Remember that scene from Jaaney Bhi Do Yaaron? You know the one: where Naseeruddin Shah and Ravi Baswani are being chased by the evil Tarneja and end up in the middle of a Mahabharata performance? What followed were surely some of the most hilarious moments of Hindi cinema, and the laughs were all at the expense of some of the most revered personalities from the Hindu epic.
If such a film were to be made today, some self-styled 'sena' or 'parivar', acting in the name of all Hindus, would have accused the actors of denigrating Hinduism and demanded a ban.
The law is clear that such "hyper-sensitive" individuals cannot be the arbiters of what is permissible in a society like ours but it is time to take the debate over the Hindi film PK to the next level: What are we, as individuals, and as a society, prepared to do to uphold our right to go to the cinema with our friends and families to see the movie of our choice?
The Aamir Khan-starring movie has been cleared for public exhibition by the Central Board for Film Certification and has been very popular with audiences, grossing over Rs 200 crore in its first week. But a section of the Sangh Parivar - that group of moral policemen who want to control what Indians watch, wear, sing, read, and eat, as well as whom they can love and where they can live - wants the film banned and has resorted to violence in several cities across BJP-ruled states like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra.
Though the majority of Indians who have seen and enjoyed the film are probably Hindu and there are no reports of ordinary moviegoers saying their religion was slighted in any way, those demanding a ban insist PK mocks Hinduism.
Prominent among the protestors is the Hindu Mahasabha. This is an extremist group whose founder, V.D. Savarkar, is part of the RSS pantheon of heroes and whose most infamous member, Nathuram Godse, assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.
While it is easy to laugh at the irony of organisations that are themselves undermining the sanctity of the Hindu faith now accusing others of blasphemy, the violence they have resorted to poses a challenge to the governments of Narendra Modi, Devendra Fadnavis, Anandiben Patel and Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Will they allow mob violence, or the threat of more attacks on cinema halls, to undermine the rule of law and the right of citizens to watch a movie they wish to? Or will they act firmly against the violent elements, even if they share an ideological affinity with some of them?
In the past, state governments from north to south have tended to turn a blind eye towards moral policemen, leaving cinema hall owners, art galleries, concert venues, bookshops and publishers to fend for themselves in the face of physical intimidation and violence. More often than not, movies, books, plays and exhibitions that politically influential mobs do not like end up being banned informally because of the failure of the police and state administration to provide protection to those in need of it.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that maintaining law and order during the screening of a film is the responsibility of the government and the threat of violence by politically-motivated mobs must not be allowed to violate the rights of the public at large. When the demand was made that PK be banned, the Supreme Court refused to entertain the matter. 'Don't see the film' was the sage advice the bench gave the petitioners.
Given the steady increase in the number of cases where mobs have used violence or the threat of violence to enforce their diktat, it is not enough for us to merely insist the government rebuff the demands for a ban on PK. That the Supreme Court has already said. What we must demand is that the police do their job, providing protection to cinema halls showing the movie, and acting pre-emptively against those organisations and their leaders that are inciting violence over the issue.
Whether it is the violent protests over PK or the aggressive 'ghar vapsi' programmes, the reason saffron extremists have behaved so outrageously in BJP-ruled areas is because they know they have the support of influential sections of the Sangh Parivar. But the Chief Ministers of these states took an oath to uphold the Constitution of India, and not the constitution of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or some other sectarian organization. They have a duty that they must discharge without fear or favour, something they have been reluctant to do so far. Anyone is free to call for a ban and protest peacefully. But if they take the law into their own hands and endanger the security and rights of others, they can and must be arrested, prosecuted and put away.
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