by Maya Pilbrow
In India, January 26th is a day synonymous with national pride and Indian autonomy. It commemorates the adoption of the Indian Constitution as the country’s governing document, marking the birth of modern India’s political system following several centuries of British colonisation. This year, however, Republic Day was less a celebration of independence as it was a reminder of the deep religious and social conflicts that exist within the subcontinent. January 26th of this year also marked the opening day of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s controversial film adaptation of the sixteenth-century epic poem Padmaavat; a classic tale of beauty, love and honour with just the right amount of cartoonish villainy and over-the-top violence. The poem, based partially in historical fact, tells the story of the beautiful Hindu queen Padmini of Chittor, her righteous Rajput husband Ratansen, and the villainous Muslim Sultan of Delhi, Alauddin Khalji, who goes to war against the Rajputs over his ravenous desire for the queen. A commercial (if not entirely critical) success, Bhansali’s film became the catalyst for a countrywide fight over Hindu nationalism.
Prior to the film’s release, Hindu groups expressed anger over supposed factual inaccuracies and negative portrayals of Rajputs in the film; particularly over a rumoured love scene between Khalji and Padmini that supposedly ‘distorted history’. There was no such love scene in the film, and the historical inaccuracies and distasteful portrayals of Rajput culture turned out to be just hearsay. Despite this, Hindu nationalists and their elected representatives touted an extremist response. In November of last year, it was reported that Suraj Pal Amu, former Chief Media Coordinator for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the northern state of Haryana, had offered a ₹10 crore (or one hundred million rupees, about $1.9 million AUD) bounty for the heads of Bhansali and lead actor Deepika Padukone. He resigned shortly after making these comments. In the lead-up to the film’s release, rioting and vandalism were reported in several cities, necessitating extra security at cinema complexes. In order to understand the context of these seemingly outrageous responses to what was, frankly, an entertaining if mildly underwhelming film, it is necessary to take a closer look at Hindu nationalism.
The modern Hindu nationalist movement has its roots in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was during this period that a new type of nationalism began to grow across the subcontinent. A hugely diverse population began to coalesce into a nation, united by shared opposition to colonial rule and held together by the “unifying force [of] Indian civilization”, a term which was used more or less interchangeably with Hinduism (Malik and Singh, 1994). The work of Indian writers and intellectuals such as Swami Vivekananda and V. D. Savarkar in advocating India’s rich cultural traditions, along with a healthy dose of Orientalism and a love for all things ‘exotic’ among those in Europe, contributed to the conceptualisation of India as some sort of mystical wonderland; a place with “spiritual superiority” over the West. Noting how religion “provided a key stimulus to the emergence of national identity”, Zavos notes the false dichotomy that exists in this context between ‘Hindu’ and ‘Indian’ nationalism. Indian nationalism, heavily intertwined with Hinduism, was the means through which national identity was asserted as a response to brutal oppression. Thus Hinduism, already the majority religion in India, was elevated to an even higher cultural position as a marker of not just religion but nationhood.
Given this context, it is easy to see how non-Hindu communities, already minorities in India, could be further marginalised in the name of national unity. In his seminal book Hindutva/Who is a Hindu?, first published in 1923, Savarkar defines Indian/Hindu nationhood as the ability to relate to India as both a fatherland and as a holy land. This ultimately excludes Muslims, Christians and anyone else who is a worshipper of a religion founded outside of the Indian subcontinent (Zavos, 2005). This othering of different religious groups, particularly Muslims, was carried out by British writers and officials as well. Hasan observes how Muslims were scapegoated by the British to justify their own invasion and colonisation of India, through portrayals of India as being in need of rescue by the British from the barbarity of the Muslim Mughal Empire. By stoking the fires of religious antagonism between various Indian communities, the British Empire was able to enact a divide-and-conquer approach to their erstwhile relatively pluralist colony. This method was later echoed during the painful process of partition in 1947, when the British utilised existing Hindu-Muslim enmity to destabilise Pakistan and India in their formative years and create lasting tension between the two countries.
While the overblown response to Padmaavat by some on the far-right of the Hindu nationalist movement is still a violent overreaction, borne out of anti-Muslim sentiment and Hindu supremacist views, it is contextualised somewhat by the history of colonialism, Indian nationalism, and the marginalisation of those who threaten the perception of India as a Hindu nation. Inspecting the broader cultural framework in which Hindu nationalist ideology developed allows us to better understand how a country, whose secularity is enshrined in its Constitution, can fall victim to displays of violent religious tribalism over a film.
Malik, Yogendra K., and Vijay B. Singh. Hindu nationalists in India: the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Westview Press, 1995.
Zavos, John. “The shapes of Hindu nationalism.” In Coalition Politics and Hindu Nationalism, edited by Katherine Adeney and Lawrence Sáez, 36-54. Routledge, 2005.
Hasan, Mushirul. “The myth of unity: colonial and national narratives.” In Making India Hindu: Religion, community and the politics of democracy in India, edited by David Ludden, 185-208. Oxford University Press, 2005.