By citing law and order as the reason for the Viswaroopam ban, the Tamil Nadu government has contributed to the stereotyping of the Muslim community as a problematic other

When Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa came out in defence of her government’s decision to suspend the screening of Vishwaroopam she certainly was not in sympathy with the Muslim organisations that wanted a ban on the film for having hurt Islamic religious sentiments. Although Muslim organisations hailed the government’s decision, she made it clear that more than hurt sentiments, she was worried about the threat to law and order posed by those opposed to the film on religious grounds.

None of the organisations openly opposing the ban issued any threat of violence, but the government evidently viewed them as troublemakers, and not just as religious organisations voicing, within the ambit of law, their sense of hurt at the manner in which Vishwaroopam depicted Islam and Muslims.

Of course, all governments speak of their apprehension of law and order disturbances while appearing to appease religious fundamentalists and extremists by enforcing bans on films and other art forms. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government, while banning The Da Vinci Code in 2006, stated that the release of the film might “lead to demonstrations and disrupt peace and tranquillity” in the State. But this time, another layer was added to such reasoning — the non-availability of adequate security forces — making the threat seem bigger. According to the government, only 9,226 police personnel were available for providing bandobast and protection to the 524 cinemas where the film was to be screened, and this would not have been sufficient. Security for Vishwaroopam would have required the deployment of 56,440 personnel. The government made it clear it was anticipating State-wide protests, buttressing this with intelligence reports on the “very real possibility” of violence at the 524 cinemas arising out of such protests. By this yardstick, it would not take more than a few people to bring normal life to a halt in Tamil Nadu.

Problematic assumptions

There are several assumptions behind these estimates: one, that the organisations demanding the ban were truly representative of the community as a whole; two, Muslims would come out in large numbers to participate in protests called by these organisations; and three, these protests would not remain peaceful.

All three assumptions are problematic. True, protests by the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam (TMMK) and the Tamil Nadu Thoweed Jamaath over the film on Prophet Mohammed, Innocence of Muslims, outside the American consulate and on roads in Chennai last September were violent. But this was because the police were totally unprepared for such protests, and did little to bring the situation under control. Police inefficiency and not a mass upsurge of Muslims was responsible for disrupting normal life at that time.

In other States

In other States with large Muslim populations, including neighbouring Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, the film was able to run without incidents of major violence. In Tamil Nadu too, there are other organisations of Muslims who were opposed to the demand for a ban on the film. But moderate voices in the community got no play at all. As a result, the Muslim community in the State has, in effect, been projected as prone to irrational violence at the slightest provocation, whether imagined or real, even though they are by no means extreme in their views and actions.

People have a right to protest what they see as objectionable as long as they don’t violate the law. But when the government overreacts to announcements of protest by Muslim organisations, and behaves either overly defensively or overly aggressively, then it aids in the stereotyping of the Muslim community as sectarian, backward in outlook and prone to irrational violence.

The TMMK is an ally of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), but the ruling party does not appear to have meant to give in to a few Muslim organisations with the aim of gaining their political support. No matter what the intention, the effect of the ban is likely to be the demonising of the minority community as a problematic Other. Threats to freedom of expression aside, the banning of films under the pretext of complying with the demands of a particular community could have grave implications in a State where the ruling party has at times pursued a majoritarian agenda. The impact of the Vishwaroopam controversy will be felt long after the commotion over it dies down.

suresh.nambath@thehindu.co.in