Many of the world's liberal democracies are reckoning with majoritarian gripes against minority appeasement. But India's might be the most dramatic case, with a cacophony of Hindu nationalists hell-bent on taking even compliments as insults. Meanwhile, the voices of the country's vulnerable Muslim minority, which has a genuine cause for complaint given the fresh indignities it suffers daily, barely register on the national consciousness.
For the last two weeks, groups associated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have been protesting Padmaavat, a quasi-historical Bollywood extravaganza that tells the story of Rajput King Rana Singh, whose wife, Padmaavati, becomes the obsession of the Muslim emperor Alauddin Khilji after he hears about her legendary beauty.
Loosely based on an epic poem by a 16th century Muslim Sufi poet, the movie's cinematic sophistication — it is shot in 3-D with absolutely breathtaking scenes of courtly pomp set in medieval India — contrasts sharply with its crude and cartoonish characters. The film isn't a clash between mere good and evil, but utmost perfection and complete depravity as embodied by Singh, the Hindu hero, and Khilji, the Muslim villain.
The Hindu Singh, with his buff bod and kohl-smeared eyes, is a paragon of Rajput virtue who treats women like queens (of which he has two), moves with grace, deals with matters of state with flawless judgment, conducts himself with decorum, and fights with valor and integrity. Twice he foregoes the opportunity to kill the unarmed Khilji because that would have meant violating the Rajput code of honor.
The Muslim Khilji, by contrast, is not just dastardly, but a savage lech. He is a sadist who gets a sexual high from humiliating his minions. On the day of his wedding, he is off jumping other women. He is cruel toward family and friends and happily turns on them for the slightest advantage. He doesn't dine from shining utensils sitting serenely in the traditional lotus position like the cultured Rajputs. He hunches over a table grabbing large pieces of meat with his bare hands, tearing the flesh with his teeth.
And he believes that for victory in war, no tactic is too ignoble. After killing Singh on the battlefield through treachery, he races to claim his prize. But Padmaavati, herself a paragon of virtue, calmly leads 800 women into a fiery cauldron in an act of mass self-immolation that Rajput widows were expected to perform to protect their — and their husbands' — honor. (This dénouement has rightly incensed Indian feminists struggling against traditional attitudes that measure a woman's worth by her devotion to her husband.)
It is not clear that Padmaavati ever existed, but Singh and Khilji were real historical figures and, unsurprisingly, much more nuanced than the movie's ridiculous caricatures. But literally every Hindu in the film, except the king's Brahmin tutor, is upright, humane, and decent — and every Muslim, but for Khilji's wife, is craven, randy, and slothful.
Such demeaning portrayals would be controversial under any circumstances. But today, when Muslims (and other religious minorities) are under siege in India, they are downright irresponsible.
Casual bigotry against Muslims has always existed in India. But since Modi assumed office, the situation has gotten considerably worse. Hindu nationalism's singular project is to restore Hindu pride and identity by avenging historic harms, real and imagined, inflicted on Hindus by "Muslim invaders" who ruled the country for centuries.
Lynching of Muslims suspected of consuming beef — which is taboo for Hindus — has become commonplace. And in recent years, paranoid Hindus have taken to accusing Muslim men of engaging in "love jihad" — or converting Hindu women by seducing them into marriage. (Christians face analogous allegations.) Hardly a day goes by when Hindu thugs don't beat up a Hindu-Muslim couple somewhere in the country. Last month, a court actually annulled a marriage between a Muslim man and a 25-year-old Hindu woman in med school. The court concluded that a woman of her station and background could not possibly in her right mind have consented to such a nuptial without being "brainwashed," her protestations that she was in love with her husband notwithstanding.
Given all of this, you would probably think that Muslims would be protesting this movie, directed by a Hindu with an all-Hindu cast, for feeding every single rabid anti-Muslim stereotype. Instead, it is Hindu extremists who have taken to the streets.
They torched 200 buses in Modi's home state of Gujarat after a court denied their demand for a nationwide ban on the movie. Several states ruled by Modi's party have nevertheless banned the film — and states that haven't have had to post armed guards outside theaters to protect patrons and property. One Hindu politician has declared a bounty on the head of the film's director and the actress who plays Padmaavati. And in a truly shocking episode, thugs pelted a school bus full of children in a tony Delhi suburb.
What exactly are these people protesting? They claim that Padmaavati is a revered figure and, therefore, using her story to entertain and titillate is offensive.
When Muslims in India managed to get a ban on Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses because it disparaged Prophet Muhammad, they were accused of subverting liberalism's bedrock commitment to artistic freedom and open expression in a fanatical pursuit of their religion. And rightly so.
But far from disparaging Padmaavati, who isn't even a religious figure, the film unabashedly and unambiguously glorifies her. If Hindu hoodlums can be enraged by a feel-good movie like this, they can be enraged by anything. There is no logic or sense behind their protest, no method to their madness. It is offense for offense's sake.
This is a scary development that Modi should have condemned quickly and vociferously while ordering his party apparatchiks to control the extremist troublemakers. Instead, he — along with other senior politicos in his party — have stood by mute without issuing a single statement.
This is India today. The mob rules, and the nation's so-called leaders are silent.