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Saffron arsonists fish in Deepa’s troubled Water
HT Correspondent (Varanasi, January 30)

THE PROTEST against celebrity film-maker Deepa Mehta's Water turned violent this morning when activists of a saffron outfit raided locations for the film's shooting and burnt set material. The offensive was conducted under the banner of the newly-formed Kashi Sanskriti Raksha Sangharsh Samiti (KSRSS).

The BJP national secretary, Mrs Jyotsna Srivastava, the treasurer of the party's State unit, Mr Ashok Dhawan, a party legislator, Mr Shyam Dev Roy Choudhuri, and others, were seen leading a protest march and a rally against the film.

Acting on a request made by Ms Mehta's team, the district administration later beefed up security at shooting locations. Today's events began with a protest rally organised by the saffron brigade at the Assi crossing here. A procession was taken out.

The processionists raised slogans accusing Ms Mehta of pursuing an agenda to defame Hindu culture. At the Assi Ghat, where the Abhishek Bachchan-starrer Bas Itnasa Khwab Hai was being shot, the processionists assured the film's director, Goldi Behl, and others that their offensive was targeted at Ms Mehta's venture alone. On reaching Reewa Kutir on the banks of the Ganga, where a major portion of Ms Mehta's film is to be shot, the processionists turned violent. They displaced a wooden structure erected by members of Ms Mehta's team from the steps of Tulsi Ghat and plunged it into the river. The processionists then went on the rampage at Dr K. K. Pandey's house, portions of which are being used by Ms Mehta's team to make and store set material.

The KSRSS activists then destroyed a few structures and carried a few others to the Assi crossing where a rally was held. The wooden structures were set ablaze before leaders of the saffron outfit began spewing venom on the Canada-born film-maker. The rally ended with the regional organising secretary of the Sangh Parivar's cultural offshoot, Sanskar Bharati, Jitendra vowing to thwart shooting of the film in either the city or elsewhere in the country.

"No FIR has been lodged on the incident till this afternoon. We, however, have beefed up security," the SSP, Mr G. L. Meena, said.

Meanwhile, in Lucknow, the State Govt has decided to refer the film back to the I&B Ministry. A Government spokesman said the shooting of the film will remain suspended till the Union Ministry takes a decision on the issue.

Unfazed Mehta launches movie


VARANASI, JAN. 30. About 500 people led by local leaders of the BJP and some outfits owing allegiance to the Sangh Parivar ransacked the sets of Ms. Deepa Mehta's film `Water' at Tulsi Ghat here this morning and threw the material in the Ganga. The protesters came to the spot in a procession, raising slogans. However Ms. Deepa Mehta said she would continue shooting.

Filmmaker Ms. Deepa Mehta performed the ``mahurat'' of her latest Hindi movie `Water' at a hotel here today even as the Uttar Pradesh Government denied her permission for shooting and various organisations staged protests against her film.

Deepa huddled the cast in a room at a city hotel and launched the movie with symbolic pooja.

Shabana Azmi, Nandita Das and eight-year-old Urvi Gokani, who enact the role of widows in the film depicting the relationship between a Gandhian idealist and a widow in the backdrop of Varanasi in 1930, were present at the ceremony.

Describing the protests as ``heart-breaking'', Deepa Mehta said the Information and Broadcasting Ministry had cleared the script without any cut and a liaison officer was appointed by the Ministry to monitor the shooting. ``But suddenly, yesterday the liaison officer, Krishna Murari sought the Hindi script of the movie and said he needed a fortnight to study it'', she said, adding ``before a book is published, somebody is writing the review''.

Police protection has been given to the director and the main stars of the movie and security beefed up around the hotel where the unit is camping.

Workers of the BJP and several women and social organisations today took out a procession under the leadership of the local BJP MLA, Mr. Shyam Deo Roy Chowdhari, and the party's all-India secretary, Mrs. Jyotsana Srivastava, in protest against the film.

After ransacking the set erected at Tulsi Ghat on the bank of the Ganga the protesters also tried to enter a building where the indoor set was located but it had been locked from inside by the film crew. Protesters carried away whatever they could lay their hands on and set them on fire.

