By Saeed Mirza
Friends, I sit before you because I believe we are living in a time where not to speak out would not just be mistake but a crime.
When the students of the FTII rose up in revolt against the ad-hoc and arrogant imposition of the Governing Council members of their institute by the Government of India little did they realize that the cause for which they were fighting would turn out to be so much larger: Joining them were a host of eminent writers, scholars, historians, painters, film-makers, musicians, theatre personalities, scientists, professionals and even industrialists who joined in the struggle to reclaim the soul and spirit of this land. The battle that the students had begun went beyond the manipulation of education to include intolerance, divisiveness and hate.
I would like to inform you that I am not an academic. I am a film-maker, television producer, writer, traveler and, hopefully, a thinker. Let me also inform you that this note of mine is written to open up a rigorous debate if we have to understand the nature of our country and where it is heading.
To understand what I am getting at, I have to go a little further back in our country’s history. We have to go back to the time when India became a Constitutional Republic. It was the time when our leaders defined the nation to the people of India and to the world. We were sovereign, secular and democratic.
Here was a country that was primarily feudal, caste-ridden, that was born out of incredible communal slaughter and the largest mass migration of peoples in history and yet had the courage to look into the future with a sense of purpose and, most importantly, a sense of poetry. It guaranteed freedom of expression, religion and equality and justice for all before the law of the land.
Left behind in the shadows were forces, though small in number yet potent in influence, that were vehemently opposed to this ideal. They had a different agenda and a far simpler notion of what our country was all about: they had little faith in democracy and far less in freedom of expression, religion and equality before the law.
And today we are well aware of what is happening in our country. How did all of this come to pass? There is a history to it
Let me now begin with the role of the Congress Party which was in power in most of the country up to the mid 1970’s. What amazed me was the number of communal and caste riots that had occurred in state after state under its watch. Here was a party that professed to be secular and progressive and yet in Maharashtra, Gujarat, U.P., Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan regional party bosses were either helpless or colluded with communal forces in regular pogroms. If one calculates the numbers of people killed and the destruction of property it would shame any country in the world. And yet, no person or group was held accountable for these atrocities. This would have enormous consequences in the future.
There was one movement however, that really set me thinking. It was the beginnings of a political formation that started out in the city of Mumbai. It was the birth of the Shiv Sena. Everyone knows that this movement had the blessings of the political warlords in the state of Maharashtra and also the blessings of a number of Industrialists. Mumbai, the nation’s financial and entertainment capital was held to ransom for two decades by an organization that dealt with issues by turning the streets of the city into a battleground. And, by and large, in this violent journey of theirs, the political parties in power and the law enforcing agencies looked the other way. What message did all of this send?
These were the early stages when the idea of India as envisioned by our early leaders began to be dismantled. What would follow would be an onslaught on those ideals and yet nobody seemed to notice.
From the 1980’s onwards that we graphically see how those broad ideals of the Constitution were being attacked. At one level we saw the Naxalite movement grow in Chhatisgarh, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, southern Bihar and Jharkhand to which the poor and marginalized had rallied because they had nowhere else to turn. The movement still exists. In the north-east of the country we saw insurrections in Manipur, Nagaland and Mizoram. Though there is calm in the areas now, one has only to go below the surface to experience the sullen anger.
A large-scale and violent farmers’ agitation began in western Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan demanding subsidies and economic relief. The state of Assam was in turmoil with a movement that railed against ‘outsiders.’ This movement manifested its anger in one of the most savage acts of brutality in which more than fifteen hundred old men, women and children where bludgeoned to death outside a village called Nellie.
In Punjab a violent militant movement began that demanded a separate state for the Sikhs. The agitation and militancy was brought under control with the army storming the Golden Temple where hundreds of people died. The final act of this militancy unfortunately ended with the murder of a Prime Minister and then slaughter of more than three thousand innocent Sikhs in gruesome acts of revenge in Delhi and other parts of the country. Once again no one held responsible.
Thanks to a botched and rigged election, militants in Kashmir, aided by Pakistan, launched a protracted armed revolt. As the slogans of the militants got shriller and more communal, hundreds of Hindus were targeted and killed and the mass migration of Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir valley occurred. The people left behind were caught in the maelstrom of turmoil and retribution and thousands upon thousands have died.
Adding to the unrest across North India was the release of the Mandal Commision Report. By the late 1980’s a large part of India was in an economic and social turmoil. It was now that Bhartiya Janata Party seized a political opportunity. Till then it had been on the periphery of mainstream politics. It was considered a bit player with a communal agenda. And so the BJP began whipping up a frenzied demand for the destruction of a medieval mosque saying that it was built on the ruins of a sacred temple. The movement struck a chord, specifically with large sections of middle and upper middle classes in North and Western India, because the idea was perceived as a unifying move amidst a sea of turmoil. And, the mosque became the symbol of the ‘other’ and the removal of it would be the launching pad for a proud and resurgent India.
After the demolition, events culminated in the horrendous communal riots of 1993 in Mumbai, where more than a thousand five hundred people died, hundreds of homes and livelihoods were destroyed. Then followed a series of horrific bomb blasts set off by a Muslim warlord in which hundreds of innocent people died and hundreds more were injured. In a strange and macabre way, these two events faithfully served a purpose: they shocked the nation and polarized it. By the end of the last century the BJP rose from a party of almost nothing to a party of plenty. It had stepped out from the cold and into political legitimacy.
There was much more happening at the academic and cultural level. We witnessed a series of attacks on seminars, art exhibitions, plays and libraries. Artists, musicians, theatre personalities and scholars were forced to retreat. Unheard of organizations suddenly appeared on the horizon to terrorize and instill fear in the minds of ordinary citizens. They were telling us what to wear, what to eat and even what to think. The Gujarat pogrom and slaughter was the final assertion of the new political and philosophical equation.
How far had we, as a nation, travelled away from the ideals of the Constitution? And this is where we are today. The forces that lay in the shadows at the time of our independence have emerged into the sunlight. They are in power both at the overt and covert levels. Will my handing over a National Award change things around? Frankly I don’t know. All I know is I have to raise my voice against this state of affairs.
Saeed Mirza is an eminent film maker. He won National Awards for Mohan Joshi Hazar Ho, 1984; Naseem, 1996. He also served as the Chairman of Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune.