Disclaimer: These are strictly my experiences, from my point of view, with my eyes, both – the Left and the Right eye
For a film that was canned with no backing, no support, no money, a screening at Jadavpur University couldn’t have been a small event. For a film that exposes the sinister politics of Naxals-NGO-Academia nexus, screening it in a Naxal citadel couldn’t have been a small event. For a film that has become an India-loving students’ movement, a screening at Jadavpur University amidst anti-India sloganeering couldn’t have been a small event. In the life of Buddha, 6th May was an enlightening day.
By now there are plethora of stories and controversies on what happened at Jadavpur University on the 6th of May. No journalist has bothered to ask my version. Few did but printed exactly what I never said. Indian media, specially the English electronic media, is the most dishonest institution of India. They are always in a hurry, their questions are statements, they have no courtesy, they are arrogant, rude and humiliating. They are always running late for something and therefore have no concentration. I am not talking about those hundreds and thousands of hard-working young girls and boys who are running from one breaking-news to another. I am talking about those who instruct them to twist news. Or who twist it themselves to further their agenda. And it’s no rocket science to understand the design of this parallel politics. For the last 70 years English media has loved to paint any rightist organisation, especially the RSS, as regressive, uncivilised, aggressive and fundamentalist. Any organisation connected with RSS i.e ABVP is considered a party of goons. Whereas the student members of left wing parties are considered rebels, revolutionaries, progressive and intellectuals. It’s more like a perception battle. The media have created a ‘group of somebodies’ and a ‘group of nobodies’. Those raising slogans against the state of India are painted as ‘The Superiors’ and the ones singing ‘Vande Mataram’ as ‘The Inferiors’.
Some people like to believe they are liberals. Liberals are those who do liberal things not the ones who are against the Right. If you look at the reporting of Jadavpur University crisis, they always write ‘Left wing students’ and ABVP goons or outsiders. I realised this when a journalist asked me at JU ‘How do I feel about the presence of some ABVP boys? “I wondered, “Aren’t they students here? Aren’t they called ‘Akhil Bharatiya VIDYARTHI Parishad’? Vidyarthi means students.’ I explained. She was taken aback and said ‘But…no… yeah…. But…’ I knew she had no answer, only biases. I again asked her ‘Aren’t they students of the same University? What do they need to do to be recognised as students? Raise anti-India slogans?’ She got upset and left me to cover the protesting students – the real students according to her.
Somebody had to challenge this myth. I did it by making ‘Buddha In A Traffic Jam’. I did it by taking the film directly to the students and that too in their own citadels like JNU, IITM, National Law University, Hyderabad Central University and now at JU. They hate my guts and me. I exposed the shallow arguments of ‘Manuvad se Azadi’ and ‘Brahmanvaad se Azadi’. I explained to them how one has to innovate, make profits, create capital in order to get ‘Bhukmari se Azadi’. I took them on with logic. And they hate logic for logic will destroy their illusionary world. They have been showing an ‘invisible end of suffering’ exactly like tantriks, fake babas and Godmen or magicians do, and they protect it by not allowing debates, dissents and rationality. When was the last time you heard dissenting voice–The Right Voice–in these Universities? And if one still challenges them with facts and logic they try to destroy you. My inbox is flooded with such messages. Also, I am saying it with conviction only after visiting 35 top institutes of India and with over 100 hours of intense Q&A sessions, debates and discussions, especially with Leftist students. Wherever the faculty and administration is left leaning, attempts were made to cancel screening or just sabotage it by creating inane hurdles.
It happened at one of India’s top law Universities. On the eve of screening there was anticipation that students will come in large numbers. Just hours before the screening the Director broadcast a mail declaring a holiday on that day. It happened to be Ramnavami and a Friday. The institute is far from Bangalore so studnets who do up and down didn’t come. Most of the resident students are from nearby towns so they left for an extended weekend. In the end, a screening which was supposed to be attended by thousand was left with 100 students. In the history of this university two things had never happened, 1. A holiday on Ramanavami, and 2. An impromptu holiday, which is not in the calendar. This was my first encounter with a resistance that I later realised is their modus operandi. Later on, students told me the Director is Leftist and fought an election on AAP ticket. On a lighter note, Leftist director, had to accept Rama in order to reject Buddha.
