Rani & Rogues

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The contrast between the way the police dealt with protests by Dalits in UP’s Saharanpur and Rajputs in Rajasthan is part of a pattern of selective aggression and selective silence that goes deep and wide PRAGYA SINGH

The police. The very mention of the word could touch off conflicted responses. Frustration would be a universally shared feeling. Their presence is likely to bring on a sense of fear, rather than security. More troubling, however, is their ­absence—the patterns of where they choose not to be. This week brought a fresh instance in the controversy around Bollywood film Padmavati. The ­aggressive, violent protests by Rajputs have an unsta­ted enabling factor: the silence of the police.
That hate speech could fill the airwaves with such impunity is a sign of how feudal attitudes and caste structures shield dominant groups, allowing them to use the state and the police to establish their writ. Contrast the role of police in two recent cases. One relates to Dalits, in UP’s Saharanpur. And the other is of the Rajputs, who overran two fort-palaces in Rajasthan, denied the public access to these popular tourist destinations and vandalised a theatre.
The leader of a caste outfit called Shree Rajput Karni Sena even threatened to disfigure top actress Deepika Padukone, who plays the lead role in Padmavati. An array of politicians too promised exorbitant “rewards” to “behead” Deepika and murder producer-director Sanjay Leela Bhansali. While Maharashtra has ramped up protection for the two, no police force has yet tried to arrest the rampaging clansmen.
The police in Rajasthan, where the protests began, have not tried to detain Karni Sena members. The rabble-rousers are roaming the country, delivering provocative speeches. They have arm-twisted authorities into delaying Padmavati’s release, while disrupting everyday life in Rajasthan and elsewhere. It’s almost as if they are the law.
In fact, that isn’t too far off the mark. Rajputs, with their long history of ruling the region, not only dominate Rajasthan politics, but evidently also consider themselves entitled to make their writ run. “We Rajputs worship Queen Padmini and find this film offensive. The director says Padmavati is based on history, but we dispute his facts. So why should we let this film be screened?” asks Karni Sena leader Mahipal Singh Makrana. And then the clincher: “Why would the police want to take action against us? They are from Rajasthan, not outsiders. All of them know we are fighting for the dignity of our women.”
The self-conscious ‘traditionalism’ is a kind of default politics. What makes it worse is that the police wouldn’t have been silent observers if they didn’t implicitly share this politics. The Karni Sena propagates a notion of Rajput womanhood neither in sync with reality nor compatible with the laws. Yet, Makrana speaks boldly not just for Rajput women, but for all cinema-­goers. His biggest grouse is how Deepika’s character does not follow the discriminatory practice of wearing a veil. “Rajput women work in modern offices, but have not discarded their traditions. Royal women did not dance the way the film shows our queen. Now there will be no discussion on this,” he says. “We know what Rajput women are like—not filmmakers.”
In the assessment of the police in Chittorgarh (which faced the first serious demonstration), these words and act­ions were perfectly legitimate and justifiable. On Friday, around 1,000 Rajputs besieged the Chittor fort where there is a 19th century reconstruction of what was claimed to be “Rani Padmini’s palace”. One man even fired a shot from a gun. The police did slap the Arms Act on the trigger-happy man, but did not arrest him.
“He fired a shot in the air, but not with criminal intent,” says Rajan Dushyant, Additional Superintendent of Police, Chittorgarh. “It was only an air gun, commonly used at celebrations. It only makes a sound. They held a peaceful gathering. They came, delivered speeches and left.” Arrest? The matter “is under investigation”, the ASP says. He does not think the gathering was disruptive either: “Tour guides had informed tourists beforehand, so no tourist came to visit Chittor fort on Friday.”
In stark contrast, witness how the police acted when Dalits came into conflict with Rajputs this summer at Shabbirpur in Saharanpur. No defusing the anger, no placating ‘wait-and-watch’. Dalits, the most lowly and poor in this region, have virtually no influence over state power, and this is reflected in how the law treats them.
The incident at Shabbirpur was triggered when Rajputs led a procession to extol Maharana Pratap. Local Dalits apparently demanded that the procession be a little less noisy. This ended in a skirmish. After a small number of local policemen dispersed the crowd, one injured Rajput died. Then, hundreds of Rajputs regrouped and torched 20 Dalit homes. Several police vehicles too were damaged in the mayhem—as a symbol of the state, it is frequently the target of protesters. Yet, it is not a neutral element: a broad complicity in social power structures shows up again and again.
The whole region was already fraught with ‘tensions’ for some time, after a series of Rajput-Dalit and Dalit-Muslim clashes. Rajputs were freshly feeling a sense of renewed assertion after Yogi Adityanath, a fellow caste man, became chief minister. A section of Dalits, on the other hand, were feeling dispirited by a sequence of terrible electoral losses that came the way of Mayawati’s BSP. It was against this backdrop, and reflecting this fraught politics, that a new Dalit organisation, Bhim Sena, and its chief Chandrashekhar came into focus. How the police acted to neutralise him is an exact inversion of how it is now acting in Rajasthan. The young activist immediately faced arrest for having mobilised Dalits.
Chandrashekhar’s charisma and powerful counter-assertion led many to see a subaltern hero. Some predicted he could one day challenge both the BSP and the BJP. The law soon took special interest in him. The police, ‘intelligence reports’ and politicians labelled him ‘Naxal’, ‘anti-national’, ‘violent’, even ‘terrorist’. The chatter stopped only after his arrest in June.