"if you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen
the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu.

Anand Patwardhan : Gallant Defender of Secularism Featured

Riya Talitha 

On October 6, 2019 in an auditorium at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, a crowd of roughly 40 people gathered for four hours to watch the screening of Reason -an eight-part documentary - about the current political climate of India. This mammoth project took renowned filmmaker Anand Patwardhan almost four years to complete it.  

It may have been a small crowd, but they were expressive - gasping, flinching, laughing and during the post-movie hour-long discussion, asking incisive questions to Patwardhan, who had made the trip all the way from Mumbai, India where he is based, while it was also screened next day at Toronto International Film Festival.

Patwardhan, a member of the Oscar Academy, and an alumnus of McGill University, has an intimidating number of films under his belt - nearly all of which have faced censorship from the Indian government, and have been the nexus of controversy and even violence in many cases.

The most recent example being the protests at Jadavpur University, that were most likely kickstarted when students of the Department of film studies screened Ram ke Naam (trans. In the Name of God; an explosively truthful account of the demolition of the Babri Masjid). 

India is often proclaimed to be the “largest democracy in the world”, but for the past few years has been undergoing an undeniably tumultuous shift in its political and public spheres - some would argue for the worse. 

Ever since the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party) came into power in 2014, there has been an increase in mob lynching of Muslims, Christians and other religious minorities, as well those of lower-caste communities (https://www.dotodatabase.com/?fbclid=IwAR30jEUY52_ZFi_EgJVyZa3dnN7J448Fcjmzf40TngpTuYejbiqNbm7UCT0).

This is what Reason attempts to showcase, and through a barrage of news headlines from papers big and small, heart-rending interviews of the families of victims of communal and casteist violence, and penetrating questions posed by Patwardhan to ideologues of various shades, it largely succeeds in putting together a coherent narrative that attempts to explain what many see as the chaotic state of Indian politics right now.

There has been an unprecedented surge of popular support for right-wing and capitalist policies that is strikingly similar to the rise of political right in many places around the world. 

According to Patwardhan, in an interview with The Ubyssey, "India is not a full-blown fascist state, but it's going towards that direction". 

Patwardhan hails from a family of Indian freedom fighters but his political awakening took place far from home. 

“I went to jail in America before I went to jail anywhere else, fighting the Vietnam War” said Patwardhan of his anti-war efforts as a student at Brandeis University in Boston. After completing an MA in Communication Studies at McGill, he went back to an India in the throes of the Emergency - a 21-month period from 1974 to 1975, of intense censorship, political repression, and curtailment of democracy. His 1975 documentary about this period Waves of Revolution was made in secret, smuggled abroad to raise awareness and sound the alarm internationally, and within India was screened at underground gatherings.

“People accuse me of being pro-Congress, but I spent most of my life fighting the Congress” says Patwardhan ruefully. 

The Congress is India’s centre-left party, akin to the Liberal Party of Canada, that spearheaded the Independence struggle, but it was under a Congress Prime Minister that the Emergency was declared. 

Now in India, the party whose structure and ideology that Patwardhan is focusing on in his work is the BJP and its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

According to Patwardhan, the RSS and its various affiliated organisations have either engineered or been the prime instigators of most instances of communalist violence in modern India. Graphic shots of the burnt and mutilated bodies of Muslim and Dalit victims of these groups are depicted throughout Reason. 

The RSS is a right-wing paramilitary Hindu-nationalist organisation that has been banned thrice in India, and whose top leadership has openly admitted to admiring and following Hitler’s ideologies and methods. 

The RSS heads multiple organisations collectively known as the Sangh Parivar. One of these, the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, aims to organise and mobilize Hindus living abroad, ostensibly to collects funds for charity or social work operations both in India and abroad. HSS chapters or Vibhags also tend to function as centres of cultural and religious education and community. 

In British Columbia, there is a HSS B.C Vibhag (https://www.facebook.com/HSSBC/) that has in fact, hosted several semi-religious events with the Lakshmi Narayan Mandir or temple, in Surrey. 

In fact, just this last year, Saumitra Gokhale, the global coordinator of the HSS and a former RSS pracharak was invited to be the speaker at an event titled “Know HSS.”

Patwardhan said “I've also lived in North America for a while when I was a student...and I know for sure that a lot of the damage is done by the NRIs (Non Resident Indians)...the Hindutva NRIs have sent money and stuff for militancy and for their own organizations like the RSS into India” (https://www.ofbjp.org/).

‘Hindutva’ is the term for describing the Hindu-nationalist ideology espoused by the Sangh Parivar and has a long history of being compared to nazism and fascism, in academia and media, both in India and abroad.

Although many might disagree with Patwardhan’s political opinions, his commitment and bravery are undeniable. 

Reason has many nerve-wracking scenes of him walking into violent situations and asking questions - police stations in dangerous areas, mobs yelling Islamaphobic slogans on streets, neighbourhoods under curfew - all for the sake of the documentary. 

“I do nothing to protect myself and so far, I haven't been beaten up” he said in response to an audience member inquiring about the risks he takes. 

“…if something happens to me I'm sure my films will be seen a lot more” said Patwardhan with a smile.

Riya Talitha is from New Delhi and is a political science major at University of British Columbia. 

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