” Kabir turns round, it’s hard to see.
Is the holy place bigger, or the devotee?”
That was one poet who understood the nature of religious mobilisation among the people. Other, related verses of Kabir form the end of a just-made film. They could also be the beginning of common sense on communal issues.
Anand Patwardhan’s In the Name of God (Ram Ke Naam) is an important and telling comment on the rath yatra, on the political cynicism that went into the making of that event, and the communal fallout it produced. This is a film worth seeing, and captures on celluloid what a large chunk of the print media missed.
Remember Oct. 30? ARMY REFUSES TO FIRE! screamed the headline of Janmabhoomi which had in fact brought out a special edition to commemorate the storming of the Ayodhya monument by BJP-VHP-RSS kar sevaks. The toll given in the Nov. 2 firing that followed the second storming attempt was given by the government as nine, while most reporters present, including those from The Times of India, put it at around 16-18. Two Bombay publications, Navakal and Saamna, competed with each other in upping the figure till it crossed the hundred mark (neither had a correspondent present).
Patwardhan’s film captures that mad, irrational frenzy where the most blatant and hypocritical lies passed off as axiomatic truths, where the BJP, in its drive for power, plumbed the depths of political chicanery. This is one time L. K. Advani doesn’t come across as the suave, sophisticated politician we know from the press, but as an extremely cold-blooded operator, totally unmoved by the death and devastation his yatra was causing.
That the film is causing acute discomfort to the khaki knicker brigade in the press is evident from what purports to be a news story on the front page of The Independent of Jan. 30. The item quotes unnamed sources to denounce the film as “Leftist propaganda against the BJP”, etc, etc. It also refers to — again unnamed — filmmakers who feel that Patwardhan’s film “got an easy berth in the festival…”. This is a particularly low form of dishonesty (but perhaps only to be expected from the khakhi knicker brigade). Since when did anyone need anonymous quotes for a comment on a film!? Very clearly, the reporter has expressed his own subjective prejudices (which he is certainly entitled to) and gone on to justify their existence in a news story by attributing them to unnamed sources. That he should then accuse the filmmaker of propaganda caps this irony!
What was the rath yatra if not political propaganda? How could a comment or analysis of it be anything other than political? But let’s leave aside the little minds. Three or four things made the film worthwhile for this viewer. Firstly, the interview with Mahant Laldas, pradhan pujari of the Ram Janam Bhoomi Temple (who presumably knows a thing or two about Hinduism). Laldas who has long been a prime target of the BJP-VHP for refusing to serve their political ends, came across as a sane, clear voice, so free of the hysteria that clouds the writings on the subject of so many in the press.
A second feature that stood out, one of the most moving portions of the film, was the interview with Vishwa Bandhu Gupta, the income-tax officer victimised for doing his duty — being too scrupulous and zealous in following up the tax scams of the VHP. BLITZ readers have seen more than half-a-dozen stories on this subject in this journal in the past three years and are familiar with the issue. The camera dwelling on Gupta’s face as he finished his account, close to tears — an honest, upright officer harassed and victimised for stumbling on to one of the biggest tax rackets of the year — was one of the most powerful moments in this film. Bardhan of the CPI also came across clearly and well, another voice of sanity. And yes — how can I leave that out —- the tiny portion on Chief Minister Laloo Yadav of Bihar was electric. For once, he came across as a seasoned, determined politician, not the loony caricature that urban upper-caste journalists invariably project him as.
In terms of an exposure of the rath yatra and linking it to the cynical manipulation of communal feeling, the film is excellent. It also succeeds in showing the indifference of significant sections of ordinary people to communal appeals: “Everything is expensive except human lives,” says one of those interviewed, drawing his finger across his throat as he speaks.
As the reaction of the reporter in The Independent suggests, it does thoroughly expose the BJP. Patwardhan’s talent for lampoon and for juxtaposition of rhetoric with reality is often at its best here. Many of those marching for “the cause” haven’t a clue about the period of Lord Ram’s birth, though, they’re quite sure about where he was bom. At one point, an activist in saffron describing himself as a law student, is asked which century Ram was born in. “I’m only in the first year at law college” he protests, “maybe they’ll tell about this in the second or third year.”
Not that the film is without shortcomings. The first half wasn’t anywhere as well paced as the second. And Patwar-dhan actually played down the significant and relevant Leftist angle (perhaps anticipating the usual litany of charges) of Mitrasen Yadav, the CPI Member of Parliament from Faizabad (Ayodhya), elected in 1989 despite the frenzy, drawing votes from all sections.(In ’91 the split in the JD vote and the consequent fragmentation saw his narrow defeat). It’s interesting that the people of Ayodhya for so long preferred a godless Communist.
Secondly, there are hundreds of temples in Ayodhya, a very large number of them claiming to be the precise birthplace of Lord Ram. Interviews with their poojaris might have been interesting! Lastly, disturbing questions remain — as perhaps they will at the end ot every article one writes on the subject or every film one makes: What are the mechanics, the dynamics of communal mass mobilisation-that makes the BJP tick? What draws large numbers of people into that current, even allowing for the usual economic factors? What would be this film’s impact on, say, rural audiences?
I don’t believe we really know. But I do know these are difficult questions to answer in a 90-minute film. Besides, this was a very difficult film to make, and while it’s easy to point to the deficiencies, it isn’t easy to say how they could have been overcome. At the end of it, it’s a fine, important film, one everyone worried by the rise of communalism must see.