This modus operandi replayed at IIT, Madras. ‘Vande Mataram’ – a group of IITians invited us for the screening and we accepted. By this time we had started insisting on a formal permission from the institute, which they mailed us. I flew from Bhopal to Chennai just in time. The screening was scheduled at Open Air Theatre (OAT) which screens movies for the film club every weekend. Just a week before they had screened another small film at OAT. We had a formal permission to screen at OAT from the Dean himself. On the eve of the screening, students expected an attendance of 5-6 thousand. This is when the administration realised the impact of the film. They sent a mail limiting the outside entry to 40 students. This was unprecedented. Organising students agreed. Still there were 3-4 thousand resident students who were expected to attend. This is when they received a mail from the Dean cancelling their permission on the pretext that the secretary, Film Club was not in favour of the film. I have promised the students not to make the correspondence, between them and the Dean, public but I think its appropriate to produce a part of long email chain which will give you an idea how the voice of the non-Leftist students is shamelessly curbed even in India’s No. 1 IIT.
In the morning one IITian tweeted that the posters were torn off at night. Just imagine if this was done with the Leftist students, IIT campus and TV channels would have been flooded with Barkha Dutts of the world interviewing every tom, dick and harry raising tough questions of FoE under the Modi government. NDTV even refused to listen to our story whereas it was covered by all Chennai news papers. TOI’s Chennai Times, which is 100% paid section, ran a front page story on the issue but our national MSM ignored it conveniently.
This is when we got a call from a research scholar from Jadavpur University who said he was interested in organising a screening. He said it’s going to be very difficult task but he felt it was important for him to screen it so that an alternate narrative can be introduced in an extreme Leftist university. We were choc-o-blocked. My DA Naireeta is from Kolkata. She insisted that we somehow find time or cancel any other screening but JU is a must. The theme of the film is exactly what JU is suffering from hence a perfect place for a debate. Our screening lasts 1.50 hours but our Q&A last for hours. In one Q&A at NALSAR a student ran to attack me. Later, another boy was so angry that he boycotted the screening but came for Q&A. In Kanpur IIT, a boy held me tight and shook me up violently and said ‘How dare you make such a film, you bloody…’ Whereas in the same institute, moments later an Adivasi girl started crying as it reminded her of the atrocities by naxals. She has sent me a long email on her experience with the movie and is an invaluable insight on naxal movement. If I collate Q&A sessions, which I will, it will be a valuable R&D material on student and Naxal politics in India.
We confirmed 6th May. They kept making rounds of Administration Office without any movement on their application. Then they sent them from one desk to another. In normal course (if you are a leftist student) it would have taken a day on the outside. Then they started citing absurd reasons that many students don’t want this anti-naxal film to be screened (please note that nobody has seen the film in this part of the country). When organising students asked them why do they allow anti-India sloganeering, marches and graffiti when most of the pro-India students don’t like it and when the admin realised they can’t win the argument and they put another condition that film can be screened only after their ‘internal censor committee’ sees and approves it. Really? Students argued that the film is already censored by CBFC and they have no right to re-censor it. They called me for my reaction and obviously I refused to be censored by a bunch of professors who were hell bent on declining the permission on some moral or ideological grounds. Students told the Registrar that when the decision of the ‘internal censor committee’ is already known why don’t they straightaway refuse to show it. This went on for over two weeks. Finally, they called me and said that like always admin won’t give them permission and the entire exercise is futile. They told me that there is an auditorium in the campus– Triguna Dev Audi- that is managed by Alumni Association and they can get it after making a certain payment. They contributed money and booked the hall.
Then some people spread the word that Think India, a right wing group is showing a radical Hindu, casteist film. The only time the movie makes a reference to any religion is when the Hero goes to a brothel and there are photos of Hindu Gods on the walls. The film is about innovation. It’s about eliminating the Middlemen, the antidote to Leftism in India. I realised they weren’t fighting the film. They were fighting me.
Think India is a nationalist body of students. So, in a way, you can call them right wing. Yes, they are connected with ABVP, which is connected with RSS, which is connected with BJP, which is connected with Modi, who is connected with Inidia and Hinduism. So, in a way Modi’s Hindu BJP invited me. So by the Left’s logic I wasn’t invited by the students because to be a student one has to raise anti-India slogans and have to be anti-Hindutva. To be a student one has to be pro-dalit and anti-Brahmin. To be qualified as a student you have to hate everyone who disagrees with you and love poverty. To be a student of Jadavpur University your mind has to be crowded with negativity, anger and a utopia, which can never be accomplished. If you are attacked for having an alternate narrative, you must be in Jadavpur University, a country with its own constitution.
