My Abu Talha Moment: Sanjay Kak
Guest post by SANJAY KAK
Last week was my Abu Talha moment. That’s when dubious honours rain on you, unsolicited, undeserved. There I was, charged with wrecking a literary festival in Kashmir; links to the Parliament attack case; racism against Kashmiri pandits; scuttling a film screening in a women’s college in Delhi… And if that doesn’t create a frisson, I was also said to be on the radar of Mumbai’s Anti Terrorist Squad.
Unable to make the Abu Talha connection? Many in Kashmir know the name as a talisman, the kind that security forces brandish when they periodically feel its time to square their books. It doesn’t take much; they just have to produce a fresh corpse before a pliant media, although one with long hair and a beard, fatigues and an AK47, does make things easier. As Abu Talha, this all-purpose corpse can then be held responsible for fidayeen attacks, the murder of innocent civilians, the assassination of political workers, massacres, and explosions, whatever. Crucially, even as Abu Talha is lowered into the ground, all further investigations into those events can be safely laid to rest.
End of story: tamam shudh? Well, only sort of. Because Abu Talha will be called upon to perform again, dusted up and presented afresh to the world. Again. He’s not alone, for with so much happening in Kashmir, Abu Talha is part of a frequent fighters club: Abu Hamza, Abu Shakir, Abu Waqas, Ghazi Baba… The other day a friend from Kashmir invented one to cheer me up: Abu Tamam, he offered, Father of it All.
Last week’s trigger was a three-day seminar on Kashmir, organised by a well-known private college in Pune, where my film Jashn-e-Azadi was to screen on the opening day. You could have made the mistake of thinking – I did briefly – that the event was a marker of a new openness, a brave willingness to hear the ‘Voices of Kashmir’. (That’s what the seminar was called.) The Pune cadre of the right-wing Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) quickly punctured that optimism and declared the film divisive, anti-India, and anti-Army. The ABVP’s opinions clearly carry weight in academic circles in Pune, and with the visible support of other, more obscure right-wing groups like Panun Kashmir and Hindu Janjagriti Samiti, they succeeded in getting the screening called off. Eventually the entire seminar was described as ‘postponed’, perhaps terminally.
But this abandonment of a modest college seminar in Pune unwittingly slipped into the titanic wake of Salman Rushdie’s cancelled visit to the Jaipur Literary Festival. That clinched blue-chip coverage in the media, much of it fair and accurate, especially in the newspapers. On television it slipped into more predictable wooly-headed outrage. The limits of the debate were well described by the channel Times Now, when its flagship show Newshour took on the ‘challenge to free speech’ by Tweeting this question: ‘Is Sanjay Kak within his right to be critical of the Indian Army?’
Where did that come from, I wondered, if not from the pronouncements of the ABVP and Panun Kashmir? All through the show, as this curious strap-line continued to crawl across the screen, I waited for the question to be addressed. But having set up the discussion with its non sequitur, Newshour then forgot to take it up. It must have been a coincidence, this forgetting, although on the same day the CBI was searching the Pune residence of a former GOC-in-C of the Indian Army, Lt Gen Noble Thamburaj, in a case of criminal conspiracy and criminal misconduct. (To complete the rich irony, the next day a police station in Pune was reportedly trashed by a posse of young officers of the Indian Army’s College of Military Engineering, who had felt insulted by a traffic policeman’s admonition to one of their colleagues.)
And so it is, with an almost posthumous, Abu Tamam sense of engagement that I follow the news of the cancellation of the Pune screening of Jashn-e-Azadi. And watch the fabrication of a radical new avatar for a documentary that’s been in circulation for nearly five years. For leavened into this flurry of media attention was something less wooly, but more awful. It flew thick and fast, spat out at high speed on Twitter and elsewhere on the net, and dribbled into the ever-bubbling sludge of news television, before eventually congealing in a masterpiece of untruths on the website of a Mumbai paper.
Deftly kneaded into this narrative were remarkable new details. If on Times Now we heard how police in Mumbai, Gujarat, and Pune had been investigating this ‘case’, more sensational disclosures found place on the DNA website: “In August 2007, Mumbai’s Anti Terrorist Squad received inputs about a secret screening being planned at Prithvi theatre. The police raided the premises and sealed DVDs of the film. The senior officer who ordered the raid was martyred by bullets of terrorists from Pakistan in the 26/11 attack.”
Secret screening. Raid. Martyr. Terrorist. Loads of trouble from one documentary, yes? Except that there were no secret screenings, no raids, and no intervention by the Mumbai ATS. What did happen in July 2007 was that a preview of the film, organised for an invited audience by the documentary filmmakers forum Vikalp, was stopped by the Dadar police after they received an anonymous complaint about the film. A second screening, part of a regular, widely advertised series of film previews at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre, was also called off. The Juhu police – once again tipped off anonymously – advised the Prithvi management that they would have to take responsibility for any “disruption”.
