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.