According to the police, no person of the film unit was attacked or injured.

A public meeting was held under the banner of ``Kashi Sanskriti Raksha Sangharsh Samiti'' action committee to ``save the culture of Kashi'' in which speakers accused Deepa Mehta of trying to portray the cultural and social life of this holy city in bad light. The Uttar Pradesh Government has reportedly disallowed the shooting of the film.

The Uttar Pradesh Government today referred to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry a report of the Varanasi district administration that the shooting of the film was likely to ``hurt people's feelings'' besides creating ``law and order problems'', the Principal Secretary (Home), Mr. V. K. Mittal, told reporters here. He however, denied reports that a group today made an attempt to damage the sets of the film.

The Government yesterday asked Ms. Deepa Mehta not to start shooting without obtaining its permission.

* * *

Film shooting stopped

Following violent demonstrations on the sets of Ms. Deepa Mehta's film `Water' here this morning, the district administration tonight stopped the shooting of the movie on the orders of the Uttar Pradesh Government.

The District Magistrate, Mr. Aloke Kumar, in a press release said the district administration had informed the State Government about the sentiments of the people of Varanasi regarding the film.

Following instructions from Lucknow, the district administration had intimated Ms. Mehta that shooting of the film had been disallowed till further orders, he said.



Ethical Cleansing
For a right wing that revels in the politics of identity, Deepa Mehta’s film is the water of life itself

By Ishan Joshi

Like a great mahatma they have little in common with, the Sangh parivar understands the power of symbolism better than any other. It chooses its battles with care; it seldom falters on its timing. Check the setting of their latest performance: Varanasi, the oldest city of Hinduism, revered by millions. Check their adversary: an avant garde filmmaker, a little controversial and dubious among the middle class for an earlier film on lesbianism. Check the issue: the same old running down of tradition and religion by the so-called urban emancipated.

"Freedom of expression has become synonymous with anti-Hinduism."
Pravin Togadia, VHP general secretary

If, in the process, genteel notions of culture which middle India has faithfully subscribed to for the past 50 years, whether as a liberalism-inspired activity or an alien exercise, are jettisoned, so be it. They have been here before. Discordant as it may sound, given the differences in the scale of arenas, just 10 years ago they evoked Ayodhya to set up their scaffoldings of power. They understood that politics springs from cultural spaces.

Madhya Pradesh’s offer is a political game. You can’t physically bring the Ganga to MP. It’s stripping the film of its soul.
Mrinal sen

And the latest controversy over the (for now) aborted filming of Deepa Mehta’s film Water has once again reaffirmed their old modus operandi: when the fight is over cultural space, it’s seldom only about culture.

Though Mehta’s filming of Water - over which some dust has been kicked up - may be a trifle, the filmmaker herself is exactly the kind of target the Sangh would conceivably have prayed for if it had a choice to begin with. The rss-backed outfits realise they are not picking on Satyajit Ray. Mehta is easy prey.

Here is something which will strike a chord with the cadre - a filmmaker who isn’t identifiably "Indian" - based outside the country, here ‘only for the pickings’ and with a film on lesbianism in India already part of her repertoire. It isn’t too difficult to see why the cadre may fancy its chances of having a go. Perhaps more importantly, it may also have struck a chord with the "masses". Their choice of issues is always such that they leave the people no leeway to differ. The opinion poll (see adjoining page) certainly seems to indicate that. As does the inability of many to dismiss the Sangh parivar’s attitude as visceral illiberalism. Different in scale, of course, from the Ram mandir agitation but perhaps the next best choice in these ideologically sparse times.

Right or wrong, the Sangh does seem to have succeeded in anointing itself as the articulator of "Hindu sentiment". A bjp general secretary explains the logic of their success: "We both understand the sentiments of the people and are strongly opposed to wanton attempts to hurt it". This, despite the fact that in Varanasi, as elsewhere, the popular mood, some believe, may not be in consonance with the views of the Sangh-sponsored organisations. As always, if there is a majority that may differ, it is silent. The vocal minority, on the other hand, is ineffectual.

