Attempts to spread hate under cover of artistic freedom are unfair and unacceptable
Article 19 of the Constitution assures freedom of speech and expression to all citizens. The arts exist and thrive on the strength and support of this constitutional provision when they speak truth to power. The Constitution also provides for restrictions so that this right is not misused. It thus becomes imperative that both the citizen and the government be reasonable in the exercise of their rights and powers.
The makers of the film, The Kerala Story, had claimed in their social media promotion material that it was about the “heartbreaking and gut-wrenching stories of 32,000 females in Kerala”, who converted to Islam and then left to join the Islamic State. When challenged in court, they agreed to change the description of the movie as one “centred on the real-life stories of three young women from different parts of the state”. This change in narrative the filmmakers were forced to introduce reflects their less-than-artistic motive.
Artistes have every right to criticise religions and religious practices; and terrorist organisations call for downright condemnation. It is important that art asks the right questions about every system in society to make them better and more humane. But attempts to spread hate under cover of artistic freedom are unfair and unacceptable.
The film, of poor artistic quality and questionable factual backing, has now become a political tool. Prime Minister Narendra Modi certified in an election rally in Karnataka on the very day of its release that it “is trying to expose the consequences of terrorism in a society”. The BJP government in Madhya Pradesh, followed by the one in Uttar Pradesh, made its screening tax-free while the West Bengal government has banned it. The movie hardly enthused the Kerala audience.
Radicalisation of youth by Islamists is a fact across India and Kerala is no exception. There indeed are people from the state who have joined international Islamist organisations. It is also a fact that the traditional Sunni sects which form the vast majority of Muslims in Kerala have for ages been battling the radicals within the community.
Entities such as the Jama Ath-e-Islami, the now-banned Popular Front of India and its political arm Social Democratic Party of India (SDPI) have been able to make little impact on the community in the state. In fact, the Sunni sects that have over the centuries perfected systems to live in a multi-cultural society are fighting the radicals and radicalisation efforts tooth and nail. This story, the real Kerala story, is, however, hardly known outside, partially due to the generally reticent nature of the moderates on one hand and, on the other, the success of the Islamists, with their elaborate communication tools, in creating an impression that it is they who represent the community.
It will be better for our country to promote endeavours that seek to address the faultlines in our society in a constructive way. It will be dangerous to promote the agenda of haters who seek to deepen them and make the presence of the moderates on all sides untenable.