People & Politics

Vignettes of defiance – II

By Muhammed Afzal P

26 March 2014

In the second part of his interview, filmmaker Sanjay Kak reflects on political struggles, militant movements, and India’s democratic deficit.
Banner depicting radical poet Avtar Singh Sandhu, known by his pen name 'Pash'. / Courtesy Sanjay Kak

Banner depicting radical poet Avtar Singh Sandhu, known by his pen name ‘Pash’. / Courtesy Sanjay Kak

Muhammed Afzal P (MAP): Let’s come to your new film Red Ant Dream, the third in your trilogy of films on Indian democracy. In this film you show three places and three kinds of struggle. One is the armed struggle in Bastar; the second is Niyamgiri, a sort of peaceful Gandhian socialist movement; the last is in Punjab, which is like a left liberal struggle. How do you bring these three struggles together, and connect them with the revolutionary figure of Bhagat Singh?

Sanjay Kak (SK): I am glad that Red Ant Dream is being discussed for its form as well. It is often only the content of the film that comes up for discussion! The core of the film is in Bastar, in the armed struggle. I wanted it that way because it was a response to something that has been bothering me: the pretension people have that what is happening in Bastar is an aberration, and that the Maoists have gone to the forest and driven the adivasis there into some sort of frenzy to kill people. What I wanted to emphasise is that where the Maoists find themselves in Bastar comes from a long history. This is not a film that traces that history for you. It merely suggests that there is a history. There was Bhagat Singh, there were the Naxals in Punjab and so on – I’m not saying that there is a linear progression. Let’s admit that this tendency of armed resistance has always existed, but it is socialist as well. It is not merely an armed resistance but an armed struggle, the backbone of which comes from a kind of Marxist reading of the society, however broad that might be. Bringing out this was the desire behind the film.

Since I had been travelling in Odisha, I was in touch with the people who are fighting against the corporates in Niyamgiri. I knew of their struggles and I had met Lingaraj Azad (well-known activist of the Dongria Kondh community) many times. I was very impressed with him, but at the same time disappointed that he never appears in the outside world other than when giving speeches or shouting slogans. I remember asking him once whether he sees himself as a revolutionary. His reply was that “Of course, because I am willing to put my life on the line. I might not be carrying a weapon, but I am a revolutionary.” I found this interesting and thought ‘why should I not bring what is happening in Odisha to the film to suggest that they are revolutionaries’, not just because they are putting their lives on the line, but because they also have some alternative vision of the world. They are not reformists. They are not saying ‘let’s change the world just a bit’. What they are saying is, ‘we don’t want this system’. I see that as revolutionary. So that is how the Odisha thing started coming in. In Bastar, we see people taking to arms, and in Niyamgiri, we see that people have not yet taken to arms. But we never know what will happen in the future. The film is poised at that point.

The part on Punjab came in a more roundabout way. I had read the poetry of Avtar Singh Pash, and at least in North India he was considered one of the most articulate voices of his period. I wanted to bring some of his poems in the film. So I made a trip to Punjab to talk to various people about Pash. I met a professor of English in Amritsar and asked him what remains of the Naxalite movement in Punjab. “Poetry, and culture,” he said after a pause. I was struck by this answer. So what is this culture? When I started my exploration, it was only then that I realised the coincidence that both Pash’s death anniversary and Bhagat Singh’s death anniversary are on the same day. So I decided to go there in March to see the death anniversary celebration there. I went with my crew and started filming. I witnessed the massive mobilisations that they have been able to achieve around the image of Bhagat Singh. It was also done in a very thoughtful way – they never allow people to forget that Bhagat Singh was a socialist, that he was a communist. They were not making the mistake of portraying Bhagat Singh as just a patriot, the way BJP or Congress would want to.

Eventually, that material started creeping into the film. It is there principally to destabilise the audience a little, to make them ask questions like, ‘Are you saying that there is going to be an armed struggle in Punjab?’ I leave it to people to figure out. The persistence of the revolutionary ideal – or what we call the dream of revolution – in a place like Punjab that has had the Green Revolution, which sort of obliterates the whole revolutionary zeal physically as well as intellectually, is an interesting phenomenon. How does the spirit of resistance survive? Why are people shouting ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ in 2013? This is what the film tries to show. Look at what people are saying. Look at their understanding of the situation. They are reading through all this: they know that all those flyovers are not for them. The development is not for them, but for someone else. It is a little bit of a teaser in that sense. It just destabilises the audience a little bit.

 

MAP: In this movie, we see some sort of a resurgence of the Left in Punjab. What do you think of the future of the Left in this country?

