As the Judicial Commission set up for the Muzaffarnagar riots absolves majoritarian Hindutva and political leadership of communal violence, sbcltr reviews the documentary film Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai that highlights the role these very elements played in orchestrating the blood and gore
In 2013, one-year before the General Elections in the country, Muzaffarnagar in western Uttar Pradesh, saw bloodshed and communal violence at a large scale. According to official figures 60 people died and more than 40,000 were displaced. Even today, the popular narrative about the riots is that they sparked off after a Muslim boy sexually harassed a Jat girl. It is often alleged that the brothers of the girl killed the Muslim boy, Shahnawaz, in order to protect their sister’s honour. The Muslim villagers avenged this by lynching the two brothers. BJP MLA, Sangeet Som, circulated a video of this alleged slaughter, which fuelled even more anger against the local Muslim population. Some 10 days after the three killings, there was a maha Panchayat, after which angered Hindu mobs went on a rampage and torched the homes of their Muslim neighbours, killing several in the process.
A Judicial Commission lead by Justice Vishnu Sahai was appointed after the violence. In its 773 page report, The Sahai Commission admits that the sexual harassment version was a fabrication. The report confirms that the police complaint filed by the Jat family had no allegation of any teasing or harassment against the Muslim youth. It was a minor altercation between the boys after a motorcycle accident that caused the dispute. The Jat boys went to Shahnawaz’s home and stabbed him to death for revenge. After which, angry Muslim neighbours caught and killed the Jat boys. The report also accepts, that the video of the two youths being killed by a mob was of a lynching in Pakistan, and that it was deliberately circulated by MLA Som to create mischief. It also accepts, that rumours were circulated before the maha-panchayat of September 7, 2013, that hundreds of Jats had been slaughtered by Muslims and thrown into a canal, that communally provocative speeches were made in the maha-panchayat, and that the widespread arson and slaughter of Muslims started after this.
Despite these findings, the commission gives greater importance to the version of the Hindu majority. Without any evidence the judge accepts, that while Shahnawaz might have not teased a girl , other Muslim men routinely do. He also accepts, without evidence, that Muslim leaders made provocative speeches after the incident and attacked Hindu leaders before and after their maha Panchayat. He chooses to ignore official fact-finding reports, that the Jat mobs were raising threatening slogans and attacking the Muslims in large numbers. That the few acts of violence by the Muslims were to be seen in that perspective, is a thought that doesn’t even cross his mind. The commission readily accepts and reproduces the Jat and Hindutva narrative of the massacre. The political role in the massacre is completely ignored, so is the role of the State government and its criminal handling of the riot. The local administration too, is let off with a minor scolding. All in all, the report tries to say that the government tried all measures to control the violence as it broke out.
In the wake of a communal riot, Hindutva agents turned apologists, often adopt the narrative that Hindus are peaceful people who get provoked to honour their daughters and sisters. The Sahai commission succeeds in endorsing this majoritarian rationalisation of Hindu violence against Muslims in Muzaffarnagar.
This narrative is generally a tough one to challenge in a rigidly communal, patriarchal society. But three years later, right-wing student activists routinely take time to disrupt the screenings of documentary filmmaker Nakul Singh Sawhney’s Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai. The documentary that examines the anatomy of the violence and how it was orchestrated for political gain. So strong is the resistance to it, that Delhi University was the first to ban the film. Then Rohit Vemula, the Dalit scholar who committed suicide at Hyderabad University was suspended as a result of being involved in the screening of this very movie. Just last month, the JNU administration issued showcause notices to two of its students, Anirban Bhattacharya and Umar Khalid for participation in the screening of the documentary.
What is it about the movie that irks the right-wing so much?
According to Sawhney, the reaction to his movie exposes the hypocrisy and the undemocratic nature of the government that is targeting activists and students alike. “It is a brutal assault on democracy. They (right-wing student activists) don’t have the courage to make a film, but they want to decide what the society is watching and what they are not. They are just policing, because they can.”
Shubhradeep Chakravorty, had made a similar documentary called En dino Muzaffarnagar and was refused clearance for screening by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). His application to the Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) against the CBFC decision was also turned down. He died in 2014 of a brain hemorrhage before he could take this any further. En Dino Muzaffarnagar provided a cold account of how the Sangh pursued Love Jihad as a strategy for communal polarisation that lead to the riots. The documentary also had fanatics on record addressing public gatherings with invocations of bahu behen ki izzat to instigate violence, with calls for battle cries against Muslims in-order to maintain the “purity and honour” of its community.
Sawhney’s film has seen better fate. Despite opposition, people are watching it, the interest in it continues to grow despite the government opposition, even as incidents of violence against Muslims rise.
It is a chilling film. Jarring. Real. Radical. Stark. Like reality often is. In the documentary, Muslims talk about friends turning foes overnight. Of slain family members, of being caught between radicalised Islam and communal Hindus. Of being part of a giant orchestration of Acche Din for BJP. Their claims are backed by the Jats and the Dalits. One of the family members of a slain Jat states that “the BJP came to power because of the riots.”
In 2010, Sawhney travelled to Muzaffarnagar while making his documentary Izzatnagari Ki Asabhya Betiyaan, about honour killings in Haryana and could feel the rising communal tension. There was an anti-Dalit, anti-Muslim feeling building up amongst the Jats, who wanted to make their own political identity. The Jats eventually did merge themselves with the BJP and a massacre broke out. It was then, that Sawhney decided to revisit the place. He went with the idea of making a 20-minute short-film, but came back with a 136 minute documentary. Like its predecessors, Kya Hua Is Sheher Ko? In the Name of the Father and Final Solution, this documentary is a dissection of a riot and tracks factors such as religion, community and economic background that lead to the unfolding of violent gore in Uttar Pradesh.
At the heart of this propaganda, lies political gain, the film exposes the efforts made to alienate the Muslim vote from the Samajwadi Party to the BJP. And vice-versa.The documentary exposes the narrative that the Sahai Commission is trying to propagate as utter lies.
It shows the leaders of two major political parties provoking masses against each other to commit atrocities. It also has recorded interviews of a number of families from both, Hindu and Muslim families that were affected and displaced. Their sometimes horrific and graphic details of violence. “What struck me was the empathy with which economically backward Muslims and Dalits spoke of each- others pain and suffering. How they were both at the receiving end of the oppressive caste structure,” he says.
Sawhney who calls this an “ideological turning point for India” became interested in the subject of documentary film-making when he volunteered in Gujarat after Godhra in 2002. He says, he felt the need to understand what really happened and to what extent. He was still a teenager at that time and although his time in Delhi University had politicised him a little, he couldn’t understand the factors and the need for such violence. For that, he needed to go there. The experience impacted him for life. The result of which is his film-making, that acts as a provocateur to all these state sponsored violent agents. The hardest part of his job has been the element of risk, but he just shrugs it off, “Some things need to be done. At the end of the, day we still enjoy class privileges but look at all the tribal and Dalit activists, we are far less vulnerable than them. If they can speak up fearlessly, so should we. Such stories always need to be told.”