Anand Patwardhan is a leading independent documentary filmmaker from India. Making political—often controversial—films for the past fifteen years, Anand has won several prestigious national and international awards. During his five year stay in Canada in the late seventies, he directed A Time to Rise, along with Jim Munroe. This documentary about Indian farmworkers in British Columbia was produced by the National Film Board of Canada and introduced Anand's work to Canadian audiences. His latest film In the Name of God is a chilling expose about one of the most critical issues facing India today: the rise of Hindu nationalism—which has resulted in bloody clashes and several thousand deaths.
The following is an edited version of a conversation that took place between Anand Patwardhan and AH Kazimi during the Festival of Festivals in Toronto where In The Name of God had its Canadian premiere.
Ali: Where does the impetus for In The Name of God come from?
Anand: Although the film began as a general film on communalism, the first part became focused on Punjab. It's called In Memory of Friends, which deals with the left movement in Punjab, and their fight against both state terrorism as well as Khalistani terrorism. When the 1984 riots took place in Delhi, nearly 3000 Sikhs were killed. I wanted to do something about that to point out the madness of those events, and to talk about what's happenning in Punjab: the riots, the terrorism and the innocent people being killed by both Khalistani separatists and the government.
The left movement derives its inspiration from the thoughts of Bhagat Singh. He was born a Sikh but became one of the early communists, although there was no Communist Party at that time. He wrote a book called Why I Am An Atheist. He was hanged by the British in 1931 at the age of 23. The film focuses on his writing, because today the Khalistanis are saying that, "Bhagat Singh was a Sikh and, like us, he was a terrorist;' The government is saying, "No, he was a patriot. He fought for the country." But in fact neither of them mention that he was a socialist. He didn't believe in 'country' in that sense. He believed in internationalism. So that's what I was trying to pose, the larger concept of being a human, of being an international person rather than a narrow religious identity.
Ali: So after dealing with Punjab you decided to take on a broader issue?
Anand: I'm not looking out to make films all the time, but there are things which are going on in my mind and when the pressure gets too much, then I have to do something about it.
In 1990, L.K. Advani, leader of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), travelled in an air-conditioned Toyota decorated as a religious chariot, followed by thousands of Hindu volunteers.
He trekked all across the country. The journey was supposed to end in Ayodhya [believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god, Ram], where, on October 30, 1990, they would attack the [Babri Masjid] mosque and build a temple.
Ali: Could you give a brief background to the parties involved in this?
Anand: The Bharatiyajanata Party (BJP), which is connected to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Organization), the Bajrang Dal and the RSS are all different names for an umbrella organization of Hindu fundamentalists groups. They have different functions: some have political functions; some have a more ofagrassroots kind of militant function. But by and large, they are calling for a Hindu India.
So these people have been militating for the last few years to convert the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in north India. It is said to have been built by Babar [the first Moghul Emperor] in the 16th century. They now claim that the mosque was built at the birth place of Lord Ram, the Hindu god, and that Babur had demolished the Hindu temple and built the mosque in its place. They want to demolish the mosque and build a temple in its place.
Ali: What was the reason for doing it now? The mosque has been there for over five hundred years?
Anand: Basically, they needed an issue to mobilize the people and to increase their political base. They have, by and large, succeeded in doing that. The BJP had only two seats in parliament before 1989. On this single issue of the Ram temple they managed to increase their seats to 88 seats in the elections.
By forcing this issue further, they managed to increase their representation from 88 to 188. The BJP now forms the official opposition in the Indian parliament.
Ali: One of the things that I liked very much about the film is that you deal with this event as a narrative thread. Then you explore the different levels of feelings and emotions that run across the strata of Indian society, right from street people in rural areas to high caste priests. What comes across to me is that the people who are being seduced by the movement are the urban middle and upper middle classes.
Anand: The middle class has always been ripe ground for fascist propaganda to work. Even in Nazi Germany, it was the middle class that was the backbone of the movement. The leadership of the Nazis came from that middle class. The working class, many of them were pro-left. They were defeated in the struggle because they couldn't organize and there was in-fighting. So, Hitler came to power because the socialists and the communists couldn't agree.
Ali: It's interesting that you should bring this up. When I arrived in Delhi in the middle of October in 1990, it was the day before the Rath Yatra was supposed to come through Delhi. All the shops and many offices were closed by the local traders' associations in solidarity with the Yatra. All the streets, lined with BJP flags, were quite empty. There was a lot of tension in the air. I felt that it was very evocative of what I had read about of the rise of the Third Reich in Germany.
