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On February 20, 2002, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York issued the following response to our numerous requests and petition with over 1000 signatures requesting that the previously canceled screenings of Anand Patwardhan’s films due to “threats of violence” be screenedinside the museum premises, at the earliest with adequete security, publicity and notice to the public:
“We Are Not Your Monkeys and In the Name of God, two films by Anand Patwardhan, will be screened at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 24, at the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Film Center at New York University, Theater 101. The location is 36 East 8th Street at University Place. The films will be followed by a round table discussion.”
We believe that the AMNH’s cowardly decision to reschedule the screening of Patwardhan’s films to a venue outside the museum with little publicity and notice to the public was unacceptable.
Joint Press Release
Friends of South Asia (FOSA)
International South Asian Forum (INSAF)
For Immediate Release
AMERICAN MUSEUM URGED TO SCREEN PATWARDHAN FILMS, UPHOLD FREEDOM OF SPEECH
February 21th, 2002
Several groups in North America, Europe and South Asia, along with an impressive list of over one thousand individuals, have appealed to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York to stand firm on its commitment to screen Anand Patwardhan’s films, and to not cave in to censorship demands made by some groups and individuals in the US claiming to represent Hindu interests.
The American Museum of Natural History had planned to screen two of Patwardhan’s films on February 9th, 2002, to accompany its on-going exhibition on Hinduism, ‘Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion.’ However, some rightwing Hindu groups, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, (World Hindu Organization of America, VHPA) have demanded that the museum cancel the screenings of the films which they claim are ‘anti-Hindu’ and ‘irrelevant to an exhibit on Hinduism.’ Ekta, a San Francisco based organization seeking to bridge the “South Asian community through artistic statement, sociopolitical dialogue, activism, and community building,” launched a counter petition drive in support of the Patwardhan documentaries, urging the museum to screen the films. ‘We believe that religion and politics should remain open to public debate and scrutiny, and that Patwardhan’s films serve a valuable function in fostering that debate and deserve to be screened,’ reads the petition.
However, on January 31st, after Ekta’s petition had been submitted to the museum with a list of 461 signatures, Ms Laurel Kendall of the AMNH informed Ekta that the screenings of Patwardhan’s films at AMNH had been “cancelled, owing to threats of violence.” The next day, Ms Kendall retracted her statement and explained that the “screenings have been postponed owing to capacity issues,” and that films would be screened at a location outside the museum, presumably due to concerns of safety for museum visitors. Paradoxically, a TV version of the Hindu epic ‘Ramayan,’ which by some accounts is the most popular TV serial ever in India, was screened at the museum as scheduled on February 10th, without any similar concerns about ‘capacity.’ On Feb. 21nd, Ms. Melanie Kent of the AMNH confirmed plans to screen the films on February 24th at a venue outside the museum, due to “security concerns”, they are yet to update the information on the museum website.
The films under consideration at the museum are ‘We Are Not Your Monkeys’ and ‘In the Name of God’-two films by India’s most celebrated documentary-maker Anand Patwardhan. ‘We Are Not Your Monkeys’ is a short 5 minute music video based on a song by the late Daya Pawar, a renowned Dalit (‘untouchable’ caste) poet and activist from the western Indian state of Maharashtra. The film offers a critique of the Ramayana, and focuses on the gender and caste oppression implicit in the popular versions of the story.
‘In the Name of God’ is a 1992 film that documents the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India and, according to the museum website, ‘it details the campaign waged in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the militant Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Organization) to destroy the 16th-century Babri Mosque and build a temple to Rama.’ The documentary examines the motivations behind these and other religious fanatics who are intent on causing carnage and destruction, and also highlights attempts by other ordinary Indians, many of whom are Hindu, who struggle to combat religious intolerance and promote communal harmony.
Particularly poignant is the story it tells of Pujari Laldas, the Hindu priest of the contested Ram Janmabhoomi site, who is the voice of reason and tolerance in the documentary as he asserts that the demolition of the mosque was not in the interest of Hindus but was being advocated for political and financial gain. As an epilogue to this documentary, Patwardhan recalls, “Two years later his voice proved prophetic when fanatic mobs succeeded in demolishing the Babri Mosque in December 1992. In the riots that followed across the whole sub-continent, thousands lost their lives.” (After the historical structure was demolished, riding on a wave of Hindu nationalism, the BJP-the Hindu nationalist party-won the state elections.) “Pujari Laldas was removed from his post as head priest of the Ram temple. A year later Pujari Laldas was murdered.”
