Name of the Film: Ayodhya to VaranasiPrayers For Peace
Director/Producer: Suma Josson
Length: 1 hour
Price: Rs. 100 (individuals)/ Rs. 250 (organisations)
Reviewed by: Yoginder Sikand
By not taking religion seriously enough and by refusing to critically engage with it, secularists in India have inadvertently allowed militant right-wing groups to virtually monopolise religious discourse. Religion is as a double-edged sword. While in its institutionalized forms it functions, by and large, to protect the interests of dominant social groups it can also be wielded as a weapon to critique the hegemony of established elites. In enabling religion to play this role secular intellectuals and activists have an important part to play. Working along with religious people, rather than against them, in order to promote alternate, progressive understandings of religion is an urgent task before secular activists in India today. This is the message that this powerfully evocative film seeks to convey.
The filmגs title is apt to be somewhat misleading. It focuses almost entirely on the town of Ayodhya and all we get to see of Benaras are pilgrims somberly immersing themselves at the bathing ghats along the Ganges. The film is based on a series of interviews with a number of people from diverse backgrounds, mostly denizens of Ayodhya, including Hindu priests, Dalit labourers, Muslim craftsmen, and Hindutva and anti-Hindutva activists. Through their voices the film provides sensitive a critique of the Hindutva agenda as a fascist project that seeks to preserve the interests of the upperђ caste/class minority, in league with the forces of global imperialism. At the same time these voices also highlight the micro-struggles by ordinaryђ people in Ayodhya town itself against the Hindutva forces.
Inventing history is crucial to the Hindutva project in order to create a pan-Hindu identity transcending caste and class divisions. For this purpose Muslims are deliberately projected as the menacing Other, the eternal foe of the Hindus, against whom violence must be constantly directed in order to protect the Hindu motherlandђ. Hindutva activists interviewed in the film are shown repeat this cliched argument, but are juxtaposed against numerous other Hindus, including sadhus and priests of important temples in Ayodhya, who bitterly critique this claim. Indeed, this internal critique of Hindutva articulated by several Hindu priests from Ayodhya, is one of the most salient features of this film.
Denouncing the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and allied Hindutva outfits as evilђ and anti-Hinduђ, numerous Hindu priests interviewed in the film call for Hindus to oppose them. True religion does not allow for the killing of innocent people, they argue, denouncing Hindutva groups for inciting anti-Muslim hatred and violence. One Hindu priest cites the fact that violence in the name of religion was certainly not a Muslim monopoly, and refers to the several wars in the past between Shaivite and Vaishnavite Hindus. Critiquing the Hindutva claim that the Babri Masjid was built after destroying a Hindu temple, another priest says that none of the existing temples in Ayodhya is more than 500 years old. In fact, many of temples in the town, such as the Digambhar Akhara and the Hanumangarhi, were built with financial help from the local Muslim rulers, he says. Had the Mughal Emperor Babur destroyed a Ram temple to build the Babri Majid, he asks, how is it that Tuslidas, author of the Ramcharitramanas, who lived in Ayodhya at that time, did not mention it in his works? Instead, he tells us, that Tulsidas humbly mentions that he begs for food and sleeps in the mosqueђ, which meant that Tulsidas bore no rancour for Muslims. In a similar vein, another priest argues that history cannot be reversed, and one must not seek to exact revenge for past wrongs, real or imagined. Destroying shrines belonging to other communities was no Muslim monopoly, he tells us, adding that some Hindu kings were known to have destroyed shrines belonging to their Jain rivals. Referring to the mass slaughter of Muslims by Hindutva groups in the name of the so-called Ramjanmabhoomi movement he says, Ishwar or Allah does not want a house for Himself soiled with the blood of innocentsђ.
One of the main highlights of the film is a lengthy interview with Mahant Gyandas, the head of the historic Hanumangarhi temple in Ayodhya. He explicitly denounces Hindutva groups as simply political outfits that misuse religion for their own interests. Accusing the VHP of accumulating millions of rupees in the name of building a Ram temple, he says that the VHP is actually not at all interested in constructing the temple at all. If the temple were to be constructed, he says, the VHP would lose its very rationale. They take the name of Ram Raj, but are actually working to usher in Ravan Rajђ, he boldly declares. Not only have the Hindutva-walas spread communal hatred in Ayodhya and beyond, they have also done the greatest disservice to the Hindu faith, he laments. True Hinduism, he says, means love for all beingsђ, a far cry from the visceral hatred that the VHP preaches. Referring to the recent anti-Muslim pogroms instigated by Hindutva forces in Gujarat, he says that the crimes committed by them against hapless Muslims in the name of Hinduism have no sanction whatsoever in the Hindu religion. He sees the VHPs demand that India be ruled by its own dharmasansad or council of Hindu priests as absolutely unacceptable, because, he says, the VHP consists of ґdacoits, thugs and imposters.
