Speaking out may put us at risk, not speaking out will kill the soul: Anand Patwardhan on his latest film, “Vivek”

Courtesy Anand Patwardhan
06 April, 2019

As India heads to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, it finds itself at a crossroads. Over the last five years, the idea of India as a secular and pluralistic democracy has been aggressively challenged by an authoritarian government led by Narendra Modi, and backed by the Sangh Parivar, which wields the sword of militant Hindu nationalism.

With growth stagnating and unemployment at a four-decade high, it is now becoming clear that the Modi government has failed to deliver on its promise of economic development. But whether this will weaken the majoritarian groundswell, currently buoying the Bharatiya Janata Party, remains to be seen. On the evidence of the activist-filmmaker Anand Patwardhan’s latest documentary, Vivek, or Reason in English, it seems unlikely that even an electoral defeat for the BJP will halt the march of Hindutva.

Nearly half-a-decade in the making, Vivek plays out over eight chapters that document Hindutva’s ascendancy in recent times through the trail of blood that it has left in its wake. The film covers the murders of rationalists such as Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, the connection of these crimes to the militant-Hindu outfit Sanatan Sanstha, the violent attacks on Muslims and Dalits in the name of cow protection, the caste-based discrimination that led to the suicide of the young student leader and scholar Rohith Vemula, and numerous other outbursts of violence, large and small, connecting them to present an overview of the turmoil that India is currently witnessing.

As it traces the scars that this violence has left on India’s collective consciousness, the film reveals a citizenry and a state so deeply penetrated by Hindutva and Hindu nationalism that it is difficult to imagine its ideology being dislodged by a mere election. In late March, I spoke to Patwardhan about the film and its themes. “I am hoping that if you have even a modicum of humanity, it will move you,” Patwardhan said. “Not because the film is great, but because what it describes is both real and tragic.”

Visvak: The film plays out over eight segments that cover a lot of subjects—assassinations, cow-related violence, Hindu terror and atrocities on Dalits, among others. It even deconstructs the legacy of some icons of the Hindu Right—Shivaji and VD Savarkar. What is the thesis underlying this vast canvas of saffron?
Anand Patwardhan: Vivek traces the communal divide of today back to the “divide and rule” policy of British colonialists. After independence, imperial British power was replaced by another superpower, the United States, which created Islamic jihad in our bordering states in order to fight Soviet influence in Afghanistan. While the film just skims the surface of this, India and Pakistan, Hindus and Muslims are really playing out an agenda set elsewhere. That is not to say we are not responsible for what is happening today, so the main focus of the film is on the rise of fascism in India and its ongoing battle with humanists and rationalists.

V: You interviewed a lot of angry young men in the film. The narrator describes them as “storm troopers,” who are drawn from the very classes that Brahminism has rendered jobless. Who is the average storm trooper? What could you glean of their aspirations and motivations?
AP: The actual line is, “Brahminism today is draped in the national flag, its storm troopers drawn from amongst those it has dumbed down and made jobless.”

Earlier in the film, Comrade [Govind] Pansare—one of the rationalists whose murders the film is about—had made a distinction between those born into a Brahmin caste and the ideology of Brahminism. While the former may overcome their birth, the latter is a toxic disease of supremacy that Pansare had described as “contagious.”

Here, the commentary line plays over ABVP youth [the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad is the student wing of the RSS] hurling toxic Hindutva abuse at Dalit and left-wing youth from the Hyderabad Central University who had united after the induced suicide of Rohith Vemula. These right-wing stormtroopers are literally draped in the national tricolour—although their parent organisation had fought tooth and nail against this very flag in 1947, demanding that India adopt a saffron “Hindu” flag instead. In the conversation with them that follows, their total lack of factual knowledge about the killers of Gandhi reveals the dumbing down that is now commonplace. Our education system is highly stratified and at the same time, churns out a massive number of young hopefuls from the aspirational working castes whose only aspiration is to get employment to ensure a personally gratifying consumerist lifestyle, even at the expense of others.

Courtesy Anand Patwardhan

Reason, humanity and other such ideals for a better world have no place in our education system. Success at any cost is important. The dreams of our young generation are confined to campus placements, to corner offices, and our ideals are Dhirubhai Ambani, not Kanhaiya [Kumar], Jignesh [Mevani] or leaders like [the activist] Medha Patkar. But because there is no engagement with thought and criticality, and no empathy, the system produces educated but intellectually sterile, aimless, unemployable youth who are sad inside, disturbed about their future, and angry—perfect storm troopers.

V: Ram Ke Naam, your first film about Hindutva, came out just before the demolition of the Babri Masjid, in 1992. How has the Hindutva movement evolved since you first engaged with it?
AP: Ram Ke Naam was a warning to the people of India and the government of the day that Hindu fundamentalism was on the rise and would run amok if not checked and countered with secular culture. Instead of heeding the warning, successive “secular” governments actively prevented the film from playing on Doordarshan until I won a court case five years later and forced the national broadcaster to show it at prime time. In fact, our secular governments, instead of showing Ram Ke Naam, showed the Ramayana TV serial ad nauseum until it reached every nook and corner of the country.

What started in 1990, not accidentally coinciding with the rise of economic liberalisation—when the Nehruvian mixture of public and private enterprise started giving way to a purely market-driven economy—has indeed sunk its teeth into the very flesh of India. Yes, the India of today displays far more hatred of minorities than the India of the early post-independence era. Just watch Bollywood and you can see the changes over the decades.