Anand: Yeah. I made this film because there is a danger of fascism. If there was an equal struggle going on between two religious communities, you'd have bloody clashes on both sides but you wouldn't have the kinds of massacres that sometimes take place in India today.
The Hindu majority is an overwhelming 80 percent. If this majority becomes fanaticized by the propaganda of the BJP, VHP and others, there'll be genocide. So it is out of that fear of fascism that this film has been made, to warn people about the growth of fascism in India.
There is no question in my mind that all fundamentalism is bad. For example, I'm willing to defend the right of Salman Rushdie to write and fight against Muslim fundamentalists on those issues. However, in this particular film the reason for attacking Hindu fundamentalism in a stronger manner than Muslim fundamentalism is that on the Babri Masjid-Ramajanbhomi issue, the Muslim fundamentalists are saying that they will await the court verdict. But Hindu fundamentalists are saying that they won't follow the court order, they want the temple at any cost.
What I'm saying is that the fight is not between Hindus and Muslims. The fight is between those who believe in a secular democracy and those who don't.
Ali: As a filmmaker, what are your own views about this controversy?
Anand: My study of the situation shows that for five hundred years this has been a mosque. There may or may not have been a temple. The fact is that the archaeological survey doesn't show that there was a Ram temple under the mosque. Even if there was, I wouldn't say that we should reverse five hundred years of history, and take back the mosque from those who own it now to put up a temple.
Because then tomorrow someone might say that there was something of historical importance under where I live, so I should get out. If this group of Hindus thinks that five hundred years ago there was a temple on that site, then why don't tribals say that three thousand years ago, before the Aryans came to India, there was no temple here. There were trees here that they used to worship, so let's tear down the building and replant the trees.
This whole argument of history is an endless one. You want to reverse the wrongs of the past. I think that's totally absurd. Who are my ancestors, after all? Are my ancestors Hindus? Or tribals? I think that we have to accept the times we are in, and work within that given framework.
Ali: On the subject of history, do you think that part of what's happening now also has something to do with the way in which history is taught to us?
Anand: I think that in general this whole question of wanting one's identity...Well, what is communalism? It is an assertion of identity which is exclusive of other identities. You say, mine is the only identity which is worth having. Others are the enemy. That whole concept is what I'm challenging. It's happenning all over the world, incidentally, not just in India.
Minorities in many parts of the world have to state their identities in order to resist getting assimilated into the majority in a dehumanizing, unequal way. I think the same applies in the Indian case. The eleven percent Muslim minority would probably not assert itself or its identity to any large extent if the situation had been one where there were genuine feelings of comradeship and love between the communities. So, regardless of your community affiliation, you never feel like you are somewhere else. You always feel this is home.
I think Indian society has also failed to make minorities feel fully a part of that society. It'll take much greater effort and understanding before that can happen. But as it stands now, the Muslim minority in India automatically identifies with India, not with Pakistan or some other country.
Ali: I feel as an Indian Muslim, having gone through a very secular education at school and at university, I have always felt the need to strive for a secular sense of nationhood. However, I feel that one of the main obstructions to this sense of nation is the question of Partition. The scars of partition seem to haunt the country, but yet it's never really talked about.
Anand: It's not resolved.
Ali: In your film there are at least four or five references to Partition.
Anand: A guy says that Gandhi should have been killed. Good he got killed because he supported the Muslims. He allowed partition.
Ali: Then on the other hand you have this Muslim, who has been driving a rickshaw for forty years, since just after partition, and he has no desire to go to Pakistan. He feels that India is his homeland and it is his birthright to stay. This is where he is happy, and he lives in a Hindu neighbourhood.
Anand: I think it is issues like this attack on the Babari Masjid which are forcing the Muslim minority to become more fundamentalist.
After the death of Gandhi in 1948, people were shocked into not having communal riots for quite some time. Almost a decade went by when there were very few riots, hardly any at all. In that decade, you could see that there was a growing reformist movement within the Muslim community. Because it is only out of a sense of security that a reform movement can grow from the inside of any group. The moment you have fundamentalists from another community attack you, the fundamentalists in your community become strengthened. The progressive people get ignored.
There were so many communists and leftists that came out of the Muslim community in the fifties and sixties. Today, many of them have gone back into the Muslim League or into other things because they started feeling threatened as Muslims, which they never did before.
Ali: Do you think that part of this debate over secularism is the way in which secularism has been represented? The BJP presents secularism as a leftist concept.
