In light of the Nanak Shah Fakir controversy, the Akal Takht has formed a 21-member censor body that will review any content related to Sikhism before screening. The Takht has ruled that it is ‘mandatory’ for filmmakers to get its approval.
But can the Takht really make such ‘mandatory’ rules?
What is the Akal Takht?
The Akal Takht is the highest temporal authority of Sikhism, and is located in the Harmandir Sahib complex in Amritsar, Punjab.
The Akal Takht is believed to have been built by the sixth Guru – Guru Hargobind Singh – as a body that would govern and dispense justice to all disputes of Sikhs.
Today, the head of the Akal Takht, or the Jathedar, is appointed by the Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee ie SGPC. The SGPC is the highest Sikh administrative body that governs several schools and gurudwaras. The Akal Takht now falls under the ambit of the SGPC, along with two other Takhts.
The SGPC in itself is a parliament of sorts, comprising elected religious representatives.
The practice of democratically resolving issues related to Sikhism dates back to 1708, when the last guru – Guru Gobind Singh – advocated the compilation of the Adi Granth, the Holy Scriptures which would serve as the highest authority of the office of the Guru.
Any misinterpretation or dispute relating to the scriptures had to be settled by the entire community, which would gather behind their elected representatives in annual or bi-annual meetings and pass unanimous resolutions.
These resolutions were called gurmatas, and were binding on all Sikhs. Both political and non-political decisions were taken in this manner by the Akal Takht till 1809, when Maharaja Ranjit Singh declined the Akal Takht the authority to issue political gurmatas.
Subsequently, all non-political issues relating to the interpretation and the rules of conduct of Sikhism are governed by the Akal Takht. The decisions taken by the Takht are now called hukamnamas and are considered mandatory for all Sikhs.
What Was the Controversy Around Nanak Shah Fakir?
The film revolves around the life and times of Guru Nanak Dev, the first Guru. Now, the SGPC and the Akal Takht do not allow for the on-screen portrayal of the Sikh Gurus and their family members, thereby seeking a ban on the film.
According to an article in the Indian Express, the SGPC even sought to curb the pictorial representation of the Gurus but the circulation had become too widespread for the Committee to anything about it. Hence, it now aims to curb cinematic portrayal of the Gurus.
In 2003, the SGPC’s Dharam Prachar Committee reportedly adopted a resolution that allowed for ‘only baptised Sikhs to play roles of important Sikh personalities’.
Further, no real-life actors could play characters of the Sikh Gurus, their family members or the panj pyare.
This resolution was adopted by the Akal Takht as well.
Nanak Shah Fakir, produced by Harinder Singh Sikka, was initially released in 2015, with actor Harish Khanna in the lead role. Sikka is a columnist-cum-filmmaker, who has also authored Calling Sehmat, the book on which the acclaimed Alia-starrer Raazi is based.
Nanak Shah Fakir came under severe fire from various Sikh organisations, causing the BJP-SAD government in Punjab to suspend its screening in the state.
Meanwhile, the Akal Takht had given its approval to the film then, even praising Sikka for his contributions towards the community in a letter. But after the SGPC stepped in, Sikka himself withdrew the film from screening, preferring to seek the SGPC’s approval first.
In 2016, the SGPC granted its approval to the film, after Sikka changed Guru Nanak Dev’s character into an animation.
With the film slated for an April 2018 release, several Sikh bodies once again began clamouring in protest, forcing the SGPC to withdraw its approval.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court on 10 April, allowed for the nationwide release of the film, citing that the CBFC had approved the film for clearance, and hence nobody can obstruct it.
Do Religious Institutions Have the Power to Make ‘Mandatory’ Rules?
The Central government and the Indian Constitution have always respected religious freedom in law and in practice. Furthermore, the Preamble in the Constitution through the usage of the word ‘secular’ mandates that the State not interfere or meddle in the affairs of any religion.
Now, the SGPC perceives itself as a democratically elected body representative of Sikhs across the world. According to the Indian Express report, although the SGPC was originally formed in 1920 with the aim to govern the gurudwaras, it has also taken temporal decisions through its Dharam Prachar Committee. It reportedly enjoys immense power and clout over the three Takhts – the Akal Takht, Takht Damdami Sahib, and Takht Keshgarh Sahib.
While the SGPC can pass orders that are ‘mandatory’ to its followers, these rules cannot harm the sovereignty, unity or integrity of the State.
According to the Religious Institutions Act of 1988 (Prevention of Misuse),
"No religious institution or manager thereof shall use or allow the use of any premises belonging to, or under the control of, the institution for the carrying on of any unlawful or subversive act prohibited under any law for the time being in force or in contravention of any order made by any court."
Hence, to make it ‘mandatory’ for all films made on Sikhism to seek the approval of its censor board is in direct contradiction of the Supreme Court which has maintained that the CBFC is the highest governing and certifying authority on films.
What Is the CBFC? What Is Its Jurisdiction?
The CBFC, or the Central Board for Film Certification, is the censorship board of India, and falls under the ambit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
Set up under the Indian Cinematograph Act of 1920, it is the only authorised body that can regulate the public exhibition of films, through certification.
The certification of films is done in accordance with the Cinematograph Act of 1952 and the Cinematograph (Certification) Rules 1983.
The Board consists of non-official members and a Chairman, all of whom are appointed by Central Government, and functions with headquarters at Mumbai. The members are nominated by the Central Government for a tenure of two years, and generally hail from all walks of life.
Are Religious Bodies Encroaching into the CBFC's Jurisdiction?
Religious bodies and fringe groups have increasingly attempted to encroach into the CBFC’s jurisdiction, more so in the recent years, calling for bans and disrupting the screening of films that have been approved by the censor board.
In 2014, after the Aamir Khan-starrer PK released, several religious groups including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board were up in arms, demanding that the film be banned “as it constantly made fun of religion.”
In 2013, Kamal Hassan’s Vishwaroopam was stalled several times, because of the demands made by several Muslim bodies, who believed that members of their community were being portrayed as terrorists in the film.
More recently, the release of the Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie Padmaavat was marred by violence and protests by a fringe group called the Karni Sena, who were adamant that their history had been misrepresented in the film.
Invariably, all these protests and calls come after the CBFC has reviewed the film and given it the requisite stamp of approval for public exhibition.
And like renowned critic Baradwaj Rangan rightly observed:
"Once a film has come through the Censor Board, no one has the right to demand that it be pulled from theatres because it has offended them. Everyone is sensitive to something, and if you begin to factor it all in, you’ll never make a movie." . Read more on Explainers by The Quint.Hey Akal Takht, Here’s Why You Cannot Form a Censor BoardQBullet: Pak Cross-Border Shelling Kills 5; AB de Villiers Retires . Read more on Explainers by The Quint.