Five incidents of mob violence that shook India, and the documentaries that ensured we wouldn't forget the horrors inflicted on our fellow countrymen.
In a new five-part series, Firstpost views bloody chapters in Indian history, through the lens of filmmakers who painstakingly documented their human toll. Some offer a granular perspective, others a wider framework to understand the contexts in which such violence occurs, and what the aftermath entails.
Featured in this series are Subasri Krishnan's What The Fields Remember, on the Nellie Massacre of 1983; Teenaa Kaur Pasricha’s 1984 - When the Sun Didn’t Rise, on the countrywide anti-Sikh massacre of 1984; Nakul Singh Sawhney’s Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, on the 2013 Muzaffarnagar riots; Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution, on the 2002 Gujarat riots, and Deepa Dhanraj’s Kya hua is shahar ko?, on the Hyderabad communal riots of 1984.
“Is bar danga bahut bada tha
khoob huyi thi
khoon ki baarish
Agle saal acchi hogi
— Gorakh Pandey [verses featured in Nakul Singh Sawhney’s Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai]
The 2014 Lok Sabha Elections were a turning point in India’s history. While the UPA-led government in the Centre expected to be in power for another term, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s active campaigning — propelled by the face of Narendra Modi — swept across the country. In the BJP’s arsenal was the slogan “Ab ki baar, Modi Sarkar” coupled with the promise of development, ridding the country of corruption, and creating jobs, among other objectives.
On 16 May 2014, it was declared that the BJP-led NDA would form the next government, and that Modi would be sworn in as the 14th Prime Minister of India. What secured the BJP’s victory was its monumental win in Uttar Pradesh: The party won 71 out of 80 seats in the state. This was the same party which had won merely 10 seats in Uttar Pradesh in the previous election, and had always been a weaker player in an arena where the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP) and Congress were heavyweights.
What were the events that unfolded in Uttar Pradesh before the elections, which transformed its socio-political canvas? Many believe it was Amit Shah’s campaigning – centred as it was on Hindutva ideals – in the rural heartland of the state, especially in western Uttar Pradesh, which was already a witness to clashes between Hindu Jats and Muslims, the dominance of Khap panchayats, the sugarcane crisis and abject poverty.
Early in August 2013, there were reports of Hindu-Muslim clashes in western Uttar Pradesh's Muzaffarnagar district that were said to have stemmed from an incident where a Muslim man allegedly “eve-teased” a Hindu Jat girl in the Kawal village. This incident, and others of a similar nature, eventually spiralled into the riots of September 2013 in the same district and neighbouring areas.
More than 60 were killed and around 40,000 were displaced. Over 90 percent of those affected were Muslims.
Whether they were ‘riots’ or a politically-calculated move is the premise of Nakul Singh Sawhney’s documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai.
In 2013, when Sawhney and his team visited Muzaffarnagar, speculation was rife about whether Modi and the BJP will win, considering the party’s poor performance in the state in the last two general elections. “It is said that the road to Delhi is often through Uttar Pradesh; it’s very important to do well in Uttar Pradesh if you have to form a government in the Centre. When we made our first trip to Muzaffarnagar, one of the first things that struck me immediately was that Modi was forming a government; the BJP was forming a government,” Sawhney recounts.
He talks about the party’s polarisation politics in Uttar Pradesh and how it aided its cause. “We knew Muzaffarnagar was going to be an immediate turning point in the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections, and independent India in totality. So, I thought it was very important to document not just the violence of the riots and its immediate effects, but also what people were saying about the violence or the perpetrators.”
It wasn’t the first time that Sawhney was visiting Muzaffarnagar; he was there in 2010 for the research of his previous film, Izzatnagri ki Asabhya Betiyan (2012), which focused on honour killings in western Uttar Pradesh and the rising protest against it by the Jat women in the area. His motive was to understand what the situation was in the Jat belt outside of Haryana.
It was then that he realised there were several aspects at play, such as the Jat identity politics (which is broadly dominant class identity politics), the political orchestrations aimed at merging this identity into the larger narrative of Hindutva, and weaponising it to “save” Hindu women from Muslim men. “That’s exactly what led to the riots,” Sawhney says, “There were also various aspects to the violence. We look at questions of caste, questions of class, how the Kisan Union is so integral to all of this, how the peasants were affected by it, and how gender is crucial to all of this. There are a range of questions: material questions, cultural questions, social issues, issues that pertain to social justice.”