V: The radical Hindutva outfit Sanatan Sanstha has been linked to the assassinations of Pansare, Dabholkar and the writer Gauri Lankesh. The BJP disavows any ties with it, and the Sanstha in turn disavows any ties with the killers. It says the killers belonged to other Hindutva organisations. The ideological link between all of them is apparent. The RSS, where the ideology comes from, has zero accountability.
AP: Many Sanatanis were caught and later released thanks to a battery of Hindutva lawyers that rushed to their defence. The same is true of those accused of serial bomb blasts between 2002 and 2008. The political class seems to have no stomach for keeping Hindutva terrorists in prison. Somewhere deep inside, they don’t want to believe it—even in the face of stark evidence, such as actual recorded confessions. The ideological links between these fringe groups and their parent body, the RSS, are also clear. The fact that these groups never get banned, no matter what happens, shows the patronage they enjoy.

V: There is an explosive segment in the film that deals with the death of the Mumbai anti-terrorism squad’s chief, Hemant Karkare, during the 2008 terror attacks on Mumbai. The chapter strongly implies that his death in a shootout on the night of 26 November may have been the result of a conspiracy to eliminate him, because his investigation into the involvement of Hindutva organisations with various terror attacks across India was beginning to yield crucial results. Ironically, the most explosive segment in the film is also the one that has been reported on the least. Can you explain the argument? Why do you think the claims have received no media attention?
AP: I think I cannot do justice to the mountain of evidence that ironically emerged from the very court proceedings in the matter that ended up covering up what was probably a trap that led to Karkare’s death. Many books, both national and international, have been written about it, the most diligent being those by SM Mushrif, a former high-ranking police officer who retired with a reputation of the highest integrity. [Mushrif is the author of two books, Who Killed Karkare?: The Real Face of Terrorism in India and 26/11: Why Judiciary Also Failed.] All I want the audience to do is to keep an open mind. Strange and unbelievable things are happening in our country. Foreign powers are likely uniting with homegrown terror outfits to fulfill agendas that have nothing to do with the well-being and security of the Indian citizen.

Courtesy Anand Patwardhan

V: The film depicts Dalit anger and assertion in the face of the attacks in Una and Vemula’s death. Those are probably the only moments that offer any hope in the entire saga. But doesn’t the film’s positioning of faith against rationality ignore the fact that Dalit assertion is frequently against secular upper-caste narratives?
AP: The complaint that secular, upper-caste narratives at times end up appropriating Dalit anger is valid. But a distinction should be made between lip service and solidarity. To paint every non-Dalit critique of caste as appropriation is to attack the very concept of solidarity. Without acts of solidarity across the identity barrier, social and political action would be reduced to pure self-interest. Everyone would fight only for their own birth identity without recognising that human beings are capable of much more than this. How then would we ever annihilate caste? For that matter, the rationalists and humanists shown in Vivek, who were gunned down, were upper caste. They died fighting Brahminical Hindutva.

I can appreciate those who have misgivings about my own work. Yes, I was born a male and into caste privilege. Does that disqualify me from questioning caste and gender violence? The litmus test is this: is a work useful to the people it is about and to society as a whole, regardless of who made it?

V: The popular narrative presents young leaders such as Jignesh Mevani and Kanhaiya Kumar as alternatives to India’s current crop of politicians. Their initial moves in politics have been to align with existing power structures, whether it is Kumar joining the Communist Party of India or Mevani working with the Congress. What do you make of their politics?
AP: Kanhaiya is with CPI. Mevani is an independent who was temporarily allied to Congress. There are other young people in the film like Richa Singh of Allahabad University, now with Samjawadi Party; Shehla Rashid, now with a new independent party in Kashmir; and Vemula’s friends in the Ambedkar Students’ Association. All these youth gives me great hope. They may join an existing party, but they will, in my opinion, remain true to their own vision of a secular, democratic, and just India.

V: There is a moment in the film, at a press conference, when a Sanatan Sanstha spokesperson tells the media that Anand Patwardhan’s bones should be broken. It then turns out that you are in the room, and the camera pans to you as you confront him. There are a few other instances where you confront the people you are documenting. What was the thought process behind these moments where you break cover? Do you worry that you might be a target at some point?
AP: I don’t want to personalise the danger. We are all in danger—either physical or mental—as we witness the rise of fascism. Speaking out may or may not put our bodies at risk. Not speaking out would definitely kill the soul.

V: Vivek’s runtime is around four hours and it is tough viewing. If one is on the side of “reason,” it will disturb you, and if you are on the side of “faith,” it might offend you. Who is the intended audience of this film? Are you interested in it being accessible to average Indians; in reaching across the aisle to confront the Right; or is it just a documentation of history for future generations?
AP: I am hoping that if you have even a modicum of humanity, it will move you. Not because the film is great, but because what it describes is both real and tragic. But it is a tragedy that can be halted and reversed if we choose to wake up. It has to be seen in the here and now, or there may be no future generations—just cockroaches that survive nuclear radiation. Seriously, even if we manage to avoid nuclear war, will a world dictated by the likes of Amit Shah, Narendra Modi, Ajit Doval, Masood Azhar and Hafiz Saeed be worth living in?

This interview has been edited and condensed.