Looking for ‘reason’ in Modi’s India


VIDEO/Vivek Reason/You Tube
A still from Vivek showing an Una rally when Dalits protested the violence against four Dalits for skinning a dead cow PHOTO/Anand Patwardhan

The first murder came as a shock; the second suggested there might be a larger plot; by the third there was talk of government collusion; and when the fourth happened one felt it would not be the last. The victims—Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh—were all killed in the same way, shot point-blank with a 7.65mm pistol by a gunman who came and fled on a two-wheeler. All beloved activists and thinkers, who wrote in the vernacular press, they had been vocal opponents of the BJP and its brand of Hindu nationalism. Their assassinations were meant to send a message, and far-right trolls on social media duly rejoiced. “One bitch died a dog’s death,” a man from Gujarat wrote on Twitter, referring to Lankesh; his account was followed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  

These killings, which happened between 2013 and 2017, lie at the heart of Vivek (Reason), a four-hour documentary by Anand Patwardhan. (The version I viewed was re-edited and posted to YouTube ahead of India’s general election earlier this year.) Each chapter opens with an allusion to the crimes—a motorcyclist is seen driving down a dark road—and some third of the show is given over to telling the victims’ life stories. Yet the murders are only the starting point. Behind the grisly events, Patwardhan sees the broader threat of religious intolerance that is once again spreading across India. It is this trend that he sets out to chart.

Shot across the country between 2013 and 2018, Vivek is a work of great ambition, really a report on Modi’s first term in power. It covers most of the big and small abominations now committed almost daily in India in the name of Hinduism: from cow vigilantism and the lynchings of Dalits, to the rewriting of history and attacks on higher education. But Patwardhan also spends time in the pockets of secular resistance that have emerged, profiling many activists (including the four murdered), journalists, students, and politicians. These are the two poles of the series, the villains and heroes. Their struggles and clashes are the highlights of an unfolding battle between faith and reason whose outcome Patwardhan believes will shape the future of Indian democracy.

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