Violence frame by frame
By Taran N Khan
1 June 2015
A new documentary looks at the build-up to the Muzaffarnagar riots and the aftermath.
A house with beautiful doors appears as a recurrent motif in the documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai (Muzaffarnagar Eventually…) directed by Nakul Singh Sawhney. Early in the film, an old woman in a relief camp speaks of this house, destroyed in the riots. “My home is a mansion with 52 doorways,” she says. “They broke all the doorways, all the beds, set the arches on fire… Alas, my doors,” she laments. Despite other, more valuable losses, like that of her daughters’ jewellery, it is the doors that she weeps for. We see the remains of her home when Sawhney visits her village. A few arches still stand, framing rubble from shattered walls, the debris left from the near-complete destruction of the haveli. In the next sequence, we see the family watching this footage in the relief camp where they now live, squeezed under tarpaulin sheets. One of the men asks a child gazing at the images, “Whose home is this?” “Ours”, the boy replies, his eyes glued to the laptop screen.
Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai may well become the film we consider as the document that captured the phase of expansion of both the BJP and its project to transform India.
Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai is a film made of hard-hitting facts, but moments of reflection like these anchor the narrative, putting the events in terms of human cost – in the many shades of meaning that expressions cover. In its scope and meticulous detail, the film is an important document of Muzaffarnagar’s descent into communal vitiation. Through testimonies and sourced footage, it traces the murky path beaten to the national polls on the back of the hardening of the communal equations by different political parties. Of these, the largest gains went to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The sprawling and densely populated state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) sends 80 members to India’s lower house of Parliament, the Lok Sabha. In the 2009 general elections, the BJP managed to win only 10 of these seats. In the 2014 polls, however, this shot up to 71. In the years to come, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai may well become the film we consider as the document that captured this phase of expansion of both the BJP and its project to transform India.
Sawhney, a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, has worked on documenting a range of social struggles in the past. His 2012 documentary, Izzatnagari ki Asabhya Betiyan (Immoral Daughters), is an incisive look at khap panchayats (caste-based councils) in Haryana, and at the women who are resisting their diktats. He also produced videos on the Maruti Suzuki workers struggle in Manesar. Sawhney travelled to Muzaffarnagar in September 2013, soon after the area broke into widespread violence. He ended up returning repeatedly, shooting over the months leading up to the general elections in April 2014. The 136-minute film covers this crucial period. It is no coincidence that it begins with the words of revolutionary Hindi poet Gorakh Pandey, “Iss baar danga bohot bada tha/ khoob hui thee khoon ki baarish/ agle saal acchi hogi fasal matdaan ki… This year the riot was very big/ There were heavy rains of blood/ Next year the harvest of votes will be abundant.”
Bookended by these lines, the film moves through three parts that broadly look at the riots, the equations between Jats, Muslims and Dalits, and the pockets of resistance to the cynical game of communal polarisation. The sugarcane fields and the sugar factories form another motif in the film. The lucrative cash crop created relative prosperity in the region, and tied communities together in links of mutual dependence. These are shown to be unravelling after the riots. The severe north-Indian winter is also a character in this film – seeping into the fragile tents of the refugee camps, framing the slow-moving bullock carts laden with sugarcane, and both obscuring and revealing the complex landscape of the region.
The early parts of the film dwell on the build-up to the riots, and the violence between Hindu Jats and Muslims that emerges from small, seemingly sporadic incidents. In June 2013, a Dalit woman in Shamli district was allegedly gang raped by members of the minority community. And in August came the deaths of two Hindus and one Muslim man over an alleged incident of ‘eve-teasing’. This incident is usually referred to as the flashpoint that sparked the riots. Yet community members have repeatedly talked of a sustained effort to build up tensions over several months. The violence, when it came, was marked by a ferocity unusual even in UP, a state with a history of communal conflagrations.
