Celebrated documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan tells Sayan Bhattacharya why he returned his National Award, and warns that five years might be enough for the BJP government to alter the social fabric of the nation.
To begin with, why did you choose this specific moment to give up the National Award, given that ever since this government has come to power, and of course even earlier, right-wing atrocities have been on an upsurge?
It is true that atrocities have been happening in India for over 3,000 years. I mean, we don’t have records of what happened 3,000 years ago but after that, there is documentation. You ask why we did it on Wednesday and not on Tuesday, and if we had done in son Tuesday, you could still ask why we didn’t do it on Monday . . . this is endless. The point is that when we did it—and across the country many individuals who didn’t know each other are doing it—it means that something has changed in India. There is a palpable atmosphere of intolerance.
I’m not talking just of acts of violence but of the polarisation and atmosphere of hatred for minorities, the impunity of those who belong to a majoritarian ideology that thinks it can dictate what the rest of the country should eat, drink, read, watch and who they can make love to. All across the board they infringe on people’s personal lives and intrude in their private spaces. This hasn’t happened before, to my knowledge, even though I have lived through the Emergency and fought the Emergency. Then, we were afraid of being arrested; we were not afraid that a particular cultural way of life was going to be force-fed to us. And we were rarely afraid for our lives.
Today, rationalists are being killed and there are people on motorcycles with guns roaming the countryside—you don’t really know if and when they are coming. There is a perceptible threat to all those dissenters, though most have decided to brave it out. I mean anybody who effectively speak up against the system.
In terms of some of the cynicism and some of the reservations that we have noticed about this gesture of giving up awards—for instance, many anti-caste activists have been talking about no such reaction when Dalits are regularly brutalised. When they were sitting in Jantar Mantar for months to protest the atrocities in Bhagana, and when they even converted to Islam, there wasn’t any reaction coming from the intelligentsia or the media, whereas during the same time when the FTII protests were happening there was such a lot of reaction, so they feel cynical.
It is true that Dalits, Adivasis and women are the most oppressed groups through Indian history, and even now not a lot has changed. But it is wrong to belittle one resistance by referring to another. After all, those who are trying to saffronise the educational institutions of India are exactly the same forces who invented and perpetuated the caste system, the people who still extol the Manusmriti.
Dividing the forces of resistance against each other is a game mostly played by postmodernist academics who sow the seeds of this division to perpetuate the status quo. The truth is that our battles have to be fought on multiple fronts. For the better part of my filmmaking life, I have spoken against the caste system. I spent 14 years making a film about a caste atrocity (Jai Bhim Comrade), one incident that was related to many other incidents that underlined the primacy of caste oppression. The point is that what we are responding to now includes the continuing violence on Dalits. I mean, the killings that have taken place in Haryana with the burning of Dalit children, the khap panchayat attitudes, the honour killings, the killings of people who do inter-caste marriages are very much part of what we are protesting about.
You could make the argument that Dalits were attacked during Congress rule as well. That is true, but there is a change in ethos now. Today, an upper-caste ideology is expressly in power even though the Hindutva brigade is no longer just upper caste in terms of membership. There was a time when they were, but today you can’t say that because they have actively recruited non-upper castes. But effective control remains entirely with the upper caste. Their ideology is entirely upper caste.
Take, for example, the Sanathan Sanstha that stands accused of the murder of Comrade Govind Pansare and perhaps also of Dr Dabholkar and MM Kalburgi. It is led by Jayant Athavale, a Brahmin who is considered by his cult followers to be an avatar of Vishnu. But those accused of the actual killings are not upper caste; they were recruited from the “backward” castes and Dalits. This is a pattern of behaviour which is historically consistent, as the upper castes called the shots and got others to do their dirty work.
In your individual letter, you have highlighted a lot of these issues, but in the joint statement, the focus seems to be completely on the FTII.
FTII was the trigger point for a lot of people. For, it was a combination of many events, including the Dadri killing. I went to FTII on the second day of their strike to show my solidarity. And I was watching to see if the government would compromise. I think what the students did for 140 days was heroic. They were resisting the saffronisation of an educational institution; not just saffronisation, but the dumbing down, because people who did not have adequate qualifications were being put in charge. Their only qualification was their strong allegiance to the RSS and Modi.
FTII is not the only institution where this is happening—it is happening across the board—but the FTII students stood up to be counted, and so I think they deserve the support they got from across the country. I also supported the Ambedkar-Periyar group in Chennai who fought against the IIT administration and won their battle. These are two instances of strong resistance. We still have democratic institutions, but they are being undermined. Even if this government lasts just for five years and not 10 years as people are expecting it to, it can do a huge amount of damage to the whole structure of society unless we are vigilant.
It is true that many of these atrocities did not necessarily happen in BJP-ruled states. During the 2014 Muzzaffarnagar riots, the Samajwadi Party and not BJP was in power; when Dabholkar was killed, the Congress was in power; where Kalburgi was killed, the Congress was in power. The point is, are we going to look at who was in power when the atrocities happened, or are we going to look at the Hindutva forces that have been unleashed all across the country that believe that violence is a perfectly legitimate form of carrying out religio-politics? An extreme right wing, which is armed and trained, is being unleashed on the people of India and you may see them in some places where the BJP is in power, or in some places where the BJP is not in power. I mean, you don’t blame the Congress Party for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi because the Congress was in power in 1948; you know who did it, you know the forces behind this murder. In the same way, we know which forces killed Dabholkar, which forces killed Pansare, which forces killed Kalburgi. I don’t think there is any doubt about that.
