Sunday, March 31, 2019

2019: ‘Kesari’ or Jallianwala Bagh?

Rajinder Singh Majhail

In 2012 we had started a campaign in Punjab to commemorate the centenary of the Gadar Movement the following year. We visited many educational institutions; one of them was Saragarhi War Memorial School in Amritsar. The Principal of the school was known to one of our friends. When we met him he smiled and said the school was unable to support our initiative;  moreover, he pointed out there was a difference between the ‘war’ represented by Gadar and Saragarhi. This has remained with me. In 2019 we are again campaigning to commemorate the centenary of Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Meanwhile the mainstream focus is on ‘Kesari’, a commercial film based on the war of Saragarhi. In 2017, Rs 44 Crores were spent on the construction of Saragarhi sarai in Amritsar.A number of videos were made available on YouTube and even UNESCO made a big budget documentary on this war completely ignoring the Gadar Movement or people’s struggles associated with Punjab. On the heels of these institutionalised endeavors by the late imperialist and local majoritarian-nationalist official establishments comes the film- just before the general elections in India. The question we need to ask: why has the battle of Saragarhi (1897) been dug up?

From the poster of ‘Kesari’ one can see that the film resembles Zack Snyder’s 300, a cinematic representation of the battle of Thermopylae where 300 Spartans fight with the massive Persian army. 300 was criticised for promoting war between the ‘east’ and the ‘west’ as a clash of civilizations, the fundamental incompatibility between ‘savagery’ and ‘culture’. Though drawing on this format which glorifies western domination, Kesari however has yet another dimension. It is also a continuation of six previous Bollywood nationalist dramas starring Akshay Kumar. All the usual stereotypes regarding the Sikhs have been deployed here: they are overtly energetic, innocent, funny and disciplined and get angry when anyone uses derogatory words about their religion, turban etc. In short, cinematic representation makes them ‘malleable’. Then there is the reference to history. In Kesari, the past is distorted beyond recognition. Kesari reduces the entire movie to a Sikh-Afghan conflict where Muslims are projected as evil villains. The film shows Ishar Singh as a hawaldar who had been transferred to Saragarhi for disobeying his superior officer. There is no reference to the Durand Line which was used by the British colonizers to weaken the rebellious Pashtun people in 1893 and truncate their ancient territories. It was against this background that the Pashtuns mounted a revolt and the British colonial state in India sent a large number of soldiers to suppress them in their own land, the North West Frontier region. The battle of Saragarhi in 1897 was a part of this struggle to impose imperialist control over an oppressed population resisting colonialism.It was not a Sikh/Punjabi vs Muslim/Afghan fight at all. It was a clash between the Pashtuns fighting for their homeland in the face of colonial aggression and the British Indian Army, a colonial instrument of brutal coercion which was upholding the interests of the British Empire. There is no doubt that the British Army was more powerful and far better equipped than the Pashtuns. Under the circumstances, the latter resisted as best they could. Instead of projecting them as resistance fighters, the film demonises them on behalf of British imperialism. Can anything be more shameful than this?

During the Great Revolt of 1857, when the British became suspicious of the loyalty of the troops stationed in Bengal, Madras, Bihar and UP, they came to rely on military recruitment from Punjab. They received support from the Sikh kings of Punjab (Patiala, Nabha etc). Seen in this context, the battle of Saragarhi cannot be taken as a war bringing pride or bravery to the Sikhs or to Punjab in any way. Religious nationalism in Indian films is not new. But during the last 5 years this kind of cinema has expanded and gained popularity in an alarming manner. After 2014, the BJP government has come to control Indian cinema in more ways than one. Many institutions are under its sway. Pahlaj Nihalani is the chairman of the Centre Film Certificate Board, Gajendra Chauhan heads FTII and Mukesh Khanna is the chairman of the Children’s Film Society of India. The Sangh affiliated producers have deep pockets and easily make films which are bent on distorting history and spreading communal hatred. Kesari is among a long list of films advocating the RSS ideology of extreme nationalism, promoting hatred towards Muslims and jingoism towards Pakistan: Ghazi Attack (2017), Sarbjit (2016), Baby (2015), Phantom (2015), Rangroot (2018), Padmaavat (2018) and Uri: Surgical Strike (2019) etc are some of the prime examples of Hindutva-influenced xenophobia on silver screen. Fascist ideas are being energetically spread, using film as a medium. As we know, art is one of the forms of social consciousness. The fascists understand the power of persuasion through their own brand of ‘culture’. It is up to us to see that they do not win, that Saragarhi does not overpower Jallianwala Bagh.

A poem:
‘Told them
Not to sell us the battleground of Saragarhi
By telling us that slavery is war
Your Kesari Package is bound with the symbol of election

We all know
Forts never belong to people
Who sits in these forts?
On royal thrones?

By the Hatchet of State
We were halved
To kill our brothers
The sons of this earth
Tell me
Where in all this is written the story of bravery?’

Rajinder Singh Majhail is an activist and independent researcher from Punjab.

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