August 05, 2015

India: Thuggery on riot film backfires

The Telegraph - August 5 , 2015

Thuggery on riot film backfires
Sumi Sukanya

Nakul Singh Sawhney.
Picture by Yasir Iqbal

New Delhi, Aug. 4: A documentary on the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013 has emerged as a symbol for freedom of expression for university students in several parts of the country after it was stopped midway from being screened at Delhi University last week.

Students at Jawaharlal Nehru University in the capital and Hyderabad's Central University today held what they called "protest screenings" of the documentary Muzaffarnagar Baaqui Hai (English title: Muzaffarnagar Eventually) by Nakul Singh Sawhney.

Activists of the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student outfit of the RSS, had barged into Kirori Mal College on the Delhi University campus on August 1 while the film was being screened and forced the organisers to stop it.

Sawhney, an alumnus who was present at the screening, was threatened and heckled, along with some teachers and students.

"What happened at the DU college was dangerous. Any voice that goes against the line of the BJP-RSS ideology is being thwarted but we are not going to get scared," said Ishaan Anand, a postgraduate student at JNU who is among those who arranged the screening of the film in JNU today. "This is in solidarity with the culture of dissent and tolerance that has been the strength of Indian society so far."

Many other educational institutions, including several colleges under Delhi University and IIT Chennai, plan to hold "protest screenings" in the coming weeks.

Students in universities in Mumbai, Chennai, Assam and Calcutta are also preparing to screen the film in the coming weeks, said Sawhney, the filmmaker.

Sawhney, who made the film between September 2013 and February 2015 after research in western Uttar Pradesh and interviewing over 200 people, said the Kirori Mal College incident was disturbing but the support that has poured in after that has been "heartening".

"All I've done through the film is to try and probe the truth behind the incidents. But what happened in the DU college is appalling and frightening," said Sawhney, who has done a course in direction from the Pune-based Film and Television Institute of India.

His film has been privately screened in a few towns over the past three months.

The clashes in Muzaffarnagar in August-September 2013 had killed at least 62 people, injured 93 and displaced more than 50,000.

Sawhney, who had earlier documented the plight of women in male-dominated societies in Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh through his film Izzatnagar ki Asabhya Betiyaan (The immoral daughters in the land of honour), is now set to release his new film online.

"I can understand that people who watch my film can have an opinion about it, but how can a group of people prevent other willing audiences from watching it? And those who resist are branded as anti-national," he said.

Sheshank Kumar, a student at the Hyderabad Central University said that the decision to screen Sawhney's film was taken to show that a "select few" cannot dictate "what is national or anti-national".

"In a democracy, different views, different ideas and ideologies co-exist and one ideology or viewpoint cannot thwart all other notions. That would mean curbing freedom of expression," he said.

However, An ABVP activist and member of the Delhi University Students' Union, said: "The content of the film is objectionable as it implicates one community. Screening such films at educational institutions is anti-national and unacceptable."

The activist, who did not wish to be named, said he had not watched the film yet.