But the government that is currently in power clearly represents that force. Can we distinguish between the forces and the government as such?
That is the debate which is going on, whether there is a fringe element or is it the mainstream. The point is that for a long time we thought that the BJP is the mainstream element and the RSS was the fringe element but today the RSS speaks from the Red Fort, they are consulted on national policy. You know, in 1948 when the RSS was banned after Gandhiji’s murder, the ban was lifted only when they gave an undertaking that they would only be a cultural outfit and they will not indulge in politics. The undertaking that they had given has clearly been violated. I mean, if they are not in politics, then who is? And then they have the gall to call us political! The civil society that is speaking out against the atrocities and the intolerance in our country—different voices from different parts of the country across different walks of life—they say that you are an organised anti-BJP force, implying that the Congress or the Left has organised us. They keep saying it is Leftist or Congress, which is overestimating the organising capabilities of the Left or the Congress today. This has to do with people who are rational, who don’t believe that Ganesh was created because our ancient science had reached such heights that it did animal head transplants and flew aeroplanes!
Anand, throughout your career, you have been fighting the government, the Censor Board, and you have also won multiple National Awards. So why did you choose to return the particular award for Bombay: Our City? Why not the one that you won for Ram Ke Naam, which is directly connected to the rise of Hindutva?
I certainly wasn’t going to give up all my awards in one shot. I mean, I do not believe in armed struggle, so these awards are all I have in my armoury and I wasn’t going to spend all my ammunition in one go. So I started with Bombay because it was my first National Award.
Okay, and in that sense it is very special to you.
Absolutely. It is special and it is heart-wrenching to give it away. Today they made a joke about it—the BJP-RSS people said that why didn’t you give the money with the award and why don’t you give that to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, but we had already decided that we are not going to give our money to this government. We are going to give our medals back and give the money to any cause we believe in. And for the filmmakers who can’t afford this, it is totally okay if they don’t give the money back—they have spent the money on their own work or something else.
How did so many of you come together? What were the conversations with the other filmmakers who returned their awards like Nishtha Jain, Rakesh Sharma, Dibakar Banerjee?
Basically, we started communicating during the FTII strike and the discussions around it. That is why I said that the strike was an important moment for the filmmakers. As I said, for me, the worst moment was the beef killing in Dadri. I mean, a BJP leader goes into a temple and orders the pujari to make an announcement that a Muslim named Akhlaq has beef in his fridge (which is later proven to be mutton and not beef) and the mob goes and kills him—it means that it is a highly premeditated murder. So if that doesn’t wake you up to the fact that this country is headed towards fascism, then I don’t know what will.
On a different note, Court was selected as India’s official entry to the Oscars this year. Now, this is a film that is extremely political, and one would obviously connect it with Jai Bhim Comrade. Court is also very anti-establishment. So what do you make of it being sent to the Oscars at this current moment in time? Is it the government’s token way of saying we will allow you to do your protest in one corner or is it a way to defang politics?
Well, if you look at Court . . . have you seen it actually?
Yes, I have.
I loved the film—it is very well made and well observed, including the set design, direction and everything. When I saw it I wondered how they were allowed to film in an actual court, so realistic was the set design! But while the film rightly focuses caste and freedom of expression, you don’t see what is going on in India in terms of the rise of Hindutva. At least, it is not there in any obvious way, so it is not what you take away from the film. I am not criticising the film as it does the job it sets for itself very well. I am thinking only about what makes it palatable enough that a BJP government can let it go to the Oscars. It is the question of what is the essential contradiction in the present system. Non-essential contradictions can be tolerated but a direct contradiction may not be.
Right. A couple of days back I saw on YouTube that you were filming the protests against the murder of Mohammed Akhlaq in Mumbai, so is that connected to your new project?
I can’t talk about my new project right now. I am just filming at different places at the moment. But I can’t talk about it till it is much later.
Okay, and finally, in this interview you said many people think this government will last 10 years, but even five years is . . .
Even five years is a huge time for them to do damage—you can see the damage that has already been done in one year and four months. So I hope that in the four years that are remaining, the awakening that is happening in civil society will continue to build so by the time these five years are over, there will be a strong civil society. It does not have to be led by a single party—in fact, it should not be led by a single party because they tend to have a way of collapsing as we saw with the Aam Aadmi Party.
Though it is undoubtedly better than having the BJP in power in Delhi, AAP has been a disappointment. What we need is a very healthy civil society which is on guard against the State and the attempt to change our way of life and our secular democracy. If this develops, then the next four years will be well spent. I think the BJP is going to help us because they are not going to learn. I mean, you can see their response even after we returned the awards. There is absolutely no element of self-criticism in anybody who has spoken from the government’s side or the right wingers that are coming on television. They are busy badmouthing all those who are returning awards, whether it is an 85-year-old scientist or young students from FTII.
But in terms of parliamentary politics we have seen how the opposition is in complete tatters, so in terms of elections, there of a pessimism that this government might end up having two terms.
That is a possibility, and no one is denying that. The real problem is that there is only one-cadre based party in the country today and that is the BJP-RSS and they are increasing at an alarming rate, there are new shakhas every day in different parts of the country and they are taking in six-year-old children and the way the level of discourse has degenerated, I don’t even know how to respond. I don’t know what to say. Just today, I was on a panel which also had Irfan Habib, and I could see that he also didn’t know how to respond because the level of discourse had reached such a low point that we didn’t know what to say. So that will be the future of India if we have nine more years.