Interview: Anand Patwardhan

Voice of reason

Print edition : August 02, 2019

Anand Patwardhan. Photo: H.S. MANJUNATH

Interview with the documentary film-maker Anand Patwardhan.

HE is as particular about the written word as he is about a frame in his film. Although they rankle and hurt, his films always ignite debate, discussion and dialogue. For the seasoned film-maker Anand Patwardhan, there are no half measures. He calls a spade a spade. One of the more robust voices against the rising tide of Hindutva, his eight-chapter, four-hour-long documentary Reason talks of the killing of rationalists such as Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, attacks on Muslims such as Mohammed Akhlaq and the underlying Brahminical agenda that is at the root of communal violence in contemporary India. In his usual unflustered way, he continues his fight for the soul of India. Excerpts from an interview:

“Reason” is unsettling and disturbing. It needed judicial intervention to be screened at a film festival in Kerala. How does one explain this?

It is easy to understand. The undemocratic, majoritarian forces whose past and present journey the film describes are not just in power today but in absolute control of all institutions. There are no checks and balances left in our system, only a few chinks in the armour that can be temporarily breached before these too are sealed.

The film is a scathing expose of Hindutva terror. Yet, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah ridicule notions of Hindutva terror. They even fielded a terror accused to counter the narrative. Can you throw some light on the origin of Hindutva terror?

The modus operandi adopted by the Modi-Shah regime (all others fall in line) is to scream and shout as soon as anyone utters the words “Hindutva terror”. Against all evidence, people have long been fed on the idea that Hinduism by its very definition is tolerant and non-violent. The most glaring problem with this understanding is caste. Over thousands of years, orthodox (Brahminical) Hinduism rested on a violently enforced caste system that not only subjugated the weakest but was misogynist. Over the centuries, many reformists and revolutionaries rose against this oppression, from the Buddha to Kabir, Jyotirao Phule, Basava, Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, B.R. Ambedkar and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, to name just a few, but it certainly does not mean that Hindu culture itself became tolerant and non-violent.

If we delve into our history, we can find periods of hope for humanity, for example, the days of the Buddha and his amazing impact on Emperor Asoka. Such moments are not always remembered or celebrated in our history books. As I researched into historical archives while making Reason, I came across another, more recent, moment of potential human renaissance. I say potential because the moment was brief and was soon sidelined by the realpolitik of the day. Today, this moment has almost been forgotten.

What took me to the archives was a speech by Comrade Govind Pansare delivered at a memorial meeting that followed the murder of another rationalist, Dr Narendra Dabholkar. Pansare said the same ideology that had killed Mahatma Gandhi killed Dabholkar too. He then added a little-remembered fact. There were seven attempts made by Brahminists on the life of Gandhi. The first was a bomb attack on his motorcade in Pune as early as 1934. Narayan Apte was involved in that attempt. Apte was part of the attack that killed Gandhi in 1948.

In other words, Brahminists had been trying to kill Gandhi for well over a decade. In 1948, Nathuram Godse claimed that Gandhi was killed for favouring Muslims and because he was responsible for Partition and the creation of Pakistan. All Hindutva leaders and even some non-Hindutva players have so often repeated this calumny that it has become the received wisdom of the day. But, as Pansare pointed out, in 1934 neither Partition nor Pakistan had yet been thought of. It was clearly not because Gandhi was seen as an appeaser of Muslims that his death was ordered. So what was it that so angered the Brahminists apart from the fact that Gandhi had alienated them the day he publicly began to do manual scavenging, shattering the purity/pollution principle that lies at the heart of the caste system?

In the Round Table Conference of 1932, when the British granted Ambedkar’s demand for separate electorates for Dalits (just as they had conceded the same for Muslims), Gandhi argued that this would divide India and begged Ambedkar for more time to convince the upper castes to give up caste discrimination. When all else failed, Gandhi went on a life-threatening hunger strike. It is again the received wisdom that in the talks that followed between Gandhi and Ambedkar, the latter was “blackmailed” by a fasting Gandhi into dropping the idea of separate electorates in exchange for reservation for Dalits (then described as the Depressed Classes).