"Deepa left as the masses didn’t support her."
Dr Veena Pandey, former MLC and active member of the Kashi Sanskriti Raksha Samiti

Says Swati, a lecturer at the Benaras Hindu University (bhu): "Some of my colleagues met Deepa Mehta and assured her of our support, but while we were networking the ‘leaders’ had their way." A group of students from the university also told Outlook, "We feel ashamed that we couldn’t do a thing about the way the film crew was hounded out of Varanasi." But one them was candid enough to say that "devoted students have little time to worry about such foolish issues".

Banning a film is silly. You may or may not agree with Deepa Mehta’s films but you can’t run them down.

Shopkeepers in the holy city have their own take on the issue. Says grocery shop-owner Ashish Agarwal: "If a bandh is called, we’ll down shutters. Especially if the protesters are on the same side as the government of the day. We don’t want our shops and goods damaged." Agarwal, whose shop is in the busy Bhelupur area, is of the opinion that there is nothing wrong with Mehta making an attempt to highlight a social evil that did exist. "But who are we to comment in front of the big netas!"

Critics of the Sangh seize this opportunity to argue that it is precisely this apathy and disinterest among those who do not necessarily support the Sangh parivar which has enabled them to hijack the cultural space. Besides, in Varanasi, there were only "a handful of protesters" (according to the public statement of the producers of Water) who agitated against the film.

But even if this were true, and the protesting crowds were small, the Sangh and its sympathisers are obviously astute enough to interpret it in a manner favourable to their politics. J.P. Mathur, senior vice-president of the bjp, had the sophistry to say: "Thousands didn’t protest not because they were not in agreement, but because a demonstration is only a representative form of protest." In other words, silence implies acquiescence.

"Deepa’s so cunning she even presented two scripts."
Dr Devi Prasad Singh, active BJP member for the last 40 years

Add to this the Sangh parivar being secure in the knowledge that the space they seek to occupy is vacant. On the ground, there is no comparable counterforce.As a result, what was, to begin with, a question of local sentiments has been transformed into an emotive issue with ‘national’ and ‘Hindu’ implications.

And this is the source of power for the saffron hardliners who have repeatedly been saying that they would pursue Mehta and her crew beyond state boundaries - even if doors are opened out to them with cheer by Digvijay Singh and Laloo Prasad Yadav in Madhya Pradesh and Bihar respectively.

"We’re convinced she’ll be driven out of Narmada too."
Hridaya Nath Singh, Organising Secretary, UP BJP

Vishwa Hindu Parishad (vhp) general secretary Pravin Togadia told Outlook: "Where there are Hindus, there will be protests. It is Hindu sentiment which is hurt." This isn’t merely a "fringe" view. Mathur is rather outspoken: "The bjp supported the Varanasi citizens’ right to protest against the shooting of a film that hurt local feelings. Now that the film crew has left, the bjp has no view. Of course, if the protests spread - Uma Bharati has already articulated the feelings of the people of Madhya Pradesh - we may take a view as popular sentiment (elesewhere) will be hurt. And all it will lead to is Hindu consolidation."

It’s like being in Kafka land, one’s persecuted for imaginary crimes. You can’t oppose a film that hasn’t been made?
Govind Nihalani

For Digvijay, Water is just what the doctor ordered. For, apart from emphasising his secular credentials, he probably realises that he too can play the game of setting up opponents and bestowing upon them characteristics that suit his purpose. "I’ll see who stops the unit from shooting in my state," he thundered in the assembly last week.He has already taken on the Bajrang Dal, by refusing them permission to hold their national convention in Bhopal on February 18 and is on record saying, "I’ll fix the rss in no time."

But the saffron sanyasin, Uma Bharati, is undeterred. She seemed certain that the crew "would be stoned" if they attempted to make the film in the state. And now, Acharya Dharmendra of the vhp has announced that his organisation will not allow the film to be shot in Madhya Pradesh.

The Congress party, after deliberating over the issue for two weeks, has also decided get into action. Where it’s thickest, that is. Congress spokesperson Anil Shastri sought to put pressure on the nda’s "secular" allies by asking them whether they approved the "ban on the filming of Water" in Varanasi. He also called the move "fascist".

