Documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan is a master of dissent. His powerful documentaries give voice to a broad coalition of dissent from students, farmers, Dalits and workersm, giving voice to their dissent in the film Waves of Revolution made in 1974, to his more recent Jai Bhim Comrade examining the state of Dalits suffering exploitation at the hands of the upper classes.
A fearlessly independent maverick, Patwardhan not only operates outside the system but does not hesitate to speak out against the establishment, whether it be during the earlier Congress regime or the present Modi-Shah combine.
A question put to him frequently is what difference does he feel between the days of the Emergency declared by former prime minister Indira Gandhi and the present government, given that today’s media is not only willing to bend but crawl to their diktats.
Patwardhan does not mince words when he says: “The Congress Party blatantly stifled dissent during the Emergency. Today the BJP, a fig leaf for the RSS, is doing far worse in a far more covert manner. No Emergency is declared but terror has been unleashed on the poor as a whole and on minorities, especially Muslims and Dalits, in particular. “The reason why an openly declared Emergency is no longer required is that the Sangh Parivar, together with their crony business friends in India and abroad, has created what Noam Chomsky famously termed as ‘Manufactured Consent’. This manufactured consent takes the form of endlessly repeated myths an art form perfected by the Nazi propaganda master, Goebbels.
“I will list just a few examples.
Myth: Not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims.
Myth: Muslims are violent because they eat meat. Hindus being vegetarians are never violent, though occasionally they practice self-defense.
Myth: Narendra Modi is a Chowkidar (Watchman) who cannot tolerate corruption.
Myth: Narendra Modi equals Development.
There are many more myths in this vein. These myths are then circulated through every means of communication available in the modern era,” said Patwardhan.
He goes on to state: “Today, the BJP has cornered much more money than all other political parties put together. They garner not only the pious offerings of those who see them as protectors of Hindutva but more importantly, they have the financial and ideological support of all those who want a privatised economy fully dependent on their super-power investors and allies. The media, both print and electronic, need not be muzzled today. It has already been bought. If there are exceptions to this rule, they survive only if they reach just tiny sections of the population. The moment they begin to reach further, they risk meeting the fate of a Dabholkar, Pansare, Kalburgi or Gauri Lankesh.”
Patwardhan is not one to mince words. He believes the problems of present day India must be traced to the period of the freedom struggle, when the RSS played a diabolical role in betraying the interests of the nation. This is a role they continue to play, he insists.
“How did we reach this... I hesitate to say ‘nadir’, for we know it can get worse before it gets better,” is a question that he has often mulled over.
Patwardhan continues: “The process took decades, in fact, centuries. Let us look at the trajectory. The British ruled India with a relatively tiny force of white people who organised and supervised a huge force of brown people. This could only be done by divide and rule. The need for this was never more felt than during and after the First War of Independence in 1857, when Hindus and Muslims united and almost succeeded in ousting the East India Company. That is when Imperial Britain dropped all pretense of simple commerce and imposed direct rule, turning India into a British colony. Every bit of ‘development’ the British did in India from that moment on, from the building of the railways to the creation of an administrative and educational infrastructure, was done not with and altruistic motive, but to better facilitate loot and plunder.”
“There was, however, an unforeseen element that facilitated ideas of reform and gave birth to Indian nationalism. As the British and other colonial powers educated a class of Indians for the purpose of running their trade and administration, they unwittingly helped pollinate progressive ideas from the European Enlightenment.
“Tipu Sultan of Mysore allied temporarily with the French and wrote about Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.
Bhagat Singh in his prison diary quotes from Marx, Engels and even Mark Twain and Wordsworth.
“The Brahminical diktat that only the upper castes could be educated began to be challenged. From Raja Rammohan Roy to Mahatma Phule, Pandita Ramabai, Tagore, Gandhi, Periyar and Ambedkar, a whole gamut of Indians became ardent reformers after getting an education overseas or in missionary schools in India. “It is this reformist and egalitarian zeal that imbued the leaders of our freedom struggle as they fought for sovereignty,” Patwardhan stresses.
