Voting in India concludes on Sunday in a parliamentary election that is widely seen as a referendum on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking a second term in office. India is the world’s largest democracy, with 900 million eligible voters. We speak to the award-winning Indian documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. His latest film, “Reason,” won best feature-length documentary at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: In India, the sixth phase of voting has concluded in a highly anticipated parliamentary election that’s widely seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who’s seeking a second term in office. India is the world’s largest democracy, with 900 million eligible voters. The voting will take place in seven phases through May 19th. Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP won a landslide victory in 2014. Modi’s main opponent in this election is Rahul Gandhi’s Congress party. Gandhi’s father, grandmother and great-grandfather have all served as prime minister.
AMY GOODMAN: Modi’s government has been criticized for a crackdown on civil society targeting political opponents, journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and writers.
We’re joined now by the award-winning documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan. His latest film, Reason, won best feature-length documentary at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.
Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: Great to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: So, first of all, even the length of these elections will be anathema to anyone in the United States. These elections go on for weeks. Is that right?
ANAND PATWARDHAN: That’s right. And that is a real worry, because given the kind of government that we have in power and the control that they have over the election commissioner and all the mechanisms of how the elections are conducted, there’s every chance of fixing, because when you have such a long election, if they think things are going bad, anything can happen.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the significance of the Indian elections.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: It’s very significant, because it might be our last chance to rid ourselves of a—I could only describe as a nascent fascist state. It’s not reached full-blown because it’s still in the process, but everything that they’ve done in the last five years indicates that they’re all about control. They’re all about spreading hatred for minorities, for the poor.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, explain what’s happened.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: Not in—yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Explain what’s happened under Modi. He’s been in power since 2014. What’s been happening in India since?
ANAND PATWARDHAN: So, I wouldn’t blame Modi for everything that’s happening, because this is an experiment that began a hundred years ago. The RSS, which is Modi’s parent body, the right-wing group that he belongs to, was created in 1925. So, we’re almost a hundred years later. And basically, these right-wing groups, both on the Muslim side and on the Hindu side, were created because the Indian National Congress was fighting against the British. In the late 19th century, there were forces that were the elites of those days, the nawabs and the rajas, the kings and the aristocracy, that was terrified that these nationalists were socialists and they were they were going to take over the land and redistribute and all of that sort of stuff. So they started owing allegiance to the British, because they didn’t want that kind of independence. And they created what eventually resulted in a Muslim group, that finally created Pakistan, and the Hindu groups, the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: What is the Mahasabha?
ANAND PATWARDHAN: Hindu Mahasabha was an organization that was created in those days, like a sister body to the RSS. And both these groups together basically assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the RSS and its origins in the 1920s in your film, Reason. Before we come to what’s happening today, talk about those origins. You talk about also its rise and those who made similarities to, comparisons to Hitler.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: Yeah. The guru of the RSS, the guy who was the chief for 33 years, was named Golwalkar. He writes openly in his book that we should learn from the Nazis, about especially what they do to the minorities. And Savarkar was also—who was the head of the Hindu Mahasabha, was also a supporter of that kind of politics.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, that was decades ago.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: That was decades ago. And the irony is that now this right-wing group are very close friends of Israel. So, the people who loved Hitler also love Israel today.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how did the BJP branch off from that, or did they?
ANAND PATWARDHAN: No, they’re not a branch of; they’re the political wing. The RSS was—the RSS, after Gandhi was assassinated in 1948, was banned. It went underground, kept organizing for—and then, one year later, they were unbanned, on the promise that they would not indulge in politics. So they called themselves a cultural organization. They didn’t run for office directly. But then they created a political wing, which was first called the Jana Sangh and later became the BJP.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, how did the BJP become so intensely involved in politics, that now Modi has been in power for five years and could potentially be in power for another five years?
ANAND PATWARDHAN: So, they did it in steps, as I said. When they—after the assassination of Gandhi, they were terribly unpopular. They were beaten up in many parts of the country by people who were so upset by Gandhi’s murder. But then they went underground, they kept organizing, and in 1992 they again came into prominence because they helped to demolish the Babri Mosque in North India. They said that, “Our god, Rama, was born in the exact same place where this mosque stands.”
AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can lay out who the parties are right now, if you can talk about Modi versus Rahul Gandhi, and who he is?
