Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai: The Film That Launched Mini Campus Revolutions Across India

Social Commentary

Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai: The Film That Launched Mini Campus Revolutions Across India

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

Suketu Mehta wrote in his novel Maximum City, “I am an exile; citizen of the country of longing.” In times when identity precedes notions of humanity, no geography, no faith seems good enough to belong to – but some faiths fare much worse than others.

In Nakul Singh Sawhney’s 2015 documentary, Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai, recently released on Netflix, a man from the district says, “Election ke mahaul mein sab yaad dilaane aate hain ke desh ek loktantra hai [At election time, everyone comes to remind us that we live in a democracy].” He says this with despair on his face, but a kind of ironic glow in his eyes, as if he has finally learned, the purpose of his life – or maybe, he finally understands life’s futility and the absurd purposes death can serve.

Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai is a painfully dense account of how two districts in Uttar Pradesh burned, as the politicians who stoked the fire lived to reap the rewards in the landmark election of 2014. The film’s incendiary content is only rivalled by the life it has had after being made.   

On August 27, 2013 in the village of Kawal, Hindu and Muslim youths clashed over the alleged “eve teasing” of a Hindu jat woman. The clashes resulted in the death of three individuals following which, as the film shows, local BJP leaders and members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad openly accused the police of anti-Hindu bias. Before it had even begun, the investigation into the incident had already been politicised.

More than anything it was the Hindutva brand that most were attracted to.

Sawhney’s admirable film, dives into the history behind the allegations of bias. For years up until the events in August the VHP had claimed that the Muslim community was trying to convert Hindu women by romantically coaxing them into relationships – the old bogey that goes by the label of “Love Jihad”. Beyond the ludicrous theory there had been a carefully perpetuated climate of hostility toward Muslim men and their public treatment of Hindu women. “We are harassed by Hindu men as much as we are harassed by Muslims, if not more. Whether it is in buses, on the streets, or even inside our homes, we don’t feel safe. This idea that Hindus for some reason protect their own women is just propaganda,” a jaat woman says in the film before adding, “Yeh toh aur khul ke karte hain. License hai inke paas ye samjhte hain kyunki jaat Hindu hain [Hindu men harass us more openly; they think they have a right over us].”

Sawhney’s film wanders through Muzaffarnagar’s villages and abandoned houses, but especially through the memory of those who suffered at its expense. “We celebrated both Diwali and Eid. My father and Sattar’s father went to the tubewell together on the eve of the riots. The next day they became enemies,” says Pravin, a resident of Kutbi village, of his Muslim neighbour. Asked if the displaced family will ever be allowed back, Pravin says, he certainly hopes so. The documentary is replete with such anguish, worded by the stories of those who lost someone or something – almost a 100 were killed while 50,000 were displaced. The film travels to the relief camps, a majority of which were populated by Muslim exiles at the time. Only one, the film shows, was occupied by “lower caste” Hindus.

Beyond the melancholy of the survivors and the irreparable damage the riots inflicted on the two districts of Shamli and Muzaffarnagar, it is the political puppetry around the tragedy that the film cleverly dissects.

In one scene, a VHP leader addressing a small gathering says, “They kill cows and harass our women. It is now time to show that we can shed blood as well.” This was all before the Lok Sabha elections of 2014, in a state where the BJP’s electoral performance had historically been abysmal. But Modi’s popularity at the time, his strongman image was evidently becoming a hit. More than anything it was the Hindutva brand that most were attracted to: Narendra Modi soldiers (Modi sena) and VHP leaders are seen in the film openly endorsing this agenda of hate.

Months after the riots, the BJP won 73 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats in the state, including both Shamli and Muzaffarnagar. Clashes that were largely orchestrated through rumours and a motivated campaign to divide along communal lines, Sawhney argues, bought BJP the reward it was looking for – power in UP.

Though he argues convincingly that the tactile connection of the BJP’s rise to power and the rise of Hindutva hate politics in the country, the film could have done a better job of telling all sides. For example, the role BSP and Congress leaders played in fuelling the riots as political priorities took over.

That said, the film unflinchingly stares its subjects in the eye, however morose or hurt, it argues with compassion and articulates with finesse; which explains why some people don’t want it to be seen – particularly the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. The student body disrupted a screening in 2015 at Delhi University’s Kirori Mal College, because it hurt their “religious sentiments”. The film really shot to prominence the following year, when two student bodies at Hyderabad Central University clashed over its screening, triggering the suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula, who was part of the group that had tried to screen it.

The filmmaker responded by tying up with the collective Cinema of Resistance, that  helped organise viewings of the film in 50 Indian cities and towns – a few of which were either cancelled or delayed for “security reasons” or “threats to communal harmony”.

All the more reason to watch it, be it with a little pointless hope in the heart that such atrocities in the future can be prevented. “Sab theek ho jayega, aadmi hai toh sab kuch hai, aadmi nahi toh kuch nahi [Everything will fall into place. As long as men are alive there is at least a possibility],” says an old woman toward the end of the film. She, of course, is right – except for those who are no longer around anymore to listen to her.