By Abhishek Jha for Youth Ki Awaaz:
When The Muzaffarnagar riots happened, there were contesting claims by news agencies as to which community is to blame for starting the riot. But is that the right question? Are the riots to be viewed in a Hindu-Muslim binary? Were the people of Muzaffarnagar and Shamli mere pawns in a larger game? The incendiary was fearful in its guile, ferocious in its power, and remains hungry. Muzaffarnagar and Shamli have not given in yet. The film Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai (MBH) tells us this. But what will be the fate eventually of those who wish “to fight against these sad times”?
On the day for which this interview was scheduled, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai was screened at the Jamia Millia Islamia University. The documentary is a diligent and thought provoking examination of the complex web of machinations that spun the Muzaffarnagar riots of August-September 2013, where even in official reports death tolls challenge the veracity of the woven stories. The filmmaker, Nakul Singh Sawhney, is as said before, diligent and wouldn’t mind being interviewed late into the night, the day consumed by the screening. And we had questions that – despite the riots now having become distant in public memory – are becoming more and more urgent in these difficult times. Nakul Singh Sawhney answers all.
Abhishek Jha (AJ): When did you decide to make Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai?
Nakul Singh Sawhney (NSS): In 2010 when I was working on my previous film Izzatnagri Ki Asabhya Betiyan, which was on honour crimes- killings in the name of honour- and the khap panchayat in Haryana, I went to Uttar Pradesh too. To get an idea of what was happening in the Jet belt outside of Haryana. And at that time I even met Mahendra Singh Tikait and some khap leaders from Western U.P., in Muzaffarnagar mainly. The sense that I got when I came back was that the revival of the khaps was in many ways a reflection of a kind of Jat identity politics. This aspect of Jat identity politics which was being reflected in the khap panchayat was anti-woman, anti-dalit. And in Western Uttar Pradesh, because of a large Muslim population, one could see that this could soon slip into Hindutva. While on the one hand, they were trying to stop inter-caste marriages, they were trying to stop young girls from marrying the person of their choice, and definitely wouldn’t allow inter-religious marriages.
This is what really merged with the ‘Love jihad’ agenda of Hindutva. When the riots broke out, then we got to know that it has happened around the issue of a woman being molested. I could tell what exactly was happening. Ideologically it (the riot) had taken the route we had expected it to take. So then we decided soon after the riots- or after the massacre in fact- that we need to go out. We decided soon enough that one needs to see what has happened. We made a couple of trips soon after the massacre and it was evident to me then that the 2014 elections will swing in Modi’s favour. We realised that this would probably be the most crucial turning point in India’s politics.
AJ: I too was going through some of my conversations from that time to see what we friends were talking about back then. There was a clash in Roorkee and our campus was shut. The only story that came floating in was as a Muslim friend told me- “the one I heard had three Muslim boys eve-teasing a Hindu girl. Things will worsen in the run up to the elections, apparently.”
NSS: That’s pretty much what happened. This whole question of trying to project the Hindu women being threatened by the Muslim man. Trying to project the Muslim man as the perpetrator of violence against Hindu women.
After the Lok Sabha elections there was a report of a small riot in Kanpur district and it was again on the issue of sexual harassment. So finally when they tried to investigate, both the media and the police, and find out who was sexually harassed, nobody knew. There was probably not even a case of harassment. It was just a rumour.
AJ: Media reports from the time consist mostly of contesting claims about how the riot started and who should be put to blame. Are the facts that you show and arguments that you make in the documentary difficult to grasp or are they deliberately kept hidden?
NSS: When you investigate it, there was a clear attempt at vitiating the environment many months before the riots. There were small riots regularly and largely around the issue of women’s safety, and one wasn’t willing to investigate there. One was just believing these stupid stories around how there was “ek tarfa karywahi (one-sided investigations)”.That the state was functioning with a bias towards the Muslims and so on and so forth. There was a successful campaign that the BJP had been able to instigate and that was building.
AJ: The question is obviously how is it that Muslims got killed then.
NSS: Absolutely. I mean the Samajwadi Party might put up the pretence of working for Muslims. They even play the communalism card sometimes, but if you see through the economic and social indicators, there is zero truth to it. The mainstream media was sponsoring the entire ‘Achhe Din’ campaign for Modi. A greater investigation of facts would have completely exposed the BJP. The media couldn’t afford to do that. They were running the campaign. Finally I have also realised in my interaction with a lot of people, that the mainstream media who were covering the massacre, they would just go there, get some sound bytes, meet some people, spend a few days, and then go back. That’s not enough. A lot of them (reporters) are people who have grown in urban metropolitan cities, who have zero understanding of the socio-economic-political dynamics of a state of that region. They were just trying to examine some facts from the surface. That’s not how things happen. A lot of that reportage was just bogus.
