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. “Sadda Haq” is different. It deserves thoughtful examination.
The movie is fiction but the facts it is based on are real and eminently verifiable. It captures history that is less than 30 years old. And it makes history just by the fact that it has been completed, received the Indian censor board’s approval to be exhibited, banned in certain states in India, including Punjab, and then lifted by the Supreme Court. 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 US 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 (Hindu) 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 2,700 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. And all the while the police stood by, even encouraging the mayhem. This happened in India of 1984 where arms were licensed and not freely available. Even the 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 that showed here in New York did not exhibit the certificate as is had at the showing of every movie in India. 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 Punjab 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? 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. 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. 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. _________________________ The author, Inder Jit Singh, is an anatomy professor at New York University. He is also on the editorial advisory board of the Calcutta-based periodical, The Sikh Review, and is the author of five books: Sikhs and Sikhism: A View With a Bias; The Sikh Way: A Pilgrim's Progress; Being and Becoming a Sikh; The World According to Sikhi; and, the latest, Sikhs Today: Ideas and Opinions. He can be reached at email@example.com. Commentaries are the opinions of the authors, and not necessarily that of Sikh News Network.