Kids Corner


The Ultimate Irony:
A Film Titled 'Our Basic Right' is Banned in India





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 recently – and even less those we have admired.

The movie, Saadda Haq, is fiction but the facts it is based on are real and eminently verifiable.

Saadda Haq
(literally 'Our Basic Right“) is different; it deserves thoughtful examination. It captures history that is less than 30 years old and this movie makes history just by the fact that it has been completed, received the Indian Censor Board’s approval to be exhibited, and now by the fact that there is a widespread move on the part of the Indian Government and its apparatus to ban it in India.

The facts of the 1980’s are incontrovertible.

Only a couple of 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 U.S. government stopped short of labelling the mass and organized killings of innocent Sikhs as 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 2700 Sikh men, women and children were murdered in cold blood on the streets of the capital city, New Delhi, within 48 hours – that would be over 1300 per 24-hour day -- or more than 50 an hour -- while the police stood by, even encouraging the mayhem.

This happened in the India of 1984 when arms were strictly licensed and not freely available; even kerosene that was used to burn Sikh homes, businesses and people (!) was tightly controlled. Remember that this was in the pre-Google days when names, ownership and addresses 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, ostensibly to be followed by some semblance of justice. In the intervening 28 years, however, over 12 Indian government commissions have been convened but, despite overwhelming evidence, 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 Saadda Haq is all about. Literally translated, the Punjabi title speaks of “Our Basic Right.” The rights are self-evident – a modicum of justice, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, 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 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 general screning. How that miracle happened remains a mystery.

The one showing here in New York a couple of days ago did not exhibit the certificate as is done at the showing of every movie within India.

Somehow a copy got out of the country. This is worth celebrating. With the Internet and the social media being as pervasive as they are, the genie is out and isn’t going back into the bottle.

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 normally 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 Police seeded its agents within the Sikh movement is true as is the fact that not all militants --  labelled “terrorists” by the government -- 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. Dissent in any form is to be dealt with through the law and due process, not through oppression and high-handedness.

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?

I am not going to attempt a fuller treatise at this time. But 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.

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.

Indian society needs to learn that banning books and movies is not the way to build a democratic nation. Dissenting, even distasteful, ideas are best handled not by the heavy hand of law but in the free marketplace of ideas.

It turns out that now the movie has been banned in Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh and Delhi; other regions of India would likely follow suit. What would that achieve? It has already come out of India and now nothing can stop its worldwide distribution.

The banning would only add to its well deserved pull.

[Edited for]

This essay benefited greatly from the contributions of Amarjit Singh Buttar and Simarpal Singh Bharara, both of Connecticut.

April 11, 2013


Conversation about this article

1: Kulwant Singh (Oakville, Toronto), April 11, 2013, 5:26 AM.

The article mentions that the movie was shown in New York. Was it screened at a theater or was it a private showing? If it was a private showing via the internet, can the author or the Editor provide any information that will assist us being able to view this movie? If this is possible, it is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that as many of our friends, especially non-Sikhs and non-Indians, know about this movie, about the truths it exposes and the fact that it is being banned by the Indian government, and that we are able to see it here in the West.

2: Gurmeet Kaur (Atlanta, Georgia, USA), April 11, 2013, 6:05 AM.

Anybody who wants to organize local screenings in the USA or Canada can do so. For current screenings or to organize one in your city - Please visit

3: N Singh (Canada), April 11, 2013, 6:54 AM.

I urge anyone who wants to view this movie to go to the theatre and pay full price to see it. Please do not be tempted to view it on-line for free or to buy cheap DVDs. The Govt. of India is trying desperately to sabotage this attempt and filter money way from the makers of this movie. If the movie doesn't make a profit or recover its costs, rest assured that no such movies will be made in the future. Remember, nothing in life that is worth having is free ... including self-rule!

4: Inderjeet (Thane, Maharashtra, India), April 11, 2013, 7:06 AM.