Anand: They call me a pseudo-secularist.
Ali: Secularism is equated with atheism. There is no sense of spirituality involved with it.
Anand: We have no problem with people who are genuinely religious. It is those who are making financial and political profit out of religion that we have real problems with. So when Hindu fanatics accuse me of being anti-Hindu, my response is that I'm a better Hindu than they are. In the sense that their concept of Hinduism is a perverted modern concept which is political in nature. It has nothing to do with religion.
Ali: You managed to follow Advan and his supporters almost to the end. How did you get access to this extraordinary event?
Anand: I'm protected by my class my background, and the fact that if they attack me as a filmmaker, it will be bad publicity for them. So I'm protected by that, while people of the working classes who are anonymous, ie. they are not protected. You see many people get killed and beaten up all over the country from time to time. But it would be foolish of them to do that to me, because it would backfire.They won't attack the film either because it will make it more controversial. Give the film more publicity and more people will see it. So their strategy is to ignore it., as we saw yesterday and the day before in Toronto. The VHP is in large force over here. L.K. Advani was in fact in Toronto, the same day that the film was being shown. But none of them came to the screening. And if they did, they didn't say a word.
Ali: What about the distribution of the film in India? In the last six years there has been this massive surge in video technology and production. The VHP and the BJP seem to have a huge propaganda arm, which uses video extensively. Soon after October 30, when people got killed while trying to storm the mosque, I remember they made their own tapes about the event very quickly. There was a quick turn around time and tapes were distributed at incredible speed all over the country, claiming to show the innocent, government-ordered massacre that took place.
Anand: The BJP forces have the best studio in India, Jain Studios. They have the money to make millions of copies. In fact they have made millions of cassettes of their tapes, and they get them out very fast through local branches everywhere in the country now.
I have been able to make and distribute five hundred video cassettes all over the country with relative ease and at a cheap cost. But that's a drop in the bucket compared to the propaganda that is done by the BJP and the VHP forces.
Ali: Has the film been broadcast on television?
Anand: Not in India. It has been shown on Channel Four in England. If the government recognized the value of films like these as educational material for secularism in India, if indeed they are sincere about secularism in our country, then they could show this film on TV. It would reach millions of people in one night. But they don't do that.
Ali: In the film, there is a kind of undeclared power base within the government bureaucracy for the BJP. Do you think this has something to do with it?
Anand: There is an upper-caste Hindu lobby within the administration in the government. It is true that in Doordarshan [Indian state-owned television], there's bound to be heavy influence from the upper-caste Hindu lobby to prevent such a film from being telecast.
Ali: Who is your audience for this film?
Anand: People in India across religious and caste lines. It serves a different function for each group that I show the film to. If I show the film to upper-caste Hindus, what I'm trying to provoke is self-criticism. That's okay, they have been the beneficiaries of privilege for thousands of years and they can't be self-righteous about it today. They can't continue to exercise that privilege and status quo and fight anybody who wants to change the system.
The film is in fact addressing the people of lower caste to say, look, for centuries the people who fooled you can't be telling the truth about this situation now. If they are saying someone is your enemy, examine it for yourself. Who is the enemy? Who has oppressed you for thousands of years?
Ali: How would you characterize your films?
Anand: I can basically see siding with the underdog, whether I'm that underdog or not. I identify with that underdog because of a sense of natural justice. So if I side with Muslims in a given situation in India, it's not because I'm a Muslim. Obviously, I'm all the time siding with people that I'm not. For me, I don't want to fight for only what I am because then I'll have to fight for being an upper caste Brahmin Hindu [laughs]. That would be highly ironic.
The film ends with a hauntingly beautiful rendition of a spiritual poem by the 15th century Indian poet Kabir, who wrote extensively on the universality of the spiritual experience, and struggled to bring Hindus and Muslims together.
Saints, I see
The world I is see is mad
If I tell the truth
They rush to beat me up
If I lie they trust me
Hindus claim Ram as the One
Muslims claim Rahim
Then they kill each other
With prayer beads and caps
And brows of holy paint
They lose themselves
In sacred hymns but
Know not their own souls
Many holy men I've seen
Teachers of holy books
Who acquire disciples
But know not God
The world goes on
Like this and yet
They call me mad
But Kabir says, listen
Who's the one insane?
In The Name of God will have a limited theatrical release at the Euclid Theatre, 394 Euclid Avenue, Toronto, from October 26-29,1992.