The battle for democracy and the necessity of Reason/Vivek: resistance, memory, and song of hope

by Jyotsna Kapur

Lately, not a day goes by when one does not hear of one brutal attack after another in India on unarmed people. Muslims and Dalits, including children, have been lynched in broad daylight. People are beaten up for Facebook posts, academics fired or publicly humiliated for criticizing Modi or his government, and four public intellectuals have been assassinated in four years. Videos and photographs of these are circulated on social media; technology is used to dismantle civilization—tearing apart the body, dignity, and personhood of another by mobs in the most primitive of ways—with sticks, stones, and bare hands. With the general elections just concluded and Modi’s re-election secured, the violence has further escalated.  As I write this, it has been a month since the state of Kashmir has been under lockdown; its special status, guaranteed by the constitution, revoked by the Central Government.  In the North-East state of Assam, two million people have been declared “stateless.”

In the midst of this unrelenting barrage of shock and awe, Anand Patwardhan’s epic eight-part documentary series Reason/Vivek (2018) comes as a steadying anchor that clears the head and builds courage. It is documentary cinema at its most powerful, offering history and analysis as a source of hope. Where these daily attacks and their images hit us in the gut, making reality itself seem cinematic, Reason/Vivek uses cinema to gather these violent fragments to reveal underlying historical patterns. Reason/Vivek pulls us out of the paralyzing moment of torture to show that while it may seem eternal, it is not—there is a before and after it. It is out of history—both of the persistence of Hindutva ideology and its repeated defeats by democratic and secular forces—that Patwardhan pulls out the hope that dark as this time may be, it will be if, we pull together, short lived.

Towards the middle of the series, Anand Patwardhan interviews a resident of Una, Gujarat, where four young Dalit men were just a month ago tied to a van and beaten in full public view, supposedly following a rumor that they had skinned a cow live. Patwardhan asks a bystander,

“Was the beating not a crime?”

The answer he gets is chilling. Without a modicum of empathy for the victims, shame or even embarrassment, the man replies:

“It was an ordinary beating. Just an ordinary beating. An ordinary beating.”

The repetitive insistence of these lines is evidence of the slide into a totalitarian mindset. It is a shift that the film not only records and reveals, but resists with everything that it can muster, including the filmmakers’ bodies. The camera, in the hands of Patwardhan and Simantini Dhuru brings us face-to-face with the poisonous mixture of rage, servile conformity, cunning cowardice, and fascination for spectacle that characterizes the culmination of the Hindutva forces under the current BJP-led government with Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister.

At one point, Patwardhan stands filming among the audience at a panel discussion where one of the panelists, a lawyer, declares that the police should have broken the bones of Anand Patwardhan and the likes of him for disrupting social order. Patiently raising his hand, when given the chance to speak, Patwardhan replies:

“I am standing here. Take whatever action you want to.”

The calm conviction with which Patwardhan speaks these words runs through the entire film.

The film draws it calm determination from the awareness of its own place in an unfolding history. Absolutely clear on its own political position, the film also compels the viewer to judge and take sides. Moreover, Patwardhan narrates this history not with one or two protagonists, but by tracing the complex and conflicting interconnections between individuals, events, and larger historical patterns. He takes us into the lives and homes of those who resist, bringing us in touch with their everyday courage, humanity, and dignity. The film rallies and analyzes, but it also stops to mourn and listen to dreams of another future.

One of the threads that tie the film together is the assassination of four intellectuals who have challenged the ideology of the Sangh Parivar, i.e., fundamentalists groups aligned around the idea of India as a Hindu nation.[1] [open endnotes in new window] These assassinations occurred over the period of the film’s making and the film places itself firmly in their path, carrying on their life’s work into the future. We are introduced to Narendra Achyut Dabholkar, Gobind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh. Dabholkar, a doctor and activist, led a life-long battle against superstition as a leader in the Anti-Blind Faith Committee. He was assassinated on August 20, 2013, while on his morning walk in Pune, Maharashtra. Pansare was a lawyer, historian, and socialist, who was shot and killed in Kolhapur, Maharashtra, while on a walk with his wife, on February 20, 2015. Pansare had organized against caste and communal violence by stressing the socialist roots of India’s anti-colonial movement and the secularism of working class, peasant culture. Kalburgi was a renowned professor of literature and former Vice Chancellor of Kannada University, Hampi. His research on the 12th century saint Basava, showed the saint to be critical of Brahmanical dominance, hypocrisy and superstition. He was shot at point blank range in his home on August 30, 2015. Gauri Lankesh was a journalist who ran a weekly and was an outspoken critic of the growing Hindu right-wing extremism. She was shot seven times outside her home on September 5, 2017. In all four instances, the assassins had arrived and escaped on motorcycles.

The film opens on a dark screen with the sound of a motorcycle revving up. Soon, the darkness is pierced by the front lights of a motorcycle as it approaches the front of the screen. This cuts abruptly to Dabholkar explaining to a large audience the elements of a scientific temperament and how it is a founding principle of the Indian Constitution. He is abruptly cut off with the loud sounds of shots and the titles on the screen tell us of Dabholkar’s assassination.

