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Jashn-e-Azadi: Why Did Symbiosis Back Out?

Amit Sengupta (Executive Editor, Hardnews)

Pune’s Symbiosis University easily succumbed to hardline Hindutva fundamentalists as it promptly cancelled a high profile open-ended seminar on the Kashmir scenario, with the participation of eminent intellectuals, filmmakers, journalists and ‘Kashmir experts’. The controversy sparked off with ABVP, the BJP’s students’ wing, opposing the screening of Sanjay Kak’s acclaimed film, Jashne-e-Azadi, in the backdrop of the ‘conflict zone’ of Kashmir. The university authorities and the police of the ‘secular’ Congress-NCP regime in Maharashtra, promptly chose to accept the ABVP ‘fatwa’; not only was the film screening unilaterally scrapped in the first instance, the entire seminar was also cancelled. This is but another signal as to how crucial academic and creative institutions in this country, including law and order enforcement agencies, pander to fundamentalists of all varieties – from Jaipur to Pune. Filmmaker Sanjay Kak explains a few things:

Tell us a bit about Jashne-e-Azadi, your acclaimed film. Where can students access more information about it if they want to?

The film is almost 5 years old and it has had quite an encouraging life. Whenever I have been present at screenings, whether that is in festivals in Gorakhpur or Nainital — or for that matter Amsterdam or Beijing — I think people have been very open and receptive. You see, I don’t expect everyone to love the film, we didn’t set off to make ‘3 Idiots’. This is a political documentary, it offers an argument, and it tries to marshal material that strengthens that argument. In my experience, the few times that screenings have been disrupted, its been because a small bunch of people – and, unfortunately, they are the same people, over and over again — who are trying to block the film with two aims: stop the growing curiosity about what has been happening in Kashmir, and of course, make themselves a little visible in the process.

Can you please explain the context in which your film was invited for a special screening by Symbiosis University in Pune during a seminar on Kashmir. What was their viewpoint in the first instance?

Symbiosis had invited me to screen the film — all 139 minutes of it –on the opening day of a three day event. There were many other panels, and speakers: Dilip Padgaonkar, the government of India’s main interlocutor in Kashmir, Parvaiz Bukhari, senior journalist based in Srinagar, Iffat Fatima, filmmaker, Babli Moitra Saraf, academic, MK Raina, theatre director. It was a big, ambitious programme. Not a gathering of militants! Because of the ruckus created by the ABVP, the teacher organising it informed me a week ago that they will not be able to screen the film, and would I use the time to talk to the students? They asked me to give them a title, and I did: ‘Speaking about Kashmir’. Mind you, this is an established college, part of a recognised university, and this is a seminar that is being supported by the University Grants Commission.

Isn’t it the job of the police to protect such an event? Instead, they seemed to have been part of the reason why the institution was forced to stop the screening. And now the whole event stands cancelled. What I think people should take note of is that its not only the film screening that has been cancelled: the entire three day seminar has been called off.

And those who have forced this upon the institute have announced that they will decide what shape any further event n Kashmir will take. This is what is scary. Not the cancellation of one film screening.

Why did they back out? Is the ABVP reaction the only reason, or are their other reasons too? Why this obsessive fear of the likes of ABVP, Shiv Sena etc?

I have actually never spoken with the Principal, either before or after the cancellation. But it’s disconcerting to have him quoted in the papers saying that the institute had asked me to keep my presentation free of ‘controversies’, and that I would be allowed to speak about ‘anything else’ but the politics in Kashmir. I think it’s impolite to tell a guest speaker what he or she is ‘allowed’ to speak on, isn’t it? If they had, I would obviously have refused to go. But Symbiosis is a private educational enterprise, and from what the Principal has been telling the press in the last few days, they think that politics and debate is not something that belongs within an educational institution. I think this is a very sad commentary on the state of education in our country.

What is the larger context of this kind of censorship? You have faced protests earlier too, why do you think these fanatics get so disturbed when it comes to your film? Especially when the BJP supported Salman Rushdie’s proposed arrival and speech at the Jaipur Lit Fest?

See, this film is almost 5 years old, and is freely available on the internet. Thousands of people can see it all over the country and around the globe. I don’t think the idea of a screening in a seminar that is threatening to them. I think it is the idea that a real conversation about Kashmir is happening in a mainstream educational institution, that this conversation is getting the legitimacy it deserves — that I think is what is scary for them. And not just for the ABVP, please let us remember. It is scary for all those who have all these years prevented a genuine debate about Kashmir in India. Rightwing, Leftwing, Centrist, whatever… But the fight to be able to speak our minds freely is a continuous one, and as a documentary filmmaker, I’m aware that there will be no rest on this one issue. The ABVP in Pune is only one of the many forces that threaten that freedom… If educational institutions are going to be terrorised into limiting what they can — or cannot – offer their students, then it is obviously something with serious implications. 

Are we happy being fed only half-truths and incomplete arguments? The only good thing is that modern technology is by definition anti-censorship: DVDs are duplicated effortlessly, films are passed around on pen-drives, there is the internet… And young people are curious.

In an academic context, or in the realm of free intellectual inquiry with students and teachers, do you think this paranoia is part of a pattern? How dangerous do you think this is for filmmakers, writers, intellectuals?

I’ve been part of the Campaign against Censorship, Amit, so have you.

We had a credo of sorts: Free Speech, yes, but equally, Fearless Listening. That’s what we need to cultivate, an ability to listen to points of view, even those that outrage and enrage you. After all, I’m offended by so much on our TV news channels every day: I’m not calling a ban on them, I’ve just learned to stop watching them! 

What is central here is that this is a film on Kashmir. That’s what arouses such primal fears: Kashmir is one of the central fault lines in our democracy, it tests the notions of our secularism.

What I find really troubling is that the role of the State seems always to accede to the bully, never to the ones who are being threatened. All it needs is a group of bullies to show up, whether in Jaipur, Pune or anywhere else, and the police will immediately turn on the speaking voice. That is a real perversion of the idea of reasonable restrictions on our right to free speech.

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