Back in Varanasi, though, the debate rages on even though the Sangh is claiming complete victory. Dr Veena Pandey, a former bjp mlc and member of the Kashi Sanskriti Raksha Sangharsh Samiti which led the protest against the film, is exultant: "The masses were hurt and they showed it. Deepa Mehta and Shabana Azami would never have left the city if they had the people’s support." And so convincing is the argument (spin if you like) that it drowns out the saner lament of the likes of Kunwarji Aggarwal, a former teacher at the National School of Drama: "Nobody has the right to throttle creativity. The caretakers of our culture could at least have waited till the work was complete." The Sangh fraternity has made sure that a film yet to be shot will become the staple of realpolitik over the next few weeks and months. And the impetus for this is the increasingly uneasy cohabitation between mass perceptions of culture and the politics within the Sangh.

After all, hasn’t the prime minister said that the rss is a "cultural organisation". The Gujarat and the Uttar Pradesh governments, both ruled by the bjp, have lifted the ban from government employees holding rss membership. This has been followed by the home minister indicating a review of the list of organisations, including the rss, membership to which is banned for Central government employees.

Indicators that the contours of the bjp-rss relationship, which had gone out of focus thanks to the jostling in the aftermath of the bjp coming to power via the coalition route, seem to be acquiring a distinct shape. After having been thwarted at every step by the avowedly liberalising Vajpayee regime in the sphere of economic policy, the rss, its front organisations, and its still significant support in the bjp, now intend to leave a lasting imprint on India. They intend to bring back into focus their politics of cultural identity that had given the bjp a toehold in the country to begin with. This is perhaps the only way to make the party, busy with the trappings of governing a disparate and diverse nation like India, realise the utmost significance of the Sangh hardliners and their politics of controlling the cultural space.

This leadership is, of course, savvy enough to recognise that its self-interest lies in the Vajpayee government’s continuation. But as a political heavyweight in the bjp told Outlook: "As far as these issues (like Water) are concerned, which have mass sentiment behind them, we will take them to the people. It is something which sharpens our identity and enthuses the cadre." The speculation of a ‘deal’ between the moderates in the government and the hardliners in the party - ’lay off governance, economic policy etc and we won’t interfere in your support to mass movements’ - only gain credibility given the reluctance of the moderate faces of the ruling dispensation to speak up.

This is understandable because the supposedly liberal and suave component of the regime - Vajpayee, Arun Jaitley, Jaswant Singh, Yashwant Sinha and Brajesh Mishra - has been forced on the defensive by the streetfighting hardliners who have chosen to emphasise what was the driving force that brought the bjp to where it is and thus wrest the space they had ceded to these ‘more acceptable’ faces. In fact, while Jaitley did disapprove of the agitation against the shooting, he was also careful enough to say that filmmakers ought to be sensitive to popular sentiments.

But time is running out for Vajpayee to take a stand, as he is again forced into treading a line that only spells dilemma for him - able statesman of a country like India and the leader of a party that pushes hard the politics of identity, inimical to the accepted idea of able governance. The prime minister has been there before. He ought to do the needful and not hedge. For posterity’s sake, if nothing else.

With Sutapa Mukerjee in Varanasi, Neeraj Mishra in Bhopal and Namrata Joshi

A Strange Kind of Hindu
The attacks on the film and its maker is an attack on the rule of law itself

By Prem Shankar Jha

Just when Indians had managed to convince themselves that the bjp had accepted the logic of India’s pluralism and was no longer pushing its Hindutva agenda, a series of events within a week of each other have rocked this belief and reawakened fears of Hindu domination among the large non-Hindu segment of the Indian people. There was Atal Behari Vajpayee’s sudden lurch towards a revision of the Constitution.

The increased aggressiveness of the past two months stems from a sense of insecurity among the far right.

Then there was his assertion that the rss was only a social organisation. Then came the destruction of the film sets of Deepa Mehta’s third film, Water, at Varanasi, followed by the ban on its filming ‘in the interest of peace and for the protection of the film-makers’.

