Listen: India's culture wars
Disagreements over Indian history have delayed the release of one of Bollywood's most eagerly awaited releases and caused some to question whether the Taj Mahal should continue to be celebrated as an architectural masterpiece. Jyotsna Singh discusses Hindu nationalism's growing sway over the country's culture and politics with the FT's Kiran Stacey. Music credits: Official Trailer and 'Ghoomar' song from the film Padmavati by Bhansali Productions.
Presented by Jyotsna Singh. Produced BY Fiona Symon.
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For the Financial Times in Delhi, this is FT news and I'm [INAUDIBLE]. The fate of one of India's most awaited films this year hangs in the balance amid a raging controversy that it shows a legendary Hindu queen in poor light. Hindu groups have staged violent demonstrations, vandalised property and issued death threats against the cast of the film, Padmavati. To discuss the issue and its broader context, I'm joined by the FT's South Asia correspondent, Kiran Stacey.
Let's start with the film first. What is it about and why has it become so controversial?
The film is about a 13th to 14th century Rajput Hindu queen, called Padmavati. Nobody actually knows whether this queen really existed or whether she's a mythological figure. But certain Hindu nationalists very definitely believe she existed and this film that has just been made about her mischaracterises what actually happened in her life. What we don't know is exactly what the film shows, because it hasn't actually been released yet.
So what is causing the controversy?
So one thing we do know from the film is the appearance and the aesthetic of it. One of the songs has been released and the video accompanying that shows her in an outfit that reveals her midriff, dancing quite assertively-- some would say sexually-- with lots of people dancing behind her in a very traditional Bollywood style. Some people think she should be much more modestly dressed, that she shouldn't be dancing in public at all.
Another thing that people have got very angry about is the fact that the film also depicts a Muslim king, Alauddin Khalji. And while, of course, he was part of her story, those who are protesting say that they believe that the film will show that the two of them were in a romance. Maybe they're getting that from the music video, maybe they're getting that from rumours. We don't know exactly. What we do know is the film's director has denied that these two characters will be shown as having been a romance. And we await to see the film to find out what actually is the reality of it.
There are also accusations of historical distortion in the film. Now, history is something that we have repeatedly heard about since the BJP government has come to power. And there are often accusations against the Modi government that they are trying to rewrite history to establish Hindu supremacy over other religions-- particularly Muslim. Tell us what's been happening.
Well, it's been sporadic so far. What we have seen are a series of relatively small instances-- but still significant-- where particularly, members of the RSS, which is a Hindu nationalist organisation which is linked to the BJP-- where members of that group have been trying to change school textbooks.
So, for example, earlier this year in Rajastan, state officials there said that school students would be taught that the Rajput warrior Maharani Pratap defeated the army of Mughal emperor Akbar in a battle in 1576. Now, most historians believe not only is that not true, but they are actually Pratap fled the battlefield in shame. And that is obviously something that Hindu nationalists believe brings shame upon them.
We've also seen a huge row over the Taj Mahal, which obviously any foreign reader or listener will know. It is India's most famous monument, India's most popular tourist attraction. But strangely, in the last few months there seems to have been a move from some in the state of Uttar Pradesh-- where the Taj Mahal is located-- to distance themselves from this monument. It was, of course, built by Mughal king as a mausoleum for his wife. And there are some among the Hindu nationalists who want to disavow this branch of Mughal history altogether. They say it's simply not a part of India's Hindu tradition.
Some say that, actually, the Taj Mahal was built by traitors to the Hindu cause and so should not be celebrated at all. Others say that it shouldn't be advertised in state materials. Some say that funding should be taken away. That is unlikely to happen. The Hindu nationalist cleric who is in charge in UP, Yogi Adityanath, has actually come out and defended the monument. But the fact that this argument has happened at all, I think a lot of people have found quite indicative of the kind of debate that is happening in certain circles right now.
It is not just the social and political aspects of Hindu nationalism that is causing anxiety. Its impact is being felt on the economy as well. Cow vigilantism and the government's cow protection policy are beginning to hurt a key sector of the economy, as well.
That's right. There are now signs that certain parts of Hindu nationalism are starting to affect key parts of the economy. So for example, earlier this year, the central government passed a law saying that it would be illegal to sell any cow or buffalo-- and bear in mind that buffaloes are not sacred in India-- if the seller believed that that animal would then be slaughtered later along the supply chain.
This would have had a really severe effect on the dairy industry, because what dairy farmers traditionally do is they keep a cow or a buffalo for a certain number of productive years and then recoup their costs by selling it on to the leather or to the meat industry. Now if they don't have that route of sale, they will end up losing the money they've spent on the cow. And often what they do is they set the cow or buffalo free in the local fields, which then has the potential to damage the crops of other nearby farmers.
What's quite interesting about this is when Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he offered two parallel things. One was to liberalise and boost the economy and the other one was to make India a more traditionally Hindu state. In this example, we can see those two parallel aims clashing and it's very telling to see which way Modi appears to be going
Thanks Kiran. Thanks for listening. This FT news podcast was presented and produced by me, [INAUDIBLE], in Delhi. Goodbye for now.