ANAND PATWARDHAN: So, I’m not sure if that’s the perfect way to describe it, because, actually, it’s Modi versus what will likely to be a coalition. Rahul Gandhi would be one of the important players in that coalition. But Rahul Gandhi cannot come to power on his own. The Congress cannot come to power on their own. So they have to have a seating arrangement with many of the other parties that are against the BJP.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: But wouldn’t the BJP also come in as a coalition?
ANAND PATWARDHAN: Yeah, the BJP would also come in as a coalition. So it’s basically a fight between two different coalitions, except that the BJP is much better at organizing the coalition and making sure nobody—I mean, they concede seats, because later on they can always get them back. But the Congress has not been good at building coalitions.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, explain the political spectrum that the—because the small parties have a huge influence. So, the spectrum of the parties, both further right-wing and more centrist, who could potentially form a coalition government with the BJP, and then, for Gandhi’s Congress party, what left parties, you know, more left parties, could be part of—Marxist parties, could be part of Gandhi’s coalition government.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: So, the difference is this, that the BJP, in the coalition, is the overwhelming power. So, if there’s a coalition, the BJP is always in complete control. And they just have the coalition to get the numbers, but nobody is—nobody can be a threat to the BJP once that coalition is formed, while, on the other hand, on the secular side, the people, the Congress—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: The Congress.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: The Congress party doesn’t have that overwhelming authority to lead this coalition. They will be a part of that coalition. They might lead it also, but there’s always possibilities of severe dissent.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: What do you think is likely to be the outcome of this election? I mean, you said that this is the last chance that India has to arrest this nascent fascism. What kind of popularity does Modi still have in India, and amongst what groups of people? India’s population is still largely rural. Over 60% of the population is rural. But he’s reportedly lost a lot of support among his initial rural base. So, talk about the classes and the groups that still support Modi and whether they constitute any kind of majority.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: The only group that completely supports Modi is the corporate, crony capitalist class, because they have been empowered in the last five years like nobody else never before—the Ambanis, the Adanis, the Tatas and a few handful of corporate families that have been given a clean chit to ride over environmental issues, to do anything they want, to reduce the banking to what it’s become, because he’s emptied the coffers of the banks. So that’s the real base.
But that doesn’t translate into mass support. Mass support comes from the fact that they completely control the electronic medium, the media, the both television and print media and social media. So they’re everywhere in terms of how opinion gets formed. Whether that translates, at the ground level, to the farmers, who are dying because of the economic policies, the working class, who have lost jobs that—we have never had so much a loss of job as has happened in the last five years. So, all the economics is against them. What is going in their favor is the capitalist class, the media control, and most recently, the biggest change that happened in the last month was the terror attack and the counterterror attacks. So, when everything was going the wrong way—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you explain what happened and why it’s important?
ANAND PATWARDHAN: Yeah. When everything was going against the government, and it was looking very bad for them—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: In terms of re-election.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: Yeah, yeah. I think some of the surveys showed that their popularity rating was down to 30%. The Pulwama attack and then the retaliation from the Indians on Pakistan suddenly went from 30 to 60 again. And now 60—
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what the Pulwama attack was.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: The Pulwama attack was a so-called terror attack in Kashmir. I say “so-called” because there are doubts about exactly how it happened. We don’t know, because—we are not going to know unless the government changes and proper investigation is done.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, you said now that the principal supporters of Modi remain this elite capitalist class, which has benefited so much from his policies. I just want to read a couple of statistics that were released earlier this year in an Oxfam report, which found that the nine richest individuals in India—the nine richest individuals in India—now have as much wealth as the bottom 50% of India’s population. That is, nine people have the same wealth as over 600 million people. So, can you talk about that and what the effects of that have been under Modi?
ANAND PATWARDHAN: Yeah, and 1% of India owns some 74% of the wealth, so—and that is increasing. That disparity is increasing all the time. So, actually—and my film points that—at the very end, one of the people who was murdered had said that it’s just the sheer disparity that’s going to bring about change. It’s not something that you and I are going to do. The people are not going to be able to keep quiet forever.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And you think it’s the economic—or people say that it’s the economic disparity, the inequality, more than it is the kind of violence that’s been unleashed by the BJP government. Now, obviously, as you say, he’s not—the government is not solely responsible. But it is true that since Modi came to power—
ANAND PATWARDHAN: No, the government is responsible. The ideology of the government is definitely responsible, yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I mean, as you say, these—there have been more attacks against minorities, against Dallas, against Muslims, than there were before.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: Yeah.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that kind of violence, in your view, has not met with the same kind of opposition, or is not likely to make voters vote against Modi, but the increasing inequality may.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: Yes, I think that would be an accurate way of looking at it, although I think that the fact that this government is spewing hatred is not liked by everybody. I don’t like to believe that the majority of Indians are happy about that. Many of them are too scared to speak out. And I’m also hoping that the opinion polls that we’re seeing now, which are showing Modi’s government in the ascendancy, might be skewed because people are scared to say what they really want to do with the elections. But then there’s also the EVM factor which has to be factored in.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Explain what that is.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: EVM is electronic voting machines. I think you did away with them in America. Or no?