This argument against the claims of the VHP to represent all Hindus or even all Hindu priests is further developed in an interview with another Hindu priest, who goes so far as to compare the VHP and associated organizations with HitlerҒs Nazis. Another priest goes so far as to demand that all fascist and communal organizations that spread hatred and violence be banned, Hindu as well as Muslim. Yet another priest appeals to Hindus to seek to understand, rather than alienate and demonise, Muslims. Rebutting the Hindutva argument that Hinduism and Indian nationalism are synonymous, he tells us that to be a true Indian one does not necessarily have to be a Hindu. A non-Hindu can be an equally good Indian as a Hindu, he says, appealing for a form of national identity that celebrates, rather than suppresses, diversity. Diverse religious traditions should be allowed to flourish, he says, but these must be reinterpreted in accordance with democratic and progressive valuesђ. He urges Hindus to look dispassionately at the example of Islam, which, he says, spread in India not because of the sword, as is often alleged by Hindutva ideologues, but because of its egalitarian appeal. Scores of Dalits and other oppressed lowђ castes flocked to the Muslim fold in search of freedom, attracted by Islams message of social equality, he tells us. A Hindutva state, another Hindu priest warns, would prove to be even more oppressive for Hindus themselves than for non-Hindus, because few Hindus would willingly allow themselves to be governed by medieval codes that the Hindutva forces wish to revive and impose on them. He cites the instance of Nepal, where Hindutva forces have allied with the oppressive anti-people monarchy, because of which, he says, the majority of the Hindus, mainly the poor, are now supporters of the Maoists. Similarly, he suggests, a Hindutva state would necessarily lead to many Hindus themselves rising up against it, leading to untold strife and violence.
While the critique of Hindutva represented by Hindu priests highlighted in this film represents one form of anti-communalism, argued from within a religious paradigm, another response is that articulated by socialist and Dalit activists as well as by Muslims who feature in this film. A Dalit woman from a village near Ayodhya, when asked for her views on the Ayodhya issue, insists that what matters to her and her people is not a temple or a mosque but adequate food to eat. ґThe “upper” castes got their freedom in 1947, but Dalits are still enslaved, she says, seeing the Hindutva-led so-called Ramjanmabhoomi movement as aimed at preserving the subordination of the Dalits and only further enriching ґupper caste Hindu oppressors. A Dalit social activist tells us how Hindutva is essentially an ґupper caste Hindu project that is aimed at only further reinforcing Brahminism, capitalism, feudalism and the slavery of the ґlower caste majority, and that, hence, it must be vigorously opposed by the Dalits. He insists that the Dalits are not Hindus and decries efforts by Hindutva forces to instigate Dalits against Muslims, using the former as cannon fodder for their fascist project. A Backward Caste farmer tells us how ґlow caste Hindus and Muslims in his village formed a committee to prevent Hindutva terrorists from invading it, stressing that only when Hindus and Muslims unite that they can jointly progress. A socialist activist evokes the powerful image of the Hindu sadhu Baba Raghav Das and the Muslim cleric Maulvi Amir Ali, who joined forces to fight the British in the Great Revolt of 1857. He tells us that the Babri Majid controversy was actually sown by the British. It was a British writer who first made the claim that Babur had destroyed a temple in Ayodhya to build a mosque in its place, and that before that there was no such tradition current among the inhabitants of Ayodhya. Another leftist activist mocks the Hindutva claim to patriotism, dwelling on HindutvaҒs consistent support to Imperialist forces in the past and today as well.
The focus of the film is on the politics of Hindutva and on the diverse ways in which significant numbers of Hindus in and around Ayodhya opposed to it interrogate it, but it also highlights certain Muslim voices. Ordinaryђ Muslim craftsmen in Ayodhya are shown making wooden sandals that are worn by Hindu sadhus and stringing garlands that adorn the statues in Hindu temples, highlighting the close links between Muslims and Hindus in Ayodhya. The film also depicts certain Sufi shrines in the town, where Hindu pilgrims outnumber Muslims, a Hindu temple built by with the help of a Muslim family, and another temple whose manager for many years was a Shia Muslim. Muslim respondents speak nostalgically of the tradition of Hindu-Muslim harmony that Ayodhya was once known for, and others, while denouncing the Hinduvta fascists, also critique reactionary Muslim leaders who, along with Hindutva outfits, worked to turn what was a local dispute into a veritable war between Muslims and Hindus on the national level.
This film is a powerful critique of the fascist project of the Hindutva brigade. While denouncing the use of religion for serving Hindutvas agenda, it also points to urgent need to recover religion from the merchants of terror so that it can be fashioned into a means for inter-community dialogue and liberation.
Note on the Director:
Born in Kerala, Suma Josson graduated in English Lit. from the College of St.Teresa, Minnesota, U.S.A. Having begun her career as a journalist, she switched over to the visual medium. Since then she has made two feature films and many documentary films on a wide range of issues. Janmadinam, her first feature film, in 1999 has won several awards and has travelled to various International Film Festivals and Universities abroad. It was premiered at the 2000 Berlin Film Festival. Also contributed to the documentary, ‘Trading Images’, an international co-production with IFU, (International Women’s University, Hannover) and the German television company, NDR in 2001. This was made along with four other women filmmakers from: the U.S, Africa, China and Germany. She is also a well-known poet and fiction writer and has published three books: Poems and Plays, A Harvest of Light (a collection of poems, Orient Longman), and ґCircumferences (a novel, Penguin). Mahua Tola Gets A School, is a book on an experimental primary school system in Madhya Pradesh, India. ‘Saree’ is her second feature film made in 2001. This film has also traveled to several international film festivals. ‘Gujarat: A Laboratory of Hindu Rastra’ was made two days before the last assembly elections in Gujarat in 2003. It is set in the post-Godhra violence, which engulfed Gujarat in March 2002. Her most recent documentary film is ґAyodhya to Varanasi: Prayers for Peace, which looks at the Ram Temple issue as the film travels from Ayodhya to Varanasi. Both these films were screened extensively both here and abroad.