Like the protagonist of the movie Avatar, who rises against the reckless imperialistic pursuits of his race to fight from the side of culturally and ecologically threatened tribals, Shiromani Akali Dal seems to be suffering from its own version of the ‘white man’s guilt’. The poem by Rudyard Kipling, which inspired this phrase, is still interpreted to be an ardent justification of imperialism as a way to alleviate the oppressed from poverty and ignorance. The moral high-ground taken by the SAD-BJP combine to justify its ban on Aarakshan, even before it was released, smacks of an analogous and unrelenting casteist ascendancy.
Quoting the preliminary media reports, Punjab Government had received “intelligence inputs” that screening the film could lead to a “law-and-order issue”, as it touches the volatile topic of caste-based reservations. On the surface, it appears to be a benign and considerate attempt to pacify the simmering casteist undercurrents in Punjab which had nearly lead to a riot after Sant Ramanand’s assassination. For a state which boasts the largest Dalit-Bahujan (SC, ST & OBC) population in India, discussions on caste seldom find any mention in the mainstream, probably due the pluralistic and egalitarian ethos of Sikhism. That is as far from reality as the fact that racism has ceased to exist in the West. The cancerous and elusive form of casteism that the Punjabis have adopted under the garb of religio-communitarian politics could lead to a permanent and unbridgeable chasm, destroying the very fabric of secularism on which the Sikhs had founded their identity on.
Coming back to the ban, it was already known that the movie had little to incite any public sentiments. Uttar Pradesh (UP) had already relented to the constant clamouring of PL Punia, a former Mayawati-aide, now heading the all-powerful National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC). It is well-established that the NCSC is merely a Congress subsidiary machinating to usurp the BSP rule in UP. Raj Kumar Verka, an ex-MLA from Amritsar and confidante of Capt. Amarinder Singh, was given the plush appointment of Vice-Chairman of the NCSC to foment a similar upheaval in Punjab. As the movie neared its release, Mr. Verka upped the rhetoric of it being anti-Dalit giving the Punjab Government cold feet. For years, SAD, the unabashedly Jattist party, was trying to find a way to woo the lower-castes which have clearly demarcated themselves from the religious and political mainstream. Factionalism and Dera politics have become the order of day as the desperate Dalit-Bahujans struggle to find security and equality in a larger bid to re-establish and assert their identity. To add to that, the impending results of the nationwide caste census would lay bare the gross inequities and disparities inherent in the Punjabi society. The knee-jerk reaction of the state reminds one of the school of thought pioneered by Thakurs like VP Singh, Arjun Singh and Digvijay Singh that the misery of the marginalized can only be understood by upper-caste leaders. It seems that the Jatts of SAD are on a similar messianic misadventure.
If it had been a Sunny Deol movie than the state government would have organized a special screening for Parkash Singh Badal. Why couldn’t he rise a little above the parochial concerns of his party to display some statesmanship by taking a conscientious call on the ban?
Seldom in the last few years has the Punjab Government enjoyed so much publicity as the news of the ban invited. International media was aghast that the state was meddling into the affairs of artistic freedom and morality, especially on a topic as important as caste, when the censor board had already given a green signal. Fearing a backlash from the Supreme Court, the state government quickly softened its stand by putting pre-conditions before the release like removal of certain “objectionable” dialogues. In a matter of days, the ban was also lifted. There were no reported incidents of vandalism or protest and soon the controversy was forgotten. However, it left a subtle message that the feudal autarchy or the Jatt cabal now feels morally obliged towards the cause of Dalit-Bahujans without ever hearing their real woes for years, without ever bringing them to the fold of their blatantly institutionalized religion, without ever nurturing political leadership among the downtrodden and without even their participation. The upper-caste political elite of Punjab have taken the mantle of emancipation like those overzealous harbingers of freedom who still codename their enemies like Bin Laden as Geronimo. As Noam Chomsky wrote in sheer repugnance, “the imperial mentality is so profound.”