AMY GOODMAN: No, no. We have them.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: You have them.
AMY GOODMAN: All over America.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: So, those—
AMY GOODMAN: Many are pushing to go back to paper voting.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: Yeah. So, there are fairly easy ways to manipulate those machines. And what the opposition has been demanding for a long time is to have a paper trail—have the electronic voting system, fine, but have a paper trail so we can—if there’s a doubt, we can go back and count the ballot. But the government and the Election Commission, which is in the—I would like to say, I’m sure I’ll be taken to task for it—is in the pocket of the government, has not allowed large-scale paper trail. In a few cases they’re allowing it, but most cases they’re not.
AMY GOODMAN: Anand, can you talk about whether the Trump presidency has had an effect on India, the relationship between Trump and Modi, and maybe even put the political spectrum in India in the context of American politics?
ANAND PATWARDHAN: I will. In 2002, when Modi oversaw the biggest carnage in India until that time—more than 2,000 people were killed in Gujarat in the violence of 2002. A large number of them were Muslims. And Modi was at least charged with not doing anything about it, if not actually—
AMY GOODMAN: Essentially, he was the governor of the region.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: He was chief of the state, which—and everybody has said that if a government wants to stop a riot of any kind, of a pogrom of any kind, they can do it within hours. But they allowed it to happen for three or four days. And so, at that point, with some diplomatic pressure—not diplomatic pressure, popular protest, even in America at that time, the American government decided not to allow Modi to enter America. Modi was denied a visa. It’s only almost when he became prime minister, just before that, that that was revoked and he was given his visa.
AMY GOODMAN: And that was under President Obama.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: That was under President Obama, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about—
ANAND PATWARDHAN: But the friendship between Trump and Modi is legendary. And I don’t know if it’s a real friendship, but it’s a commonality of views, the commonality of views between Modi, Netanyahu, Trump and possibly now even Salman of Saudi Arabia. They all hug each other, on camera.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Given that the Election Commission works closely with the Modi government, in addition—and this is comparable also to what’s happened in the United States—there are concerns about large numbers of people being disenfranchised, disproportionately Muslims and Dalits.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: Exactly.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you—
ANAND PATWARDHAN: Exactly what was done to black people in America is happening to India, where they’re taken off the register. They’re not on the voting lists. And wherever in some areas there be large Muslim population or a Dalit population that they think is not going to be on their side, they find their names off the rolls.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking to Anand Patwardhan, who is the award-winning documentary filmmaker, whose new film is called Reason. Let’s go to the trailer.
REPORTER: A mob beat to death 50-year-old Akhlaq after rumors that his family had allegedly consumed beef.
MOHAMMAD SARTAJ: [translated] My name is Sartaj, and I’m in the Air Force. I performed father’s last rites. I couldn’t bear to see how mutilated he was.
JIGNESH MEVANI: [translated] We take an oath that after today we won’t enter sewers, we won’t clear carcasses. Dalits of the world unite!
NARRATION: The Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Sawyamsevak Sangh (the RSS) was founded in 1925 by Dr. Hedgewar. M.S. Golwalkar, who headed the RSS for 33 years, was an open admirer of Adolf Hitler. He wrote that it would “profit” India to copy the Nazi approach to minorities.
MOHAMMAD SARTAJ: [translated] Everywhere I found a sense of love. It exists amongst people. It’s hard to find a country like this. I’m fortunate to be born here. But a handful of people want to destroy this. I don’t know what their motive is, what they hope to gain. By spoiling the atmosphere, what will they get that will make them all powerful?
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for Reason, which just won the best feature-length documentary at IDFA, the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, can you talk about the kind of violence that you depict in this film, against Muslims, against Dalits and others, what we’ve seen of that violence, and what’s happened to the perpetrators?
