There must have been about 120 people crammed into Room number 5, in Tata Institute of Social Sciences last evening. From window sills to the floor, every surface had a bottom resting on it. In true Mumbai fashion, everyone ‘adjusted’ and focused their attention upon the film being screened. Nakul Singh Sawhney’s documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai is two hours and 16 minutes long. Not a single cellphone rang during that time, which is further evidence that this screening was a miracle.
The collective Cinema of Resistance doesn’t know how many people saw Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai yesterday, even though it helped organise screenings all over India. “Not less than 7,000” is the best that Cinema of Resistance’s national convenor Sanjay Joshi can offer.
This is an impressive number and one that’s likely to cause some serious teeth-gnashing among Delhi University’s chapter of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Pratishad (ABVP). Earlier this month, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai was being shown at Kirori Mal College, Delhi when some ABVP members disrupted the screening. The ABVP complained that the film is likely to hurt Jat as well as Hindu sentiments and reportedly made their argument with eloquent lines like, “Main Hindu hoon, main tujhe thappad maarunga.” [“I’m a Hindu, I’ll slap you.”]
Sawhney’s elegant response to the screening at Kirori Mal College being stopped mid-way was to join hands with Cinema of Resistance and send out free copies of the film all over the country, to people who were ready to host a screening.
It isn’t surprising that ABVP, Bharatiya Janata Party’s student wing, isn’t cheering for Sawhney’s documentary.
In Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, Sawhney doesn’t only suggest that the riots that tore through Shamli and Muzaffarnagar districts of Uttar Pradesh in 2013 were part of BJP’s electoral campaign; he corroborates his theory by showing footage of BJP leaders delivering public speeches that urge people to commit communal violence.
Interestingly, only a few of the victims of violence point fingers at any political party. Most are simply furious with the state government for not protecting them and struggling to comprehend that those who were friends till a few weeks ago, are now enemies.
What mistakes have we, Muslims of Lissad, made?” one man asks with tears in his eyes, before describing how in the past, Jats stood as a bulwark between communal elements who bayed for Muslim blood in Western UP. “I can’t believe they’re [Hindu Jats of Lissad] are doing this to us,” says the heartbroken, destitute man.
That the speeches delivered in Uttar Pradesh during the run-up to the general elects were noxious is something many of us knew, thanks to the Election Commission. Here’s where ABVP can take some consolation – Sawhney’s documentary shows that every single party involved in Uttar Pradesh politics is guilty. If BJP vitiated the atmosphere in Western UP and readied the region for riots and ruin, the Samajwadi Party-led administration did nothing to contain the violence and Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party twiddled its thumbs in the hope of capitalising from the turbulence. There are no heroes in Muzaffarnagar’s political arena.
Sawhney’s last documentary was on honour killings and his interest in Muzaffarnagar initially came from reports of both Hindu and Muslim women being harassed in order to intensify feelings of distrust and anger between the two communities. Soon enough, the Muzaffarnagar campaign revealed itself to have many more layers.
Sawhney suggests there was a concerted campaign to heighten tension in the area. He shows newspaper clippings from six months before the riots that show repeated and prominent reports of Hindus being attacked by Muslims as well as Muslims being harassed by Hindus. These were the marinade in which the people of Shamli and Muzaffarnagar districts were stewed, so that they would be primed and ready when the riots finally broke out.
Reliable statistics are hard to come by for the Muzaffarnagar riots, which have already faded from public memory despite being some of the most horrific we’ve seen in recent times. Homes were destroyed, families were separated, children watched elders being killed and tortured. Sawnhey takes his camera into the ‘relief camps’ – there is little relief there – and talks to many survivors. There are stories and shell-shocked faces in Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai that will haunt you.
Independent reports estimate 100 people were killed and 80,000 were displaced in the riots. It isn’t as though there were no Hindu casualties, but 90% of those affected are Muslim. The only family that does say it has received compensation (Rs 15 lakhs, for a young man named Kallu who was killed during pre-riot violence) is Hindu.
