Monday, May 23, 2005

After the Jo Boley So Nihal bombings

India is nominally a country with a Constitution guaranteeing Freedom of Speech (Article 19). But there are also clauses in the Indian Constitution (such as Article 25) which effectively cancel that right, because they allow the government to restrict speech that might inflame religious tensions. It is a Partition-era provision, and therefore quite understandable; one could argue it has done as much good as harm over the years.

The Film Censor Board is famous for restricting displays of explicit sexuality in Indian films, but what is less known is that one of its primary responsibilities is the censoring of films that could inflame religious communalism. Thus, even the religious sentiments of the films of the late 1990s -- the Golden Years of Hindutva -- were kept in check somewhat by the demands of the Censor Board.

Whether it does good or harm, the net effect of these restrictions is that the idea of freedom of speech in India is extremely limited when it comes to entertainment for the masses. (In other media--in print, for instance--it seems to me there is effective Freedom of Speech. Printed texts are censored quite rarely.) It is absurdly easy to get a film banned. Slightly offensive or objectionable moments that the Censor Board might allow to pass (at least, until they receive a complaint) also form the basis of massive protest campaigns that themselves inflame religious tensions more than anything in the films themselves. Censorship thus seems to have the oppositve of its stated intention.

The latest incident is the film Jo Bole So Nihal, which led to a pair of terrorist bombings in movie theaters in Delhi yesterday. One person has been killed, and dozens are injured. It's really a sham of a free speech case, because the film at issue can't be construed as "offensive," not in comparison to religious caricatures routinely seen in other Hindi films, and certainly not in comparison to a credible incidence of what in would be called "hate speech" in the U.S.

The little kernel of bad taste in the film is its title, which is part of a Sikh prayer (the Ardas). It is a prayer that, as far as I know, does not originate from the sacred Sikh scripture (the Guru Granth Sahib), so I doubt whether by any fair standard it is "sacred." It is a blessing that comes at the end of the prayer ritual, roughly akin to an 'Amen'. For these reasons, it seems like a stretch to see its use in a secular film as a problem. Furthermore, Jo Bole So Nihal is a comedic film, in which the Sikh protagonist heroically attempts to stop a terrorist (who is a Christian, interestingly) from assasinating the U.S. President. It is a much more positive representation than, for instance, Mission Kashmir a few years ago.

Thus, the main political organization of the Sikhs, the SGPC, was last week lobbying aggressively -- even hysterically -- to ban a movie that has a sympathetic Sikh hero, played by a widely-respected Punjabi actor, in which the symbols of Sikhism are represented positively. Until yesterday, the invocation of "blasphemy" seemed pretty laughable. Only a contentious fool, or an organization composed of contentious fools, could possibly construe things that way.

For me today, then the bombs aren't the issue so much as the irresponsibility of the SGPC's campaign against a film that, in the bigger picture, did not constitute a threat to Sikhism or the Sikh community. The SGPC seems increasingly like an organization desperate for direction, now that their established enemies -- the Congress Party, the Nehru family, the Indian Army's counter-terrorist measures in Punjab -- have either dwindled or transformed. In an era when the Prime Minister is himself a practicing, if secular, Sikh, Sikh organizations in India can no longer claim exclusion or discrimination. They have as a result chosen to mimic the world-wide rhetoric of religious outrage, exemplified in India by the RSS and by conservative Muslim groups. The rhetoric of outrage is, it seems, the primary way in which religious leaders -- around the world, and in every major religious community -- attempt to make themselves relevant to modernity.

Sad to say, this turn to the Politics of Censorship will probably work for the SGPC. The fact that the SGPC's (unsuccessful) campaign against the film was followed by bombings -- awfully convenient, isn't it? -- means that the future campaigns they undertake, no matter how frivolous, will have to be taken seriously. What's more, the bombing will appear to many followers and potential followers as hard evidence of the influence and strength of the SGPC. Terrorism works.

Insofar as no one can publicly challenge the drift towards fundamentalism amongst -- seemingly -- the leadership of all the major religious groups, we are in for more misdirected outrage, more censorship, and yes, more religious violence. It is the surest way to political power.


Simran said...


It is increasingly looking like the bombs had NOTHING to do with the film and NOTHING to do with the Sikh community's feelings about this film.

The Commissioner, however, ruled out the blasts had any links with the film "Jo Bole So Nihal", considered offensive by some Sikhs.

"We do not think that the blasts had links with the movie.There were no protests against the film in Delhi, nor was there any press statement about a protest call by anyone over the movie," Dr Paul said.

He also ruled out the possibility of any Sikh militant group still being active despite the disappearance of the movement more than a decade ago. "We have no such information."

It would be nice if you could at least acknowledge this and separate the issues from your post.

Let us not get carried away. The likelihood is that these were terrorist attacks carried out by Kashmiri separatist organisations. Let us acknowledge that.

12:44 PM  
Amardeep said...


Yes, I read that, but I don't buy it.

