Who is Karsandas Mulji, eulogised by PM Modi and linked to ‘Maharaj’ film?
Karsandas Mulji (left) was a journalist and a social reformer in the 1850-60s in colonial India, who boldly wrote about the exploitation of women by a prominent Hindu religious guru. Photo: Wikimedia Commons and X

Who is Karsandas Mulji, eulogised by PM Modi and linked to ‘Maharaj’ film?

The release of Netflix film 'Maharaj' has been stayed by Gujarat high court. The film is based on a libel case fought by the revolutionary Karsandas Mulji. Who is he and why did Modi praise him once?

The Gujarat high court stayed the release of 'Maharaj', a Netflix film, in which Aamir Khan's son Junaid Khan is all set to make his debut.

The film, based on a book written by a Gujarati author Saurabh Shah, is on a real life, high-profile court case in the colonial era. Produced by Aditya Chopra under YRF Entertainment, the film was set to release on Friday, June 14. But, it has now being stalled after a plea was filed that it would hurt the sentiments of a religious sect.

The next hearing in the case has been scheduled for June 18.

However, what is ironic is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he was Gujarat Chief Minister, has once praised the central character in this film, a Gujarati journalist, Karsandas Mulji, who had fought for justice and exposed the wrongdoings of a guru of a religious sect.

So, who is Karsandas Mulji, and what is the high-profile legal case he fought in the Supreme Court of Bombay on which the film is based? And, why is the film on Karsandas now being stalled?

Who is Karsandas Mulji?

Karsandas Mulji was a bold Gujarati journalist, writer and social reformer. A Vaishnav himself, Karsandas shot to fame when he began to expose the misdeeds of Vaishnav priests, including their exploitation of women devotees.

Born in Bombay in 1832, Karsandas was a man of independent thought. In 1851, Karsandas had his first stint as a journalist, when he began contributing to Rast Goftar, an Anglo-Gujarati newspaper founded by Dadabhai Naoroji in the same year.

He was a prominent member of the “Bombay intelligentsia” at that time opposing the “merchant aristocracy” over social issues. At Bombay’s Elphinstone College, he was classmates with prominent Gujarati reformists such as poet Narmad and educationist Mahipatram Neelkanth.

In 1855, with the support of wealthy reform-minded individuals, he launched his own magazine, Satyaprakash, which boldly confronted outdated traditions and societal problems.

What made him famous?

Karsandas became famous when he wrote an article in 'Satyaprakash', a Gujarat weekly circulated in Bombay alleging that Jadunath Brijratan, a religious leader of the Vaishnavite Pushtimarg sect, had sexual liaisons with women followers and that men were expected to show their devotion by offering their wives to him for sex.

Jadunath filed a suit against Mulji, and the case, went to court on 25 January 1862. Many prominent witnesses came forward to testify against the religious leader. It attracted large crowds.

The Maharaj filed the lawsuit worth ₹50,000 against Karsandas and the paper’s publisher, Nanabhai Ranina. Despite immense pressure, Karsandas remained steadfast. His friends like poet Narmad, doctor Bhau Daji Lad, Gokuldas Tejpal would also come to the court, stand on the witness stand and testify. Ultimately, two British judges ruled in favour of Karsandas and his publisher saying that the journalist was only doing his duty.

Mulji was ordered to be compensated ₹ 11,500 for his legal costs, which amounted to ₹ 13,000.

The impact of this trial?

It was referred to as the 'Greatest trial of modern times' after the trial of Warren Hastings. The case set a precedent in establishing an important message that everyone, including priests, is equal under the law.

Also, as Karsandas Mulji's investigative journalism exposed the alleged exploitation of female devotees, the court battle highlighted the crucial role of the press in challenging entrenched power structures and promoting social justice. It was his unwavering commitment to truth that he left behind as his legacy.

He came to be referred to as “a Reformer, a Martin Luther of the Banian Cast”.

What did PM Modi say in his blog about Karsandas?

Interestingly, when Narendra Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat, he praised Karsandas Mulji in a blog post, acknowledging his contributions to social reform and the bravery he exhibited during the Maharaj Libel Case.

Stressing Karsandas Mulji's dedication to truth and justice, he emphasised how his legacy continues to inspire his efforts towards transparency and accountability in public life.

In his blog on Independence Day in 2010, then chief minister Narendra Modi had written, "...Social reformist and journalist Karsandas Mulji's newspaper too was titled "Satya-Prakash".

Gujarat has accepted the path of truth as its weapon to fight all frms of injustice, neglect and against those who try to defame us."

Further, he added, "Saanch ne ave na Aanch" (There is no ignominy in speaking the truth). "Satya Chhapre Chadi ne Pokarshe" (Truth will always emerge). "Satya No Jay" (Truth always triumphs). This only is our faith."

Why is Karsandas in the news now?

Netflix was about to release a film titled ‘Maharaj', which has Aamir Khan’s son Junaid Khan playing the inimitable journalist Karsandas. While the Maharaj is essayed by Jaideep Ahlawat.

The film which was to release on Friday without much promotion and not even a trailer, is based on the Gujarati bestseller ‘Maharaj', written by a Gujarati author Saurabh Shah. The book details the historic libel case in 1862 that shook Bombay.

The Netflix film also titled 'Maharaj' revolved around this highly publicised case in the Supreme Court of Bombay.

Why did Gujarat high court stop the film’s release?

Members of the Vaishnavite Pustimargi sect approached the court claiming that the film, based on the famous Maharaj libel case in Bombay in 1862 can stir up “hatred” and violence against their sect.

The followers argued that the film could distort their religious practices and provoke animosity. They moved the Gujarat high court, citing potential violations of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, and self-regulation norms for OTT platforms.

The court stayed the release of the film.

'Hindus should be proud of the story of 'Maharaj''

Even as social media users attacked the film and Netflix for showing "Hindus in a bad light", Saurabh Shah, the author of 'Maharaj', defended the film ‘Maharaj’ (which he has seen) saying it is not against Sanatan or Vaishnav sect.

"I and my entire family are part of the Vaishnav community with full devotion. The book 'Maharaj' written by me and the film made by YRF both are in favor of the Vaishnav community. It was because of this case of 1862 that the society was cleansed and even today lakhs of devotees thank Karsan Das Mulji. 'Maharaj' is a story that Hindus should be proud of," he wrote on X.

"It’s not against Sanatan or Vaishnav sampraday to which I belong. Me and my family are devout Vaishnavites. The original novel ‘ Maharaj’ which is written by me ( available on Amazon) as well as the film produced by YRF is in favour of Vaishnavism," he stressed.

The film has "pinpointed" to one rotten fruit in the whole basket of good mangoes, he added. ‘Maharaj’ is a story devout Hindus should feel proud of, not defensive, he said, adding that the way the journalist Karsandas Mulji (hero of the novel and film) cleaned his sect in 1862 by fighting the famous Maharaj Libel Case.

And asked, "Are there any cases in other religions? We should be in fact proud that we had Karsandas among us...".

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