I flew one whole night from Pune to Kolkata only to find that at the last minute the permission of Triguna Dev Hall was cancelled citing moral code of conduct due to elections as a reason. But the elections were over. Sumit told me that it happens with them all the time therefore this time they have decided to go ahead with the screening even if it’s done in a hostel room. There was genuineness in his voice. With anguish he narrated me how there is a systematic ‘institutional minoritisation’ of their voice. Simply put, nobody hears them. They are labeled ‘Sanghi’ and aren’t considered intellectual because he speaks against Maoism and Naxalism. BTW, he is a research scholar in Physics. Yet, he is The Inferior’
I was alone. If nothing else this film has taught me ‘Akela Chalo Re’. At 4.15 I left from the hotel in an Innova driven by a Bihari driver named Prabhu. He was telling me how he wants to leave Kolkata but due to bad financial condition back home he can’t go to Delhi (his dream city). He had no idea who I was. When I asked him to take me to Jadavpur University he looked at my beard and asked me if I am a professor. ‘No. I’m going there to meet some students.’. He looked at my beard, took a pause and showed me a dug lane. “For last couple of years, it’s dug and nobody repairs it causing hours of traffic jams.” Prabhu did know that he himself was going to get stuck in one very soon. ‘Why?’ I asked him. “In Kalkatta, nobody wants development,” he replied.
We entered JU from Gate no 8. There were hundreds of students smoking, chatting and preparing placards and black flags. This is when some students saw me and in less than a second the car was gheraoed by an unruly, violent mob of students. They started raising slogans, hitting the car and wanted to pull me out. This is when a mob of journalists ran towards the car. An angry media was on one side and violent students on the other. I heard a big sound and realised they had broken the glass of Prabhu’s taxi. Prabhu was really scared. I am sure the first thing he thought of was how his boss will cut his salary and how his kids will suffer. Ignorance is bliss for he did not know that the student’s crusade was for “the poor man”. For a moment I didn’t know what to do. It was claustrophobic. They were banging on the car, abusing me in Bengali. Some girls were spitting on the window.
I opened the window to talk to them. A student put his hand inside and called me the murderer of Rohit Vemula. I told him Rohit wasn’t murdered. He had committed suicide. He screamed ‘you fucking liar. He was murdered’. “I have stronger reasons to believe Rohit than you’. I told him. He got angry and tried to pull me out of the car. Anticipating violence Prabhu tried to roll up the window and in that jiffy my hand got stuck in the window. This boy kept pulling my hand out. As I tried to pull it I felt a shooting pain in my shoulder. Later the physiotherapist told me that I had ruptured a muscle and it will take 3-4 weeks to heal. Some students jumped in front of the car in a typical highway thug tactic. This is when some students started banging the car, which caused at least 8 dents in the taxi. One skinny student came running and jumped on the bonnet. One boy tried to climb up the bonnet from my side and in that mayhem the side mirror broke. As shown on NDTV.
This is when the organising students came running and tried to make a human chain to protect me. In this half hour there were no security, administration or police. It was free for all. “They could have killed us” – Prabhu told me later. I always knew JU was strictly leftist but I had just come to show my film. Complimenting their idea of dissent.
Finally the car was guided to a playground. It had more cheap whiskey quarters lying around than the footballs. It had only protestors and no players. I was told this was the adda of leftist students and a playground for namesake. In this chaos, the projection screen couldn’t arrive. It was a moment of judgment. I had never thought that the film we had worked so had to make and promote was to be shown in a screen whose whereabouts couldn’t be traced. If the film is not shown these students who risked their lives to organise the screening would never ever be able to assert their voice. For me the only objective was to somehow ensure the screening. It took not more than a minute to find a solution. After all the theme of all my speeches has been how our students can convert this ‘Jugaad’ country into an innovation hub of the world. This was our only chance. One student ran and got a bed sheet from the hostel and in no time a makeshift open-air theater was ready with stone age speakers connected with naked copper wires. That day I learnt that the power of collective thought is more powerful than anything. Even the protestors learnt, when the end titles rolled, that it’s not about the numbers; its about the conviction of those who want to assert themselves. I had read about it but I learnt it that day.
