'As a Humanist, I Am Not Happy With What's Happening in the Country': Filmmaker Jahnu Barua

In a free-wheeling interview to The Wire, Barua speaks about the citizen's right to question the government, his opposition to the CAA and Assamese identity.

New Delhi: Well-known filmmaker Jahnu Barua has been taking a public stand on many issues related to his home state of Assam, be it his opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) or calling for the release of the incarcerated peasant leader of the state, Akhil Gogoi.

In a free-wheeling telephonic interview to The Wire, the Mumbai-based Barua, a Padma Bhushan awardee, explains why he has been doing so.

Barua, the winner of as many as 14 National Film awards, says he is “not happy” with “what is happening in the country right now”.

“I am saying this not because I have a different ideology [from the ruling dispensation], but because I am not happy as a humanist.”

He said every Indian citizen needs to be proud to have “one of the best Constitutions in the world”, and described democracy as “the best thing to happen in human evolution”. The veteran filmmaker underlines that today, however, one may feel hesitant to raise their voice against certain policies of the government. “Because there is a fear that he/she may be termed anti-government or anti-establishment… [but] when a conscious, responsible citizen questions something, he/she should be heard, that is what democracy is. Introspection leads to improvement. The door to introspection can’t be blocked.”

Jahnu Barua. Photo: By arrangement

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

You had spoken in support of the anti-CAA protests in Assam. Now you are seeking the release of Akhil Gogoi from jail through a video message. What are the reasons for taking such public positions, which may also be seen by some as anti-government? Soon after your stand on CAA, in some quarters, there were rumours that you were interested in joining politics. 

Well, before I go into answering these questions, I would like to say something. To get the gist of what I would say in response to these questions, I think one must understand who I am, who is Jahnu Barua. Of course, I am in the cultural field. But above all, I consider myself a responsible citizen of the country.

For me, it is very important to know myself as a citizen. When I think of myself as a citizen, three things are at the top of my mind: the constitution of my country, which I feel is one of the best in the world; the governing system of the country, which is democracy, the best thing to have happened in human evolution; and thirdly, our humanity. I call myself a humanist. I never like to compromise on humanity at any cost. So, when I try to function as a citizen, these are the three things I always keep in mind.

Now, as someone born in a village in Assam and then living in metropolitan Mumbai, I have seen a lot, gone through a lot of experiences. By now, I have come to know about a lot of things on how my country functions. And frankly speaking, I don’t feel happy about it. Not happy with what is happening in the country right now too. I am saying this not because I have a different ideology [from the ruling dispensation]; but because I am not happy as a humanist.

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A lot of good things have been happening in the country but certain things when I look at, I feel extremely unhappy, feel somewhere something is going wrong. Since I am not in politics – and to answer your question, I am not at all interested in it – it will not be wise on my part to straightaway criticise something. I don’t want to do that but as a citizen, I always see how I can contribute to improve the situation in the country. I am insignificant that way, just one citizen out of 135 crore. But even then, I feel very strongly that each and every citizen must responsibly look into things that are going wrong.

Importantly, every citizen should be proud of the constitution of India and the democracy that we have. That way, every citizen of India needs to feel that they are in a heaven of sorts. I have travelled to many parts of the globe, seen how people suffer in a country without democracy. Those sufferings are definitely different from our sufferings. We are, that way, in heaven but we are also responsible for making ourselves suffer. In those countries, the system itself is wrong. But we have a fantastic constitution and also the most appropriate system of government and yet we suffer. I have been brooding about it; it has been a constant struggle to understand things as a citizen.

A woman leaves after casting her vote at a polling station during the 2019 general election in Majuli in Assam. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Secondly, we are 135 crore people. Among that, there are about 6-7 crore who are formally a part of the national and state-based political parties. It means a maximum of 4% of the entire Indian population is directly involved in politics. The rest 96% is supposed to be non-political. They are supposed to be totally independent in their thinking. That is what the constitution allows us to be. In a democracy, when we elect a government, it is everyone’s government because it is a democratically elected dispensation.  Even for the person who has not voted for the ruling party. The moment we find that the government is not functioning properly, taking certain wrong decisions – leading to more sufferings, then we have a duty as a citizen at our hand not to elect them again. That is the power we have.