We hear the motorcycle rev up again as Pansare asks the crowd gathered at Dhabolkar’s memorial. He asks,

"Who will carry on Dhabolkar’s work?”

They reply,

“We will! We will.”

This time we find ourselves behind the motorcycle. But now we know already where it will end. Five gunshots ring out and we get archival News footage announcing the assassination of Gobind Pansare.

The gunshots also act as a bridge to another murder in public memory—to the shots that had riddled M.K. Gandhi’s body on January 30, 1948. While Pansare says as much, the film will trace again and again with ever deepening analysis, that the killers of Dabholkar and Pansare are descendants of the same ideology that had killed Gandhi. Patwardhan will repeatedly challenge the self-presentation of the Hindutva brigades as the true nationalists, showing their version of the nation as deeply authoritarian, casteist and patriarchal.

The recurrent motif of the motorcycle and gunshots is one of the many poetic ways in which Patwardhan takes a reality and reveals larger historical patterns that we must learn to recognize not only with our brains, but also with our hearts and senses. We must, the film teaches us, sense as much as we must grasp an intellectual argument; and we must literally feel the pain of others and desire justice, equality, and freedom for all. Patwardhan alerts us to the convergence of symbols in the gathering clouds of fascism. The motorcycle is emblematic of a hit and run culture of terror whose seduction lies in its appeal to a youthful hypermasculinity built upon spectacular acts of violence and granted impunity by the State. We learn to discern the meaning of colors—whether saffron or red and blue[2]; the spirit of rallies—whether hierarchical or hopeful; and the ways in which street performances alter public spaces—whether to threaten into submission or to celebrate solidarity.

Later in the film, we will see men of the extremist group, the Hindu Rashtra Sena, in a self-promotional video riding their motorcycles with saffron flags. In voice-over, Dhananjay Desai, the group’s founder proudly proclaims that his group is fascist. He explains,

“Fascism means brotherhood.”

After seeing Reason/Vivek, I came across another self-promotional video of two of the most upwardly mobile, entrepreneurial, and favorite “holy” babas of the current regime, Sadhguru and Ramdev, going for a ride. This video is not in the film, but my point is that the film teaches you to recognize the patterns. The threat behind the smiling babas is unmistakably clear: to live in India you must cower before the color saffron carried by men out for the thrill of riding over those who stand in the way.

Due to the overarching ambition of what it confronts, Reason/Vivek paints, by necessity, on a wide canvas. Patwardhan traces the history of the BJP to the founding of the Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) in the 1920s. Modelled openly on the Nazis, the RSS is a cadre-based organization that dreams of a complete social transformation into a Brahmanical social order. Its ideology is also known as Hindutva, and embraced by RSS and its affiliates, including its women’s wings. The BJP is the political wing of the RSS and Modi is an RSS man.

The RSS describes itself as a cultural organization, but its understanding of culture is all encompassing, from how a child should be conceived to who has the right to exist and how. The current fixation on protecting the cow comes from this overall categorization of life, including animals, along caste lines. According to caste hierarchy, the cow is “pure” and the dog “impure.” In other words, the RSS is a cultural organization only in the sense that the Nazis were, with their notions of Aryan supremacy. Like the Nazis, RSS claims the right to determine existence along a homogenous, hierarchical order based on a predetermined system of “purity” based in birth.

Against this anti-democratic Hindutva ideology, Patwardhan shows another history and another dream. He traces it to the Enlightenment, and, before it, to Socrates and the Buddha, leading on to India’s anti-colonial struggles and independence—up to the present. He does not recount this history chronologically, laying history brick by brick. Instead, we see the power of cinema to go back and forth in time, to hold memory, and to dream of a future. We have, for instance, been told in the film’s opening of the murder of Pansare and Dhabolkar, but then we see them alive, working and living despite threats to their lives.

Gobind Pansare addressing a crowd.

Patwardhan takes us close to acute pain and suffering, but as an antidote to the sadistic horrors of the killers’ videos. He takes us, for instance, to the home of Mohammed Akhlaq, the Muslim man who was lynched to death in his own home by a mob in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh on September 28, 2015. We meet Akhlaq’s son, Mohammad Sartaj who is in the Air Force. From him, we hear a life story of rising out of poverty through sheer hard work and his desire to free his father from the back-breaking labor that man had endured to educate his son. We have heard this autobiographical narrative before in the film. We heard it from Mohammed Sadiq, whose son Mohsin Sadiq, a young computer engineer, was beaten to death by members of the Hindu Rashtra Sena. Mohsin was the sole breadwinner for his entire family.

And, we will hear about the grief of children and parents again—this time summarized as class analysis. Kanhaiya Kumar, a student leader, is responding to the charge that student protesters are anti-national, unlike the soldiers laying down their lives on the border. He begins by reminding his audience of the scant regard the Indian state has shown to the increasing death toll of farmer suicides.[3] Kumar explains, the farmer who commits suicide because he cannot pay his loans is the father of the man who fights on the border:

“The famer is my father; the soldier, my brother.”

My own brother enlists in the army and dies. So don't create this false binary and fake debate.