The Parliamentary Committee on IT may have overstepped its mandate by summoning and examining Sanjay Leela Bhansali the Director of the film "Padmavati" and Prasoon Joshi, the Chief of the Film Censor Board. The Standing Committee also covers the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The agenda was a pre-decided one on the generic topic of "film industry: problems and challenges." On the reported "request" of two BJP MPs, this generalized topic was used to bring into focus the opposition to "Padmavati" by some members of the committee. Bhansali and Joshi were called and grilled.
The question is, was the Standing Committee used to push a sectarian agenda? It is not at all the business of the committee to interfere in the functioning of an autonomous institution like the Censor Board is supposed to be. Even before the Board has seen the film why should its chief be asked to answer questions about the film to the Standing Committee. This amounts to bringing pressure on the institution, if not bullying and intimidation. But this is only the latest salvo on minimum democratic norms in the events which have surrounded the film.
It is ironic that Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the director of "Padmavati" should come under serious fire from the very bhakts whose politics he seems to support, as reflected in his films. Many of these depict Muslims as the evil ones. In a recent powerful piece, P Dewan describes him as a "cultural nationalist" and argues that the "community pride" he deliberately rouses cannot be controlled and it is now being used by those who are even more "nationalistic" than him.
But issues raised by the events surrounding "Padmavati" go beyond individual political preferences and the commercial interests of Bhansali who, to save his film, may be forced to make one or more compromises. This is not the first time that a film has faced opposition. But the extent of state patronage extended to those indulging in hate speech and incitement to violence is certainly unprecedented.
The disgraceful role of the central and state governments has underscored their contempt for minimum democratic norms. Look at the contrast. Every week, there are reports of how young people using social media get picked up by the cops and prosecuted for posts criticizing this or that leader. Such arrests that seek to stifle dissent are condemnable. But not a single arrest has been made of those who have used the most provocative hate-filled language, who have incited violence against those involved in the film, and who have declared a bounty for those who commit acts of violence.
This also delivers a warning to other film-makers to adhere to the norms set by the dominant Hindutva narrative, or else mobs akin to the gau rakshaks will be let loose on them. The Supreme Court's rational refusal to ban the film has not brought any sense to the Chief Ministers of BJP-led states who, led by Yogi Adityanath, have opposed the release of the film even before seeing it.
Apart from this general framework of cultural repression sought to be constructed by those in power, the events also expose the falsity of claims that unlike other parties, they do not believe in caste politics. This is an example of the most blatant casteist vote bank politics, with Thakur leaders of the BJP taking the lead. Other leaders have followed the path of the Prime Minister - of a deafening silence. He of course is campaigning in Gujarat, where large Rajput mobilization such as the one in Surat, threaten to affect the polls.
The autonomy of the Censor Board is also under scrutiny, with its present chairman postponing the release of the film on what seem to be flimsy grounds. If it is true as reported that the Chairman intends to set up a committee which will include historians to check the veracity of what is shown in the film, it will be a body blow against the right to freedom of expression and will totally undermine the credibility of the institution he heads. History and its interpretation is one of the most contested areas today, with history books being tailored to edit out distort historical events and even manufacture things that never happened, to suit the sectarian ideology of the ruling regime. For the film censor board to venture into this area is an exercise fraught with the most dire consequences for creative art and entertainment in India.
In this chain of events comes the misuse of a parliamentary standing committee of the IT department. This committee under the chairmanship of Anurag Thakur sent a notice to Sanjay Bhansali and Prasoon Joshi to appear before it. The rules governing the functioning of these committees are explicit as reported on official website of parliament:
"The term of members of these Committees is one year. With reference to the Ministries/Departments under their purview, the functions of these committees are:
(a) Consideration of demands for grants
(b) Examination of Bills referred to by the Chairman, Rajya Sabha or the Speaker, Lok Sabha as the case may be
(c) Consideration of Annual Reports
(d) Consideration of national basic long term policy documents presented to the House and referred to the Committee by the Chairman, Rajya Sabha or the Speaker, Lok Sabha, as the case may be. These Committees do not consider matters of day-to-day administration of the concerned Ministries/Departments."
The summoning of a film director to question him on events which have not even been discussed in parliament, leave alone been part of any official report or policy document, does not fit in with this description on the official website of parliament. A Standing Committee is not a court. It does not have legal sanction to summon citizens randomly on an issue which is not in the purview of parliament. It does not have any powers to take suo moto notice of a public issue. So how did this happen and what kind of precedent does it set?
It is reported that Bhansali was cross-examined as to why there were protests against the film. This is rather odd considering that the Chairman himself has made his protest clear enough. If anyone had to be called, it should be those who are making threats and giving calls for violence. He was also questioned whether his film was based on history or was it fictional. The Chief of the Censor Board was reportedly asked about his approach to the certification for the film.
What has all this got to do with the Standing Committee? Parliamentary committees must stay within the four walls of their mandate and not claim authority in matters which neither the law nor parliamentary practice permit.
Reportedly, some of the members did protest. Raj Babbar, a member of the committee who has a long-time association with the film industry, has expressed his disapproval of the summoning of Bhansali and Joshi. He has also questioned why the two appeared at all, stating that it was not compulsory. Under parliamentary procedure, the proceedings of these committees are confidential; therefore, it is only when members like Babbar believe a matter of principle must be challenged publicly that it gets known that not everyone supports what was done.
Standing Committees are supposed to be non-partisan. But if the subject itself gets selected in such a manner which appears contrary to its mandate and is seen to be partisan, parliamentary committees will have to face public scrutiny and criticism. It is indeed unfortunate that a film should become an instrument that sets negative precedents in the "temple of democracy."