SK: I think that the parliamentary Left is increasingly becoming less and less left. And I think that if they are going to get fewer and fewer seats in the parliament, it is an indication of the crisis of parliamentary politics and of the crisis in the parliamentary Left – I think both are beginning to lose meaning. I don’t know how somebody from the orthodox Left position read the subtext of a film like Red Ant Dream. But to me, it is quite interesting that in Punjab the sort of non-parliamentary left who are represented in the film are all quite happy to show the film and the politics that it represents. They were at the forefront of the meetings and opposition to Operation Green Hunt in Punjab. They are not Maoists and some of them may have serious disagreements with Maoists. So I think that we are seeing a very strange situation. While our conventional parliamentary Left is slowly heading towards self-destruction, I do see that elsewhere there is a kind of resurgence of a leftist tendency which is not connected necessarily to parties. It is leftist in terms of an understanding of society. When I screened the film in Mumbai, some people in the audience told me that I have totally effaced the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist) in the film, and that it was ahistorical. I told them that I was not trying to write a history of the Left in India. What I was trying to do was to suggest a possible trajectory of what has been going on in our country by picking certain elements.

And of course I am interested in solidarities. This film, for me, talks about the need for solidarity among various groups. I haven’t made this film at a time of pessimism of the possibilities of the Left, I think I have made it at a time of optimism. We see a resurgence of ‘Red’, sometimes in yellow – in Punjab the members of Naujawan Bharat Sabha are all wearing yellow turbans. And I am saying that this is the resurgence of Red except that it is coming in yellow, they are reclaiming the yellow also from the Right. Or look at Niyamgiri. Would one call the fighters there leftists? But when you hear Lingaraj Azad speaking, he is speaking like a socialist. He is saying that he has a vision of an egalitarian world. That is the socialist dream.

MAP: What do you think motivates the Maoists in Bastar? Is it a new world vision based on anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism? To what extent are they Marxists or Maoists? How can we look at the issue of them taking money from mining companies?

SK: I have no doubt that the formal leadership of the party is both Marxist and Maoist and their statements are often a reiteration of that fact. I do not think their taking money from the mining companies or the tendu traders can only be seen as a bad thing. Historically all revolutionary groups had to get money from somewhere. They have all taken money from a range of sources. I don’t think revolutionary movements necessarily should ever claim to a higher level of purity in terms of ethics (which the enemy, the state, doesn’t have). Still there are some obvious question marks. What does the CPI (Maoist) think of the mining business? Do they believe that the mining is fine if they were to supervise it, and it is bad when the Indian state does it?  Or do they believe there should be a rethinking on mining, or that there should be a controlled mining. There needs to be some clarity. And that statement is still awaited from them.

It is very difficult to tell on the ground where it is an adivasi struggle and where it is a Maoist struggle. Is this an adivasi battle of self-defense? Or when they say lal kile pe lal nishan (red flag over the red fort), is that really his/her dream? Or do they just want to be left alone, since they are not even interested in going to Raipur leave alone Delhi. So these are difficult things. It is possible to say that at present there is a coincidence of interests. But there is no doubt that it is 99.5 percent an adivasi fight. The cadres are all adivasi. The fighters are all adivasi. I don’t think it is possible yet to read too much ideological purity in the war. Like in the Kashmir case, where people want ‘azadi’ though we don’t know the exact nature of its contours, in Bastar the adivasi people want the state and mining companies to stay away. They are saying ‘keep your mining and steel plants and dams away. We don’t want them.’

MAP: There are two ways that are being talked about to ‘tackle’ the Maoist issue. One is the development argument that someone like Jairam Ramesh (Minister of Rural Development) would make, and the other is the Andhra model of fighting Naxalism by force. How do you look at this?

SK: One question that I would like to pose regarding the ‘development’ argument is this: what stops the government from developing northern Chhattisgarh? There are no Maoists in northern Chhattisgarh, and the conditions of the poor are terrible, and the state ought to be anxious that Maoists will gain a foothold, if they don’t already have one. But it is not the ‘development’ model but the Kashmir model that you create a vested interest in. Where does the money that is flowing into Kashmir to ‘counter’ militancy go? If earlier there were five or ten political families that made money out of these, now thousands of families benefit from it, so that they will have a vested interest with the Indian state. The people at the bottom of the pile, in Kashmir or in Bastar, will get nothing; the state is not committed to those people. The state’s argument would be that the Maoists are the people who are coming between them and the people… Suppose they did a wonderful job in delivering justice and development in northern Chhattisgarh, wouldn’t it have a huge impact on Bastar? But they don’t do it. They don’t want to do it. They want to appear to do it in Bastar so that they can say that Maoists are stopping them.