When the film was running I asked Sumit to introduce me to the leader of the protestors. He said it’s not safe. But when I persisted he took me to him. This medium height, tough man was taken aback when I called him by his name and extended my hand and said ‘Hello, I am Vivek Agnihotri. Can we talk?’. He didn’t extend his hand. So I told him “It’s ok. You don’t have to like me. I just want to know if you are protesting against the film or me’? ‘You’ he said’. ‘Why? I asked him. What’s the point telling you aren’t going to listen’. ‘If you buy me tea without sugar maybe I will listen to you quietly’. He was too rigid. There was anger in his eyes. I am sure he was angrier that I confronted him when he was away from his mob. Some media guys came running in anticipation of a big fight. Some organising students asked him to talk to me. Before he could decide I called one journo from a Bengali channel and asked her to record this historic moment where the victim and the attacker were going to discuss their ideologies. She started recording our walk, which couldn’t materialise as in the meantime, the Assistant Registrar, intervened and tried to stop the screening. I ran towards the screening spot and told the boys not to stop it until the Registrar speaks to me. There were massive arguments, allegations, sloganeering for next half hour. Such anger, hatred, name-calling and unproductive and irrational protests is something I am not competent to even fathom. It felt I was in a war zone. Jadavpur, it felt, had everything barring freedom of expression. This isn’t political activism. It’s goondagardi–supported by the administration and faculty. It is a sad commentary that these students don’t even realise that they aren’t anti-establishment anymore. They have become anti-India and anybody that is pro-India. What can I say about the students when our media also write headlines like they vs us. It’s not a left vs right fight. It’s an intellectual war between pro-India and anti-India sentiments. Well, the film ended. I thanked everyone. I have been to over 30 top institutes and universities of India and every single time we have extended Q&A sessions. Mostly leftist students ask me tough questions. I have to say it with deep anguish that Jadavpur is the only university where I didn’t have Q&A session. They believe in only raising questions, unwilling to listen to answers. To substantiate my observation I would like to take you back to my conversation with their leader.
Me: Why are you so against the film?
Leader: Because you right wingers are regressive, oppressive.
Me: But the film is a positive, progressive film.
Leader: I don’t care what it is I don’t it to be seen here.
Me: Why? It’s a point of view. Reject it but hear it first.
Leader: I just don’t want your alternate narrative here.
After the screening was over, media left and slowly all students also left. Lights shut down. It was pitch dark. My driver was trying to fix the bumper of his car and had gone to get some screws. In next 15 minutes while I was there all I could feel was immense happiness, joy and excitement as the organising students kept hugging me, taking selfies with me, shaking my hands not knowing how to express their feelings. For them it was a victory. For me it was a shameful commentary on 70 years of democracy.
The car came. I asked them to take me around and to their mess for a cup of tea but there was a Professor who was invited by them he pulled me aside and said ‘Sir, you please leave’. Why I asked. As it was quiet and one could hear even the crickets in that dark. ‘They won’t take it lightly. For them it’s their defeat and they will strike back. And strike big and sharp. You must leave now. And he literally pushed me inside the car.
After an hour and half I got a call from one of the students and he told me that they are being beaten up very badly by the leftist students and they have beaten up the Professor also. The same Professor who had a hunch and saved me.
I got to know that the fight started with a boy called Sandeep Das. He is a Dalit. Leftist boys came and asked him why is he supporting these boys when he is a Dalit. He said he liked the film and he liked my speech it made sense to him. Of course they didn’t hear him.
Sandeep along with 5-6 other boys was later taken to the hospital. Then riots broke and the entire thing became political. BJP and Left started furthering their agenda. I was advised to stay in my room and not tweet until I leave Kolkata. I obeyed.
I have nothing more to say on this issue. This is all I saw. There is one small conversation I had with terrified Prabhu, which summarizes this brand of politics. Before Prabhu dropped me to hotel, he asked me:
‘Why are they against you?’
‘Because I talk about working hard and making money and be successful’.
‘What’s wrong with that?’ He asks
After a pause he asks me ‘But what are they fighting for?’
‘They are fighting for the poor.’
‘But I am poor. Why did they have to damage my car?’
‘Even I am trying to figure that out.’
In case, you have the answer, please contact me @vivekagnihotri
(The writer is a filmmaker and Writer/ Director of ‘Buddha In A Traffic Jam. He is a columnist and a socio-political thinker)