Review | Even the Crows: A Divided Gujarat
We will see
“Neither the leaders nor the protectors came to rescue him
He was chased down the street,daggers in their hands
When he knocked on the kind people’s doors
He found his slayers
We worshipped the sun and moon at home
Worthless rocks they turned out to be
His corpse lay rotting on the streets
Even the crows turned out to be better than humans”
This moving stab of a poem was penned by Ahsan Jafri, a popular trade-unionist, poet and a former
Member of Parliament from Gujarat. What makes these verses unbearably heart-wrenching is the
unyielding whisper in my heart saying it is as if Ahsan Jafri sneaked softly into the future and spilled on the paper, these words that smell of blood , almost what happened to him on Feb 28, 2002, in Gulbarga Society, where he was hacked to death by a mob of Saffron goons : “ They tortured him for 45 minutes, and they cut his head, put it on a trishul, and then went outside to show what they have done”, in the words of his daughter Nishrin Jafri Hussain who lives in Delaware, USA.
“Even the crows: A divided Gujarat”, a documentary by Sheena and Sonum Sumaria, begins with a
sombre shot of a full moon eclipsed by a stream of dark clouds while the poem quoted above is being recited by Najid Hussain. A significant and invaluable addition to the rigorous documentation of the horrors that unfolded in the Gujarat Genocide and the never ending search for justice for the lives lost; for those raped; hacked and burnt in that mass slaughter.
Unfortunately, filmmakers preferred the often deployed, yet misleading, nomenclature of riots to describe that heinous orchestrated massacre. ‘Riots’ exude vibes of a spontaneous burst of violence, which is blatantly inaccurate. What happened in 2002 is genocide, even by the conditions dictated in the Resolution 260 (III) A of the U.N. General Assembly.
How we describe something influences how we remember, what we remember, and who we remember. Perhaps, one might be more vigilant while doing that. This is, by no means, a singular mistake of the filmmakers, but of the dominant narrative that insists on calling the event a ‘riot’.This sincere attempt of the filmmakers will leave a unique mark of its own on this haunting history as, unlike the previous films, a major portion of this narrative is situated outside India: in the U.K and the U.S.A. It engages, comprehensively, with a wide range of people of Indian origin in the diaspora: survivors and/or families of victims, businessmen eager to jump onto the caravan of Modi’s development, members of shakhas’ and Hindu nationalist groups operating out of the U.S.A & the U.K, dissident academics, lawyers and community members resisting in their own ways this incursion of Hindu Fascist thought into collective world psyche.
In more ways than one, this documentary fills a serious lacuna, as far as films about communal violence, or about Hindu Nationalism in general, are concerned, by placing its gaze on the people who sustain, lobby for, or resist the ideology of Sangh, in prominent ways, from outside the country: the people who shake with delirious nationalist fervor in the tainted Wembley Stadium and Madison Square Garden,as well as those on the streets who resist, unnoticed by the mainstream media, this hallucinatory horror. Perhaps, this is only natural given the background of the filmmakers, belonging to the diaspora themselves.
Survivors in Diaspora
To me, the most intimate portrait they sketch is of Nishrin Jafri Hussain and her husband Dr. Najid Hussain, who they follow throughout the movie. Nishrin reminisces about her father through cherished photographs and loving words, through torment and tears. She narrates the harrowing last few hours of her father’s life- his desperate attempts to reach out of for help, calls to all the political dignitaries including Mr. Modi ( “you are on your own…save yourself if you can” was supposedly his apathetic response), his final futile appeasement of Saffron goons by offering them the money and gold in the house. But what really stays with you, like a lonely lotus in the lap of a grieving pond, like a dead baby around the bosom of a weeping mother, is how Nishrin dealt with this unprecedented tragedy. Her initial reluctance at accepting the cataclysm in its entire monstrosity.
Says a tear-stricken Nishrin: “There are times when I think that may be RSS or BJP will come out and they say that we are holding him (Ahsan Jafri) hostage. They will ask for money and release him. There are times when I am in Ahmedabad, look at the streets, maybe he’s lost his memory but he is somewhere.”
