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Remembering Bhishma Sahani

By K.G. Kannabiran

August , 2003

Tamas has more relevance today than when it was written. The role of
religion in politics was waiting in the wings. Its proponents were
slowly working at this for a few decades. The partition riots
provided them the only "natural" occasion to bring about a change in
the secular politics of the country. Madanlal's unsuccessful attempt
on Gandhiji's life and Godse's success of the mission of
assassination were the early attempts to mould the country's politics
on theocratic lines.

This proved to be demonstrably counter-productive, as it did not have the support of the Hindu liberals among the leaders and intellectuals of the country and the assassination could not have received the open support of even rabid communal politics, notwithstanding Godse's statement to the court, which was a chargesheet against Gandhiji and the Congress he was
leading. Albeit the main theme of politics provided by the partition
of the country and the communal violence it produced, was leading a
subterranean existence until the total breakdown of liberal politics
in the late seventies. In the JP movement we witnessed the Marxist
upholding the Constitution and the Hindu fundamentalist politics
systematically undermining the Constitution. It was during this
period that Bhishma Sahani's Tamas was translated into a film, and
televised in 1988.

It is true, partition led to unprecedented violence. A million died
and around ten million were forced to leave their homes on either
side of the border and quite a few thousand women were abducted
during partition. The literature that emerged from this large-scale
violence re-enacts the people's sufering and pain and their heroic
effort to cope with this incomprehensible event when it occurred. The
violence on both sides was indistinguishably brutal that communal
justification of the violence became wholly untenable. This
widespread rioting abated after Gandhiji's assasination. The
Constitution, which was on the anvil during that period, was not in
any manner influenced by the communal politics of the partition days
and on the contrary the debates in the Constitution Assembly
reinforced secular values as a major premise of our political
functioning. Sardar Patel, while tabling the Report of the Advisory
Committee in the Constituent Assembly on May 25, 1949 said:
It is not our intention to commit the minorities to a particular
position in a hurry. If they really come honestly to the conclusion,
that in the changed conditions of this country, it is in the interest
of all to lay down the real and genuine foundations of a Secular
State, then there is nothing better for the minorities than to trust
the good sense and sense of fairness of the majority and to place
confidence in them.

Despite this assurance, the legacy of fundamen-talism of the Muslims
and Hindus (both of which had nothing to do with either the struggle
for independence or the making of the Constitution) was haunting the
electoral politics always stoking communal belligerence into violence
in one part of the country or the other. There were unfortunately no
hard campaigners for secular values. Unfortunately there are certain
values, adherence to which will not yield any electoral advantage and
secularism is one such value. People were not allowed to come to
terms with partition as also the unprecedented violence. The
liberal-minded were not willing to discuss the partition violence as
they felt that it was too sensitive a subject and has the possiblity
of a threat to internal security.

Tamas, written by Bhishma Sahani, recieved the Sahitya Academy Award
in 1975 and it did not raise any controversy. But when it was sought
to be televised in January-February 1988 there were objections to the
film being serialised. The slot time given by Doordarshan was 10 pm,
hardly prime time. The serial did not encounter any objections to
being screened for public viewing. The first episode was screened and
that brought to the viewers a vivid account of the violence
engendered in communal politics, a true to life reproduction of the
partition violence which people talked about but could never
comprehend the scale and magnitude of violence. This was a period
when politics was being reduced to a single-point agenda of

Tamas on TV exposed the claim of tolerance of the
Hindu society and its pretensions to democracy. There were angry
protests against continuing the screening of Tamas. The film
Director, Govind Nihalani, and others connected with the making and
the screening of the film recieved threats to their lives. Govind
Nihalini and Bhishma Sahani had to be provided with security guards.
It was widely propagated that that it was a lopsided presentation and
it implied that Hindus alone were violent. The BJP with its front
organisations indulged in violent demonstrations at various
Doordarshan centres in Punjab, Delhi and Bombay demanding the
immediate withdrawal of the screening of Tamas. With a view to
legitimising this unjust protest against the screening of the film a
favourable judgement if it could be managed, first a writ petition
was filed by one Javid Ahmed Siddique who was alleged to be a nominee
of the Shiv Sena in the Bombay High Court. The proceedings also gave
a representative character to the complaint. The writ petition and
the appeal were dismissed by the High Court. By the time the SLP was
filed against the judgement in the Supreme Court a writ petition by a
practising advocate called Ramesh was filed under Article 32. Before
the Supreme Court there was a proceeding by a Muslim representing the
Muslim sentiment and a petition by a Hindu representing the Hindu
sentiment, both of them asking for a ban on the film. This also
informs us as to how this institution is used.

Tamas was adjudicated upon. It was argued that it violates Articles
21 and 25, that is to say, right to life and freedom to profess and
practice one's religion. To substantiate how these rights are
violated they took two instances from the serialised episode
depicting the body of a pig thrown at the doorstep of a mosque and
the other where a Guru teaches a young Hindu boy to slaughter a hen
so that this prepares him to kill human beings. These depictions are
shown as being prejudical to national integration, peace and amity
between the two communities and have a tendency to promote hatred and
ill-will between the two religious communities. The Court dismissed
the petitions and pointed out:

The attempt of the author in this film is to draw a lesson from our
country's past history, expose the motives of persons who operate
behind the scenes to generate and foment conflicts and to emphasise
the desire of persons to live in amity and the need for them to rise
above the religious barrier and treat one another with kindness,
sympathy and affection. It is possible only for a motion picture to
convey such a message in depth and if it is able to do this it will
be an achievement of great social value.

Bhishma Sahani anticipated Gujarat long before and later in 1988,
when his work was televised.