“The seed once planted led to an inward search as well. Home-grown humanists from the past were rediscovered. Ambedkar found the Buddha as the epitome of Reason and Compassion. For Gandhi, de-casting himself by doing manual scavenging became a pre-requisite of his Indianness.
“Not only were the British alarmed by the appeal of reformist nationalists. The Indian elite, the Rajas and Nawabs and Brahminical Hindus were equally frightened of what an egalitarian mass movement could unleash. Kingdoms, fiefdoms, private property and privilege were clearly in danger.
“Within a few years of the birth of the ‘dangerous’ Indian National Congress in 1880, they formed the United Patriotic Association to assure the British of their undying loyalty.
“From this original initiative, several communal groupings eventually emerged the Muslim League created in 1906, the Hindu Mahasabha in 1915 and the RSS in 1925.
“All three of them opposed the idea of plurality espoused by the mainstream nationalist movement. All of them at various times and in various ways supported the British. Individuals who stood against these formations were at times eliminated. So Allah Bux, who led a huge mass movement of Muslims, and who stood against the idea of Pakistan, was murdered in 1943, probably by the Muslim League in connivance with the British.
“The British cleverly ensured that only propertied classes, who were ‘educated’, had the right to vote. This was the class that feared that a socialist Congress would rob them of their wealth and property.
“The vast majority of working class Muslims was disenfranchised when the question of Pakistan was being decided. Sadly, both India and Pakistan have forgotten them. For anyone who wants to know more I recommend Shamsul Islam’s wonderful book ‘Muslims Against Partition’.
“No Muslim League or Hindutva leader went to any British jail, once they had chosen and joined their respective communal parties. Even Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who coined the term Hindutva, is no exception to this rule, for he was jailed in the Andamans for anti-British exploits undertaken before he was communalized, and certainly before the birth of the party he eventually headed, the Hindu Mahasabha.
“In any case, “Veer” (Brave) Savarkar does not sound very brave when you read any of the five mercy petition he wrote to the British from the Andamans. Nor was his conduct brave at the trial for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi held at the Red Fort. There, Savarkar denied any connection with his protégé, Nathuram Godse. He deliberately sat in the back row to avoid eye contact with his co-conspirators. Their common lawyer has put on record how hurt Nathuram felt at being snubbed by his mentor, the man who had told him ‘to go forth and return after succeeding’ in his mission.
“That mission was to murder Mahatma Gandhi. Savarkar was acquitted on the technicality that no corroborating evidence was found to supplement the convincing testimony of the approver, Digambar Badge.
“Two decades later, the Kapur Commission went over the trial records and found plenty of corroborating evidence. By this time Savarkar was no more. It is this ‘Brave’ Savarkar whose portrait was installed in Parliament by the BJP, opposite the man he got murdered.”
But does he think the Left forces can combine with the Dalits to opposed these Hindutva forces.
Patwardhan has said on many occasions that he blames both sides for their inability to put their differences aside. He has said that while one side is the traditional Marxists who believe that the State will wither way when the economic base becomes socialist, the other side are Dalit groups who fall prey to red-baiting and exclusive identity politics. “I believe that the Left and Dalits are natural allies, so it is a matter of time before a genuine, long-lasting unity is forged. People like Govind Pansare, Kanhaiya Kumar and Jignesh Mevani have shown us that this unity is possible,” he has been quoted as saying.
“The RSS today denies all responsibility in the Gandhi murder. But Gopal Godse, Nathuram’s brother, stated that neither he nor Nathuram ever left the RSS, though they joined the Hindu Mahasabha. After the Gandhi murder Home Minister Sardar Patel banned both organisations. The RSS was cleared in 1949, only after it undertook not to indulge in politics. Today from Narendra Modi to every powerful minister and chief minister of the BJP, all belong to the RSS, and it is Nagpur that sets the country’s agenda, along of course, with allies in the multinational corporate world. “To be fair, not all that ails this country can be laid at the doorstep of Hindutva. The value system and economic ideas brought down to us through the freedom struggle had already begun to be dismantled in the latter half of the Congress period itself helped, indeed bulldozed, by pressures from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
“This newly imposed model of development started by debunking notions of socialism (an ideology whose basic aim is to reduce the divide between rich and poor) and ended in debunking secularism (the belief in a pluralistic society which guarantees equal rights for all communities).
