Censorship, religion, and PKolitics

What the latest Bollywood hit says about India’s fraught relationship with religion and secularism

India is a land of contradictions. It is home to a huge high-tech labor force as well as a multitude of low-skill agricultural and industrial workers. It is a relatively liberal democracy, yet allies itself closely with the Russian Federation, an autocratic nation. It is the birthplace of three major world religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism — yet is constantly divided by religious violence and upheaval with a long history of censorship and strong religious forces: it was the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.” Religious groups have long held great power in Indian politics and society. This is even considering the fact that the Indian constitution states the country is a secular republic.

Even though the Indian government is secular, it is responsible through its loose hate-speech laws for protecting the values of its varied religious and ethnic groups. This requires censorship of what it deems offensive to any group. The Indian constitution guarantees freedom of speech, but the government has loosely interpreted laws regarding hate speech and public order, which are used very liberally to censor books, movies, and television. The logic behind this is that with such a long history of violence and such a diverse population, the only way to keep the peace is by preventing that which is deemed inflammatory from being publicly distributed.

Regardless, religion is one of the most satirized topics in Bollywood — the Indian Hollywood — but the new record-breaking hit PK is the latest and greatest in a line of movies that includes the critically acclaimed “Oh My God”: in which a man sues religious groups that represent God’s will for the destruction of his shop.

However, PK was not intended to be a serious film. It rather playfully places its emphasis critically not on religion as a whole but rather just on organized religion as it appears in India. The movie’s lighthearted nature is especially evident in the name, a play on the English way of writing out the Hindi word for drunk. It simply suggests that Indians should not listen to religious God-men who have achieved a God-like status among India’s poor and uneducated for their miracles and ability to communicate directly with various deities. The message is to turn inward to find religious experience rather than basing it on communal values. These God-men are criticized for being conservative and corrupt by playing on their vast support for political and monetary gain.

The radical aspect of this film comes in when one considers the context of censorship toward religious criticism prevalent in India. Films and books like these are rare in that they are never the combination of being this radical and also this influential. The reason it was a successful film is that it is funny; the reason it was the highest grossing Indian film of all time was that it resonated with people. They were finally really allowed to see both the truth and that others feel the same way as they do about these corrupt religious figures.

However, it is the backlash to this film that is most revealing of the true nature of Indian society. Even before its release, it was almost prevented from being screened by the censorship board because it supposedly promoted vulgarity.

After the film’s release, the true power of India’s conservative religious groups was revealed. Both religious leaders and fringe groups condemned the movie. These extremist religious groups organized burnings of the film’s posters. Even more portentously, many theatres in major cities were forced to cancel the screening of the movie because of threats to the owners and the theatres themselves. Theatres were threatened with being ransacked and burned.

This is the status of India’s relationship with religion. Even the government has been divided as shown by recently elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s support from both Hindu nationalists and the politically powerful sages. His checkered past as a Hindu extremist combined with his pro-Hindu reaction to anti-Islam riots when he was the governor of Gujarat in 2002 — where he basically sat by and condoned the violence — should have rendered him unacceptable as a Prime Ministerial candidate. Instead, he rode a Hindu wave of support to victory.

The combination of government censorship and public backlash from entrenched religious interests is the root of many of these problems. People are not allowed to confront the religious issues because they are hidden to maintain order. The only way for India to move forward as a democracy and a nation is to take off these democratic training wheels, confront their religiously turbulent past, and move past some archaic traditions.

Sawan Patel is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at s.patel@cavalierdaily.com.

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