In Umesh Shukla’s film “Oh My God”, actor Paresh Rawal plays the role of Kanjilal Mehta, an atheist who continuously challenges and questions god’s might and existence, contrary to the crowd or general mood of people (and not just “mood of the nation”). Yesterday, Rawal demonstrated that life isn’t a three-hour movie where divine authority can be questioned – and has, therefore, chosen to become a part of the mob.
Rawal’s Bollywood journey is a story of struggles and successes where he has overcome several challenges to make a name for himself. His perseverance has resulted in him becoming a Member of Parliament, the country’s highest constitutional body. Therefore, Rawal should be aware that the same Parliament has laid out certain principles in the Constitution, one of which is Freedom of Expression – which allows every citizen to express themselves freely. While even these basic rights have limitations imposed; the final say in these matters still lie within the purview of the Constitution.
Despite being an MP, Rawal has failed to internalise the core values enshrined in the Constitution. In a tweet, Rawal said, “Instead of tying stone pelter on the army jeep tie Arundhati Roy !” (sic)
His supporters may correctly argue that the right to Free Speech allows Rawal the right to express himself freely. But Rawal isn’t just an ordinary citizen. He is also a public representative, a custodian of these values with the task of ensuring they are not denied to the citizenry. He is a law-maker. Let the enormity of that role sink in. They make the laws the rest of us follow. They set the path the nation takes. Clearly, Rawal has failed to discharge his duties effectively and has demonstrated that he does not quite understand the gravity of his role.
Can a person be punished, in a manner that Rawal has suggested in his tweet, for merely expressing his or her views? Obviously believers of democratic and constitutional values disagree. More simply put, Rawal’s tweet has highlighted the several anomalies of the times we live in.
Ironically, the criticism routinely leveled by Rawal and his party members against the practices of the Taliban (which every sane person naturally opposes) are being endorsed by them after coming to power. This Taliban-esque argument has also been exposed in incidents ranging from the events in Jharkhand to Dadri and Alwar where people have been slaughtered under the pretext of gauraksha. For this reason, Rawal’s tweet becomes more worrisome.
Arundhati Roy is an author and social activist. She has been vocal about her contrarian thoughts on naxalism as well as the violence in Kashmir. Recently, an alleged comment made by Roy — that even if India sent 70 lakh military personnel to Kashmir, it would still be unsuccessful — started doing the rounds in certain sections of the media.
For a developed, civilised and rational society, it is essential that citizens question the status quo and demand and suggest alternate perspectives. This is only possible in a society where people are not intimidated for openly expressing their views. Clearly, such an environment doesn’t currently exist in India. To make matters worse, with Members of Parliament like Rawal advocating violence, there is little space left for opposing views such as Roy’s.
The truth is that a society cannot progress without a healthy participation by members of civil society from all walks of life – farmers, labourers, writers, filmmakers etc.
The disappointment of film lovers as myself with Rawal’s tweet is evident. The shift in political discourse has brought to the surface the rot within the film industry, which is a melting pot for all cultures and religions.
Bollywood, which has been instrumental in breaking societal barriers, is now home to people such as Abhijeet Bhattacharya and Ashoke Pandit, who express orthodox and hateful religious sentiments on primetime news routinely. This says much about primetime “debates” as well. Last night’s episode of Bhupendra Chaubey’s show on CNN-News18 being a case in point. Rawal’s tweet has further advanced such sentiments demonstrating the dissonance between the principles he embodies on screen and his personal beliefs.
Until recently, Bard was a tradition followed in European countries and royal courts of India. It is a tradition of royal patronage of artists (musicians, dancers, poets and writers). In modern societies with power equations changing and democracy and equality replacing feudalism and the divine right to rule, such patronage is not the status symbol it once was. Today, it is considered an insult to insinuate that artists are beholden to those in power. However, some of our artists occasionally demonstrate that the tradition is still very much in practice. And that goes for our fraternity too.