A different story

The newspapers of the day tell a different story. Headlines hailing the Poona Pact between Ambedkar and Gandhi quote Ambedkar as saying: “I am grateful to Mahatma: He came to my rescue.” Indeed, Bhagwan Das, a close follower of Ambedkar, independently quotes Ambedkar’s speech: “I think in all these negotiations, a large part of the credit must be attributed to Mahatma Gandhi himself. I must confess that I was surprised, immensely surprised, when I met him, that there was so much in common between him and me.” What was common was that both were fighters against untouchability. What was uncommon was that one came from the sufferer caste and the other from the oppressor caste. While Ambedkar fought for universal rights, Gandhi appealed to the “goodness” in human beings to convince the upper castes to give up their unjust privilege. Gandhi failed miserably. The upper castes did not honour his commitment to eradicate untouchability. More than a decade later, in 1945, an embittered Ambedkar wrote the scathing book What Gandhi and Congress have done to the Untouchables.

While the critique certainly applied to most of the Congress party, it was unfair to Gandhi. As early as 1934, Gandhi understood that the promise he had made to Ambedkar, asking for more time to change the upper castes’ hearts and minds, had been broken. In despair, Gandhi resigned from the Congress in 1934 to do constructive work, concentrating in large measure to fighting untouchability.

Rewind to the archives, however, and we see that in 1932, many parts of the country were indeed responding to Gandhi’s hunger strike and his call to end untouchability. Temple after temple threw open their doors to Dalits; wells were thrown open in villages that had denied these rights in the past. Gandhi undertook a long train journey across India to fight untouchability, and the film footage of this shows mass support. Later in life, Gandhi would advocate inter-caste marriage as the best way to destroy the caste system. Perhaps, if Ambedkar had continued to view Gandhi as an ally rather than as a rival, their combined might could have wrought a real social revolution in India despite the entrenched presence of caste and class.

But the public renaissance that began in 1932 soon faded from memory as other aspects of the larger freedom movement took centre stage. By the mid 1940s, with Gandhi relegated to the sidelines, India, led by its elite, headed towards the bloodbath of Partition.

The Hindutva movement uses icons of the past selectively. For instance, it talks of Shivaji, V.D. Savarkar, M.S. Golwalkar and K.B. Hedgewar but stays silent about the great kings of the Gupta dynasty or even the time of mahajanpadas. On the other hand, it has started painting Muslim kings such as Akbar and Tipu Sultan in shades of black. How do you connect the dots?

Reason devotes a whole chapter to the multiplicity of history. Today, Shivaji is seen as a champion of Hindus in Mughal India. Comrade Govind Pansare brought out universalist aspects about Shivaji by pointing out that there were Muslims in Shivaji’s army and Hindus on the opposite side, so it was never a religious battlefield. He also highlighted Shivaji as the leader of a multi-caste peasant army. The RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] and the entire Sangh Parivar are bent on distorting history to reflect the glory of the Hindu upper castes. They have even rewritten the Battle of Haldighati to claim that the warrior-caste Rana Pratap defeated the Mughal Emperor Akbar.

But it is not just the RSS that rewrites history. The job was earlier undertaken by the British too. European Orientalists used Brahminical Sanskrit texts to depict pre-Medieval India as its “Golden Era”. The British, who wanted to fill their army with Indian troops, invented the notion of “martial races” who had valiantly fought “Muslim invaders”. Rajput rulers, who spent most of their time fighting each other, got glorified as champions against Muslim rule; their wives’ act of jumping into the husbands’ funeral fire was glorified as “true love”. After the British, Bollywood took up the task of glorifying the indefensible, as in [Sanjay Leela] Bhansali’s monstrous Padmavati.

