Padmaavat violence shows Muslim groups have greater respect for Supreme Court than the BJP, Rajputs

Compare the reaction of Muslim groups to the triple talaq judgment with that of BJP leaders to the top court’s rulings on the release of controversial film.

To get a sense of the hypocrisy of the Bharatiya Janata Party on Constitutional morality, compare its gleeful response to the Supreme Court judgment that struck down triple talaq last year with the reluctance of its state governments to execute the court’s orders on the film Padmaavat.

On a related note, the belligerence of Rajput organisations to the Supreme Court’s refusal to ban the Sanjay Leela Bhansali film stands in contrast to the (admittedly sullen) acceptance by Muslim organisations to the triple talaq judgment. For one, note that no Muslim organisation has threatened violence even as they have vowed to stop the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017, which proposes to criminalise triple talaq, from being passed into law. So much for the accusations that Muslims always place their religion above the Constitution.

In August, when the Supreme Court delivered its judgment striking down the practice by which Muslim men could divorce their wives simply by pronouncing the word “talaq” three times, BJP leaders swiftly welcomed it. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his approval, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley was as saying: SC’s judgement is victory for all who believed personal laws must also be progressive&complainant with constitutional guarantees.”

On the other hand, the threats from Rajput organisations to disrupt the screening of the film, which they alleged had insulted the honour of a mythical queen from their community, have elicited no statements from the prime minister, Narendra Modi, Jaitley or the BJP president Amit Shah.

The case of Padmaavat

Rewind to November, when the Supreme Court rejected requests to stay Padmavaat’s release as many as three times. Groups such as the Shree Rajput Karni Sena wanted the film to be banned because they said the trailers gave them the sense that it was demeaning of Rajputs and their ethos. The Karni Sena, a little-known organisation then, made grave threats to the film’s crew. The group had jumped into the headlines last January when its members vandalised the film’s sets in Rajasthan.

The Karni Sena seemed to have received the tacit support of the BJP chief ministers of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, all of whom spoke out against the film in November. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath said Bhansali – who he described as a “habitual offender” – was as much to blame as those issuing threats. Rajasthan’s Vasundhara Raje wrote to the Centre asking it to ensure that the film was not released without the changes demanded by various groups. Vijay Rupani said that his government would block the release of the film in Gujarat while Shivraj Singh Chouhan announced that the film, which had “distorted facts”, will not be released in Madhya Pradesh.

This was why, while rejecting a request to ban the film, for the third time, the Supreme Court said: “When the matter is pending the consideration of the CBFC [Central Board of Film Certification], how can persons holding public offices comment on whether CBFC should issue certificate or not?”

But this sharp comment failed to chasten the BJP’s leaders. Last month, the film certification board gave the film the green light after Bhansali agreed to change the title of Padmavati to Padmaavat and accepted a few cuts. But the BJP governments of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana were not satisfied. They banned Padmaavat soon after its release date of January 25 was announced. The Supreme Court stepped in again. On January 19, it stayed the state government notifications prohibiting the film from being screened, reminding them that it was the “duty and obligation of states to maintain law and order”.

A publicity still from the film 'Padmavaat'.
A publicity still from the film 'Padmavaat'.

This is precisely what the states are not doing, claimed Jai Prakash Choukse, president of the Central Cinema Circuit Association, an umbrella body of film distributors and exhibitors of Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Choukse added that the possibility of the film’s release in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan was nearly zero.

In Gujarat for instance, the government does not seem to have put in place deterrence measures to instill confidence among theatre-owners, who are reluctant to screen the film because they fear violence. Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are so keen on not offending Rajputs that they found fresh grounds to stall the release of Padmaavat, filing a petition to this effect on Monday. Madhya Pradesh’s law officer argued that his government has the right to invoke Section 6 of the MP Cinemas (Regulation) Act, 1952, to suspend the exhibition of any film to maintain law and order.

Response to triple talaq

This is in sharp contrast to the BJP’s tune on the Supreme Court mandated ban on triple talaq. Indeed, the very rationale behind the framing of the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Bill, 2017, was the BJP’s claim that despite the top court striking down the practice, Muslim men were still resorting to it. In other words, the government needed the Bill to criminalise triple talaq so that Muslim men did not continue to instantly divorce their wives, in the process subverting India’s highest court and reducing the sanctity of its pronouncements.

Despite the rising tide of opposition to the Bill, the Modi government has refused to rethink its provisions. Since the Bill is stuck in the Rajya Sabha, the government is said to be thinking of promulgating an ordinance that will criminalise triple talaq instead.

Yet the Muslim community has not threatened to take to the streets. “We will take whatever steps required through democratic means to amend, improve or scrap it,” said All-India Muslim Personal Law Board spokesperson Maulana Khalil-ur-Rehman Sajjad Nomani recently. “There is no move to go to court as of now…”

Lawyer Zafaryab Jilani, another member of the Muslim Board, did not rule out challenging the Bill once it becomes law. But this was not because he thought Parliament did not have the right to criminalise triple talaq. “We had demanded that the Bill should have been prepared only after consultation with representatives of Muslim women organisations and All India Muslim Personal Board,” Jilani explained. “We just wanted that the Bill should not be in conflict with the Constitution of India, the Supreme Court Judgement or the Muslim Personal Law Board.”

The Board has always been derided for its orthodox position, not least for its opposition to the Supreme Court’s 1985 judgment granting maintenance to Shah Bano, a Muslim divorcee reduced to destitution, under a secular law. Orthodox it may be, but going by the Padmaavat controversy, the Muslim Personal Law Board certainly seems to have far greater respect for the Supreme Court and the Constitution than the Shree Rajput Karni Sena and even BJP leaders have.

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