‘In the Name of God’ is considered a landmark documentary on the topic of religious fundamentalism and went on to win the National Award for the Best Investigative Documentary in India in 1993. The Indian state-owned television channel, Doordarshan, initially refused to screen the documentary, but following a lengthy 6-year legal battle, it was eventually televised at prime time in 1997 by order of the Bombay High Court. Both films, ‘We Are Not Your Monkeys’ and ‘In the Name of God’ have been included in the Human Rights Watch Film Festivals, and have won numerous accolades in film festivals around the world.
The main group opposed to screening the films at the AMNH is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America-whose parent organization in India was the one calling for destruction of the 400 year old mosque, which was finally leveled by Hindu extremists in December 1992 and which led to months of savage communal riots not only in India, but also in the neighboring countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh. “What is surprising in the whole episode is not that the VHP of America is opposed to the screenings, but that a respected national institution like the AMNH, with a century-long history of intellectual independence and excellence, would give in to pressure from reactionary fundamentalists,” said Girish Agrawal of the Friends of South Asia, a Stanford based group which is one of many South Asian groups supporting Ekta’s petition to the museum. Adds Barot of Ekta, “We believe that a prestigious museum such as the AMNH should not succumb to “threats of violence” as that would mean giving in to terrorism and fundamentalism.”
This sentiment is echoed in many of the individual comments written by the signatories to the petition. Susan Susman, a law professor from New York writes, “With democracy so recently threatened by terrorism, we [have] learned that the response must be to celebrate our principles-not to yield.” Suketu Mehta, a writer from Brooklyn comments, “If anticipated ‘threats of violence’ had been accepted as sufficient justification for stifling free expression, the Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech would have been banned.” Professor Steven Wallace from UCLA adds, “Freedom of speech is a hollow right if extremists prevent the showing of films such as these.”
According to Anand Patwardhan, he was completely taken by surprise when he came to know of the controversy over the screening of his films at the AMNH, as he was unaware of the program in the first place. “Only when opponents and later, proponents, began to use the internet did it come to my notice in India that my films had sparked such heated debate in America,” he said in a written statement to the museum. He goes on to say that “it is amusing to note that the Hindu fundamentalists’ chief strategy in challenging the decision to screen my work was to brand me a ‘self-proclaimed leftist.’ Obviously the fundamentalists calculated that a strategy of red baiting would work best with the American Museum of Natural History. Sadly they may well have gloated over the accuracy of their calculations when the AMNH seemed to cave in to pressure as it postponed the original screenings. The fact that these screenings were not cancelled but re-scheduled is of course a redeeming feature but it should not prevent soul searching about why re-scheduling was resorted to in the first place. History teaches us that compromising with fundamentalist forces, no matter what their particular hue, only encourages them to become more extreme.”
The museum’s stated reasons of ‘capacity issues’ and ‘crowd control’ are also without merit, claims Barot. “We believe that the issue should be handled by a simple “first-come, first-serve” basis rather than pushing the venue outside the museum. We believe that the museum’s plans to reschedule the screening of Anand Patwardhan’s films to a venue outside the museum would effectively deter members of the public from viewing the films.” Barot adds that on Feb 21nd, the museum confirmed plans to screen the films on February 24th at a venue outside the museum. He fears that such short notice allows insufficient time for good publicity. Ekta has requested the museum to provide a well publicized and well protected screening of the films inside the museum premises.
Ekta’s petition to the museum has so far accumulated more than a thousand signatures and continues to gather more every day. Among the groups supporting Ekta is Friends of South Asia, a San Francisco Bay Area group that promotes peace in South Asia, DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving), a New York based social justice organization working for the rights of low-income South Asian immigrants, INSAF (International South Asian Forum) with chapters in several cities in North America, South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy (SANSAD) in Vancouver, CERAS (South Asian Research and Resource Center) in Montreal, Progressive South Asian Forum in Chapel Hill, NC and the Ambedkar Mission Society in Bedford, UK. The list of individual signatures is also impressive, including names such as Admiral L. Ramdas, the former Chief of Indian Navy, Mira Nair, the well-known Indo-American film maker whose most recent film ‘Monsoon Wedding’ won the Golden Lion prize at the Venice International Film Festival, Karamatullah K. Ghori, a former Pakistani Ambassador, and over 50 academics from institutions in the US, UK, Canada, India, Italy, the Philippines and South Africa.