Perhaps the most poignant moment in the movie, is where Nishrin narrates her first visit to Ahmedabad post-genocide:
“The first time I went to Ahmedabad in 2002, they took us in a van to the complex…..my blood was raising…the nearer the home came…I had this rush in my blood…I couldn’t get out of the van….so I took my shoes out and I put my feet ‘cause I felt like where, where would be his ashes…this is not the kind of fate you want people to have…..I don’t even want that penalty for Modi.”
After a few more sentences, the camera zooms into the sink where the gloved hands of Nishrin are
washing a jar, cleansing the rot: this is the the last time Nishrin appears on the screen. The sheer contrast that slashes our eyelids: a person reconciling the tragic with the mundane; a very delicate and moving exploration of human grief and resilience. Another survivor of the genocide that the filmmakers frequently converse with is Imran Dawood from Batley, West Yorkshire, U.K, of Gujarati origin. Imran’s uncles, Sakil and Saeed Dawood, and his neighbor, Mohammad Aswat, were killed while on holiday in Gujarat, but Imran survived the brutal assault. The remains of the dead are yet to be returned. While conversations with Nishrin are confined within/nearby her house, the movie here also follows the silence of Imran’s strolls through desolate English streets. The first as well as the final appearance of Imran in the documentary was through him playing cricket on a green field- to a stranger’s eye, completely unknown is the burden of haunting past he bares before the camera. Human sorrow is a strange being, it rests on our heart, most times, like a brooding bird, still and sullen, but there are moments it decides to flap its slumbering wings so hard that those sounds reach the external eye, sometimes as words, sometimes as tears.
Both Nishrin and Dawood were very keen on returning, perhaps, to give something to the country that took so much.
Patrons and Dissidents
Besides wading through the thoughts of survivors and their families, we also get to witness the
heartwarming solidarity and resistance vis-a-vis the struggle for justice for the victims of Gujarat Genocide, and, equally prominent in the documentary are the abominable fascists, dressed in suits,
belonging to various Hindu Right organizations/Shakhas with direct links to the Sangh Parivar in India, and, of course, a capitalist who is sincerely trying to find a common ground, of greed, with them, and so excited about Modi’s spectacular ascent to power that it wears you down, putting your teeth on edge .
The tension between these two factions, in those areas, is brought to fore with considerable skill by the filmmakers. One is left with a candid portrait of this troubled terrain- both humbling and enraging at the same time.
One such inspiring dissident that the movie clings on to is Suresh Grover, the person handling the civil case against Modi and his administration under Crimes Against Humanity filed by Imran’s family- which he feels is a case more watertight than those in international criminal courts against political leaders from Rwanda, in terms of ‘command structure’ . He leads us through the persistent travails they face in this cumbersome journey seeking justice, against all odds- a hostile state and an unresponsive judiciary.
We sit through their meetings where they strategize, ponder upon, and question the various aspects of this critical endeavor. It’s a humbling experience, for me, to take cognizance of the sheer, indomitable, patience it takes to even sense a tiny whiff of justice in this world.
Coming to fascists, some of them belonging to Indian American Intellectuals Forum, (oh the shameless facades!), and Hindu Unity, a youth militant Hindu Nationalist organization in USA, the self-righteous tone of their repressive, and repulsive thoughts, leaves one amazed.
Islamophobia/Xenophobia dressed as concerns about “Militant Islam”, “ Christianity” ,“communists” etc and a ridiculous, yet carefully nurtured, sense of persecution of Hindu faith, while, simultaneously, brimming with pride, at the moral supremacy of Hinduism over Semitic and Abrahamic faiths, and to top it all, thinly veiled justifications of Genocidal violence in service of their apparently hounded religion- a perfect 21st century caricatures of Fascism. Nothing would perhaps better capture this than when one of them says, “…we need a Hindu Rashtra. If the world has to live in peace, only Hindus can lead them. What is happening nowadays in India is people are awakening….”