I have seen some of the school buildings that the government has built in Chhattisgarh. They are built like bunkers, and then they complain that the Maoists are blowing up schools. Of course they are blowing up schools because they are built like proper bunkers. Forget the fact that Bastar has been neglected for seventeen years or the fact that northern Chhattisgarh has also been neglected. The reason why many parts of Odisha, like Bastar, etc., are underdeveloped is because they are on hold ­– they are waiting for the mining companies. The government can’t afford to develop those regions. In Lohandiguda village, where Tata wants to build a steel plant, do you think people will move out tomorrow if you are going to develop that region? They won’t. The state can’t afford to develop those places. Because if you develop those places, tomorrow when you need to move them out, what will you do? In Odisha, the underdevelopment of certain areas is directly correlated to their proximity to mining deposits. The other question is can you use a hard line? I don’t think that the paramilitary forces, at their present level of militarisation, can militarily overcome the Maoists. No way!

MAP:  Are you saying that guerilla warfare will win?

SK: The people who can defeat the guerrillas are the army. According to my point of view, the reason that the army is not being deployed right now has less to do with the feeling that ‘oh, they are our own people and they shouldn’t be attacked or killed’. It is not that there is no Armed Forces Special Powers Act or any such special laws in Bastar. The real reason is that the army is not ready. The army is not going to go there and report that 15 soldiers of the Rashtriya Rifles were killed by a squad of Maoists.

The army will intervene when the pressure from the mining companies is high enough on the state. It is not for nothing that Mr. Chidambaram has suddenly denied that there was such a thing called Operation Green Hunt. The lull that we are seeing is because of all the bad publicity the government has received, and because there is an election coming up. They know very well that if they send in the Central Reserve Police Force they may get a few Maoists at times, but more often their own people will die. The advantage in the forest lies fully with the guerrillas. And the guerillas can be tackled only by the brutality of an army offensive, which will come. They will do aerial bombing and other things. I don’t think the state has backed off.

MAP: Do you think that there is a shift in the way the Maoist issue is looked at? For instance, when Mahendra Karma (Congress Party politician in Chhattisgarh involved in setting up the Salwa Judum militia to counter the Maoists) was killed, the media could not sustain the manufactured outrage. A publication like Economic and Political Weekly even wrote an editorial calling the killing the ‘violence of the oppressed’.

SK: I do think that there is a change in people’s perception. It is very interesting that when Mahendra Karma was killed, even though the media tried to drum up the usual hysteria it did not work this time. We are sometimes so despondent about what we do to create public opinion. But a campaign to get Binayak Sen released matters. The campaign around Soni Sori matters.  You might lose the battle, but in the long run all these matter. There has been a shift in people’s perception. People have started thinking that it is a social issue. People no longer see it just as a law and order issue.

MAP: Sometimes the reaction we hear is that the Maoist’s cause may be good, but their path is not. Isn’t that argument also taking a backseat? For instance, haven’t some people started thinking that if it is necessary to kill a person like Mahendra Karma, he should be killed?

SK: These days, haven’t we started hearing people say that ‘if I were a Maoist, I would have done X or Y something to set the system right’. What does that mean? It means that if you keep pushing the people to a hypothetical edge, then they will take to arms. They will put an IED under your jeep or they will attack and kill you. I think it is a sign of a social crisis that we are undergoing. And at the same time the fact is that there is a manifestation of the oppressed speaking up.  

MAP: This is the third film in your democracy trilogy. In this film, you seem to be ‘walking with the comrades’. Are you for a rejection of the democracy?

SK: Are we still going to say that we believe in democracy when the Parliament is going to be full of billionaires, like the American Senate? What do the people think when they are voting? We need to reimagine what we mean by democracy. Does it mean majoritarianism? Does it mean that there is no problem if Modi becomes the prime minister no matter what minorities and other people think about him? It is not that one is rejecting democracy and saying that we should have totalitarianism. It is far from that. But we really have to stop the comfort that people in India have that we are a democratic secular socialist republic. They are neither secular nor democratic nor socialist. We will be more democratic if we compare ourselves with Pakistan or Sri Lanka. I don’t think that I am moving away from some sort of constitutionalism. I still think that the history of the Left is very important in keeping the country in balance. The Left’s handle on the steering wheel of things has helped. That is why India is not in much worse shape. So I am interested in that.