We all know by now that the Indian Government feels it has the powers to do whatever the people in power want to do, and the citizens don't have the right to question them. Most of the time, it is the govt. of the time in the centre or the state that overrides all laws and indulges in mass killings and arrests, and empowers the police to loot and make millions. So waste time expecting justice here, and move to another country which is civilized and where humans are respected and are treated as equals. If the Indian Constitution is followed in its true spirit, then 99% of the politicians and policemen will be in jail ... that is why, even after 30 years, there's been no action. The few convicts from 1984 who were given death sentence, their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment and then just before election-time, they were freed for "good conduct". Thus, a convicted mass murderer is rewarded by the Govt of India.

5: Dr Birinder Singh Ahluwalia (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), April 11, 2013, 8:52 AM.

All nations -- and even religions -- on this planet have had to deal with their unsavory pasts at one time or the other, whether it is America grappling with it's history of slavery or its Civil War, or Canada with it's mistreatment of its aboriginal children, or Germany and the Jewish Holocaust, or the Catholic Church and its pattern of sex abuse ... and so on and on. History is a testament that all these entities ultimately had to admit the wrongs committed. In some cases, when they made restitution, they were able to move on, embracing what is right rather than perennially engaging in cover-ups, false story-telling, etc. I believe a great country like India should also come to grips with its dark chapters, acknowledge the wrong doings, bring the perpetrators to justice, and start a new chapter. It'll allow them to create a righteous beginning for its democracy to flourish in the right manner, with its citizens feeling secure and free like in a successful, functioning democracy. I believe India and Indians can do the right thing. This is the time to do it.

6: Kulwant Singh (Oakville, Ontario, Canada), April 11, 2013, 9:17 AM.

I completely agree with N. Singh ji in comment 3. In my initial comment, my reason for finding an internet viewing was more for the benefit of spreading the message to non-Indians who would otherwise not get an opportunity. I understand that already a couple of theaters in the Greater Toronto Area are screening this film. I intend to go see it with my family this weekend. However, I think sending a URL link to our non-Indian friends will be much more effective to get them to at least know about this movie and the treatment it is getting from the petty and short-sighted Indians.

7: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada), April 11, 2013, 9:46 AM.

There is an issue which I truly find mind boggling about the criticism levied against this film. The Indian media has accused the film of promoting communal disharmony through Jazzy B's song "Baghi". They argue that certain elements of society will be insulted by comparing men such as Jagtar Singh Hawara and Balwant Singh Rajoana to Guru Gobind Singh. No such equating has been done. The accusation is based on something that is non-existent. What I want to know is which community is feeling insulted? I know of no Sikhs finding anything offensive or raising any objections.

8: Inderjeet (Thane, Maharashtra, India), April 11, 2013, 11:29 AM.

The Indian media is full of communal people who work against the very idea of India, and therefore against the Sikhs, and will always give a crooked view about things. Truth always falls by the wayside. Read today's news about India's Supreme Court saying that the government of the country is now non-functional.

9: Gurteg Singh (New York, USA), April 11, 2013, 2:01 PM.

This film depicts only a fraction of the planned genocide against Sikhs that was conducted by Indian Government during the last two decades. The anti-Sikh mentality that resulted in this holocaust is still pervasive in the policies of the Indian Government and its propaganda media. In this age of internet and social media, this ill-advised ban is not only counter-productive but also shows the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of those who are at the helm of affairs in New Delhi.

10: Daljit Rattan (Surrey, British Columbia, Canada), April 11, 2013, 5:10 PM.

It is an amazingly well made movie. Getting it banned just gives it more credibility (though it didn't need any as it is based on factual information). It is running full houses in Canada. There was no mention of Bhindranwala or Khalistan or anything that could even mildly be construed communal. The fact that mass murderer and Indian government stooge K P S Gill wants it banned is all the more reason you want to see it for yourself. It is tragic when our own organizations, such as SAD and SGPC, couldn't stand up for our basic rights in Punjab.

11: Raj (Canada), April 11, 2013, 8:10 PM.

The first step for us is to free our gurdwaras from the SGPC and Akali masands.

12: Sunny Grewal (Abbotsford, Canada), April 12, 2013, 12:29 PM.

@11 - Raj, there is so much irony with that request!

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A Film Titled 'Our Basic Right' is Banned in India"

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