(Excerpt from the tribute to documentary filmmaker Shubhradeep by Anand Patwardhan, TOI Sep 7, 2014)
“En Dino Muzaffarnagar by Shubradeep Chakravorty and Meera Chaudhary is going to be recorded in history as the first documentary film banned under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Gagging order came on 30th June. Today we applied in Film Certification Appellate Tribunal (FCAT) for redressal of our grievances. We will not go down without a fight.”
These are the last words posted on Facebook by Shubhradeep Chakravorty, one of India’s bravest documentary filmmakers. Shubhradeep passed away from a brain hemorrhage on August 25, while battling a numbing censorship bureaucracy and the pain of cynical rejection.
I first met Shubhradeep in 2002 after he had made his debut film, Godhra Tak. He had been a journalist but the horror of Gujarat turned him into a filmmaker. He focused on the train-burning incident that killed 59 Hindu passengers. The Gujarat government had allowed a public display of the charred bodies and when pogroms against Muslims began, allegedly looked the other way. Word spread that Muslims had poured petrol into the train. Godhra Tak looked at forensic evidence that questioned this theory as well as the systematic demonization of Muslims. With BJP led governments in Gujarat and the Centre proclaiming that “Islamic terror”was breeding in Gujarat, several strange incidents followed.
That year “Muslims terrorists” attacked the Akshardham Temple with firearms, killing 33. Two attackers were killed. 6 more were arrested, of which 3 were sentenced to death. In May 2014 the Supreme Court acquitted all six and pulled up the Gujarat police for shoddy investigations.
A series of encounter killings followed in Gujarat. Shubhradeep’s next film Encountered on a Saffron Agenda looked at four separate “encounters”, the most infamous being those of Ishrat Jahan and others in 2004, and Sohrabuddin and others in 2005. In every case the authorities claimed that the dead Muslim “terrorists” were on a mission to kill Narendra Modi. Shubhradeep’s brilliant investigation exposed in meticulous detail how each encounter was probably a cold-blooded murder. The courts finally took cognizance and several encounter perpetrators were jailed for varying periods of time including top police officers like D G Vanzara, and Modi’s right-hand man, Amit Shah. Some of them are free today, but few doubt that fake encounters took place.
Following screenings in Jaipur and Bhopal, Shubhradeep was physically attacked, narrowly escaping serious injury. But his courage and determination never waned. In 2012 he made two important films, Out of Court Settlement about the ordeal of human rights defenders like the martyred lawyer Shahid Azmi and After the Storm about youths who had been acquitted of terror charges but still faced trauma and stigma.
In April 2014 we invited Shubhradeep to Vikalp@Prithvi in Mumbai to screen his work-in-progress, En Dino Muzaffarnagar. Newly married, he was accompanied by his partner and co-director, Meera Chaudhary. They were like teenagers in love and it was infectious. In the Q and A after the film Shubhradeep attributed all the moments when the camera was in the right place at the right time, to Meera. “Whenever she is there something happens. She is my lucky charm,” he beamed.
The film itself was a departure from his earlier work. Always compelling in content, his films tended to be utilitarian in form. Now camera and sound were excellent and the film was complex, showing not just the perpetrators of atrocities but also ordinary individuals from warring communities who had resisted the communal urge. Jat and Muslim farmers had historically worked together in unions and the region enjoyed communal harmony even in times of national strife. Shubhradeep’s partner Meera is a Jat from Muzzaffarnagar, which gave her access and insight. Above all, the film dissected the story of how a riot can be created from scratch and how peaceful neighbours can become mortal enemies once a Machiavellian force begins its handiwork.
As we watched the film at the end of April with elections underway, the writing was already on the wall. The very word ‘secularism’ was under attack, both in the electronic and print media.
Whoever rules India, censorship is always hard. At times it gets harder. In 2002, under the NDA, our anti-nuclear War and Peace was denied a CBFC certificate. Of the 21 cuts demanded, the first was: “Delete the visuals of Gandhiji being shot by Nathuram Godse”. History books at the time were being rewritten to say merely that a madman killed Gandhi. The Censor Guideline 2(xii) used to justify the cut was “visuals or words contemptuous of racial, religious or other groups are not presented”. A year later the high court ordered our film passed without cuts.
The CBFC has used the same clause to ban En Dino Muzzaffarnagar. The Appellate Tribunal confirmed the rejection. Their order states: “It (the film) is highly critical of one political party (BJP) and its top leadership by name and tends to give an impression of the said party’s involvement in communal disturbances.”
They may as well issue an outright ban on investigative journalism.
These are dark days Shubhradeep, but times will change. Some day this nation will remember its real heroes — those who fought not for their own narrow caste or creed but for the truth and humanity that will never die.