"WE are supposed to be citizens of a democratic nation. If the right to speech and expression is taken away from us, then we cannot call ourselves a democracy... they want to suppress the truth, but we will not let them," says Ramesh Pimple, the producer of Aakrosh, which has run into trouble with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC).
In what appears to be a concerted effort to muffle the hard truths, the CBFC has denied a certificate of release to Aakrosh, a 20-minute documentary film based on interviews with some of the survivors of the communal riots that took place in Gujarat last year. Objecting to the narration, which describes certain insensitive, callous and communal aspects of the Gujarat police force, the board has stated that the film cannot be cleared for release as "it shows the government and police in a bad light". Moreover, the board feels that "the film depicts violence, which will remind the people about the Gujarat riots. The overall impact is negative as it will lead to inciting communal hatred wherever screened". Unless the film is certified for release it cannot be shown anywhere to any audience which the police define as the "public".
"There is not an iota of violence shown in Aakrosh," Pimple said. Through a series of interviews, the film documents and gives voice to the sufferings of those who were innocent targets of the communal hatred instigated by some political leaders. But the film does not mention the names of people or political parties, Pimple told Frontline. In fact, in spite of catching the perpetrators of violence on camera, the team did not include several gruesome images of violence, bodies, rape victims and so on.
"It simply focusses on narrations of factual events that took place in Gujarat last year by people who experienced it first hand," Pimple said. "Essentially, we leave it to the people who survived the onslaught of a relentless pogrom to tell the complete truth." He says he cannot understand why the film has been denied a release certificate. "We have not violated any guideline. It is obvious that the Central government wants to black out what happened in Gujarat from the country's history. And they are scared of the truth coming out."
In a statement to the media, the People's Media Initiative (PMI), the organisation that supported the making of the film, said: "All we wanted to do was show the futility of violence and the necessity for a peaceful existence for all. Besides, we wanted to show that the sufferer of this kind of attack is inevitably the common man, who is as it is struggling for his day-to-day survival. For us a victim is a victim. He need not belong to any religion - which is why we have not mentioned names. They should not be identified by religion because that is what the communal forces want. Their aim is to divide people like this."
The word `aakrosh' means `outburst'. The documentary includes poignant visuals of 30 to 40 survivors of the carnage. Each person interviewed talks about brutal massacres that took place in their neighbourhoods. They describe frenzied communal mobs escorted by the police and politicians. The survivors also speak about how the police ignored cries for help. Both men and women break down on camera saying that they have nowhere to go. A person whose wife and children were killed by a mob says he will never go back to his village. Another, whose house was burnt, says she was given Rs.500 as compensation and adds, "This won't even build a door." The film has a few shots of people in hospitals, injured children, wrecked homes, burnt vehicles and deserted streets, which is in context with the interviewees' descriptions. Nothing is here that has not already appeared on television during the coverage of the riots.
More than 1,000 people were killed in the communal riots that engulfed Gujarat since February 2002. Some 1.5 lakh people were hounded out of their homes and continue to remain homeless with little relief to sustain a decent life. The government's apathy towards the plight of the affected people is well-known but it goes unchecked.
"We wanted to make a film to tell people exactly what happened in Gujarat," says Geeta Chawda, the cinematographer of Aakrosh. "Humanity has suffered and it is our responsibility to use our media to make people aware of what mindless violence does. The audio- visual media are the most powerful. When you hear and see people talk of the riots it is far more convincing than reading about it. Much of what we have covered has appeared in the print media but nobody in that stream is being suppressed the way we are," she says. "It is completely absurd. The film is a straightforward documentary. Why don't they censor feature films which show domestic violence and distasteful shots of gore and blood?" Geeta Chawda asks
Aakrosh was selected for screening at the Hyderabad Film Festival organised by the South Asian Forum. Ironically, it was to be India's official entry at film festivals in London and Thiruvananthapuram besides one in Japan as well as the Geneva Human Rights Film Festival. However, as the film has been denied the release certificate, it cannot be screened at any of them. For any film that is entered or invited to participate in a film festival has to have the clearance from its country's censor or certifying board to be screened for public viewing.
"They have violated the guidelines that we have set for documentary films dealing with sensitive issues," Arvind Trivedi of the CBFC told Frontline. He, however, refused to give details regarding the guidelines. "Ask the producer" was Trivedi's refrain to any more questions. The producers have appealed to a revising committee for the certificate of release.
Aakrosh has met the same fate of Anand Patwardhan's War and Peace. For the past two years, Patwardhan has been trying to get the CBFC to certify the film. Is this an ominous sign of things to come, ask film-makers.