(Although I’m guessing here, I presume that the martyred senior officer hinted at in DNA and on Times Now is the late ACP Hemant Karkare. Looking through a bunch of newspaper clippings for that week in 2007, many of them impressively detailed, I totally fail to find any references to him. What I do learn is that ACP Karkare only joined the Mumbai ATS six months after he’s meant to have ordered this ‘raid’ on Prithvi theatre.)
Last week’s media attention also made place for another sin, in a double bill of Intolerance & Double Standards. How dare Sanjay Kak talk about freedom of expression, a panelist said on Times Now, when only a few months ago “with his goondas and hooligans, hand in glove with the separatists in Kashmir”, he held out a threat that “stones would be thrown at the Harud Literary Festival”. To be fair, the anchor tried to intervene: “Back it up! Back it up with documentary proof,” barked Arnab Goswami. “Because what you say tonight will be on record,” he said with the faux aggression that makes us all weak in the knees. But that night even his fervent fans would have found his performance lacking in passion and in follow-through. The absence of proof was casually buried in the routine mayhem that passes for discussion in TV studios.
The answer is still preserved online though. “It was all over the news.”
In this particular instance of the Harud Literary Festival I had joined fourteen other citizens in initiating an open letter to the organisers, raising apprehensions about the purpose and affect of such an event in a troubled Kashmir. Eventually more than 200 signatories – from across India and the world – protested the Harud festival’s claim that it sought to be an apolitical event:
“Beyond the absurdity of asserting that art and literature has nothing to do with politics, our issue is precisely that people are not allowed to speak their minds in Kashmir. Indeed, that a political reality is denied, even criminalised, in the state. The argument about freedom to speak and listen, thus, is disingenuous precisely because no such freedoms exist in Kashmir.”
To even summarise the many subsequent misrepresentations of this first letter in the press would take pages, but nowhere can I find a reference to my ‘goondas’, or a threat on my part to throw stones. Now that it appears in the DNA, it can surely become a reference, to be cited in the future. Because, as we will be reminded, “it was all over the news”.
The ‘commentary’ that DNA offers in its ‘analysis’ section, for example, opens with a cheesy recounting of the 2007 cancellation of a film screening in an under-graduate college in New Delhi. (The film was “… And the world remained silent”, its title borrowed from Elie Wiesel’s 1955 book on the Nazi Genocide.) I stand accused of having conspired to ‘scuttle’ this event, and replace it with a screening of my film. The fact is that the screening of Jashn-e-Azadi had to be called off because anonymous ‘activists’ had once again written off to the nearest Police Station threatening the possibility of protests. That the teacher involved in organising our screening had publicly rubbished this charge days after it first appeared in 2007, and has done so again last week, is obviously of little consequence. (I suppose we’re meant to file this away in the folder marked ‘Tit-for-tat’.)
This is how it works, in this free-for-all of anonymous police complaints, Facebook and Twitter flows, irresponsible websites, and overheated news studios. Anything can be said, without evidence, without being contradicted, checked, corrected, or indeed, without any real fear of being prosecuted for libel. Once uttered, the lie floats about in the sewers of the system, from where it can be pulled out when needed.
In this growing list of charges the only one that I find really egregious though, is that Jashn-e-Azadi overestimates the figures for Kashmiri Muslims killed, as it uses unofficial figures (100,000), and underestimates the killings of Kashmiri Pandits, because it uses official figures. Well, this doesn’t happen, not in this film. Figures are mentioned in the following inter-title:
“In the volatile 1990 uprising, Kashmir’s Pandit minority became vulnerable to a sharp religious polarization. Almost 200 Hindus were brutally killed by extremists.”
While these figures for 1990 may not quite match the genocidal figures that are loosely bandied about by right-wing Hindutva activists in India, they have been arrived at after crosschecking from several sources, including those of the J&K Police, all of which lie in the public domain. Later in the film we also refer to a more composite estimate provided for the killings of all Kashmiris – Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs – based on a physical survey by the J&K Coalition of Civil Societies, a gut-wrenching exercise that also features in my film:
“In 2007 the figures of this first ever survey of the killings of 18 years began to take form: 60,000 reported killed. And 10,000 disappeared, perhaps forever.”
It’s difficult to understand how the ‘analysts’ on DNA are allowed to describe this as “significant mischief played by the film with the portrayal of statistics”.
I’m obviously not the only one who has noticed the vulnerability of our new media culture to these fluid, often contradictory, ‘facts’. In coping with the cancellation of the Pune screening, the management of the Symbiosis university too had taken note of this tendency towards amnesia, and obviously turned it to their advantage. In his first interviews to the media Principal Hrishikesh Soman did not shy away from admitting that his college agreed to cancel the film screening in deference to the “emotions and feelings” of the ABVP. The next day, on January 30th, he was saying it was because the Special Branch, Pune Police had written to the college that the film was “controversial” and they must “avoid” screening it. A day later, Principal Soman was saying that at the request of ‘several organisations’ the college had agreed to postpone the event and “alter the contents” of the seminar.
