In the slums of Bombay the underworld spreads its influence by playing Robin Hood with a portion of its extortion income. Paying for medical treatment for someone’s old mother, helping out with a little cash for a wedding or a funeral, that sort of thing. The same principle, it seems, is going to be used to create the impression that the Union government in New Delhi has special concern for soldiers who die while on duty.
The Union government, in addition to existing arrangements to support the families of soldiers killed in battle, set up the “Army Welfare Fund Battle Casualties” in August. According to this report, the fund was created in response to expressions of interest from a large number of people and organisations to aid families of soldiers who had died in battle. The defence ministry was quoted to have said in a statement that there had been a surge of such requests after the Siachen avalanche in February, which had led to the death of 10 soldiers. In the two months since it was set up, the fund has only received Rs 1.4 crore in voluntary contributions. The Uri attack, the surgical strikes and massive media focus on those they describe as martyrs have not made the general public more generous.
But, now the fund is expected to grow exponentially, with Rs 5 crore paid in by every producer of a film awaiting release that has a Pakistani in its cast. This is part of a deal between the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, which demanded a ban on these films and threatened violence if the films were screened, and the producers including Karan Johar. Maharashtra’s Bharatiya Janata Party Chief Minister and life-long Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh worker Devendra Fadnavis brokered the deal.
The terms of the deal, which have been widely reported in the media, are Extortion 101. The producers will pay Rs 5 crore a piece and the MNS will hold its fire. On Mumbai streets, this payment in return for protection would be called “hafta”.
The MNS of course has its roots in politics that for long years raised its resources through hafta. It is the Maharashtra’s BJP chief minister’s role as middleman in an extortion deal that has raised eyebrows. His oath of office requires him to uphold the rule of law, but he put his heft as chief minister behind an illegal deal in violation of this oath.
The prevailing political culture prizes the power of the street over the rule of law. Organised political mobs are now called “public sentiment” or “people’s sentiment”. Everything now bows before this public/people’s sentiment.
In Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, the union minister for culture and local MP Mahesh Sharma justified a mob lynching on the grounds of people’s “sentiment”. University students were incarcerated on sedition charges because “public sentiment” decided words they had used were anti-national and seditious. As gaurakshaks hunted down Dalits and Muslims claiming to represent “people’s sentiment”, the prime minister’s only comment was that real cow-protectors should be separated from the fake ones. In every election campaign since 2013 he also fed the “people’s sentiment” with speeches about the “pink revolution”.
Yet, in the context of the threats against the film industry the Information and Broadcasting Minister Venkaiah Naidu said in an interview to not “…drag the [union] government into the picture, it has not done anything or said anything.” It is true the union government has not said anything, despite the fact that Fadnavis’s extortion deal involves payments into a fund set up by the defence ministry and which stipulates that contributions have to be voluntary.
But the silence has not extended to the cause of “public sentiment” in the attacks on the film industry. Naidu, in the same interview said:
“It is very simple to say art has no boundaries; but countries have boundaries. People are dying, they are being killed, that reality should be kept in mind. I’m not building a case for a boycott of anyone but the nation is a live nation, the people’s sentiments should be respected.”
From deathly cow-protectors to a chief minister signing off on hafta collections, the political mob in the guise of “public sentiment” is now central to the politics and governance of the country.