Rustom: populism and prejudice in the age of ‘post-truth’ politics

Last year’s Bollywood hit film Rustom was just the latest fictionalised retelling of the story of Indian Navy Commander KM Nanavati. In 1959, Nanavati shot his wife’s lover dead, only to be found not guilty by a jury that seemed convinced not so much of his innocence as his righteousness.

The true story is told compellingly in ‘The Tabloid and the City,’ a chapter of historian Gyan Prakash’s book Mumbai Fables. Prakash focuses on the contemporary scandal around the case, especially as fuelled by the English-language Bombay tabloid Blitz, which he argues used the case to foment a particular form of populism. Nanavati was cast as a national hero and a man of honour who had been wronged by a playboy businessman who in turn stood for everything that was wrong with Bombay’s corrupt, upper-class elite; by implication, he got no more than he deserved.

Akshay Kumar in Rustom,
directed by Dharmendra Suresh Desai

Blitz was edited by the flamboyant and politically astute Rustom Khurshedji Karanjia, who not only features in fictionalised form in Rustom, but also gives his real first name to its fictionalised and eponymous hero (Rustom being a legendary Persian hero, and both real characters being from India’s Parsi minority). Otherwise, Rustom sticks much closer to the true story than the earlier films, Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke (1963) and Achanak (1973), but it follows them in omitting one of the most interesting aspects of the story, which Prakash discusses at length in Mumbai Fables.

In fact, the jury’s ‘not guilty’ verdict was rejected by the judge, who declared it ‘perverse’ in light of the evidence. He referred the matter to the Bombay High Court, which then found Nanavati guilty. Though he was pardoned by the state governor after three years in prison, his case was widely regarded as the final nail in the coffin of the jury system in India, which was subsequently scrapped. It was decided that the public was too easily swayed by emotion and led astray by the tabloid press. To this day, then, unlike citizens of other democracies, Indians accused of a crime do not have the right to a trial by a jury of their peers.

Prakash cites a Blitz column of the time by Ramesh Sanghvi, a barrister who pointed out that no judge could discard the decision of the jury in Britain. It was only in importing the jury system into colonial India that the British had introduced the provision for an appeal against jury verdict to a High Court judge, who during colonial times would invariably have been British. In retaining this provision, the Indian Establishment was merely substituting itself for the colonial one. And the decision to abolish juries altogether hardly inspired confidence in the democratic character of independent India.

This legacy of the Nanavati case is especially significant today, at a time when there are growing doubts about the public’s ability to make sound judgements – and not only in India. In the West too, jury trials are now explicitly in question for cases considered too complicated or controversial for ordinary citizens to understand or to get right. And as in India, the underlying distrust of the public’s capacity for reason extends to politics, with doubts increasingly raised about the public’s fitness to vote in referendums (after Brexit), or indeed at all (after Trump). Talk of ‘post-truth’ politics reflects a loss of faith in the public’s ability to distinguish truth from falsehood, and implicitly in the viability of democracy itself.

At the beginning of this year, India’s Supreme Court ruled that politicians cannot use religion or caste to seek votes, a well-intentioned move that in fact seriously undermines freedom of speech. The court had been asked to clarify the meaning of Section 123(3) of the Representation of People’s Act (RPA), which already prohibited appeals to religion or caste during election campaigns – because of India’s history of sectarian violence – but had previously been interpreted in a more limited way, to refer to the religion or caste of the candidate rather than the electorate, and to allow for a distinction between warranted and unwarranted appeals. The new judgment goes much further, raising the spectre of election results being overturned after the fact because of pledges made to a particular community – or even appeals to resist caste-based oppression.

Political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta explains how, all along, the RPA both expressed progressive aspirations, and threatened to undermine democracy itself: ‘It was a quest for a modern language of representation, where the identity of the candidates mattered less than what they stood for or argued for. But the RPA, like much of our free speech law, has also been based on a paternalistic premise: the people as full of destructive passion that the state needs to regulate.’ The new ruling leans heavily on this premise, and as Mehta argues, ‘this diagnosis corrodes democracy and liberty. Our appetite for paternalism is growing under the guise of doing good’.

The assumption is that the Indian public is easily inflamed by divisive political rhetoric, and cannot be trusted to weigh up claims made by rival politicians in order come to reasoned conclusions about how to vote. It is of course the same assumption behind the abolition of jury trials. Granted, there are good reasons to worry about the role of caste and religion in Indian politics, which are notoriously distorted by ‘vote banks’, whereby people ‘vote their caste’ rather than ‘casting their vote’. These divisions are also why many think it wise not to use the jury system. But the result is an ongoing infantilisation of the Indian public.

People will not learn to put justice before prejudice if they are not asked to put justice before prejudice. And they will not learn to distinguish between politicians who genuinely seek to represent their interests, and those who aim instead to manipulate their loyalties and anxieties, if the courts attempt to silence all discussion of religion and caste in politics. Indeed, the recent ruling is likely to lead to specious, politicised claims and counterclaims: ‘fake news’ with an Indian accent.

In Rustom, the jury’s not guilty verdict stands as a happy ending. But in true Bollywood style, the film still manages to take an already complicated story and make it even more complicated. [Spoiler alert.] While the jury is deliberating, we learn that although Rustom did his best to give them the fig leaf of a credible self-defence plea, the killing was in fact premeditated. Only it is still morally justified, because his victim, Vikram, had been involved in a corrupt scheme knowingly to sell the Indian Navy an unfit aircraft carrier. Vikram’s affair with Rustom’s wife was in fact revenge for Rustom’s refusal to collude in the conspiracy along with some of his Navy colleagues. So in killing him, Rustom was not only restoring his wife’s honour, but also serving his country.

In his holding cell, he tells the policeman with whom he has been playing a cat-and-mouse game, ‘You, the jury and the public outside, everyone knows I’m guilty. But they also accept I should not be punished. Vikram deserved to die and I don’t deserve to be punished’. But he also explains that he could not reveal the whole truth in court, because it might have undermined the public’s trust in the Navy. This puts a fascinating twist on things. Rustom is upholding the superiority of popular morality over legal technicalities, but he is also indulging in elitist paternalism. The public must not know the true justice of Rustom’s action, so is left instead with a compelling personal drama.

But perhaps that is the logical consequence of mistrusting the public’s capacity for reason. If we cannot be trusted to come to the ‘right’ decision ourselves, we must be managed – manipulated using stories and appeals to emotion – into coming to the proper conclusion. No doubt, juries get it wrong occasionally, and people sometimes vote in irrational ways. But the growing prejudice that the public is incapable of reason is a greater threat to democracy than any demagogue.