The Kashmiri separatist groups have their own fish to fry. Why bother with this? I know some have suggested they may be generally attempting to cause mayhem, but that motive seems farfetched to me. As I mentioned in a comment on the Sepia Mutiny discussion board, if that's their intent, they could do much more damage bombing a Mosque or Mandir.

Making these crude bombs doesn't require a great deal of skill. Anyone with access to some basic materials could do it; it doesn't have to be ISI.

Most of this is still basically speculation, however. And unfortunately, given the nature of the Indian criminal justice system (the widespread use of torture), it's unlikely that we'll know with some confidence who is really behind this for quite some time.

1:02 PM  
Simran said...

So when you speak definitively you are yourself just speculating?

At least acknowledge that in your post.

And acknowledge too that Kashmiri separatist organisations have the intelligence to use smokescreens and tactics to gain publicity for themselves. Lets wait and see what the evidence brings up.

1:15 PM  
Amardeep said...

As I said, my main concern in this post is the desperation of the SGPC, not the bombings per se.

In my opposition to India's version of censorship I am speaking neither definitively nor speculatively. I'm simply making an argument based on the evidence in front of me.

Everyone is thinking about the bombings today (well, everyone except for the folks who are looking at the other headline, about the UPA Governmet in Uttar Pradesh). But in two months the bigger issue will be the SGPC's next "outrage" campaign.

1:43 PM  
Manish said...

Censorship thus seems to have the oppositve of its stated intention.

I'm missing the argument here. You're saying that if films weren't censored, there would be less astroturf outrage because there wouldn't be a mechanism of action on which to focus it?

4:18 PM  
Amardeep said...


Yes, that's right -- censorship is a goad that gives religious conservatives an easy political target.

Censorship at its best works on the logic that the masses can't control their passions. It may have been true once, but it isn't true now.

Problems wouldn't go away if censorship were somehow eliminated or replaced with a tightly enforced racing system. But I think it would be harder for religious leaders to organize these types of campaigns.

7:42 PM  
pennathur said...

Nobody of any faith can condone these violent deeds. May those who committed these vile deeds not go unpunished.

When I saw the poster for this movie at the India Store a few weeks back I expressed my distaste to the shopkeeper (a clean shaven Sikh). Until today when I read the reviews I had no idea that the movie was one of those anti-terrorist movies Sunny Deol has become famous for. I thought it was an Irma La Douce sort of show with the sleaze that only Indian remakes are capable of - a mischievous looking Sikh cop, with the Golden Temple in the background, and some scantily clad women pasted into the poster. The putting together of thse few images seemed to smack of a deliberate insult to Sikh (and may I add Hindu?) sentiments. I asked Pappu how a poster with "OM Namo Naraya" or "Allahu Akbar" or "Freaky Buddha" "Joking Jesus" with the respective iconic elements would be received by desis of these faiths. "Film ki producer/director Sikh hai aur Sunny Deol maybe they really mean it." When you say that "Jo Bole So Nihal" is not sacred, do you mean to say it is OK for a movie with a raunchy theme to be titled with the invocation, or that Sikhs (and Hindus) should object only if a verse from the Guru Granth Sahib is used to this effect? As a rule Sikhs are caricatured more often than not in Indian movies by the directors you least expect to. Karan Johar's portrayal in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai of the Sikh family - exagerrated Punjabi accent, over-earthy wisdom, and hashed up gestures and the usual Balle-Balle is surprising coming from a Punjabi Hindu for whom Sikh culture should be nothing alien. Where Sikhs are not caricatured they are super-people with excess of everything strength, kindness and piety. Rare is the movie where the Sikh is a 'normal' person. For some reason I haven't found Punjabi movies do not feature Sikhs dressed up as Sikhs - with the turban. Every popular star either wears a craggy beard or opts out of it for a clean shaven look - but with the culture shown leaving no doubt about the character's faith. There has been one movie in Tamizh - Bharata Vilas - (a typical lower middle class tale) that depicted a Sikh fluent in the local language living his life simply - of course played by a Tamizh actor. In that respect JBSN is the first time a Sikh has been cast as the protagonist and has been shown to be a typical Sikh pagdi and all.

The BJP/RSS has usual been very respectful (even over-respectful) of Sikh sentiments in keeping with its long standing practice. One of the issues that has generated much bitterness among some Sikhs is what is seen as an attempt by Hindus and 'Hinduism' to absorb the Sikh religion. This is not the place to discuss the issue or what I think of it. But the BJP/RSS has been very careful right from the start of the troubles in Punjab over 20 years ago not to repeat some of its thoughtless statements of the earlier times. The BJP is widely believed to have been brushed off by the electorate in 1984 for calling the Congress to account for its role in the anti-Sikh pogrom. But the BJP/RSS continued to be careful to draw a distinction between terrorism and the Sikh community. Even a few attacks on RSS shakhas by terrorists failed to draw any criticism from the BJP/RSS during those days. This of course was apart from those bombings and attacks on Dusshera gatherings and a particularly vicious attack on a Durga Puja immersion party in Delhi (following which tight security was clamped down in Calcutta for days to prevent any retaliatory violence). The BJP's statement that Sikhs are not responsible for the bombings in Delhi yesterday must be seen with the statements that used to come from the party in those dark days in Punjab - when party spokesmen used every occasion to insist that most terrorists were ISI agents from Pakistan and not Sikhs - leave alone true Sikhs. I would tend to agree with the SGPC this time. I don't know why. A few years ago there were a series of fire bombings of churches in AP, TN and Karnataka for which one newspaper in the South (a famous one at that) leveled the blame at the RSS with no basis whatsoever. When investigations revealed that it was an obscure group called the "Deendar Anjuman" (not really a 'Muslim' group but claiming to be so) the same newspaper never bothered to apologise for its unsubstantiated reports.