The real reason was probably a mix of all these, but appearing on Newshour that same night, Vidya Yerawadekar, Principal Director, Symbiosis University, felt free to say that ‘there was absolutely no pressure from the ABVP’, just ‘an open discussion with some NGOs’. Quizzed about the decision to drop the film, she added, somewhat unnecessarily, “our college principal spoke to Mr Kak and he was fine with it”. She said the same thing on NDTV: “Our Principal spoke to Mr Kak…”. The Hindu quoted Mr Soman as saying, “We have told Sanjay ‘No Controversy’… We have asked him to speak about anything else but politics.”
Not one of these conversations took place. Not one of these people from Symbiosis ever spoke to me.
Our media – and news television in particular – seem to be fast trading in the dignity of their editorial robes for a more lurid set. No more can we turn to them to give us a compass to help understand the world, to check and counter-check facts, to offer us a credible set of opinions with which to negotiate the increasingly troubled landscape of our times. News anchors are turning into Impressarios, setting themselves up as gate-keepers (ring-masters!), whose main job is not to marshal news, but to find ‘talent’ who can – and will – violently disagree with each other every evening. All the studio then needs to do is to hose down the mud-pit, blow a whistle and everyone is welcome to jump in, shout at each other, and attack with whatever sticks.
Obviously it doesn’t take much more than a few people with access to the net (and Twitter accounts) to set up a barrage of untruths that can penetrate this facile skin of our media. In the case of Jashn-e-Azadi it’s actually the same handful of people who’ve been following this documentary around, like a baleful shadow. They are the praetorian guard of the Hindu right wing’s position on Kashmir, led by those who are occasionally made visible by the banner of Panun Kashmir (as in Pune), but elsewhere by its more discrete ideological affiliates. And when I say handful, I do mean the fingers of a hand, perhaps even less. Last week, as Jashn-e-Azadi came under attack, on television we saw the same faces that were there five years back. Wearily we heard the same absurd charges, often cannibalized and regurgitated from the same websites where they first appeared.
In 2007 it was obvious that this attack came from people who were fearful that new and alternate interpretations of events in Kashmir would loosen their grip over a narrative that monopolised people’s understanding of Kashmir’s recent history. (Pakistan. Jehad. Terrorism. Genocide. Holocaust. Fundamentalism.) But the events of the last few years, in particular the mass uprisings that took place in Kashmir after 2008, have created a disturbance in the rigid silences that surround our understanding of Kashmir. The old lies are in tatters, and repeating them endlessly only exposes them as stale and tired before an ever-widening audience. It’s becoming impossible to keep the truth out.
I’m also not unaware that the act of attacking a film (or a book) has become a platform for self-aggrandizement. So long as there is a ready market for this kind of hate speech in the media, to try and counter a canard with a clarification, an untruth with a fact, often becomes pointless. Since the beast of TV news ratings seems to feed on performing fleas, the warm incubating lights of the TV studios, and the incessant babble of twitter, will continue to provide a hothouse performance space in which tawdry public careers of great irresponsibility are being shaped. It matters little what labels they carry – Activist, Filmmaker, or Senior Journalist.
As the arguments against the free circulation of Jashn-e-Azadi began to wilt from their own lack of substance, a final argument was thrown into the ring. This was at once the most revealing, and the most pathetic: the film must not be screened because it lacked a censor certificate. In a week when the Rushdie episode in Jaipur was still thick on our tongues, on CNN-IBN and Times Now it was not a policeman or a censor-board official ironically, but a filmmaker and a journalist who made the most fervent defense of the constitutional majesty of censorship. “We are all for freedom of speech”, they kept repeating unctuously, probably aware that the public mood was slowly moving against the curbing of free speech, “but how can this film be shown without a censor certificate?” (Not required for screenings in educational institutions, the filmmaker was told. Will you stand by and watch as they screen pornography in classrooms next, was the answer…)
It must have been a dark week for Freedom of Speech, to be defended by recourse to the Government of India’s censors. In some obscure corner of the Hereafter, Voltaire is probably throwing up.
Meanwhile my week as Abu Tamam is hopefully over. In 2007 a similar attempt to interfere with screenings of Jashn-e-Azadi in Mumbai had resulted in more than a hundred screenings of the film, organized in a spontaneous protest by film-makers and activists all across the country. The film got a huge puff in its sails. Now five years later, the aftermath of the Pune cancellation brings reports of college students in different parts of the country gathering to organize what can only be called samizdat screenings.
I’m not complaining.
(Sanjay Kak is a documentary filmmaker based in Delhi.)