ANAND PATWARDHAN: So, when—I should go back in time again. In the holy text of the Hindu right wing, like Mr. Golwalkar, whom I said was 33 years the chief of the RSS, they openly state their enemies: Enemy number one is Muslims, enemy number two are Christians, and enemy number three are communists. So, right back before independence, they already had it very clear who their enemies were. And in a sense, we’re seeing it played out, although the enemies have increased to include Hindus who dissent from them, as well.
One of the chapters in my film is called “In the Name of Cow.” I made a film earlier called In the Name of God, which is about the mosque-and-temple fight. But this is “In the Name of Cow.” And so, “In the Name of Cow” targets both Muslims and Dalits, people who either raise cattle or who sell cattle, who either eat beef themselves or traffic in beef, in cows, cattle. So, Muslims are clearly a target. Actually, the whole ban on cow slaughter is actually a way of attacking the minorities. It’s—
NERMEEN SHAIKH: When was that ban put in place?
ANAND PATWARDHAN: After the—well, actually, the ban has been—some kind of a ban has been in place for a long time, long before this particular government came to power. But they allowed—it was loosely employed. Not every state had to follow it. And also, they allow the slaughter of—for some reason, they think the cow is more sacred than the buffalo, for instance, so they will allow the killing of buffaloes. By the way, the holy cow in India is only the Indian cow. They don’t think the Jersey cow or foreign cows are. So they allow foreigners to eat the beef. They allow—India is the world’s largest beef exporter. They make money from selling the beef, but they won’t allow anybody in India to eat it, because—especially if they’re minorities. I mean, I’m sure they don’t go and attack the super rich who eat beef.
AMY GOODMAN: What were you most surprised by in making this film? You have long documented what’s taken place in your country, in India.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: Well, one of the things that horrified me the most was the impunity, that even after we know who did the killings of—for instance, the lynchings, some of those people were garlanded by the BJP. People, Hindu activists caught in terror activities, who were in jail, who were charged with heinous crimes, murders, bomb blasts, all of them are walking the streets right now, because in the last five years they’ve all—by one means or the other, they’ve all been let out on bail, or some of the charges have been removed. They’re out on the street. These are people whom we know were convicted killers.
AMY GOODMAN: So, your film is in eight chapters, your film Reason—
ANAND PATWARDHAN: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —dealing with murder and mind control, but also the movements that resist. And as we wrap up, if you can talk about this? We’re talking about the world’s largest democracy. Do you describe it as a democracy?
ANAND PATWARDHAN: Yeah. Yes, up to now.
AMY GOODMAN: And where you see it happening and the power of people in movements?
ANAND PATWARDHAN: So what I personally witnessed was, I went to a few universities. I went to Hyderabad University in the south, where a Dalit student had committed—had just committed suicide, because he and five other Ph.D. scholars, Dalits, had been suspended, and they were sitting out in the open in the winter, and he got depressed by that, and he took his own life.
But that triggered a movement where the left and Dalits united in many paths, many universities across the country. And one place that it spread to was JNU campus in Delhi. So I also went to Delhi, where a dynamic student leader called Kanhaiya Kumar was charged with sedition along with two other people, Umar Khalid and Anirban, and the many dynamic leaders you see active at that point in time, and who are still active now—Shehla Rashid, who’s a Kashmiri, and Richa from Allahabad University. So, there’s actually a number of student leaders that you can spot in the film in different places. But those—there are many more than—obviously, than are in my film.
So, that is a great source of hope for me, that there is a younger generation that isn’t taking everything lying down. And, of course, as the disparity increases, there are working-class movements. The left is getting stronger. So, BJP is just doing more of what the Congress started, in a more blatant way.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Before we end, in 2014 the BJP won an absolute majority.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: OK, but what is not known is that that so-called absolute majority translated to 31%. The BJP won with 31% vote, just like Trump won without the popular vote. So, that’s the hope, that even now, if—
AMY GOODMAN: And explain how that happens.
ANAND PATWARDHAN: If anything now, I don’t think they’re going to get 31%. So they’re going to get even smaller. But it’s because the opposition is so divided, that they might come back into power.
AMY GOODMAN: Anand Patwardhan, award-winning documentary filmmaker. His new film is called Reason. It just won the best feature-length documentary at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks so much for joining us.