Given the violence and the threats, it is perhaps not surprising that the producers of Padmavati have decided to ‘voluntarily’ defer its release. But irrespective of how this changed timetable plays out, the conduct of politicians over the past few days has been cynical and deeply unmindful of the rule of law. In February 1989, days after Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran had issued a fatwa against him for his novel The Satanic Verses , Salman Rushdie published an open letter to Rajiv Gandhi, then Prime Minister. He reminded the Prime Minister that his book had already been banned in India in October 1988, under the Customs Act, and that while issuing the curb on its import the Finance Ministry clarified that the “ban did not detract from the literary and artistic merit of Rushdie’s work”. “Thanks for the good review,” wrote Rushdie, adding that it appeared “as if your Government has become unable or unwilling to resist pressure from more or less any extremist religious grouping”. It is worth recalling that letter, as it provides a benchmark to map the race to the bottom in the current row over Padmavati . Today, as a number of Chief Ministers across north India rail against the film and threaten to disallow its screening without requisite cuts, there is no longer even that perfunctory clarification that their action has nothing to do with the artistic merit of the film. And it is no longer the case that the governments are unwilling to resist pressure from extremist groups such as the Karni Sena. Chief Ministers now are actually rallying opinion against the film to whip up caste and religious anxieties.
Yogi Adityanath of Uttar Pradesh has forged an absurd equivalence between “those giving death threats” and Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the film’s director, for “hurting public sentiments”. Vijay Rupani in Gujarat has taken a cue from Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh and called for a ban. This is in complete disregard of the Supreme Court judgment in S. Rangarajan v. P. Jagjivan Ram that the state cannot cite concerns about a “hostile audience” in curbing freedom of expression. Vasundhara Raje of Rajasthan, in fact, has argued that the “censor board” must go beyond just certifying a film, and should be mindful of the possible results after its release. And Amarinder Singh in Punjab has said he opposes a ban but “cinematic licence” cannot extend to twisting “historical facts”. The fact that these open appeals against cinematic expression are going mostly unchallenged across the political spectrum carries dark forebodings. The issue here is no longer Padmavati , its artistic merit or the factuality or otherwise of multiple retellings of the narrative. What is of real concern is the spectacle of state functionaries ignoring their constitutional responsibility in upholding free expression, and placing themselves alongside those out to intimidate, and release sectarian furies.