The film uses sourced footage to track the escalation of violence that followed, from a mahapanchayat called to protest the killing of the Jat boys, to the violent reprisals in early September. The wave of violence left around 100 people dead and between 50,000 to 80,000 displaced. The majority of these victims were Muslims, with the exception of a few Dalit families who fled their homes in Muslim-majority areas, fearing retaliatory violence. In the film we see several villagers speak of how their areas had remained peaceful during earlier flashpoints, like after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in nearby Ayodhya in 1992. This time, they all say, was different.
These testimonies are punctuated by footage of politicians riding the communal divide for electoral gain. In one revealing section, the BJP’s campaign in-charge Amit Shah (and former Gujarat Minister of State for Home) addresses the crowd in what was billed as a ‘private meeting’ with the Jat community. The event bristled with anti-Muslim rhetoric as well as demands to withdraw cases against riot-accused Jat ‘boys’. When he takes the podium, Shah declares that the election in the region is “an election of honour and revenge”. The bluster and exuberance of these rallies contrasts with the eerie silences and squalor of the relief camps, where the film returns time and again.
For the most part, survivors in these camps speak with a chilling resignation. One such interview is with a woman who lived in the village of Lissad – one of the worst affected by the violence – in Shamli district. She enumerated the dead of her family, who were killed as they fled. “My mother-in-law, my brother-in-law, also our horse… They slit the horse’s stomach open. They chopped my brother-in-law up. Then they threw my mother-in-law on him and set them alight,” she says, all the while continuing to cook her meal. Besides stories of such horrific trauma, there is an edge of heartbreak to the survivors who are forced to abandon lands and homes they had occupied for generations. In one sequence, a man stands next to a truck loaded with all his luggage. He has decided to leave his village for the anonymity of the city. When he went back to his village to pack up his home, he said, “nobody asked me to stay, nobody asked me to leave.”
The scarred emotional landscape of the riot survivors emerges clearly in the film. Many of the villages with mixed populations remained empty over a year after the riots, as families were too frightened to return home. In one of the most moving sequences of the film, a young man named Pravin Baliyan drives Sawhney through what used to be the Muslim area of his village. His chatter is a testimony to the lived intimacy between the communities. He remembers going to the mosque as a child on Thursday nights, accompanied by his sister, to give a symbolic donation of a char anna (25 paisa). He speaks of his friend Ghaffar who picked him up in an old car from the railway station, and of the Muslim mason who was less skilled but who gave easy credit to farmers. At the end of the drive, Sawhney asks Baliyan if he feels his neighbours will be able to return. “I am trying my best, but if things stay this way, they won’t be able to come home,” he replies.
Besides mapping such shifts, the film illuminates another important aspect of communal violence in India, as scores of documentaries have done earlier – the absence of redress and accountability. In Lissad, a group of Hindu men tell the camera that “no-one was killed in our village.” When Sawhney visits a mosque that had been attacked, the men with him speculate that maybe it was desecrated by Muslims themselves, as a ploy to gain government compensation. At each of the sites the film visits, there is a palpable sense that the guilty will get away with their crimes, yet again. One sequence shot at a relief camp captures the outburst of anger and frustration targeted at a group of police officers who had come to ‘investigate’ the riots. “You come after weeks to take our statements,” shouts one man in impotent rage. “Take our statements later, go catch the criminals first.” Such moments in the film are further proof – if it were needed – of the history of impunity in India, where the state apparatus abuse power and the vulnerable are left undefended. The recent acquittal of all 16 police personnel accused in the massacre of over 40 Muslim men in Hashimpura in 1987 is another stark reminder of the fact that for those on the margins, justice is an expensive and rare commodity.
The film illuminates another important aspect of communal violence in India, as scores of documentaries have done earlier – the absence of redress and accountability.
