Soul of India

Last Thursday, Alisha Bhagat, a junior materials science engineering major, hosted the screening of an hour-long PBS documentary called The Soul of India in Porter Hall 100. After the film and with the assistance of Jayeeta Sharma, a professor of history, Bhagat led an open forum discussion on the state of communal violence in India.

The PBS film began with a description of the demographics of India but focused specifically on the casualties that have occurred in the year 2002 due to hostility that exists between Muslim and Hindu groups. The majority of the film documented two incidents of mob-like violence that occurred in 2002. In the first incident, a mob of Muslims set fire to a train in the town of Godhra, killing 60 Hindus, in February.

The film then discussed the retaliation that occurred later in the summer, which included a massacre across the state of Gujarat that targeted and killed an estimated 2000 Muslims.

The film first interviewed and followed Harish Bhatt, a successful businessman and vice president of the pro-Hindu fundamentalist organization Bajrang Dal, which was accused in the film of organizing terror. The film also showed Bhatt in two different lights, one organizing a Hindu pride parade and cultural celebration, another indoctrinating and training young men in combat.

The film also interviewed the family of one of the victims in the Gujarat killing as well as KPS Gill, the appointed security advisor who took over riot control after the Gujarat massacre. The film claimed Gill, although a devout Hindu, was a strict disciplinarian who went to great lengths to ensure the safety of Muslims in the area and had helped increase the trust of government within the Muslim community.
The film also touched on the history of Mahatma Gandhi?s practice of nonviolence resistance and made a stark contrast to the several more aggressive political organizations that hold power in India today.

Before the screening of the film, some of students passed out fliers opposing and clarifying the ?narrow-minded? assertions made in the film about India. After controversy ensued over fliers and a misc.market bulletin using the term ?state-sponsored violence? with regard to the communal violence, several people in the audience attended out of concern that the film or discussion would make inaccurate or biased conclusions about the Indian government and culture.

One major criticism of the film that was repeated in the discussion was that the film tried to make the viewers much more sympathetic to Muslims than Hindus. Another criticism raised was that PBS made a poor decision in not interviewing several Indian government officials as opposed to a select few people.

Sharma clarified afterwards that she was not endorsing PBS and agreed the title of the film The Soul of India was very inappropriate. Bhagat even conceded the film may be biased but stated that this was irrelevant. Despite those agreements, several audience members were still critical.

?The underlying goal was to show the incident that occurred and why it affects all Indians, to discuss the role of the state in India?s events, and to talk about what people can do regarding this tragedy,? said Bhagat. ?I think that one major misconception is that showing a film of a negative incident in Indian history is not going soil the view of India in everyone?s mind. People are not that ignorant.?

However, not everyone was critical of the film. ?The movie was unbiased and showed both sides of the story,? said Shoba Subramanian, doctoral student in biological sciences.

Several members of the audience voiced their opinion that the film was balanced.

After the screening, Bhagat gave a short review of the film before discussion began. Bhagat explained how the Gujarat massacre was not an isolated incident and discussed the dire need to prevent further religious intolerance. Afterwards, Sharma gave a 10 minute speech explaining why Indians need to hold their government more responsible in regards to large-scale violence. During Sharma?s speech, Bhagat displayed eight short passages from articles and editorials of several Indian and international news magazines and newspapers on a projector. The majority of the passages heavily criticized the Indian government and the Hindu police for their passive role in the Gujarat massacre.

Before the forum ended, Arvind Arvind, a physics professor and member of Association of India?s Development (AID), gave a short lecture discussing various organizations that were sending aid and relief to victims of violence as well as promoting nonviolence.

?India is a vibrant, functioning country,? said Sharma. ?We make the point that this is not a criticism of any political party but to show the positive work being carried out for the incident.?