“This is the continuum on which we can see the Congress morphing slowly but surely into the BJP,” he said.
His outspoken views have seen him in constant conflict with the national telecaster refusing to telecast his films, whether it be Ram Ke Naam (1992), War and Peace (2002), Narmada Diary (1995), Prisoners of Conscience (1978), Pitra, Putra aur Dharamyuddha (1994).
It seems ironical that his very films that have won five National Awards from the government were not being screened by Doordarshan.
Patwardhan has pointed out that on seven occasions he had fought court cases to get a reluctant Doordarshan to telecast his films. In each case the arguments were being supported by the fact that the films were winners of National Awards in the best documentary category.
Two of the cases ended up going to the Supreme Court where the court deemed that the public’s right to information could not be denied. He has won all seven cases and as he has said on more than once occasion that “we have a decent Constitution so we must explore the law, push its boundaries and speak out when its spirit is violated. What’s the use of democracy if you’re not going to use the law?”
Patwardhan has also taken the Censor Board to court over cuts they had demanded in his documentary War and Peace and after a year-long battle, he won a `U’ certificate for telecasting it without a single cut. Patwardhan’s major regret is that his films are not widely screened. He is of the opinion that while after a court battle, Doordarshan did telecast Ram Ke Naam, but if there had been repeated screenings on DD, it would have helped undermine the rise of divisive Hindutva politics. Unfortunately, the State, no matter which party was in power, never allowed this to happen. He has said: “The tragedy of our films is that they have not been disseminated enough to make a political impact. But within limits, they have made a small contribution.”
A film that is very close to his heart is Jai Bhim Comrade that raises questions about both Dalit and Marxist politics.
Patwardhan has explained the title as `Bhim’ which is short for `Bhimrao Ambedkar’ while `Comrade’ refers to the communist use of the term.
The film starts with the suicide of Vilas Ghogre, a poet and musician who was a member of the Marxist party but was expelled from it on trivial grounds. The film took over 14 years to make. The response to the film was overwhelming. Patwardhan screened it in the open air in Dalit neighbourhoods across urban Maharashtra, where large numbers of people settled on the ground to watch this three hour film. After the screening, the floor would be open for discussion and the viewers spoke out freely on how the film had touched their hearts.
Sometime later, when Jai Bhim Conrade was screened for a more middle and upper class audience, people liked the film but many in the audience spoke out against reservations.
Patwardhan’s own response to this was that they obviously were not in the know of the exploitations of the Dalit community, who had been doing manual scavenging for 3,000 years, and who had been forbidden education. After lengthy discussions following the screening of the film, it was agreed that reservations could be done away with only when the children of the rich and poor start going to the same school.
On the issue about differences between Gandhi and Ambedkar, as is often emphasised by Ambedkar followers, Patwardhan believes that despite their differences both leaders were `egalitarian humanists’. The word satyagraha was coined by Gandhi but Ambedkar used the term as a form of struggle to launch his Mahad Satyagraha to claim drinking water rights. In 1932, after the conclusion of the Poona Pact, there was a popular perception that Ambedkar had been `blackmailed’ by Gandhi’s fast-unto-death to accept this compromise. But in 1932, after signing the pact, Ambedkar had high praise for Gandhi and stated that the `Mahatma’ offered a much better deal to Dalits in terms of reserved seats than Ambedkar himself.
Patwardhan remains scorching in his criticism of Modi and the RSS who he describes as being ` the fastest growing NGO in the world’. He is also critical about how Modi symbolises the American-Israeli-Saudi axis and also the rich. In conclusion, Patwardhan believes dissent will never be destroyed. As he said: “The Nazis and Mussolini could not do it. In India the task is even greater, for no two Indians ever agree with each other for too long. But while ensuring that dissent continues is relatively easy, finding an antidote to the poisonous hatred and misogyny that has been steadily fed to the public in the last few decades, requires that we re-embrace the ideas that inspired our freedom struggle and we also embrace new ideas of ecology and frugality that have become necessary to sustain a world hell bent on self-destruction.”
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