While Sawhney’s film is critical of the BJP and its role in vitiating the communal equation, it does not spare the ruling Samajwadi Party (SP). During the riots and in the aftermath, the government’s responses had met with outrage. At least 60 people died in the relief camps due to cold and hunger, many of them young children. In a relief camp in Shamli, Sawhney follows a young man to the tiny grave of his 40-day-old infant daughter, who died of cold. “She was a happy child,” he says, showing grainy videos of a tiny baby on his mobile phone. Faced with scrutiny, the administration responded by bulldozing the relief camps. Figures from other parties also come under scrutiny in the film, as they responded to the riots with an eye on electoral configurations. Like Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, who told the audience at an election rally in Indore that while “vested political interests” were responsible for the Muzaffarnagar riots, Pakistan’s intelligence agency (ISI) was trying to contact the disgruntled victims. Sawhney speaks to one such victim, standing by a fire at his relief camp. “If we are ISI agents, then where do we go from here?” he asks the camera, in a voice heavy with emotion. “We have been uprooted from our homes… Our only mistake is that we didn’t kill [their] people.”
Analysing the political machinery of violence forms a large part of the film’s narrative, but this is not limited to party machinations. Sawhney is no stranger to the links that exist between communal/caste violence and patriarchy, which were explored in his earlier film Izzatnagari ki Asabhya Betiyan. Much of the power of Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai too comes from the voices of women, talking of how the rationale for riots often rests on patriarchal tropes. In dimly lit rooms and on roofs bright with winter sunshine and absent of men, they speak freely of the izzat ki tokri, or burden of honour, that is forced on them. In their view at least, religion is irrelevant. All men have a licence to molest, and to create a fuss about ‘their’ women being molested. There is also a comic yet chilling interview with the secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Muzaffarnagar. Referring to the notorious idea of ‘love jihad’, he speaks of Hindu girls being bribed or seduced into intimacy by Muslim men with ambiguous “names like Neetu, Tinu, Moti”. He argues that the laws that allow interfaith and intercaste marriage need to be changed, as “a child will be happy in his own community.” The predictable reaction to this pattern, says one of the young women Sawhney interviews, is that “Hindu girls were made to stay home by their families, and Muslim girls by theirs.”
Sawhney also visits the homes of Muslims who have been forced to the margins by the communal polarisation. Like Shandar Ghufran, an activist and educator who speaks of his loneliness among the people he grew up with. In a charming sequence, his mother flips through a photo album of pictures of her youth, where she is seen posing with guns, and affectionately hugging her husband. One wishes for more of her in the film. Another character who emerges as being similarly isolated is Vikrant Barman, a campaigner for the pro-Dalit Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Initially convinced that the riots signal a new moment in Dalit-Muslim solidarity, he is left perplexed when his party does not raise the issue, with an eye on electoral calculations.
Finally, the film considers the link between the riots and the economy of the region through the voices of Hindu and Muslim sugarcane farmers who are unable to negotiate good terms for their crops in the absence of their once well-established unity. If there are heroes in this film (besides the survivors), they are from groups like the Naujavan Bharat Sabha, whose banners bear pictures of the revolutionary Bhagat Singh. The camera tracks them on their rounds through the villages and city of Muzaffarnagar, distributing pamphlets, hosting meetings and attempting to counter the vicious atmosphere of divisiveness, preaching unity before the winds of hate. The last sequence of Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai shows them carrying torches through the night – one of the few moments of romantic hope in the film, and a fragile one at that.
An absorbing film
For the most part, the film holds the viewer’s attention through the voices it manages to channel and the compelling characters it gathers. But the sheer number of these voices and the many themes they touch on is daunting. This is a film that demands attention, and also benefits from some familiarity with the region. Often characters flit by too briefly to make an impact, and some of the ideas seem to be repeated, or emphasised more than necessary.
Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai follows the stylistic devices established by earlier films on communal violence. Parts of the structure echo Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution, on the 2002 pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat. It also recalls Anand Patwardhan’s poetic and brutal In the Name of Ram, about the communal violence that occurred in the wake of the BJP’s Rath Yatra through the early 1990s. Muzaffarnagar today evokes aspects of that past, especially for the generation that grew up during those years of sectarian frenzy. Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai makes it clear that we are at another such critical moment in history. What lies ahead, what is baaqi, may well be a story to be inferred from the games played by the children who survived the riots of 2013 – drawing pictures of their ruined homes, lying in shallow pits, playing dead.
~ Taran N Khan is a journalist and writer based in Mumbai.