The shifting positions come also from a curiosity. If we were to talk about ‘walking with comrades’, I do feel a great deal of admiration and respect for those young people and what they are doing. Just in the same way as I am involved with people in Kashmir. I still don’t know what their larger vision is. I might disagree with them tomorrow and reserve my right to be critical.

MAP: But at the same time you are interested in their ‘act of resistance’ or keeping the spirit of resistance alive…

SK: Exactly. Not in some romantic way. I have admiration for them because they are doing things. If they have kept the Indian state on its toes for 25 years, it is damn impressive. When Karma was killed, so many people said they have done a good job by killing him. People often talk about rough justice, killing of informers, kangaroo courts, jan adalat, etc. and ask whether the Maoists are right in doing these. Suppose there is a case of informers and every piece of information he or she is sharing is causing death on the Maoist side, what should they do? They can’t go to your court. The Maoists admit that they do kill. They say, if the informer is going to jeopardise the lives of 25 people we will kill him. It doesn’t mean that we approve of killing. It just means that there is a war going on there, and the idea should be to stop the war and not to stand around and pass judgments on the tactics in the war.

MAP: Let’s come to the question of censorship. You have been part of the anti-censorship campaign. How do you look at the question of censorship and the question of freedom of expression?

SK: A lot of documentary filmmakers, including myself, have been addressing the issue of censorship for more than a decade. Within the documentary filmmaking community, there is divided opinion on this. Those who advocate the need for a censor certificate argue that if there are good people on the Censor Board, then the certificate offers you some protection from the mob. But I am not convinced by this argument. If there are good people on the Censor Board today, there can be bad people tomorrow. And as we know, having a censor certificate is no protection against the mob. If I have a censor certificate for Jashn-e-Azadi, somebody can still stop the screening. He or she has to just go to the nearby police station and say that there will be a breach of peace if the film is screened.

We cannot fight censorship only by addressing the state. We can fight censorship only when people are convinced that censorship is bad. Unless your viewers are willing to contest it, you can’t fight censorship. So, 12 years ago, when we started the anti-censorship campaign, we said to fight censorship by conducting more and more screenings. Send films to as many colleges, clubs, etc. Let people get to know what the film is about. I see my position not necessarily as an anti-censorship one, but as a pro-screening one. When Symbiosis University in Pune cancelled a screening of Jashn-e-Azadi, at least ten other colleges approached me for screenings and discussion. The film got a second life. You have to fight censorship by conducting more screenings. Only then will you have a constituency. It is through engagement with various groups that you get people to support you.

MAP: What are the difficulties that an independent filmmaker faces?

SK: In one way, the career of an independent filmmaker is full of difficulties. But that is the whole point about independent filmmaking. Even though some of us might choose to ignore the regime of censorship, it does affect us in terms of selling in shops, public screenings, paid screenings, etc.

MAP: One of the difficulties that documentary filmmakers face relates to distribution. Like the Independent Publishers’ Distribution Alternatives, are there any similar initiatives to distribute independent films?

SK: That is the trouble with censorship. You cannot sell films without a censor certificate. However, I am excited by the emergence of cultural activists, film activists, etc., who promote independent films. Take the Gorakhpur Film Festival people and their Cinema of Resistance. They see themselves as film activists. I would rather put my energy into strengthening them. They should conduct festivals, screen films, sell DVDs, set up distribution systems, etc. The filmmakers can’t do everything by themselves. We need to promote and revitalise film societies. I am always willing to strengthen that, because I see the work of film and cultural activists to be as important as ours. I am glad that people have started buying DVDs of documentaries, and they are not confined to the festival circle anymore.

MAP: What do you think about the future of independent filmmaking?

SK: I am very optimistic about the future of independent filmmaking. As social ferment and upheaval, and the confusion caused by these rapid and dramatic changes, are becoming more and more grievous, I think that documentary cinema will increasingly play a role. I am not making a claim that it will be an important role, but it will certainly play a role. In some way, filmmakers, because of their associations with particular movements, serve as an intersection between civil society and those movements. Sometimes, it is around films and filmmaking that many movements strengthen their connections. I don’t feel that if I have made a film in Odisha, that my job is done. I also think I would like to be connected to those people. I would like other people to be connected to those people. Filmmakers become part of the efforts to build an alliance. Documentaries are taken seriously: they are censored, they are stopped from screening, and yet, they are watched. Documentaries are connected with real life.

~ First part of the interview at Vignettes of defiance – I.

 ~ Muhammed Afzal P is a Doctoral Fellow at the Department of Cultural Studies, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad, India.
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