Many signatories to the petition highlight the importance of upholding democratic values by encouraging free speech, especially in public institutions such as the AMNH. Himanshu Thakkar, a well-known environmentalist from India writes “It will be a sad day if such anti-democratic attempts [to block film screenings] succeed,” and Raja Harish asks, “Since when do museums decide their programming based on threats from cowards who want to block and trash the very principles that made museums such as yours possible? Such excuses are pathetic, especially for a museum located in New York City (not Kandahar).”
Others speak of the value of screening Patwardhan’s films which are described as thought-provoking, intelligent documentaries encouraging debate, discussion and introspection. Linda Hess, a Stanford based scholar of Hinduism who is currently in India, writes “Patwardhan is a courageous and internationally acclaimed filmmaker whose films have been very valuable to me as an educator. The self-appointed thought police of the right seek to suppress the art and literature that they disapprove of and to control access to information. India stands for democracy. It will be truly against India’s interests and image in the world if such forces succeed in suppressing free speech, academic and artistic expression.” Dr. Joseph Gerson, the Director of Programs for the American Friends Service Committee [The Quakers], New England Regional Office adds, “Anand is among the world’s most important film makers. For the sake of our collective survival and the ability of people to live their lives with freedom and dignity, Anand’s films must be widely shown and easily accessible.”
Yet others remind the museum that the organizations asking for canceling Patwardhan’s films do not voice sentiments representative of all Hindus, or even a majority of Hindus. Writes Melliyal Annamalai, “The view expressed in the forces that postponed/stopped the screening does not represent the view of the Hindus living in the U.S. Nor is it the view of the majority of the Hindus in India. It is a view of just those who subscribe to a sectarian and divisive platform of political Hinduism that is extremist (even fundamentalist) in action and ideology and is intolerant of dissenting voice.”
Petition “PROTECT FREE SPEECH:
SUPPORT FILM SCREENINGS BY ANAND PATWARDHAN”
The screenings of films by noted filmmaker Anand Patwardhan has yet again come under attack by right-wing “Hindu” organizations and individuals based in the US. Most recently, a letter writing campaign has been launched to ban the screening of two of Patwardhan’s films: “In the Name of God” and
“We are not your Monkeys” at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York originally scheduled for Feb. 9, 2002. Among the reasons alleged, protesters claim that Patwardhan’s films are “anti-Hindu” as several of his films are very critical of the right wing “Hindu” movement in India.
“In the Name of God” documents the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India as reflected by the temple/mosque conflict in Ayodhya which led to nation wide carnage in 1992. The film won the National Award for Best Documentary in 1992 given by the President of India and was broadcast nationally at prime time on Doordarshan, the main state controlled television network, after the Bombay High Court ordered its screening in 1997. “We are not your Monkeys” is a music video featuring the song of the late Dalit poet/ activist Daya Pawar, giving a Dalit (“untouchable” caste) perspective to the Ramayana story. The video clip represents a legitimate critique of the epic Ramayana story and the caste and gender oppression implicit in it.
On Jan. 22, 2002, the following petition was initiated to counter the efforts by right-wing “Hindu” organizations and individuals to ban the screening of Patwardhan’s films at the AMNH. On Jan. 31, 2002, Ms. Laurel Kendall from the AMNH informed the sponsor of this petition that the screening of Patwardhan’s films had been “cancelled owing to threats of violence” after this petition was sent to the AMNH with 461 signatures. On Feb. 1, 2002, Ms. Kendall retracted her statement and explained that the “screenings have been posponed owing to capacity issues” and that the films would be screened at a location outside the museum, presumably due to concerns of safety for museum visitors.
The objective of this petition is to request the AMNH to screen Patwardhan’s “We are not your Monkeys” and “In the Name of God” at the AMNH (with police protection if necessary) rather than succumbing to “threats of violence” by right-wing “Hindu” organizations and individuals based in the US. This petition, however, will continue to be re-used whenever the screenings of films by Patwardhan come under attack by those who seek to curb free speech and prevent public debate regarding the issues raised by Patwardhan’s films in the future.