Held by the mob

The attack on a bus carrying schoolchildren on Wednesday must serve to jolt State governments across north India out of their hands-off approach to acts of vandalism by way of protests against the film Padmaavat . It took admirable presence of mind on the part of the driver to steer the children out of harm’s way when foot soldiers of the Karni Sena attacked the bus in the Haryana township of Gurugram. But coming at the end of days of violence in at least six States by protestors purporting to be upholding Rajput honour, this is the image India must confront: a busload of children ducking for cover as the state looked away. The image collectively frames the abdication of State governments in maintaining law and order in the face of violence by the rag-tag Karni Sena. For months, many of them have played an encouraging role in keeping up protests against the film, with the Chief Ministers of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, among others, issuing statements about the need for the film to heed the lines of history. Public viewing of the final version of Padmaavat as cleared by the Central Board of Film Certification has called the protestors’ bluff on their stated objections to its contents. But the mob is clearly led by its own narrative, unmindful of the reality of the film in question or of the historical blurriness in it. The mob rampaging against the film across north India in States ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party has demonstrated its ability to hold public order to ransom, no matter what.

The state has been repeatedly reminded of its duty to protect freedom of expression, most notably in S. Rangarajan v. P. Jagjivan Ram (1989), when the Supreme Court held that the government cannot cite the possibility of violence to prohibit a film’s screening. In fact, this month, after Gujarat and Rajasthan banned the CBFC-cleared Padmaavat , the court stayed the ban and iterated the state’s responsibility to maintain law and order during its screening. That State governments have chosen to mostly ignore the court order is evident from the decision of the Multiplex Association of India to not screen the film in Gujarat and Rajasthan, for fear of further violence of the sort that hit two Ahmedabad malls. The Karni Sena shot into the news in 2008 when it utilised the release of Jodhaa Akbar to affect caste/communal outrage over the story of Emperor Akbar’s ‘Rajput’ wife. That it would see an opportunity to consolidate its vigilantist credentials with Padmaavat is, in hindsight, a given. But it is a sobering conclusion that whether or not Padmaavat is remembered for its cinematic merits or shortcomings, it has become a byword for the government’s failure to control the mob.

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