AJ: What did you find while talking to the families in the area on your visits?
NSS: One of the things that I figured out was there were continuous small riots for 5 to 6 months. Continuous not as in every day but with great frequency, at least 2 to 3 months before the big massacre in September. People were telling us that this was new because earlier if the two of us had a fight and one was a Hindu and the other was a Muslim, it would always be a fight between those two people. Suddenly local organisations would get involved and they would make it a Hindu-Muslim affair. So, things were going out of hand. Then there were these kinds of incidences where Muslim kids were being thrashed in trains, being harassed, suddenly getting beaten up. They would pull out the skull caps of some Muslim boys. This hadn’t happened earlier. In fact, Darul-Ul-Uloom Madarsa had even written to Akhilesh Yadav 2 or 3 months before the massacre saying that there is obviously an attempt at stoking communal fires and if they (the SP government) could look into it. And nothing happened. They (the SP government) didn’t do anything about it. They didn’t stop it because they also thought that they could use the polarization among the Muslims to their advantage. It’s just that they didn’t think it would become so big really. This was a conspiracy both by the BJP and SP.
This was definitely new to the district and one could tell that there was a lot of effort that had gone into this and that is why they used the Bhartiya Kissan Union platform. They realised that you need to break the Bhartiya Kissan Union on religious lines- you know, because the Bhartiya Kissan Union and the peasant movement that the Bhartiya Kissan Union had represented, that held the Muslims and the Jats together. Now that is breaking, if you understand what I am saying. That was a solid master stroke by the BJP.
AJ: A voter is clearly confused because all parties seem to offer to work for the farmer and the poor. And parties divide them on religious lines to cash votes. Why is it easy to fear Muslims than mill owners and big companies?
NSS: But that’s the whole point. These are the real issues that concern the people – livelihood, employment, education, and for a farmer- getting the rate for your produce. These are the things that have actually fallen apart. And these are the difficult questions that you need to solve. If you start working on these issues, people will unite against these governments. People will unite against a lot of our mainstream political parties because they are all actually very exploitative. For example, look at how farmers were uniting across religions and even caste to some extent, against the Land Acquisition Bill. There is land that is being given out for free not just for manufacturing but all sorts of industries, including real estate. So, land will be bought at dirt cheap rate and the farmer will not have any right to negotiate.
So the point is that if you are able to break the unity of the people, then you can exploit people. It is the old policy of “divide and rule” that’s been introduced into India. And so that people don’t take on real issues, so that people are not able to fight out real issues, that is why people are divided on the issue of religion and community. Violence has happened because these are emotional issues. Finally people are angry because they want a solution for their lives. Either you find the real enemy or when you cannot find a real enemy, then you find a weaker person to vent out your anger against. You are right. Why isn’t the anger being vent out at the mill owner? And you’re right. It should be. But that is the whole point. That the best way to ensure that that doesn’t happen and you can continue to exploit people is by dividing them.
AJ: When you screen the documentary, have there been counterarguments? Have people resisted accepting the documentary’s views?
NSS: You have all kinds of arguments. There were people saying regular things, and on both sides- Hindu and Muslim. By and large, people have been very appreciative. People have really liked the film. When I screen the film, people want to say it but they are not able to say it –though one or two people have hinted at it- “but how come the film is tilted towards Muslims?”But I say ‘no’. That is the situation.
It wasn’t a two sided riot. A riot is when two communities clash. This was a massacre. So, when you have a massacre, it might seem tilted, but unfortunately, the massacre was also tilted against one community. Even in the film there was only one Hindu relief camp and I show that in the film as well. I do show that six Jats were also killed and we even show one of the fathers of the deceased…his interview is also there in the film. There is pain on the other side as well. You can’t deny. At least the pain of loss was not as strong as that from the Muslim side in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli. But nonetheless there was pain on the other side and one has to acknowledge it. And one has to listen. So, in that sense, yes, that was a question that came up at a couple of places.
On the other side, there were a couple of Muslims who were ardent Samajwadi Party supporters who said that the film was so critical, that it was tilted against the Samajwadi Party. I like it when these sorts of comments come because when Samajwadi supporters say that the film is tilted against the Samajwadi Party and the BJP supporters say that it’s tilted against the BJP, then I feel that I am doing something very right.
AJ: There are also a couple of children that you talk to in the film. They have a very detached sense of what has happened. They just narrate the facts. People came and burnt the houses and that’s it. How was your experience of working with these children?
