The debate stirred by the latest Hindi film Udta Punjab within the political and media circles has once again obscured the image of grassroots levels movements for revolutionary change in Punjab.
The film is about drug menace and substance abuse in the northern Indian state that borders Pakistan. The story is based on widely known facts, such as the increasing substance abuse among the youth and the political and police connivance behind growing drug smuggling from across the border.
The film had become controversial even before its release because of its content. The ruling Akali Dal-BJP combine had objected to the message as it felt that the movie has been pitched several months before the next assembly election to embarrass their government. After all, the film reveals how politicians use drugs and intoxicants to buy votes, a trend that has contributed to the problem of addiction that benefits the people in power. Another objection was excessive use of verbal abuses and obscene language. So much so, the Film Censor Board tried to stall it which is another story.
The Censor Board Chief Pahlaj Nahalani owes allegiance to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s right wing Hindi nationalist ideology. Since Modi’s BJP is sharing power with Akali Dal in Punjab, one can easily figure out the conflict of Nanalani. The two parties take pride in Hindu and Sikh religious identities and survive on faith-based politics. But this does not make them immune to using short cuts and making unholy alliances with drug cartels.
Playing with the sentiments of the voters, they have also been saying that the film gives bad name to their state. This is nothing but a gimmickry. They are not only responsible for promoting substance abuse, but are also trying to play down the reality by indulging in regressive politics of censorship to insulate people from getting informed.
On the other hand, the opposition parties; the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party also attacked the government for trying to stop people from seeing the truth unraveling before their eyes. It’s a separate matter that the Congress too have been using Censor Board in the past to crush any alternative viewpoint expressed through films and was responsible for slapping emergency and press censorship in India in 1975. On top of that Congress cannot escape the blame of criminalizing the politics as it has been in power most of the time since Indian gained independence from British in 1947.
Since Aam Aadmi Party is newly born one can give it a benefit of doubt, but their government in Delhi had also removed some journalists from the ministerial app network for raising critical questions.
The film is certainly a very serious attempt to look into the problem of drugs. The message is very disturbing and forces people in power to look into the mirror, in spite of many limitations. The most depressing part of the story is that it becomes very challenging and life threatening for people who really want to rid the society of drug menace and expose the mafia.
Certainly, such film should be appreciated and those who tried to stop it from reaching the public must be shamed, but the film and the subsequent debate has overlooked the fact that Punjab or for that matter any territory grappling with such menace has no dearth of people with burning conscience. The situation is troubling indeed, but to assume that people are increasingly becoming addicts and that Punjab is evaporating as the title suggests is far from the truth. Those who are politicizing the issue must take some blame for this. It has been seen that the mainstream media, the filmmakers and political pundits continue to ignore the grassroots level movements that continue to resist in the face of many challenges. These include those who are opposing drug abuse and alcoholism in villages. These include rural women. Even the film takes into account this fact if not in entirety at least in part. Whereas, those who have made Udta Punjab an issue of political correctness, are missing this point. It’s unfortunate that because they have failed to amplify such voices of resistance and dissent that public at large has started believing that the situation is getting worse instead of improving. This may be because the stories of grassroots level activism or alternative voices do not suit the agenda of the ruling classes or the urban elite that controls the academia and the media.
That the Punjab is also rising up against repression and social injustice is not being widely discussed. Mass movements, like farmers’ struggles against agrarian crisis, human rights’ activists campaign against police repression, women’s agitations against sexual violence, workers’ everyday fight against corruption and high handedness, Dalit assertion against caste-based oppression and secularists’ battle against reactionaries have been going in Punjab but never make every day headlines or become the part of popular discourse is at the root of the problem.
To recognize such activism, we need to have a vision that is not blinded by the prejudices of the consumerist mainstream whose priority is not to bring a change but to enjoy the status quo. Once we start embracing the grassroots level activists who have throbbing hearts, a thinking head on their shoulders and courage to face savagery only then we will be able to see an Uthtaa (Rising) and not Udta Punjab.