What is without question is the abject poverty that those in relief camps have been reduced to and the callousness with which the state administration is treating them. Survivors continue to be victimised by thugs and policemen. They have no sense of security because the state might just want “clear” the land where the relief camps have been set up. It has already done so once, making some riot victims homeless for the second time in months.
Technically and in terms of style, there’s little remarkable about Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, but in terms of the documentation it contains and the story it tells, this is a film that everyone in the country should see. The fact that it provokes the reactions it has from administrations all over the country is the strongest validation Sawhney could have received. Had his theory of BJP’s involvement in the Muzaffarnagar riots been outlandish, surely there wouldn’t have been such a concerted effort to keep a modest documentary by a little-known filmmaker from being seen.
Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai contends that BJP, which had little presence in SP and BSP-dominated Western UP, engineered the 2013 riots in order to gain a foothold in the region. The documentary also argues very convincingly that SP is equally responsible because the administration let the riots happen, possibly hoping they would be no skin off SP’s nose since the voters would blame BJP for it. Footage from public speeches shows that it wasn’t just BJP leaders, but everyone from Rahul Gandhi to Azam Khan tried to capitalise on the riots.
The spoils of this violence were not limited to electoral triumph. The divisions created between Hindus and Muslims had a devastating impact upon the region’s labourers and peasants. Once, the rights of small farmers were protected by unions, like the Bharatiya Kisan Union that secured better prices for sugarcane and rebates in electricity dues. Now, the unions are weak, divided and rendered useless by communal factions. It can no longer can’t present a united front and powerful landlords are able to push their agenda without any resistance. Many in the relief camps tell Sawhney that Dalits will be the next to have their backs broken, now that the victimisation of Muslims is complete.
It’s interesting that only two of the riot-struck interviewees in Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai are somewhere close to stable after the riots. One is a Muslim Jat landowner, who bluntly says that the Hindu mob “wouldn’t dare” attack him because “we’re just like their choudharys”. The other is a family that bemoans the loss of its “52-door” house, but after a stint in the relief camp is able to buy a small plot of land to build a new home. It can’t be a coincidence that both come from wealthy backgrounds.
Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai is heartbreaking because it documents the siege that was laid by communal violence upon an area that had resisted it for decades. Muzaffarnagar took pride in the fact that even after Partition and the demolition of Babri Masjid, there was no Hindu-Muslim violence here. However, fault lines were clearly forming in the past decade and it took a few months of concerted effort to fracture Muzaffarnagar’s social harmony. We’ll probably spend generations trying to neutralise these toxic anxieties and the impact of what was unleashed in 2013.
Perhaps the first step is making and seeing films like Sawhney’s. Yesterday, in 50 cities and towns across India, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai was shown to crowds of varying sizes. Some took place in small-roomed apartments, some were organised in classrooms, others in open spaces. The screenings were effectively one event: a quiet, nation-wide protest against censorship and communalism.
Like most protests, it wasn’t without incident. One screening in Chennai had to be cancelled because the police flatly refused to offer anysecurity to the organisers. Another had to be relocated. Screenings were also disrupted in Madurai and Trichy. In West Bengal, the screening at Santiniketan’s Visva Bharati University had to be stopped after there were reportedly complaints that the film might threaten communal harmony on campus.
In Mumbai, one of the venues had to be changed at the last minute after a “technical glitch” that appears to have come to light after the police showed interest in the screening. Tata Institute of Social Sciences’ Progressive Students’ Forum stepped in the breach at the last minute. There was no disruption and no reports have come in of subsequent attacks upon Jats or Hindus.
Regardless of your political inclination, you should see Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai because it shows how politicians of all shapes, sizes and symbols manipulate and exploit their voters.
If you have a favourite political party, Sawhney has probably attacked it in his documentary. This makes his life more difficult, but he’s doing us an enormous service because there’s no point in being uninformed in a democracy. Even if you disagree with what the documentary lays bare, you’ll know what your point of view is up against if you do yourself the courtesy of seeing the networks of power and powerful interests that Sawhney reveals to be in place in UP.
Whether or not Sawhney’s argument convinces you, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai will educate you. That’s good enough reason to not fear the film, but support it.