Sawhney says that unlike his previous films, the research process for this one was clued into the events unfolding in real-time. They were observing, making notes and revisiting those observations to look at the larger picture. There was an abundance of references and contexts, particularly to learn about the area’s decades-old and recent history. “There were a lot of things that came into play. While studying the role of the local media and social media helped us to understand the immediate history, we were also reading older books, going back to old articles on the Bharatiya Kisan Union, on the growth of the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) and how it influenced class politics in that area, on the growth of the BSP and how it influences the Dalit politics, and then the overall political landscape.”
Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai starts soon after the riots. Sawhney continued shooting even after the elections, till August 2014. He’d started the editing work around February 2014, prior to the declaration of the election results, and the final edit ended around January 2015. The process was fluid, he says, adding that he’d joke with his editor that the BJP’s win or loss could define both the film and its title. Screenings of the film began in January 2015, in various parts of the country.
In the film, Sawhney remains critical of the Muzaffarnagar violence, of the people who perpetrated it, and of the political parties whose clout was strengthened by it. His ideological stand remains the same even today. “If there is a point of view, it has to be backed by facts; it can’t be the other way round. I can’t say, ‘Okay, we have an agenda, a point of view, let’s find facts that fit into it.’”
One noteworthy aspect of Sawhney’s film is that everything it claims is substantiated with evidence that has been filmed when the documentary was being made. “When we say that the BJP and other Hindutva organisations whipped up the belief that Hindu women are unsafe in the hands of Muslim men, we have BJP leaders saying that in the video features and bytes. And, it’s not only critical of the BJP, it’s critical of the SP as well. It’s critical of the BSP for maintaining a deafening silence and similarly for the RLD. It’s critical of the Congress, especially Rahul Gandhi, who said there are ISI agents operating out of Muzaffarnagar,” he explains.
Is it possible for a filmmaker to detach his own personal politics while making a political documentary? Sawhney doesn’t subscribe to this notion. “When you enter such a political environment, when so much violence has been perpetrated in the name of a certain kind of politics, you cannot say that ‘I am apolitical’… Are you saying that you are completely bereft of emotion? … When one says that they have no point of view or that they are not affected by what is happening around, one goes in with warped notions. Then the filmmaker is a walking and talking zombie,” Sawhney says.
With this film, Sawhney says he has also shown the journey of the filmmaker, though this part of the story remains in the background. “My voice doesn’t appear as random questions, but it keeps the interaction alive. As a filmmaker, I am also trying to understand what is happening,” he reveals. There is a point in the film where Sawhney gets into an altercation with the police officers in a relief camp. The officers had come there to interrogate the riot victims, who regarded this inquiry as yet another form of harassment. “It was a very conscious decision (the editor and I had a very long discussion) to keep that bit in the film, and not just the riot victims fighting with the officers, because it is important to acknowledge that the filmmaker stands somewhere. Are we manipulating facts? No, we are not. Is our point of view also composed of facts we saw, on the ground? Yes, it is.”
Of the 60 people killed, 20 belonged to the Hindu Jat community. Sawhney’s film, however, focuses more on the losses sustained by the Muslims in the area. Sawhney says he’s received flak from several political parties in the area for this “bias”.
“Not just the RSS and BJP, even people from the SP have said that the film is biased. But I have always said, ‘If you think my film is biased, that is not enough of a criticism. You have to give me facts.’ It is here that they flounder and say, ‘You have not shown enough’,” Sawhney says. On this ‘need for neutrality’ in the narrative, he asserts that documentary filmmakers actually suffer because of the “false or framed sense of neutrality created by the news channels.” Sawhney believes that documentary films, of the likes of Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai which document mass violence and contain within them a certain viewpoint, are more honest in their depiction of what has occurred.
“There were many relief camps, of which only one was occupied by the Hindus – essentially Dalits – and had around 500 people. When compared to the scale at which Muslims were displaced, that’s a very small number. These 500 people also went back to their village, unlike the displaced Muslims,” Sawhney explains. This, he says, is why the community with more at stake gets more time in the film. “No one is shying away from saying that there was some kind of violence from the other side as well. But it was largely violence tilted in one direction, and that is really where we stand,” he adds.
