By lifting the ban imposed by four States on the release of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s period film ‘Padmaavat’, the Supreme Court has upheld the rule of law and freedom of artistic expression. It comes as a rap on the knuckles of the BJP-ruled States of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. They have banned the release of the movie even after clearance from the censor board on the ground that it would hurt the sentiments of people. Invoking the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of speech and expression, the apex court reminded these governments of their constitutional obligation to neutralise the threats of violence and maintain law and order. The court cleared the countrywide release of the movie on January 25. The State governments must take stringent action against those threatening violence and arrest leaders of fringe outfits like Karni Sena who had put out bounties on the heads of Bhansali and Deepika Padukone. The judiciary was forced to step in because the executive had not only abdicated its responsibility but also appeared to be siding with the protestors. There is no place for cultural hooliganism in a pluralistic democracy. The court has virtually read a riot act to States who took shelter behind the imperatives of maintaining law and order and respecting the sentiments of people while imposing the ban. It did the right thing by reminding the States that it was their bounden duty to ensure law and order, protect the lives of the people and guard their constitutionally guaranteed freedom.
The violent threats from self-appointed guardians of public morality and history cannot be allowed to prevail over constitutional responsibilities of the governments. It is highly deplorable that Rajput outfits are pushing for an unofficial ban defying the court order and have even warned that women would commit jauhar (self-immolation) in Chittorgarh if the film was released. The fringe groups have taken upon themselves the task of protecting the honour and dignity of their mythological icon through manufactured outrage. Though Bhansali has repeatedly denied the allegation that his film has distorted history, it ran into trouble from the beginning with its sets being vandalised twice. The larger question that needs to be answered is how a work of fiction be accused of distorting history. The disagreements over interpretation of historical events apart, there is no justification for throttling creativity and undermining freedom of artistic expression on the ground of an imagined sense of hurt. At the heart of the current outrage against ‘Padmaavat’, a period drama set in the 14th century, is that it demeans the revered Rajput queen, undermines her valour and supreme sacrifice by distorting historical facts and disrespects people’s sentiments.