Unfortunately, today, we see something else. You see a situation in this country where almost 99% of the people are inclined towards politics directly and therefore we are increasingly hearing things like, ‘Don’t go or talk to so and so’s house because they support a certain party or doesn’t support a certain party’. It is the most unfortunate thing to come from an ordinary citizen in a democracy, someone who is not officially part of any political party. The people against whom such thing are said may actually have nothing to do with politics, may be completely neutral. But that is the scenario in our country at the moment. I don’t blame people beyond a point. It is the political parties who have pulled it off successfully. The only reason you can hold people accountable is, should they be so unaware of it to fall for it? Should they remain so unaware about the things being done by political parties? I am saying this only to highlight people’s role as a citizen in a democracy.

So what has changed? 

Today, if someone wants to raise their voice against some policies or some other steps of the government that he/she may not agree with, they will hesitate to do so. Because there is fear that he/she may be termed anti-government or anti-establishment. At the same time, we also see some people who exaggerate a problem only because they are opposed to the ruling party. Then again, there are those who support the ruling party, if they spot a problem, will still remain quiet. In a democracy, all three situations are unfortunate. As a result, we are suffering.

However, instead of calling someone who criticises the government ‘anti-government’, it should be welcome. When a conscious, responsible citizen questions something, he/she should be heard; that is what democracy is. Introspection leads to improvement. The door to introspection can’t be blocked. I will give you a simple example. If, say, in a family, one member criticises the decision of the head of the family, will we listen to their concerns or term her as anti-family? A similar process must be practiced in democracy.

So my larger point is, somewhere our democracy is going wrong. And that is where I come from, as a citizen, when you see me questioning various issues publicly.

So you have demanded the release of Akhil Gogoi as a conscious citizen? 

Yes. I don’t want to comment on the legal details of the cases against him. I am not a trained lawyer. But when I see how the situation has panned out in regard to Akhil, I feel that humanity is getting lost. Irrespective of his ideology, what kind of man he is, we as common citizens have been watching [what the state is doing to him]. We are not fools. Through our observation from a distance, we know what degree of crime one is committing. So as a member of the public, we have a duty to speak out. I am only doing my duty on humanitarian grounds.

Akhil comes out of a certain jail, then before he can even reach home, police officials from another district arrest him to keep him incarcerated as long as possible. You are not allowing a level playing field by using the entire might of the state against an individual. That is, I would say, very inhuman. Also, across the world including in India, various courts have ordered the release of people from prisons due to the COVID-19 on humanitarian grounds.

If you come to the basics, how many years does a human being live, maximum 80-90 years? And within that period, we humans create so many inhuman things in this world. We find newer ways to torture a person whom we don’t agree with. Also, whenever you look back in human history, any change, be it the birth of a new religion, a new form of government, a new public movement, it is because humanity was lost. Why do we have democracy in this country? It is because each and every citizen is important and has equal rights. This is, because humanity must not be lost. These are things I react to, and that is why I took a public stand demanding his release.

KMSS leader Akhil Gogoi in New Delhi. Photo: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty/Files

You had also spoken out against the killing of 18 children in a bomb blast in Assam’s Dhemaji in 2004. 

Yes. In the same way, I can’t understand any killing. That is why I spoke out against that 2004 incident.  My film Tora bagged the Best Children’s Film around that time. Whatever monetary remuneration I got from it, I had donated to those families. Such killings affect me.

I come from a remote village, so remote that about 30 years ago, no vehicle could enter it because there was no road. But I feel very proud that I never saw such inhuman things in my village, which by today’s standards was far from ‘modern civilisation’.

When I see inhuman things done only to win an election or to achieve any goal, it pains me.

Lets’ come to the CAA. Why do you think it is not good for Assam? 