A worrisome awakening, to humanity, as a whole, and one we should reckon immediately.
But, still, the most disconcerting thing was the sight of youth being indoctrinated, and chanting as a group, in a HSS( Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh) Shakha in North West London. One shudders at the thought of all the bigotry being shoved into their throats so early in their age. This reviewer is glad, particularly, the filmmakers don’t indulge much is in the liberal platitudes of Hinduism being radically different from Hindutva, which gets a passing mention from, surprise, an Indian liberal. An even cursory reading of the searing works of lower caste intellectuals like Ambedkar, Periyar,
Phule etc shall help reflect on the repugnant injustices codified into various Hindu scriptures like
ManuSmriti etc and would further deepen our understanding of Hindutva as a phenomenon, and how we can’t effectively demolish it without taking stock of caste, an inseparable pillar of Hinduism, and how movements that mobilize lower castes against the pervasive Brahminical polity have the amazing potential to unsettle the veneer of ‘Hindu unity’.
One of the most fascinating characters from the film is the capitalist from the London Chamber of
Commerce whose each and every fleecy claim about the ‘development’ in Gujarat immediately
crumbles as the camera cuts to ghettoized Muslims, local leftist singers critiquing the pro-corporate
policies of Modi, vehemently sweeping away any shards of illusion lying around these bloated claims.
There is one particularly mind-numbing awful statement he makes regarding the ‘resilience’ of Indians as a community , and how they have moved on from 2002, or Gujarat earthquake and other calamities ( yes, of course, all of them belong to the same league), and how the insistence on justice for 2002 is just an irresistible pastime of the media and politicians. In fact, this is a refutation that is a common and convenient rope on which they hang their dirty linen, ‘Why 2002?’
To which, like a tight slap on their blood-stained bodies, Khatun, a Muslim woman living in a ghetto near one of the dumping grounds in Gujarat says: “ I am very angry. I am willing to say all this to Modi’s face. We have lost everything after 2002. Materialistic things don’t matter but the lives that we have lost…women, children, young girls like you. Why did they have to do this to them? That seven-month old foetus they took from her stomach…we will never forget what he has done and our anger will never subside”
Yes, the global community, too, should never forget what he has done and our anger should never subside.
As we inch closer to the end, the filmmaker asks Nishrin: “For you, what would justice be?”
“Justice would be when he will be stripped off all his powers. He doesn’t deserve that power….everybody who was that day in the government…”
And that should be our least demand, pursuing which we should struggle incessantly.
Just a few minutes later, a screen appears saying “In May 2014, the BJP won national elections and
Narendra Modi became Prime minister of India ….”,
…which makes this fight much more imminent and intense. Fight against fascism. Fight for human
dignity. Fight for a right to live.
This film, with phenomenal screenplay and cinematography, slickly edited, and an underplayed, yet
palpable, empathy in the storytelling, is a major, and crucial, effort to jolt the world dazed by Modi-
mania to the history drowning in the clutches of shrieking stadiums, to the hideous reality of Hindu
fascism and the wreckage of misery it leaves behind among the people it crushes under its trishul – and why it should be buried before it engulfs the world with its unsavoury tongue.
It ends with a poignant and hopeful poem by Ahsan Jafri, in his own voice, a beautiful photograph of him on the screen:
“ How long the heart aches , unresolved. We will see
How long the people grieve, in vain. We will see.
A new moon has risen from deep within
How long darkness will prevail. We will see
My deep thirst has turned into a desire for life
How long the cup remains in the hands of others. We will see
Love is life and the beauty of existence
Yet it remains forbidden to us. How long, we will see.
The crown of the oppressor falls in the end
How long the tyrannical throne holds. We will see.
How long the heart aches, unresolved. We will see.
How long the people grieve in vain. We will see”
Just as if he is reciting this from a crevice in the corner of a distant world.
How long the justice evades, we will see.