Biweekly Binge: In the name of God
A fortnightly column on what’s good – old and new – in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you
In Ram Ke Naam (In the Name of God), the 1992 documentary, Anand Patwardhan follows the impact of LK Advani's Ram Rath Yatra, the chariot that unleashed fire across India, the effects of which are felt even, and especially, today. Ram Ke Naam is a documentary that came to be just before Babri Masjid demolition and watching it today with that knowledge, and everything that came after, can be unnerving. The film portends an event like that in every frame, the eyes of the perpetrators - those in support of Advani, Ram Janmabhoomi and the destruction of Babri Masjid - holding nothing back and the few sensible people in the documentary fearing the worst. A man says in his heart he is Congress, but adds that he is Hindu first. Another man laments that there is unemployment, poverty and illiteracy, but when you attend Advani's speeches it seems as though none of this exists. Dalit labourers appearing in the documentary say that it is the Brahmins who want the mosque destroyed, that "it is their game." Someone mentions that this is BJP's strategy to go from 88 (in 1989) to 188 seats in the Lok Sabha. Today, we have a BJP government that was the first to attain majority in decades with 282 seats and the vocabulary has remained the same - Ram Janmabhoomi, mandir wahin banaayenge, Hindu Rashtra, anti-national. Pujari Laldas, in the end of the film, says, "Today, there seems to be a wave in our country — those who speak of hatred get a bigger following than those like you who speak of love."
We hear a lot from pujari Laldas in Ram Ke Naam, in his capacity as the court-appointed priest of the Ayodhya temple. Laldas' is one the most rational voices among the upper caste men who speak in the documentary. He was murdered in November 1993. In the Dadri chapter of Anand Patwardhan's latest documentary Vivek (Reason) - another pujari claims that he was forced by a few youngsters to announce that Mohammad Akhlaq's family had slaughtered a cow and consumed its meat. Akhlaq's son Mohammad Sartaj says that the priest has been missing and he has not been able to establish contact. There is a familiar narrative between Ram Ke Naam from 1992 and Vivek from 2018. Both, residents of Ayodhya then and residents of Dadri today, claim in the films that Hindus and Muslims have been living in harmony there for years, and what they see now is new and unprecedented.
Vivek premiered at last year's Toronto International Film Festival and won the Best Feature-length Documentary at 31st International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. Last week Patwardhan quietly began to upload parts of Reason on YouTube. It's almost 240 minutes long and not all of it is on YouTube yet. Reason paints an elaborate, bloody picture of the majoritarianism and hate politics practised by the BJP government and RSS since 2014, and along with Ram Ke Naam, establishes how what is a beast today, was conceived more than two decades ago.
It's unclear if the part previews available so far are in order but Vivek begins with chapters on twin assassinations - of rationalist and activist Narendra Dabholkar in 2013, followed by the 2015 murder of Govind Pansare. We see clips of Pansare's speeches where he condemns the murder of Dabholkar. The latter appears in another chapter, this time in the form of a poster that calls out, “Dabholkar is an idea still alive inside us," during a protest in FTII Pune against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan as chairperson, in a targeted attempt to saffronise universities and institutes across the country. This chapter is divided into two parts focusing on the JNU issue involving the sedition charges against Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, in which Kumar is interviewed and elaborates on the stifling of dissent across universities that began at HCU (Hyderabad Central University) with the suicide of Rohith Vemula.
Both the chapters focus on the attacks on Ambedkarite students by ABVP members. The film interviews two erstwhile members of ABVP too, who quit the organisation on account of ideological differences and the way the JNU issue was handled. They talk of how they first had the idea of protesting from within, but when they found out that it is impossible, they resigned. To establish their stance, they even burned the Manusmriti text and say how RSS is never ready to discuss casteism, only perpetuating it since inception.
There is another common thread across chapters. Everyone from ABVP members to people affiliated with the RSS and BJP is quizzed on Savarkar and Godse, in different chapters of Vivek, only to either draw an enthusiastic support from them or a complete blank. A student is unable to come up with names beyond Savarkar and says he'll tell us as soon as he remembers them when questioned about the people behind the inception of RSS. Another inscrutably asks why bring religion into this. In Ram Ke Naam, a man in support of destroying the mosque voices his unambiguous approval of Nathuram Godse's actions. Twenty-seven years separate the two Anand Patwardhan films, but they form a companion piece in the way they, between them, share the building blocks of Hindutva to form a whole -- from an ideology to a wave and finally to electoral sanction today.
Patwardhan has chosen an opportune moment to make his film available to public and there are many more chapters to come. But one would do well to remember two moments from the two films to understand what's at stake -- in Ram Ke Naam, a Dalit woman from Gomti Nagar talks about how human beings are evicted from their birthplace while thousands are fighting over Ram's, and the closing of Vivek's chapter on Rohith Vemula -- a 3-minute sequence as his heart breaking suicide note is read out in full.