Padmavat, Prithvi Narayan Shah and the return of majoritarian historyIn today’s ‘post-truth world’, majoritarianism is cocooned and strengthened in perceived victimhood
One’s a Bollywood blockbuster that was in the news for all the wrong reasons even before its release, and the other is a 250-year-old monarch whose birth anniversary evokes multiple debates around what makes a nation. The two couldn’t be further apart, yet Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Padmaavat, which released on Thursday, has more in common with Prithvi Narayan Shah than at first glance.
At the root of both—the protests against the film alleging the filmmakers have dishonoured a Rajput queen, and the decision to celebrate Prithvi Narayan Shah’s birth anniversary after a gap of 11 years as ‘National Unification Day’—is history, and the many truths that history holds. After all, whose history can we deem to be ‘correct’, or ‘accurate’? Should we consider the historian’s opinion that Rani Padmini, the Rajput queen who is at the heart of the controversy over the film, may have been a fictional creation? Or should we consider the view of an Indian ex-royal and former MP who says ‘artistic freedom is “anti-national” if it plays with history and nation's heritage.’
History—much like any other emotive issue—is used to supplement the political narrative of the day and morphed to suit an idea. But it often contains truths that may be discomfiting. For example, the case for Prithvi Narayan Shah rests on the argument that it was his military strength that resulted in a bevy of hill-states being absorbed into the Gorkha fold and allowed the Shah kings to envision a singular Nepali state. But what do we make of his words to ‘enlist Khas, Magars, Gurungs, and Thakuris, and only these four jaats’ in the armed forces? Do we single him out as a ruthless discriminatory expansionist, or do we consider him a pragmatic military leader?
In Padmaavat’s case, under the guise of protecting the honour of a 13th century queen, a state of disorder has descended on India. A school bus with children was attacked in Gurgaon on Wednesday; several cinemas in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Goa will not screen the film fearing reprisals, while a few theatres in UP have been attacked; preventive arrests have been made in several states. Gujarat, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh and Uttarakhand had all banned the film—it is no coincidence that these are all BJP-ruled states—until the Supreme Court asked the states to ensure the film was screened. The filmmakers, in an extraordinary move, had released a full-page ad that said, among others, the film ‘portrays Rani Padmavati with utmost respect and does not tarnish her repute or misrepresent her character in any manner’. The Shree Rajput Karni Sena, the Rajput group at the forefront of the protests against the film, earlier said 1,700 women will commit jauhar, or mass self-immolation if the film wasn’t banned. It is a separate question that why is it only women who would undergo the suicide, and not the men of the Karni Sena.
But how did a fictionalised depiction of a Rajput queen, whose earliest mention only arrives in a 16th century epic poem, become the symbol of honour for Rajputs in the 21st century? For this, one must understand the larger underlying trend in Indian polity today.
The old politics of caste vote-banks in India has crumbled in a time of Narendra Modi and his politics, which combines existing caste equations with a unified Hindu vote and the subtle propagation of Hindutva. The BJP’s incredible electoral machine has brought it victory after victory in several state elections since 2014, which means nearly 67 percent of India lives in BJP-ruled states today. With elections in three North-eastern states next month, that tally could increase.
It is this Hindutva-driven majoritarianism that lies at the heart of revisionism of history—a favourite target for the BJP-RSS combine. Even during the Vajpayee government between 1998 and 2004, history textbooks had been changed to favour the Hindutva narrative. The majoritarianism also plays up the many fault lines that exist in Hindu society. Despite the RSS’s attempts to reach out to lower-caste groups, Maratha groups affiliated with the RSS attacked Dalits participating in a rally commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon—where a 900-strong British army, made up of Dalit Mahar soldiers, defeated 20,000 soldiers of the Maratha Empire. It may seem unusual that Indians today celebrate the victory of a British army against other Indians, but once again, the complex truths of history underlie the Dalit celebration at Koregaon. And it’s the same pushback against subaltern forces that sees the Karni Sena claiming affront by a fictionalised work in the name of an entire community.
The reclaiming of history is part of the larger Hindutva idea of a ‘Hindu rashtra’. As the RSS has evolved over the years, it has sought to co-opt intellectuals and histories supposedly ‘denigrated by the Leftist establishment’ of the Congress. Roads have been renamed in India to obscure supposedly bigoted rulers, defeats have turned to victories, the Taj Mahal is considered a temple, and history itself demands a questioning of the values that have been passed down. And this subtle Hindu-isation of India has been effective—so effective that even Rahul Gandhi had to visit a few temples during the Gujarat elections to display his Hindu credentials.
The modern ‘nationalist’
Of course, succumbing to majoritarianism isn’t exclusive to India. In today’s ‘post-truth world’, majoritarianism is strengthened by a perceived decline in economic status and a notion of victimhood. Clothed in ‘nationalism’, the modern majoritarian seeks to define the values that a society must inculcate and treasure, helped by the stories it tells about itself or the histories it seeks to possess. In effect, this is a battle of many histories.
But what is a nation? And what are the histories, or history, a nation should possess? If we look at the decision to choose Prithvi Narayan Shah’s anniversary as a ‘national unity day’, it would suggest Nepal defines itself solely by the political boundaries created in the aftermath of a treaty with a superior force, and not by the many different voices a heterogeneous nation like ours possesses. Popular Nepali history subdues the many histories and cultures the Gorkha Empire absorbed into its fold. But while it’s possible to assimilate other histories within the larger narrative of nation-building in Nepal, the argument for a ‘National Unification Day’, in effect, reduces Nepali history to the linear model as envisioned by the Shah kings, harkening back to the nation-state centred around and shaped by a single monarchy—much like the Hindutva ideal that regaled the Shahs as ‘Vishwa Hindu Samrats’.
Bringing back ‘National Unification Day’ is a projection of our anxieties about the new republican state and society. Like the protests against Padmaavat fixated on an artificial notion of honour, it celebrates a return to the majoritarian history of Nepal, rejecting the many histories that truly make our past.
Mulmi is consulting editor at Writer’s Side Literary Agency, and has previously worked with Juggernaut Books and Hachette India