The truth that will not die

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“En Dino Muzaffarnagar by Shubhradeep Chakravorty and Meera Chaudhary is going to be recorded in history as the first documentary film banned under Prime Minister Modi. Gagging order came on 30th June. Today we applied in Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) for redressal of our grievances. We will not go down without a fight.”

These are the last words posted on Facebook by Shubhradeep Chakravorty, one of the bravest of India’s documentary filmmakers. Shubhradeep passed away from a brain hemorrhage on August 25 after enduring the numbing CBFC bureaucracy and the pain of cynical rejection, perhaps becoming the first human casualty of India’s rotten censorship regime.

I first met Shubhradeep in 2002 after he had made his debut film, Godhra Tak. He had been a journalist but the horror of Gujarat turned him into a filmmaker. He focused on the train-burning incident that led to the deaths of 59 Hindu passengers. The government of Gujarat had allowed the public display of the charred bodies and when pogroms against Muslims began, had looked the other way. Word spread that Muslims had poured petrol into the train and set it on fire. Godhra Tak looked at forensic evidence that questioned this theory as well as the systematic demonization of Muslims. With BJP led governments inGujarat and the Centre proclaiming that “Islamic terror” was breeding in Gujarat, several strange incidents followed. That year “Muslims terrorists” attacked the Akshardham Temple with firearms, killing 33. Two attackers were killed and 6 arrested of which 3 were sentenced to death. In May 2014 the Supreme Court of India acquitted all six and pulled up the Gujarat police for shoddy investigation.

A series of encounter killings followed in Gujarat. Shubhradeep’s next film Encountered on a Saffron Agenda looked at 4 separate incidents of “encounters”, the most infamous being those of Ishrat Jehan and others in 2004, and Sohrabuddin and others in 2005. In every case the authorities claimed that the dead “Muslim terrorists” were on a mission to kill Narendra Modi. Shubhradeep’s brilliant investigation exposed in meticulous detail how each “encounter” was a cold-blooded murder. Today the courts have put a big question mark on many of these encounters and several perpetrators have been jailed for varying periods of time including top police officers like D.G. Vanzara, and Modi’s right hand man, Amit Shah. In the wake of Modi’s elevation to the centre, even as encounter-accused begin to walk free, few doubt that fake encounters occurred.

Following screenings in Jaipur and Bhopal, Shubhradeep was physically attacked, narrowly escaping serious injury. Fellow organizers of the screenings were not so lucky. But Shubhradeep’s courage and determination never waned. In 2012 he made two important films, Out of Court Settlement about the ordeal of human rights defenders like the martyred lawyer Shahid Azmi and After the Storm about youths who had been acquitted from terror charges but still faced trauma and stigma.

In April 2014 we invited Shubhradeep to Vikalp@Prithvi in Mumbai to screen his work-in-progress, En Dino Muzzaffarnagar. Newly married, he was accompanied by his partner and co-director, Meera Chaudhary. They were like teenagers in love and it was infectious. In the Q and A after the film Shubhradeep attributed all the moments when the camera was in the right place at the right time, to Meera. “Whenever she is there something happens. She is my lucky charm” he beamed.

The film itself was a departure from his earlier work. Always compelling in content, his films tended to be utilitarian in form, which endeared them to me, but perhaps not to those who seek “art”. In this film great care had been taken with camera and sound. The film was complex and showed not just the perpetrators of atrocities but also ordinary individuals from warring communities who had resisted the communal urge. Jat and Muslim farmers had historically worked together in unions and the region enjoyed communal harmony even in times of national strife. Shubhradeep’s partner Meera is a Jat from Muzzaffarnagar which gave her great access and insight. Above all, the film dissected the story of how a riot can be created from scratch and how peaceful neighbours can become mortal enemies once a Machiavellian force begins its handiwork.

As we watched the film at the end of April 2014, we knew that getting it to the masses was going to be hard. Elections were underway and the writing was on the wall. The very word “secularism” was already under attack, both in the electronic and print media.

Whoever rules India India, censorship is always hard. At times it gets harder. In 2002, under NDA, our anti-nuclear War and Peace was denied a CBFC certificate till we won a court case a year later. The very first cut demanded was: “Delete the visuals of Gandhiji being shot by Nathuram Godse”
. Even for someone expecting the worst, this came as a shock. History books at the time were being rewritten to say that Gandhi was killed by a “mad-man”. The Censor Guideline 2(xii) used to justify the cut was ”visuals or words contemptuous of racial, religious or other groups are not presented”.

If one peruses the CBFC order denying En Dino Muzzaffarnagar a certificate, it uses the same clause to dismiss the film. The appeal to the Appellate Tribunal was also summarily rejected. The order states: “It (the film) is highly critical of one political party (BJP) and its top leadership by name and tends to give an impression of the said party’s involvement in communal disturbances.”

They may as well have issued an outright ban on all investigative journalism that does not provide a “clean chit” to the party in power.

These are dark days Shubhradeep, but times will change. Some day this nation will remember who its real heroes were – those who fought, not for their own narrow caste or creed, but for a truth and humanity that will never die.

Anand Patwardhan

3 Sept. 2014