The review of the Constitution and even the permission given by the Gujarat government to its civil servants to join the rss would not by themselves have raised the hackles of the minorities. Most people know that no matter what the bjp may want, changing the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both houses that the bjp simply can’t get. As for the Gujarat government’s decision, while it is deplorable to say the least, technically the rss is a social organisation - for it certainly is not a political party. Thus, no matter what Vajpayee’s private reservations might have been, when the rss itself is not banned, he had no legal grounds for opposing the state government’s action.

What’s made all of these developments disturbing is that they have followed in the wake of even more ugly happenings in 1998 and 1999, like the year-long campaign against Christians that culminated in the murder of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two children and the repeated attacks on the paintings and person of painter M.F. Husain for daring to paint Hindu gods and goddesses in the nude. This culminated in the burning of an entire museum of his works.

All of these episodes mesh together to form an ugly picture. It is one of stormtroopers in brown shirts rampaging through the streets of German towns destroying the shops of Jews 66 years ago. Granted that the Sangh parivar has not come close to the bestialities committed during that infamous Kristallnacht, the similarities are nonetheless disturbing. For what is common to fascism and Hindutva in this ugly form is the regimentation of thought and the brutal repression of culture.

The vhp and Bajrang Dal, the main perpetrators of these crimes, have sought to justify each of them. Husain had painted Indian goddesses in the nude - an offense both to Hinduism and to Indian womanhood. The arrival of a new Protestant missionary had lent an aggressive new edge to the campaign to convert tribals to Christianity and sharpened social cleavages between Christian and non-Christian tribals. And Mehta’s film would have dared portray a widows’ home in holy Kashi as a brothel. But none of these provide even a shred of justification for their suppression by brute force of individuals’ rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

To see Hindu goddesses in the nude or almost-nude, one has only to go to Khajuraho, Konarak, Halebid or any other ancient temple in the country. Proselytisation is not forbidden by the law - only the conversion of minors without their parents’ permission. As for stopping the shooting of Mehta’s film, it is a craven surrender by the government to the lumpen proletariat mob that is capitalism’s ugliest gift to early industrial society. This is the stratum from which the Shiv Sena and Bajrang Dal draw most of their recruits. If there was a threat to peace, authorities had a duty to apprehend those from whom it was emanating and not those at whom it was directed. If a Shiv Sainik insisted on setting himself alight, the duty of the police was to stop him and not make those whom he opposed pay the price for his suffering. What various bjp governments are condoning is a public display of contempt for the law.

They did it during the attack on Husain. They did it again during the anti-Christian agitation. And they are doing it now in Varanasi. The response of the nda government to this challenge to the rule of law has been supine to say the least. In the anti-Christian agitation, the bjp got off the fence and came down against the agitators only after the Staines murders. When they did, the attacks ceased almost as if by magic. That ambivalence was as evident in the lack of enthusiasm with which the Gujarat government pursued the attack on Husain’s paintings and the church burners in the Dangs area. The Varanasi authorities are demonstrating it today. This failure to uphold the law can only encourage more such attacks on the fundamental rights of Indians who incur the wrath of the Sangh parivar’s goons.

In fairness to Vajpayee and other central leaders of the bjp, the choice they face is not an easy one. Their moderation while in office has not only alienated the lunatic fringe of the Sangh but also a large segment of the rss. Vajpayee in particular is charged with being a Congressman in saffron robes. Cadres of the rss, vhp and Bajrang Dal feel they haven’t received their due share of the spoils of office. The attack on Christians in 1998 was at least in part to remind the bjp of their nuisance value. The rss too has reminded the bjp, albeit more privately, that the latter depends on its cadres to fight elections. The fact that the nda has returned to power more united than ever and with a comfortable majority has made the far right feel even more dispensable. Thus, its increased aggressiveness in the past two months.

Sooner or later, Vajpayee will have to face the fact that appeasement will only embolden the crypto-fascists in the Sangh parivar. Sooner or later, therefore, he will have to face the anger of his coalition partners. He will then have to decide whether he really needs the rss. It is better to face this choice with his moral credentials intact than to do so with them in tatters.



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Last updated: March 26, 2000 .