But before we discuss censorship let us consider sentiments. Should it possible to make fun of religious sentiments? Are all jibes the same? IS it the same thing to talk of "Freaky Buddha" as it is to talk of "Gay-nesh"? (as a gay pride event is said to have done once in Ozland - maybe I should ask Ashok Row Kavi). JCSS was banned in India in the 70s. Recently there was much concern over SINS. And of course haven't we seen "Fire" and "Water"? And then what about another kind of artiste - litterateur - Taslima Nasreen - whom the Indian government will not grant asylum to? That some organisation claiming to speak on behalf of the Muslims of Bengal has opposed the grant of asylum to Nasreen must be a coincindence?! And then is it OK to demand censorship peacefully thru civil disobedience?

10:11 PM  
Amrit said...

Religion is a crooked concept in India. I too think that Sikhs wouldn't go to such an extent as planting bombs in the theaters. For all you know it might be the hand of some professional terrorist groups (not using an advanced bomb could also be a part of the plan): raking up the issue while it is hot. Thanks to the turbulent 80s, Sikhs are pretty wary of such bloody campaigns. Besides, planting a bomb further tarnishes the Sikh image.

It could be a liquor related issue too, for the person who has either financed or produced the film is a liquor producer. There is a big market in Punjab and the present sellers might be creating all this trouble.


12:07 AM  
Jas said...


I agree with the points made by Simran in the earlier posts. The media, in an hurry to get news bites, quickly put the blame of the bombings on the Movie 'Jo bole so nihal'. Till now I am yet to see any concrete proof or declaration by any groups claiming responsibility for such a heinous act. These cinema hall bombings, followed the next day by small explosions in Delhi, seem to be a well planned effort to cause terror in the minds of Delhiites.

Let us not mix these two very different issues of Censorship and Terrorism

8:59 AM  
Amardeep said...


Great comments. I've noticed the caricatures over the years myself... I think they were even discussed a year ago on this blog, after Manmohan Singh ascended to the PMship. (See the comments of this post) And yes, it's fascinating that even in a movie like Gadar, Sunny Deol only wore a turban and beard part of the time. During the romantic sequences, he was clean shaven. Some Punjabi films do have Sardar protagonists, but they usually have an explicit religious theme to them. For the most part even the Punjabi cinema follows the lead of Bollywood on this.

From friends who know Bollywood, I gather that the reason for this isn't disrespect for the religion so much as a myth that it's harder to project "emotion" with a beard.

On the question of offensiveness, I see your point. I was unaware of the use of the golden temple in the advertising; most of the images I've seen are simply of Sunny Deol in uniform, looking stern (an odd way to sell a comedy!). And there are some "wallpapers" on or some such website that show Deol and the various female "items," as Filmfare would describe them, who appear in the film.

I would say this: I concede that the slogan "Jo Bole So Nihal" does have some religious value. But it is not as sacred as many other prayers or rituals in the Sikh tradition. It is a martial cry.

The bigger principle is whether artists should allowed to make offensive references to religious traditions or texts. I think they should; that is my standard for what free speech should be.

Sikhism, like Hinduism, is not a very absolutist faith. There is an emphasis on a single God, but there is also a profoundly ecumenical and inclusive side of it as well, coming from the Bhakti tradition and Kabir. It is also a religion oriented to everyday life. It seems like a stretch to convert it to the absolute philosophical framework of the Abrahamic faiths (in the Quran and the Bible, a great deal of punishment is in store for you if you don't believe in the right God, or in the right way). I think this rhetoric of outrage, as I called it in the post, is foreign to the Sikh tradition; it is an imitation, mainly, of the kind of absolutist position common in other faiths.

Or much more simply, I could say this: Religions that are sure of themselves shouldn't need to worry about these kinds of attacks.

11:03 AM  
coolie said...

The SGPC are ten thousand miles behind the Sikh achievement and genius worldwide, which is vibrant, wholesome, creative, entrepreneurial and confident. When the SGPC scream ‘threat to Sikhi’ they mean ‘threat to my seat’. What a joke, the Sikhs who have faced down setback, obstacle and vicissitude with laughter and rectitude and strength, self sufficient and confident to the point of fearlessness, being represented by a warbling committee of self-seeking power-hounds whose main skills are the glass-shattering shrillness of their squeals.

Lions led by donkeys.

5:13 PM  
pH said...

Linked into your blog today. Appreciate your learned opinion, specially on the recent unfortunate events in N Delhi.

5:55 PM  

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