Is not the notion of nationalism in this Hindutva narrative just a euphemism for Brahminism? As a line goes in “Reason”, “Brahminism today is draped in the national flag, its storm troopers drawn from amongst those it has dumbed down and made jobless.”

Absolutely. But it’s not the Brahminism of old with rotund priests with pony tails and sacred threads. It is a more sophisticated version, which fulfils the Brahminist agenda of othering minorities while pretending to be only interested in nationalism. This, despite the record that Hindutva leaders had collaborated with the British government against the mainstream nationalist movement.

In “Reason”, you talk of rationalists such as Dabholkar and Pansare. How big a risk is it to talk of science and reason when the Prime Minister himself promotes myth and superstition, as happened when he claimed that Ganesha’s was the first plastic surgery?

There is a mountain of nonsensical blind faith that emerges from the mouths of our politicians, but there is an even bigger mountain of superstition that is constantly churned out on television and social media. It is a miracle that some sections of our working class have still not succumbed to all that is heaped on them.

There is a segment on Hemant Karkare in the film. In the light of your research, do you believe he was eliminated? I ask this because a terror accused contesting elections on the BJP ticket in the recent general election made unacceptable comments about his death.

I read a lot of books on the 26/11 attack, saw court transcripts and personally recorded a lot of TV news even as the attacks were in progress. I can unhesitatingly say that the official version about these incidents just does not add up. There is clearly a cover-up of what actually transpired. No one denies that a Pakistani terror module did in fact attack hotels in the Colaba and Nariman Point area. But what stands revealed is that the United States intelligence agency had shared the exact coordinates of the Pakistani boat that had set out for the attack. It is on record that the Indian intelligence agency did not share this vital information with the Coast Guard or the Navy. Instead, what seems to have occurred was that taking advantage of the impending Pakistani attack, a parallel attack was launched by Hindutva terrorists to eliminate Anti-Terrorism Squad chief Hemant Karkare.

Karkare was in the midst of exposing major Hindutva terror cells. Laptops impounded from Hindutva terrorists had yielded audio-video recordings of terror meetings involving senior politicians, military officers, builders, diamond merchants and other respectable citizens. It was a Pandora’s box which had to be shut down immediately. The 26/11 attacks achieved this. They not only killed Karkare; they diverted the nation’s attention from Hindutva terror.

The film focusses on cow vigilantism too. Is not cow vigilantism merely an excuse for carrying forward the hate and exclusionist agenda of Golwalkar?

The chapter “In the Name of Cow” looks at the killing of Akhlaq in Dadri and the attack on Dalit youths in Una, Gujarat. India is one of the biggest exporters of beef in the world, so it is clear that the attack on beef eaters and tanners is just yet another way to attack Muslims and Dalits.

Almost every film of yours has run into a controversy, irrespective of the ruling dispensation. What drives you? It is a particularly pertinent question to ask as we live in times when brave voices like those of Dabholkar, Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi and Gauri Lankesh have been silenced.

I have made films for over four decades. For most of those years, the Congress or, occasionally, other parties were in power. Never were my films welcomed. In all, I won six cases in the High Court and two in the Supreme Court to get my films past the Censor Board and to get them finally telecast on Doordarshan.

Having said this, the worst enemy of freedom of expression is the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party]. Whenever they are in power, the battle becomes harder. Reason was selected to be screened at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala [IDSFFK]. At the very last minute, the Central government intervened to stop the screening. Luckily, the IDSFFK did not take things lying down. It took the lead, and we rushed to the Kerala High Court. As always, the Central government argued that Reason would create “law and order” problems. The court ruled that in that case it was the government’s responsibility not to ban the film but to provide it protection.

Unfortunately, spaces like Kerala, where the local government stood by me, are limited in today’s India. And the means of censorship have become more lethal as the murders of rationalists testify. But I am a perennial optimist. I do not believe that fascism will take root and flourish for long in this country. The penny will drop. My job is to make this happen faster.

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