A ban in India on Sadda Haq (Our Right), a controversial Punjabi film about Sikh militancy, is highly undemocratic.
The film is showing at Cineplex Odeon Strawberry Hill Cinemas in Surrey. Sadda Haq is based on a decade-long armed struggle for a separate theocratic Sikh homeland in Punjab, India.
Despite India being the world’s largest democracy, state governments in Punjab, Haryana, and Jammu and Kashmir have banned this film, which exposes police atrocities and state repression during the militancy.
The prohibition came after protests by Hindu fundamentalists who complained that the film glorifies Sikh extremists.
Earlier, India’s censor board also tried to block the film.
Ironically, the ruling Akali Dal party in Punjab was the first to impose ban, even though it has celebrated Sikh militants in the past and continues to do so. Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal has said that he won’t let the peace in Punjab be disturbed.
In fact, the film indirectly glorifies assassins of the former Punjab chief minister, Beant Singh, who was killed in a 1995 car bombing.
Of course, the names of the characters have been changed to produce a work of fiction, which is based on real events. It reveals how police indulged in torture, rapes, and extra-judicial killings to pocket rewards and gain out-of-turn promotions.
During those turbulent times in Punjab, the Akali Dal mostly sided with Sikh militants.
Being a party popular among the majority of Sikhs in the state, Akali Dal leaders often attended funerals of slain extremists and spoke passionately against police barbarity.
Badal himself supported the militants' cause during those dark days.
Today, Akali Dal is running a government with the Hindu nationalist BJP as its coalition partner. And the state's director general of police, Sumedh Singh Saini, has shared blame for gross violations of human rights during a war on terror.
His actions in that era have been likened to those of U.S. actor Clint Eastwood's legendary Dirty Harry character.
Another contradiction regards the Punjab government’s decision to seek clemency for Balwant Singh Rajoana, a Sikh militant facing a death sentence for his involvement in Beant Singh’s murder.
It’s a shame that parties like the Akali Dal and the BJP have stooped to this level after stoutly opposing the state of emergency and censorship once imposed by the Congress government in New Delhi.
Although there is a difference between hate speech and free speech—and under no circumstances should films spreading hatred should be allowed to go unchecked—there is nothing in Sadda Haq that suggests hatred against any community.
It is a separate matter that the film has its own weakness and is one-sided propaganda, but this does not justify a ban.
Sadda Haq only shows half the truth as there is a complete silence about atrocities committed by militants. It’s more about the separatists' rights and says nothing about their assault on the rights of civilians and political opponents, whom they murdered.
A few prominent human-rights activists in Punjab acted in the film, conveying a message that it is propaganda rather than a work of art.
A note of thanks appears in the begining of the film bearing names of the Canadian-based media outlets supporting a Sikh homeland.
The film also wrongly portrays religious separatists as fighting against the system.
In fact, they actually assassinated those leftist activists who were fighting both against the system and against fanaticism. Among those killed by Sikh militants were progressives, including the celebrated poet Paash.
Sikh fundamentalists also need engage in some introspection. They have also shown intolerance on many occasions by opposing films and dramas for one reason or the other. By doing so, they have proven themselves no different from Taliban and Hindu extremists.
Sadda Haq also tries to create confusion by bracketing Sikh extremists with heroes of the freedom movement of India.
The two struggles cannot be equated because Sikh militants were seeking a theocratic state whereas the freedom fighters were secularists seeking social equality for everyone.
Yet everyone, and particularly westerners, should go and watch this film (it has subtitles in English) to understand the psyche of Sikh militants being blamed for violence in mainstream-media reports.
Seeing the movie might help the broader Canadian population understand how state repression partly contributed to the separatist movement in Punjab.
If people in India can watch a play based on the confessional statement of Nathu Ram Godse—a Hindu extremist who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the Indian nation—why is there such a hullabaloo over Sadda Haq?
The play about Godse has been enacted number of times in India, where crowds cheer him as a hero. Has this really belittled Gandhi? Obviously not.
The ban on Sadda Haq therefore needs to be reviewed. Until that happens, nothing can really stop people from watching the film at theatres in Canada and the U.S.
Thanks to the curiosity generated by the ban, the film has proven to be a crowd puller in this part of the world.
It has established beyond doubt how a ban can sometimes be counterproductive.
Gurpreet Singh is a Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.