While Sawhney does show the aftermath of the violence in great detail through multiple narratives, what stands apart in the film are the interspersed conversations with a group of Hindu Jat women. They speak of the stark realities of society, of the communal clashes that take place in the name of protecting women — mainly Hindu women. Sawhney shows how amid all this violence, there is a Mahapanchayat called with slogans such as ‘Beti Bachao, Bahu Bachao’ (which is later changed to ‘Beti Bachao, Bahu Banao’) and there is not a single woman representative to be seen, except for Sadhvi Prachi (who is known for her controversial statements against Muslims in India). “If you attend this event, you see the machismo, the public mob violence. No one is really talking about how women are getting affected. What do they think of this violence? That’s completely missing from the dominant discourse. The voice of women is not present in reports on TV and in newspapers. We thought we must include them in the narrative,” says Sawhney.
Organising the interviews with the women wasn't easy, and an all-female crew was deliberately chosen to conduct these — be it the interviewer, the sound and cameraperson. “In the mayhem, this [the women's] voice was and has been so strongly submerged and suppressed that once it came out it had to be the strongest. And they spoke brilliantly. After watching the interviews, I knew this was the strength of the film,” Sawhney says, adding that he now feels the women could have been given even more screen time.
Caste and class dynamics and how they shape communalism is one of many layers that Sawhney explores in the film. Usually, it is the less privileged who are most affected by such clashes. “There are dominant class Muslims staying in the region who are powerful and can give it back if they are meddled with. In Muzaffarnagar too, these strong and rich Muslim families were not that affected… Even the 500 Hindus who were displaced, they were all working-class Dalits. There’s not a single Jat, Brahmin or Baniya who was displaced, not even a Gujar or a Rajput,” Sawhney says.
These clashes are not only representative of the conflict between egos, religious sentiments and perceptions, but also of broken relationships, faith and trust. Friends of yesterday turn foes overnight. What happens after the violence? What happens when the mayhem subsides? Is hatred replaced by remorse? Are friendship and reconciliation possible? “I think these conditions don’t change overnight. Of course, there will be that one big incident [of alienation], but I think it reaches that stage over a period of time. These conditions are created, manufactured and happen over a period of time,” says Sawhney. “We can’t say that relationships are being permanently repaired – no. Mass migrations have continued in western Uttar Pradesh after the riots. Lot of Muslims living in villages which witnessed no riots are gradually moving into townships which are Muslim majority. One has to recognise the scale of this problem; if we don’t, then polarisation and riots will become a permanent condition.”
Through Chalchitra Abhiyaan — a film and media collective based out of western Uttar Pradesh — Sawhney has been trying to “bring to the fore local issues that concern different marginalised communities in their own voices.” He has been shooting in the region even after the riots, and what he has observed is that the agrarian crisis persists even today, and those who were part of the violence are very critical of the BJP. “They are in great remorse; they feel they have made a great mistake by getting carried away by the BJP propaganda," Sawhney says.
A film like Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, which is so critical of the administration, is bound to face trouble in terms of censorship and screenings. Sawhney’s film has still not been given a certificate. “It is frustrating to see so many suffer and get penalised for fighting to screen the film, but at the same time, this almost became a movement for the freedom of expression,” says Sawhney, “So after that, it no longer remained my film; it became a film for people in general, who wanted to talk about what has gone wrong with the country. I think that censorship is not something that filmmakers alone should fight, it is also the audience who need to fight against it.”
Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai is currently streaming on Netflix, which Sawhney says is a reminder to filmmakers that the scope to make these films is quite great. Technology is cheap, and it is easy to make and disseminate films. “We can now screen films anywhere. Anything can become a makeshift theatre and a space for collective screenings. People just need to go out and shoot,” says Sawhney. He believes that it won’t be long before streaming platforms too fall prey to organisational structures. “Their main motive is profit; public interest is not at their heart. Documentaries, for them, are not profitable,” he says. “I think what we really need are social media platforms formed in decentralised servers and crowdsourcing of knowledge and information — that is where the future lies, not under the pressure of the State or corporates, but online cooperatives.”
Watch the trailer of Nakul Singh Sawhney's Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai here: