The Spectre of the "Urban Naxal": An Interview with Sanjay Kak

@ Shovan Gandhi _ Sanjay Kak Portrait COL.jpg

Renowned documentary filmmaker Sanjay Kak on the recent crackdown of activists in India, the #MeTooUrbanNaxal campaign, and alternative filmmaking in Modi’s India.

Photo: Shovan Gandhi 2017

What in your opinion is the intention behind the recent arrests of leading civil rights lawyers and writers in India, beyond an attempt at instilling fear at large?

Broadly speaking, yes, one intention is to instill fear. In an election year, an equally important intention is to distract from the multiple crises that are rapidly enveloping this government. But to read behind these arrests, I think it might be useful to briefly look at some of the details too.

In June this year, the police made four arrests from Nagpur in central India: they picked up Advocate Surendra Gadling, two activists, Sudhir Dhawale and Mahesh Raut, and Prof Shoma Sen of Nagpur University. From Delhi, they picked up the activist Rona Wilson, of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners. By the end of August, we had five more arrests, this time spread across the country: from Delhi, there was Advocate Sudha Bharadwaj and journalist and human rights activist Gautam Navlakha; from Hyderabad, poet and activist Varavara Rao; and from Mumbai, the activists Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Fereira (Arun is of course a lawyer too).

What is this ecosystem that is under attack? These are people who have worked with – and spoken up for – the most disadvantaged, the most oppressed in our society. So the arrests attempt to link all ten of them into a single conspiracy, slapping them with a set of untenable, and ever shifting, charges under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the dreaded UAPA. Thereafter the state has relied upon a pliant corporate media to tar the work done by them, work done over a lifetime remember, and present them as part of a “Maoist” conspiracy to destabilize the nation. As an afterthought, the government even suggested there was a Maoist plot to kill the Prime Minister. To these ten names we must also add Prof G N Saibaba, who is currently being held in Nagpur jail, who is entirely wheelchair bound and 90 percent disabled. He too is accused of being part of the same Maoist conspiracy with his continuing – and unconscionable – incarceration also made possible under the sweeping provisions of the UAPA.

These are people whose work and whose opinions are visible and open. What these arrests – and the charges that are being thrown about – do is to try and criminalise their work and opinions, and push it all into some dark, opaque corner of a “Maoist” conspiracy. Of course, the arrests immediately also put a freeze on the extremely urgent work that all these ten individuals do. And many of them are involved with people ensnared in similarly dubious cases. Surendra Gadling and Rona Wilson, for example, have been directly involved in the legal assistance for Prof G N Saibaba. But there are also hundreds of nameless adivasis who stand similarly accused, and who these activists and lawyers actively assist and speak up for. These arrests will certainly put a chill in all those who work in these areas – and in civil society at large.

To understand the most important intention behind these arrests, we need to again look at the specific context of the charges. All ten of them were accused of being part of a conspiracy to trigger violence in Bhima Koregaon, near Pune, on January 1st of this year. This was the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon, an event that has become of some significance in contemporary Dalit politics. Hence, organizers had also decided to host a massive rally called the Elgaar Parishad, where over 300,000 people, most of them Dalits, showed up. The rally threw out a significant challenge to upper caste domination and explicitly signaled an organized role in the upcoming 2019 elections. From the BJP’s perspective, that is a very dangerous development, for should there be a consolidation of the Dalit vote against them, the party in power will find elections tougher than ever before. And right now, all the signs are pointing to a growing resentment against them. In connecting the Dalit assertion in Bhima Koregaon to the Maoists – and all bundled up inside a conspiracy – the arrests attempt to paint all the opposition to the BJP into a corner, and then raise a spectre of a threat to the nation.

Do you think the strategy of arrest and demonization will accomplish their intended purpose, electoral or otherwise?

In some ways, I’d say this second round of arrests has boomeranged on the government. There has been unexpected outrage from across the country. On September 13th, various trade unions from across Punjab called for a protest in the city of Mohali, and around 10,000 people attended! Reactions like this were most heartening. Large sections of the media too reacted with unusual anger, and came down very severely on the government. There was good international coverage too.

Much of this media reaction was in the English language press though, or in the alternative media online. Whereas the sources by which the vast majority of people receive their news are still controlled by the corporate media, in English or any of the other languages, and these remained totally opaque to the inconsistencies in the way the arrests were unfolding. These sections of the media – and sadly this is the majority – continued to regurgitate narratives about a conspiracy-to-destabilize-the-country, an attempt to kill the Prime Minister, and so forth, without even a moment’s deliberation. So yes, the BJP will probably continue to deploy some of this manufactured rhetoric in the elections, although we don’t know how effective it will be.

But I don’t think the business of intimidating or cowing down people has worked at all. In fact, I see quite the opposite: the outrage at what was going on was so strong that all kinds of people who might traditionally have chosen to sit on the fence, simply slipped into the oppositional space. The #MeTooUrbanNaxal was a good example of that.

Did you participate in the twitter response #MeTooUrbanNaxal? What do you think is happening here?

I’m not on twitter but that didn’t come in the way of my getting a real kick out of that one! The credit for coining the phrase “Urban Naxal” is probably due to a Mumbai filmmaker called Vivek Agnihotri, who has emerged as a leading figure in the intellectual battles being fought on behalf of the BJP, and the Hindutva forces more generally. It’s something of a comment on the poverty of the imagination in those quarters that its fallen to Mr Agnihotri to carry forward the Hindutva battle against “leftist forces”. Before this phase, he was known, if at all, only for a few mediocre films he’d made. Then two years ago, he made a film about a leftist conspiracy on an Indian campus, and its release cannily cashed in on the shameful demonization of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi, where public attention was peaking at that time. This attack was very much a part of the general attack on all forms of progressive education in India, and for the BJP and its cohort, JNU became a den of leftist-anarchist politics, as well as of alcohol, drugs and free sex. The film was not a success, but to get a picture of the kind of entrepreneurship that we are talking about here, Mr Agnihotri went on to write a book about the making of the film, called “Urban Naxals”.

Then in August of this year, literally a day after the arrests of the 5 people, Mr Agnihotri tweeted in triumph, asking for help in making further lists of “Urban Naxals”. Basically, he was asking the twitter world to set up visible public targets. But in his arrogance, Mr Agnihotri had also set himself up for a sharp dose of “ad-busting”, where you use the scale and size of the opponent to disarm them, guerilla style. Pratik Sinha, who runs the very important fact-checking website AltNews, took the lead with a tweet that invited people to join in saying #MeTooUrbanNaxal. That was it: within hours, the hashtag had gone completely viral. Tens of thousands of people joined in, including those who might ordinarily have been reluctant to be seen as publicly joining hands with an opposition to the ruling party’s ideology. It became the second most popular twitter trend for a while.

The crucial thing was not that it was a trending tweet, but that the noxious category of “Urban Naxal” had been laughed out of circulation in very quick time, in a matter of a day. That was important, because the BJP and its Hindutva cohort have been very adept at using labels to demonise and weaken people. Meaningless phrases like “Pseudo-secularist” and “Tukde-tukde gang” have been deployed as slurs because they are able to amplify them very fast through their networks. But a single deft move  – #MeTooUrbanNaxal – can bring it all crashing down too. Something to learn from that very jui-jitsu move!

Describing the Maoists as the “greatest internal security threat” to India, the previous government led by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh aggressively pursued their rural-based leaders and combatants. But Singh did not kindle the figure of the “urban Naxal” to orchestrate a wider crackdown of dissent in the cities?  How do you account for this shift?

It’s not really a shift, just a deepening, or a thickening of a method I’d say. After all Prof Saibaba was first jailed under the previous regime. You would recall the widely publicized case of Dr Binayak Sen who was jailed for two years for speaking up about human rights in Chhattisgarh; as well as the arrests and torture of the school teacher Soni Sori, who has since emerged as an adivasi leader from Bastar. Every pernicious law used to prosecute people today – including the UAPA – has its roots in the previous government. The demonization of any and all forms of resistance as some secret, subterranean “Maoist” conspiracy certainly began behind the more benign façade of the previous government, the Congress-led UPA, and behind the dull, innocuous facade of Dr Manmohan Singh.

The spectre they had created at that time was directed at anyone who opposed the neo-liberal agenda. Whether you were an adivasi sitting on land that was rich in iron ore, or you were a person in a village that had been selected as the site of a humungous smelter or steel plant: if you opposed it, you were an enemy, a Maoist or whatever. Even if you lived in the city, like Dr Binayak Sen or Prof Saibaba, and spoke about these issues, you were a clear and present danger. The present BJP-led government is simply using those tools in a more brutal and crude way.

What is likely to be the legal and political outcome of these arrests for the civil rights movement at large? Is it likely it will only be strengthened? Are we heading for more frontal clashes between the two sides, like what happened in Tamil Nadu with the direct firing on protestors?

I think these arrests, and the consequent uproar, mark an important juncture, probably as crucial as some of the events that accompanied the Emergency that was imposed in 1975. That 19 month long Emergency had galvanised a nascent human rights and civil liberties discourse in a very sharp way, and helped politicize an entire generation. I’d say that the increasingly inflammatory and divisive rhetoric that the BJP is stooping to is sharpening people’s understanding of what is at stake, and makes the task of civil rights defenders even more urgent.

How far do we have to go before a critical mass of people reach their threshold is difficult to say, because the one achievement of the BJP being in power since 2014 is that they have been successful at normalizing the majoritarian Hindutva logic. It’s not just the lynchings, stabbings, attacks and daily aggravations on Muslims, Dalits and Adivasis. It’s also the language that they have given legitimacy to. Some weeks ago, Amit Shah, President of the BJP, gave a series of vituperative pre-election speeches where he repeatedly talks about “cockroaches” and “insects”. Mr Shah pretends he is talking about Bangladeshi “infiltrators”, but everyone knows that it’s the Muslims who are in his crosshairs.

Will filmmakers and artists also come into the dragnet? In this regard, do you see what is happening in India as an extension of what has been happening for decades in Kashmir or the North-East? Or are the dynamics of the latest episode very different?

Filmmakers and artists have so far been protected from the sharp edge of the knife: they might feel the pressure, their screenings or events might have been disrupted, but there is a line that has not been crossed. So far. One reason is that although we are fast careening towards a sort of proto-fascism in India, the state still wants to be seen as a democracy: “The World’s Biggest Democracy”. It’s good for the investment brochures because it then becomes “India. Which Is Not China”.

Ironically, however much this government might deride the intellectual class – and the “Urban Naxal” figure comes from that space – they are very prickly about what the wider intellectual world has to say about them. When the BJP President spoke to his partymen at a massive gathering in New Delhi recently, he curiously took the trouble to point out the two things that were no longer going to worry them in the forthcoming elections. He took the name of Akhlaq, a Muslim man who was killed in one of the earliest reported cases of lynching. In mentioning him, the BJP President was clearly saying that the party did not have to worry about Muslims in the electoral arithmetic anymore. The other thing he said that did not bother them was “Award Wapsi”, or the return of awards, the short-hand used to describe the symbolic return of state honours by well-known writers and poets two years ago. He brought it up even though most people had probably forgotten about that episode, including those who had made that gesture of protest!

I’m one of them: like many other filmmakers, I gave back two awards for films I have made. Apart from the brief surge of satisfaction that I felt at that time, most of us haven’t thought about it since. But the BJP obviously has, and it still rankles them.

I don’t know too much about how it has worked in the Northeast, but in Kashmir I’d say the strangulation of the intellectual space has a very long history. It began gently, with the appropriation of important cultural figures by the state in the 1950s and 1960s, so that the possibility of an autonomous cultural space was very, very, narrow. Later this narrowing extended into the university, where any forms of independent thinking, or the possibilities of a political space, were systematically uprooted. The media story was similar, except for a brief burst that followed the coming of the internet. But the level of scrutiny in Kashmir is still very high, and everyone is under tremendous pressure. So yes, however bad things might appear to those who live in India, there is still a very different, and not comparable, dynamic at play in Kashmir.

For the past few years, a movement of resistance film festivals appears to be brewing in cities across India. Can you tell us about this movement and what you see it doing? Have you participated? How are the audiences? Are they cross-caste? Is there a rise of Dalit filmmakers? Are there glimpses of how film can serve resistance to authoritarian or neoliberal states?

I’d see these more as alternative film festivals, though in the end anything that runs counter to the mainstream commercial discourse, and outside of the censorial regime, is certainly an act of resistance! Most of these new festivals have actually formed around the screening of documentaries. This is important because even before these festivals came up, the documentary film in India had already been distinguished by its unusual and direct relationship with its audience, unmediated by links with television or funding agencies.

There was of course the iconic Odessa film movement in Kerala in the mid 1980s, where a bunch of film enthusiasts lugged a 16mm projector from village to village screening classics, mostly feature films, often simultaneously translating it for their Malayalam speaking audience. But it remained an experiment and I’d say the new audience culture that is expressed in these alternative film festivals more likely comes out of the close relationship between the documentary tradition on the one hand, and people’s movements and alternative politics on the other – whether that be in areas of ecology, feminism, sexuality, or anything else that we think of as constitutive of politics.

One recent marker has been the Pratirodh ka Cinema project, or the Cinema of Resistance, which began in the small town of Gorakhpur 15 years ago, and has spawned dozens of other festivals across the Hindi belt. Some have closed after a couple of editions, others come in fits and starts. A few sturdy ones survive. In the south, there is the long running Madurai film festival, and Pedestrian Pictures in Bangalore, each one searching for a model that is sustainable, given that all of these experiments do not accept any form of commercial or state sponsorship. There is an excellent new book that explores this ground with some thoroughness, Towards a People’s Cinema: Independent Documentary and its Audience in India, edited by Kasturi Basu and Dwaipayan Banerjee. (In the interests of transparency, I have an essay in the volume too!) Kasturi and Dwaipayan are also founding members of the excellent People’s Film Festival in Kolkata, an event with amazing curatorial flair, which has now taken to programming events almost throughout the year.

The problem is not getting the audiences: once you create a space and are able to sustain it with any sort of regularity, people do come. What you must have, and cannot do without, are a cadre of cultural activists, and wherever you have a long running and successful event, it’s because there are excellent people behind it. Are the audiences diverse enough, you ask, do we have large Dalit attendance? I wish I could say yes, but the truth is that the social ghettoization of marginalized groups has created silos that cannot be broken simply through good intentions. So simply screening a well-meaning film about a “Dalit issue” is not the same as having significant Dalit participation in the audience, or having enough Dalit film-makers show their work. That task remains outstanding for sure.

Ultimately, film, or art more broadly, cannot alone take on authoritarianism, or the might of neoliberal states. That is the domain of old fashioned politics, of mobilisation, of cadres on the ground. But while films cannot be the resistance itself, they certainly can create spaces within which that resistance can be nurtured, where the ideas and the ideology that allows us to fight back can be sustained. Even with difficult ideas, and in India I’d refer here to the conversation on Kashmir, or around the meaning of the Maoist insurgency in central India, we have seen the space expand hugely over a decade or so. And the screening of documentary films has played an important part in that process.

The homogenising narratives of the Indian state exclude multiple histories and struggles. The stories you capture through film centre these stories, and the very presence of those who often get left out of these mainstream narratives. Can you tell us about your process as a filmmaker, starting with what you choose to document until the final cut?

Well that’s probably a very long conversation so I’ll try and compress it as much as I can, and hopefully it will still retain some coherence!

A lot of my work over the past two decades has begun with curiosity, and with a set of questions, rather than, say, a story. In 1997, I worked on a short video on democracy in India, as part of a set of films aimed at young Indians in the 50th year of Indian independence. I filmed an election campaign in Punjab, where the first election after many years of traumatic violence was underway. I also filmed around a large rally of Dalits in southern Tamil Nadu. The film that came out of this, One Weapon, took its title from what a landless Dalit in Punjab told me when I asked him why he voted at all. “It’s the only weapon we have”, he had said, “tell me what else we can use?”

The film that followed, Words on Water, was set amidst the struggle against large dams in the Narmada valley, but was actually a more complex response to the same question that I was carrying over: how do people continue to have faith in a system that delivers so little to them? I chose the Narmada valley – instead of, lets say, Manipur or Odisha – because there was a vibrant movement in the shape of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. The movement had evolved a well-worked out and well-argued position. It was also a non-violent movement. That makes some things simpler to understand. Or let’s say that armed struggle makes many things much more complicated, drives them underground.

  DVD cover for Words on Water

DVD cover for Words on Water

While I was still finishing Words on Water, 9/11 happened, and questions of violence and non-violence sort of disappeared in the smoke and fog and absurdity of the War on Terror. The film began circulating in 2003, and the same year I happened to visit Kashmir. I was returning after 14 years, and what I saw was so disturbing, and the silence around it in India so enormous, that I like to think that I might have arrived there as an Indian, but I probably returned a Kashmiri (which I am by birth, if not by residence). Eventually the film I made in Kashmir, Jashn-e-Azadi (or How we celebrate freedom), was an attempt to think about the contours of the idea of Azadi, of freedom, and how these connected to notions of struggle, of martyrdom, and eventually armed struggle. The film that followed, Red Ant Dream, was a reflection on what we have described as “revolutionary possibility”, where the armed insurgency in Bastar was only one arrow in the quiver, while the unarmed resistance against mining companies in the hills of Niyamgiri in Odisha was another.

This set of films has sometimes been shown together as a sort of “democracy trilogy”. They are all powered by questions that are interconnected, but also separate – just as they were all made in situations and places which are very different from each other, with their own distinct histories, and yet they force us to ask questions that are related as well. I once showed Red Ant Dream at a screening in Shopian, in South Kashmir, and remember the comments made by one young man from the audience. He said what struck him most about our representation of the struggle in Bastar was the place of culture, of music and song, something he felt had been sorely neglected in Kashmir! I like those sorts of connections people make.

The form of each of these films is different, and how and what we shoot is invariably a response to the situation we are filming in: I’m not comfortable having a construct already in my head when I step out to make a film. That might give a film more of a formal coherence, but I’m not personally very interested in that sort of aesthetic. I’d much rather be in the situation first, and then wait for the material to define itself for us. And it’s not a mystical experience that I’m waiting for: we’re always anchored by the questions that brought us there in the first place.

What questions are you thinking about at the moment? And have any of these questions led you to pursue a new project?

I think a lot about Kashmir, and increasingly, around it. While the present there continues to be unbearable, I’m increasingly fascinated by its recent past. The future too looks so bleak…so I guess I’m sort of unable to turn my face away from that place for any length of time. My film Jashn-e-Azadi was done more than a decade ago, after which I edited an anthology of writing from Kashmir called Until My Freedom Has Come in 2011, and last year I edited (and published) a photo-book, Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016, looking at the work of 9 Kashmiri photographers. These were all ways for me to inhabit that space, and now all these years later, I know that the questions that are being raised in that conflict are very fundamental, very challenging ones. I’m also beginning to understand the landscape better, and some of the questions are becoming clearer. I guess whatever I do in the coming years will try and address some of those impossibly vexed questions that Kashmir raises for me.

  Book cover for Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016

Book cover for Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016


Sanjay Kak is a documentary film-maker and writer who has most recently edited and published the critically acclaimed photo-book Witness: Kashmir 1986-2016. He lives in New Delhi and is active with the documentary cinema movement in India.