I begin by asking, could a similar law be passed so quickly by setting aside the people’s opposition to it in any other state? This happened even while people were on the streets in huge numbers, saying they would be a victim of the law. I tell you why the Centre can’t do so in any other state. The leadership in Assam, since Independence, has been growing weak and today it is one of the weakest. The present political class has failed to be the people’s representatives and voice their concerns to New Delhi. So, it has come to pass now that whatever New Delhi says must be carried out by them.

I also want to point out that it is true across the political spectrum. A couple of times, someone from outside of Assam could be so easily brought in to become a Rajya Sabha member from the state, who would, in turn, never speak for the people of the state in parliament. We as common citizens have been watching such things for quite some time. It could happen only because of the failure of local politicians. People can no more hope that this existing political class will help the Assamese community safeguard its identity. Those who asked for votes on the promise of protecting their jati mati bheti (home, hearth and identity) have closed all doors on people. That is why the anger of common people was triggered the most and we saw such vociferous anti-CAA protests.

One needs to understand Assamese identity can’t be compared historically or geographically with that of say, Maharashtra, Gujarat or even Bengal. Assamese identity is completely different. It is a language centric society, has nothing to do with religion or creed. Where do you see an identity which has tribals, caste Hindus, Muslims, Christians, all come together to form a larger Assamese whole? However, since Independence, our politicians have failed to introduce us to New Delhi as that kind of people because of their weak leadership.

More than 600 years ago, Chaolung Sukapha united the tribes, sub-tribes and all communities. They faced attacks from outside, but fought as one. They were earlier scattered. That is how medieval Assam could defeat the mighty Mughals at their peak – during Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb’s time – 17 times. Sri Sri Sankardev socio-culturally united us as one through a beautiful social system. He brought tribes, non-tribes, and Muslims too, under one identity. This unity is the composite Assamese identity based on the Assamese language.

But do you get to read this in the history books? In a very organised manner, our young lot have been delinked from their roots because the educational institutions have been designed not to teach our history in depth. Today, Assamese children will know more about Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb than the Assamese kings who defeated their army for 68 years – from 1614 to 1682. Today, we don’t even have a road named after them, even in Guwahati.

I will give you another example. Look at our women characters in history. Mula Gabharu rode a horse, leading a women’s platoon to fight Turbak Khan in 1530. But our young lot know of only Rani of Jhansi who fought the British on horseback some three hundred years later.

One may criticise me as an Ahom for pointing out these high points of our history during the Ahom period, but I never look at Ahom kings other than Assamese kings. All Assamese need to take pride in our past. Look at our surnames. A Phukan or a Baruah could be a Brahmin, Kalita, Ahom, or even a Muslim. What does it signify? That, we are not religion-centric. It is time we take collective pride in what we have and only then can we safeguard our identity.

I took a public stand against the CAA because of the neglect, exploitation of the people and the nonchalance of our leadership to the common people’s demand to be heard. This has gone on for too long. Are we Indians or not? Are our interests not primary to the country over the citizens of other countries? Or, are we needed only for our oil, coal, tea and other natural resources? As concerned citizens, we had no choice but to speak up. Therefore, I made a video during the anti-CAA protests citing data to highlight how the Assamese community could be in minority in the next year itself if this Act is implemented in the state.

An anti-CAA protest in Assam. Photo: PTI

So you are saying the Act could be implemented in Assam primarily because of weak state leadership.

Yes. This is also because our leadership doesn’t have any sense of our history, no pride in our roots. Everything is being looked at only from the angle of winning the next elections. They seem to know only appeasement or polarising the voters on communal lines. I will give you an example. The Brahmaputra valley has been a fertile land. But instead of encouraging our farmers to do more farming, more and more people are being given rice at Rs 2 a kilo for votes. Who would want to work hard then? The political class has, through these populist schemes, actually crippled our people. The only aim is to capture Dispur by hook or by crook. I feel common citizens should be politically aware about what’s going on. You don’t need to play politics but be aware, so that you know whom to vote for every five years, which is important in a democracy.

The constitution has given all of us this right and responsibility. It is time we mature as citizens.