal hatred – that liberals have stood idly by and let the haters take control.


   I am not changing my fundamental positions anytime soon. I am still opposed to bans and to curbs on freedom of expression. I have always opposed the intolerant streak at the heart of India’s governance through the ages. And I will continue to do so.


   But yes, I do think we should debate how to respond when popular culture is used to divide the Indian people. India is changing. Perhaps our responses should change too.




  • Bernd Haas 14 May 2023

    It's a great point, and every country should do better to unite every people! Great insights!
    Blumenversand Deutschland

Posted On: 11 May 2023 11:00 AM
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