February 8, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

Peaceful Democratic Fantasy

Oh, the fantasies we weave. Rajeev Srinivasan informs us about recent happenings at the American Museum of Natural History, whose showings -- this weekend -- of Anand Patwardhan's films have been cancelled. Why? Well, says Rajeev, they were "muckraking and shrill films", and of course Patwardhan is an "extreme leftist who portrays Hinduism as evil". Others who felt similarly "mounted a signature campaign" to prevent the films being shown. And Rajeev is "glad to say that once again peaceful democratic dissent seems to have had its effect, and the offending films have been withdrawn."

There is, as Rajeev is no doubt aware, a counter campaign to have those films shown. So is that also "peaceful democratic dissent"?

But never mind academic questions. We were discussing fantasies in which such words as "evil", "extreme", "leftist" and so forth are important ingredients. I suspect neither Rajeev nor the dudes who "mounted a signature campaign" against the films have seen any of Patwardhan's work. I would dearly love to be proved wrong, to know that this is informed dissent as well.

Now I have seen one of the two that were scheduled at the AMNH -- Ram ke Naam or In the Name of God -- and it is hard to believe that anyone who sees it would come away thinking "Hinduism is evil". ("Muckraking and shrill" are opinions. Rajeev is welcome to have those. Mine are different). Since Rajeev makes such a claim, I can only conclude he has not seen Patwardhan's films. But if you do see Ram ke Naam, you will come away with an appreciation for the way the men who propound what they call Hindutva go about their propounding.

Yes, what they call Hindutva is what Patwardhan has centred some of his films on. He follows Hindutva's people, interviews them, shows some of them addressing meetings, things like that. His films let them speak for themselves; and because they do, they are far more telling than any number of learned commentaries would be. And the tale these people tell isn't pretty.

For example, one scene in Father, Son and Holy War, a mid-'90s Patwardhan film, sticks in my mind. Manohar Joshi of the Shiv Sena and a Hindu religious leader are addressing an election meeting. They urge the Hindu women in the audience to produce eight children -- eight children! -- each to combat what they would have them, and us, believe is the dangerously rising count of Muslims in the country. This task of producing streams of kids is, Joshi would have those women believe, their very duty as women, Hindus and Indians.

Several questions come to mind. One, when Hindus outnumber Muslims by more than 7 to 1 in India, when the birthrates indicate that it will be hundreds of years before that turns around, if it ever does, what must we call it when a man waves the bogey of an impending Muslim flood? The word "lie" seems appropriate.

Two, in a country that struggles to feed and cope with its existing population, that has been working for years to reduce its growth rate to a point that it does not negate other advances, that urges couples to limit themselves to one or two children (that appeal down from two or three only a few years ago) -- in such a country, what must we call it when a major political figure urges women to have eight kids? The word "irresponsible" seems appropriate.

Three, how should such lies and irresponsibility be rewarded? I would have thought, at least a public reprimand. But Joshi? Nothing like that. He became Maharashtra's chief minister for four years and is now the country's minister for heavy industry. That's what irresponsibility brings when you claim to be a champion of Hindutva.

Four, who should we condemn here? The man who makes this exhortation at a public meeting, uses it to find votes? Or the man who films him doing so? Or let's put this another way. Who despoils an ancient, wise faith? The man who, in the name of that faith, tells an absurd and irresponsible lie? Or the man who films him doing so?

Easy answer to question #4, at least for Rajeev and fellow campaigners: Anand Patwardhan. The film-maker.

Be sure, by no means are Patwardhan's films the second coming of Snow White and 101 Dalmatians. He makes films that are meant to provoke, to set off debate and thought. That they certainly do, given the way Rajeev and his signing friends have reacted to the planned AMNH screenings; given also the way they have been received wherever Patwardhan has shown them, the battles he has fought to have them broadcast.

But think for a minute. Why did the signature men not say, simply: "We don't agree with these films. There is another side to Hindutva that we would like discussed as well." That would have been the truth, because what they find offensive is Patwardhan's depiction of a Hindutva they support -- which is fair enough; after all, nobody is happy to have their pet likes shown up. Unfortunately, saying that would also have been far less effective than what Rajeev did say. Yes, far more effective to claim that Patwardhan portrays an entire faith, one followed by every sixth human, as "evil".

Think how angry Rajeev has managed to make his readers with that claim: far more than if he had said, simply again, that the film criticizes what we are told is Hindutva. (Which it does, unashamedly.) That -- stimulating the anger -- is the reason to say Patwardhan paints Hinduism as "evil".

And this matter of peaceful democratic dissent. Nothing wrong with that, of course. If people are unhappy about the screenings, they have every right to start a protest campaign. Only, what happened to the AMNH was just a step or two removed from being peaceful and democratic.

When the originator of the counter campaign sent his collected signatures in to the AMNH on January 30, the curator of the exhibit wrote back: "Unfortunately, the films were cancelled owing to threats of violence." Some people I know in the States called the museum to find out more. They learned that the films had been "postponed" (which is how the AMNH Web site now describes them) until "better security" could be arranged. One person who called was "told by the museum that there had been threatening calls ... from unidentified callers and the museum did not want to jeopardize the safety of its visitors".

Hmm. So some of the "peaceful democratic dissenters" were not being quite so peaceful and democratic after all. Quite apart from being too lily-livered to use their names as they made their threats over the phone. And that, too, in the guise of protecting Hinduism.

Ah, the fantasies.

So let's ask again, shall we? Who despoils an ancient, wise religion? The man who made these films? Or these others who, in the name of that very religion, anonymously threaten American museum officials with violence?

And what's been quite ignored in all this? The two films that were to be screened. The AMNH has these blurbs about them:

  1. We Are Not Your Monkeys: The song "We Are Not Your Monkeys", composed by Daya Pawar and sung by Sambhaji Bhagat, offers the dalit (lower caste) perspective on the Ramayana epic.

    Now Daya Pawar was one of Maharashtra's most revered poets, an eloquent man mourned widely when he died suddenly a few years ago. To pretend voices like his don't exist, or to prevent others from hearing them, is ostrich Hinduism: itself a slap in the face of the traditions of Hinduism.

  2. In the Name of God: This film presents an incisive account of the movement by Hindu nationalists to rally ordinary citizens around the purported birth site of the Hindu god Rama in the north Indian city of Ayodhya. It details the campaign waged in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the militant Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Organization) to destroy the 16th century Babri Mosque and build a temple to Rama. Presenting a range of views, the film highlights how Hindu nationalism and militancy is primarily an upper-caste and middle-class phenomenon.

    True: even if I had not seen the film already, this blurb gives the impression that it is critical of the agitation to demolish the Babri Masjid. But that's just the point: to move from that to a claim that it pronounces Hinduism "evil" is a leap of considerable, and perverse, agility.

    Finally, Hindutva's heroes lose no opportunity to tell us that the demolition of that 16th century mosque was actually a great redemption of honour. Which doesn't quite square with shutting down a film that depicts how they went about that redemption. Just as it didn't quite square with the way they attacked several journalists in Ayodhya on that very day -- December 6, 1992 -- of redemption.

    Unless they are secretly ashamed of that redemption. Fantasies everywhere.

    Dilip D'Souza

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