Punjabi movies are dime a dozen; they often come and go unnoticed, and we can count on the fingers of one hand with room to spare those we have seen – and even less those we have admired.
The movie, Sadda Haq, is fiction but the facts it is based on are real and eminently verifiable.
Sadda Haq (literally Our Right) is different; it deserves thoughtful examination. It captures history that is less than 30 years old and this movie makes history just by the fact that it has been completed, received the Indian Censor Board’s approval to be exhibited and now by the fact that there is a widespread move to ban it in India.
The facts of the 1980’s exist; just weeks ago even the United States government issued a statement condemning the human rights violations by the Indian government against the Sikhs during those years. Perhaps global business trumped human rights so that the U.S. government stopped short of labeling the killings of the Sikhs as attempted genocide. But many international and Indian Human Rights activists and organizations have not been so easily deterred.
The Indian government and the majoritarian Indian society have spawned a slew of deniers of history. Sikh sources speak of a significantly larger number but the Indian government and its spokesmen conceded at various times that over 2700 Sikh men, women and children were murdered in cold blood on the streets of the capital city, Delhi, within 48 hours – that would be over 1300 per 24-hour day or better than 50 an hour while the police stood by, even encouraging the mayhem.
This happened in India of 1984 where arms were licensed and not freely available; even kerosene that was used to burn Sikh businesses and people was tightly controlled. Remember that this was in the pre-Google days when names, ownership and address of Sikh houses and businesses could not be downloaded at the click of a mouse. And yet, such lists are what the attackers had in their hands.
Under pressure the Indian government agreed to mount a judicial inquiry into the killings to be followed by some semblance of justice. In the intervening 28 years over 12 Indian government commissions were convened but failed to identify more than five killers. It is as if thousands of Sikhs self-destructed and took the evidence with them.
This is the backdrop to the movie.
In a presumably secular democratic republic that India is what can the citizens expect? What are their rights? That’s what Sadda Haq is all about. Literally translated the Punjabi title speaks of “Our Rights.” The rights are self-evident – a modicum of justice, freedom of expression, a transparent attempt at accountability. These rights are the same even when we speak about the smallest minority. In fact the legitimacy of a democracy stems from its commitment to protect the least among its citizens.
Attempts have been made to capture the reality of those days in books and movies but they have largely been legally suppressed in India on the fanciful grounds, not that they were false depictions, but that they would promote unrest in the country and undermine the unity and peace of the nation.
Somehow this movie got made. I understand that the Censor Board certified approval of it for wide showing. How that miracle happened remains a mystery. The one showing here in New York a couple of days ago did not exhibit the certificate as is done at the showing of every movie in India.
Somehow a copy got out of the country. This is worth celebrating. With the Internet and the social media being as pervasive as they are the genie is out and isn’t going back into the bottle.
I found it most promising that a Sikh and a Hindu are the co-producers of the movie. The story is well developed and is firmly grounded in reality. The performers are way ahead of what you see in Punjabi movies. The dramatization is realistic way beyond the usual Bollywood stuff.
Scenes of corruption within the Indian bureaucracy, rape, terrorism and brutality may upset delicate minds but to water them down would dilute the story and rob its authenticity. Sikh characters are shown where some are honest and honorable while others are venal, particularly in the police. But that, too, is factual history. That the Police seeded its agents within the Sikh movement is true as is the fact that not all “terrorists” were honest or equally dedicated to the cause.
We seem to forget that when ordinary people rise against their own government even then governments must not use the same extralegal desperate tools that the rebels use. Governments have almost unlimited power and weapons. The ordinary man or woman does not. The former must remain aware of the limitations of attacking its own people because it exists to serve them.
In the final analysis the matter here raises two fundamental issues: What exactly are the rights and obligations of a government towards its own people? And what are the obligations and duties of citizenship? I am not going to attempt a fuller treatise on it at this time. But to my mind the obligations and duties of both a democratic government and its citizens stem from the same imperatives – transparency, accountability and participatory self-governance. Banning a movie and closing all conversation on it is like burning a book: I don’t see how transparency, accountability and self-governance are enhanced.
The fact that the techniques and methods of the Indian government produced many more rebels than those who ever wanted to enter the struggle comes out clearly. And that is history.
Indian society needs to learn that banning books and movies is not the way to build a democratic nation. Bad ideas are best handled not by the heavy hand of law but in the free marketplace of ideas.
It turns out that now the movie has been banned in Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh and Delhi; other regions of India would likely follow suit. What would that achieve? It has already come out of India and now nothing can stop its worldwide distribution.
The banning would only add to its well deserved pull.
(This essay benefited greatly from the contributions of Amarjit Singh Buttar and Simarpal Singh Bharara, both of Connecticut.)