NSS: It is a very good observation about how the kids have spoken about their experiences. Actually there are two small interviews with kids. It (the film) starts with a kid and towards the end of the film there is another kid. We decided not to highlight the children. We use the visuals of a lot of children. That was doing a lot of speaking in itself. But at the same time I just thought it would be really unfair if you take away the agency from these children.
It is important to see how they have reacted to it. There is obviously a psychological impact that a child cannot comprehend. Adults can probably comprehend the emotion fear, trauma, anger slightly better. The children will probably not be able to come to terms with what they have gone through and what they have witnessed. If you see Rakesh’s film Final Solution, it begins with a child talking about how his family was massacred and how the women were raped. He probably doesn’t comprehend what he has seen, the gravity of what he has seen. So I think at that level it’s important to talk to children, it’s important to understand how they have been affected. I haven’t been very pushy.
I do not understand my experience (that of working with children) because I am not a child psychologist. And I understand that a child’s mind is far more difficult. It’s a far more complex mind than an adult’s mind. And I really admire child psychologists for this. It was quite an exercise. I didn’t talk to children very intensively. I spoke to some, and after a point of time I realised “yaar, ye nai karna chahiy (I should not do this)”. I didn’t like pushing them, you know. However, if it came up in conversation, I would bring it up. And I think my experience with children was broadly that they would talk about it in a very detached manner. They would narrate facts in a very cold matter-of-fact way. But behind that you could tell that there was actually a great deal of turmoil in their head.
I think these are kids that need some attention from child psychologists. With time I am sure a lot of these wounds will subside. But nonetheless, I think, when a massacre or a riot of this scale happens, the government needs to send out child psychologists over there, spend some time with these kids. They are not getting the right kind of attention. You are surrounded by adults who are constantly talking about the pain and everything else, and the biases against communities. And children obviously observe and listen to it. I think we tend to take away the agency of children by underestimating their emotions.
AJ: Are the women always oppressed and marginalised during these riots? What is their politics?
NSS: You see all kinds of women in the film. You also see women who were speaking a very vitriolic and bigoted language – the BJP language. By and large most women that you see in the film understand that irrespective of which community you belong to- it may be Hindu, Muslim, it could be anything- a large scale of communal violence will be against the interests of women. Again this whole question of a woman’s honour and the way it’s played up makes even Hindu women suffer in the process. Of course, there is sexual violence against Muslim women. But even Hindu women’s freedom is curbed. They are not allowed to do a lot of things, and so on and so forth.
AJ: You show in the film that Muslim Jats returned to their homes after the riots. Capitalism and governments benefit from riots. People are unable to focus on real issues. So, where does BJP’s Hindutva ideology figure in this? Is this antagonism, suspicion between religions real in which Hindutva is the oppressor or is it just a bogus idea to obfuscate a corporate agenda?
NSS: I think it’s a mix of both. In Mein Kampf also, Hitler’s autobiography, there is something very similar to ‘love jihad’, about how people shouldn’t marry outside the community. And Baba Saheb Ambedkar also wrote that one of the best ways that caste hierarchy’s stay is by ensuring that women do not marry outside their community. The moment that you believe in the supremacy of your religion, the moment you believe in the supremacy of your race over other human beings- it could be white supremacy, it could be Hindutva, it could be Islamists, it could be the Zionists- I think you are doing something intrinsically wrong in thinking that way. I think religion is a very personal affair. So, in that sense yes, you will see that historically all the fascist movements have always been deeply wedded with a very ugly form of capitalism as well. So a mix of both.
AJ: It’s interesting to note that Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai is relevant even more today, what with ‘love jihad’ and the spectre created of an impending danger for Hindus. A lot of it has to do with misrepresentation of facts. How does one counter this?
NSS: A lot of local and regional media is functioning in a manner that is very different. A lot of the national media and even the mainstream media is also the same. But regional media are just becoming mouthpieces of the state. Sometimes they are not even the mouthpieces of the state. They are just the mouthpieces of the local administration. There is a lot of dirt lying around. How do you counter this?
I am gradually coming to the conclusion that we need to create alternate media. We need to create a people’s media which cannot be corporate funded. It has to be funded by the people. It has to be the people’s media. And it’s a lot of hard work and someone has to start. Even in the mainstream media, they might give you some space once in a while to feign neutrality, to have pretence of neutrality, but that’s about it. The overwhelming opinion that they represent is a very problematic opinion. So, in that sense, it’s the ruling class’ opinion.
I am beginning to completely lose faith in being able to intervene in the mainstream media. We need to find different ways of making news. This is possible. Now with social media, one can do it.