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India in the past few years has seen ‘self-styled’ cultural soldiers out there to defend the culture of India. They may operate in many names ‘Ram Sena’, ‘Hindu Sena’ or ‘Karni Sena’. Their stated aim is to protect ‘culture’, ‘morality’ from the negative cultural influences of the west or other religions. This they seek to undertake in the name of protecting ‘purity’ of a culture or ‘honor’. Any event perceived as threatening the ‘cultural purity’ or ‘threatening the honor or sentiments’ is projected as hurting the sentiments of a particular religion or a caste. The latest to join this list is ‘Karni sena’.

Karni sena is in the news particularly for its violence to prevent release of the film ‘Padmavati’. The movie based on a fictional queen Rani Padmavati is the center of controversy following the threats of violence, intimidation and threat to burn down theatres. While there is no historical proof of the existence of Rani Padmavati, a poem composed by Muhammad Jayasi went on to create the character. Alauddin Khilji had an eye on Rani and in the process attacked Chhittorgarh.
She jumped into ‘Jauhar kund’ to choose honor over her life. This forms part of the folklore.

In the name of protecting real ‘Rani Padmavati’ against the cinematic ‘Rani Padmavati’, what Karni Sena does is indirect glorification of ‘Jauhar’ act. When Rani is depicted as a symbol of ‘women-hood’ for the ‘Jauhar’ act, it also tends to justify the act. Jauhar cannot be justified in the name of protecting the honor of women. The practice of Jauhar was anti-women similar to sati. A process of self-immolation of women to conform to patriarchal norms cannot be depicted as a
symbol of greatness.

Just like ‘Sati’ cannot be justified in the name of glorifying womenhood, so also depicting the greatness of Rani Padmavati through the act of jumping into Jauhar Kund cannot be. Hence while Karni Sena talks of the honor of women in the name of ‘Rani Padmavati’, they only merely tend to justify an act arising from patriarchy and superstition. It is not surprising that in the land where ‘Sita’ and ‘Savitri’ are glorified for conforming to patriarchal norms rather than fighting those norms, that ‘Rani Padmavati’ becomes a symbol of protection of ‘womenhood’ by patriarchal forces.

The recent controversy also brings out the issue of ‘artistic freedom’. While an art piece like cinema can generate debates over its content and story, this can be post-facto after the release of the film. But the pre-facto violence that has set in to stop the film is a sign of worry. It raises questions over artistic freedom and the impending threat of complete takeover of ‘cultural terrorists’.

The hooliganism of Karni Sena demanding ban of the movie ‘Rani Padmavati’ is an evidence of the growing intolerance in Society. Its call for cutting nose of Deepika Padukone and beheading Sanjay Leela Bansali shows the level of intolerance we as a society have stooped into. This is at a time when no conclusion has been reached as to whether she was merely a ‘historical figure’ or a fictional ‘poetical imagination’. While there can be no doubt that the film as an art piece can be critiqued based on its content and display and debated, but calling for a ban and personally attacking characters in the name of hurting sentiments is unacceptable.

A worrying aspect is where do the cultural terrorists take us? Are we in a state of cultural emergency, where such lynch groups exercise control on aspects related to art and culture.

 T Navin is working with an NGO as a Researcher.

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