The term “communal riots” has become a dangerous cliché especially in the volatile, religion-dominated political environment where secularism has become a joke and where, over time and tragedy, it can be redefined not as “riots” but as “calculated attacks” by the majority on a minority community by virtue of the political liberty and the numbers-based power the former holds.

Nakul Singh Sawhney is a documentary filmmaker who has extensively worked on issues of communalism, honour killing, labour rights and social justice. His film Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai will go down in history as a scathing indictment on the doctored riots in September 2013 in Muzaffarnagar and what really happened. However, the screening of the film brought along several hurdles.

On August 1 2015, members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad forcefully stopped the screening at Delhi’s Kirori Mal College. Not to be swayed by this disruption, in a unique display of solidarity, Cinema of Resistance, a NGO that works towards regular screenings of independent documentaries, organized countrywide screenings in at least 60 different venues across 50 cities on August 25 the same year as a mark of protest against attempts by Hindutva groups to halt its screening at the University of Delhi and later at JNU.

The organisers sent the DVD of the film free of cost to those who wanted to screen the film. Most places successfully screened the film while in some places such as at Santi Niketan in Bolpur, screening was stopped by the local police after 40 minutes. The screening at Mumbai's The Hive was already cancelled after police intervention. At Space in Chennai, police stopped the screening but a major slice of the audience along with the organizers rushed to the Max Mueller Bhavan to immediately organize a private screening.

The director Sawhney was reportedly overwhelmed by the response of the people who fearlessly stood up against the attempt of the government and the ruling party to silence the voice of dissent. Considering that more than 7000 people watched the documentary on a single day, he agreed that in a way the obstruction provided them with an opportunity to reach out to the larger audience and spreading the message through his film.

“The massacre in Muzzafarnagar was the turning point for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh,” Sawhney said. The party’s brazenness in exploiting and misrepresenting fears that have an economic base is the result of a past history across India, whether in Delhi or Mumbai or Gujarat, of “never having been able to satisfactorily address communal violence and bring the perpetrators to justice”, he added.

This film slowly, layer by layer, unfolds the conspiracy of ruling class political parties which actually triggered, by deliberate design, communal massacres in a district that had never known communal conflict of any kind before. The aim of these political parties was to grab power through votes through conspiracy of capitalist and feudal forces of the region during August-September 2013. The documentary assumes significance because it traces the roots of the politics that led to the turmoil through flashbacks recounted by the victims and their families with the help of interviews at the many camps they had taken shelter in.

Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai narrates the true story through live footage of the aftermath of the riots in Muzafffarnagar and Shamli districts in Western Uttar Pradesh in September 2013. The film shows how a district fondly called Muhabbatnagar by its residents and neighbouring districts because of the undisturbed harmony between Hindus and Muslims turned into a veritable “Nafratnagar” if one could sadly call it that because the film shows how a place of love has been reduced to rubble on the one hand and to a place of death and destruction on the other.

The film opens on the hands of a little girl drawing matchbox-stick sketches of her father, their house in a sketchbook, drawing neat lines across with a ruler as she talks about what she is drawing. She explains that the man with raised hands is her father who tried to stop the invaders from entering their home and was struck down by a bullet. “Who were they?” asks the voice-over and she says, “the attackers were from our neighbourhood” afraid of mentioning names.

The director and his team move through the affected areas, travelling along the earthy roads framed by thinned trees with skeletal branches while the voice-over explains in neutral tones how and why these were the worst riots since Independence. Nakul Singh Sawhney tries to give voices to all people involved in the story – the perpetrators, mainly from Hindu right wing political parties preparing for the elections in a state where the present ruling party had never won after 1984; the observers, both Hindu and Muslim who give vent to their feelings and voice the common grouse that the riots and the killings are designed by politicians, their goons, their musclemen, their stooges and their electoral candidates mainly from the majority community.

The film is structured mainly through interviews with the survivors, family members of victims, dishoused and displaced men, women and children who are practically living off sugarcane at the temporary camps waiting for compensation. It took a toll of more than 100 people and nearly 80,000 people were displaced. Incidentally, these two districts have seen known for the communal harmony that existed between Muslims and Hindus! The film, in an attempt to trace the root of this sudden violence, oscillates between various socio-political-economic nuances in the zones affected by the violence.

The survivors’ voices break as they go back into the recent past. The heavily lined face of an old woman laments that the mansion in which she lived that had 52 doors and was large enough for one to get lost. The camera returns to the debris of this mansion twice or thrice and at one point, one can hear the fading voice of Salim Mirza’s dying mother in Garm Hawa (1973) is brought back to their old haveli she wished to visit once before she died.

For those not familiar with the reference, Garm Hawa, directed by M.S. Sathyu on a script penned jointly by Kaifi Azmi and Shama Zaidi was based on an unpublished short story by Ismat Chughtai. This film is significant as a frame of reference because it is set against the backdrop of Agra also in Uttar Pradesh where Indian Muslims, specially after the Partition of India in 1947 and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, were forced to migrate to Pakistan though they had lived in India all their lives and many were even born here.

The film focusses on Salim Mirza, a businessman who hates to leave even when his older brother and his family choose to go to Pakistan. This film was a milestone because for the first time, an Indian film tackled the tragedy of Muslims in India after the Partition without exaggeration or melodrama, with quiet assertion offering a humane document. However, the reference will be lost on those who have not seen nor heard of Garm Hawa.

Does this mean that the situation has worsened for Muslims 66 years after Independence when the film was made? Why? It is the camera that provides the answers as it wanders across the remains of three different three-wheelers owned by a successful young businessman now fallen on bad days. Is he the Salim Mirza of 2013?

A young man makes a valid statement. “Why do you ask who died – Hindu or Muslim? Human beings died and that is important. The ones who died are weak, vulnerable, helpless and poor. Not a single politically, financially and communally powerful person seems to have been affected,” he says and the film shows.

When the voice-over asks a group of men how could they possibly come back to their towns after the riots were over, they laugh and say they had to come because they had their lands and their farms and their businesses here, certain that the victimizers would not touch them for the financial power they had.

When a group of young girls, both Muslim and Hindu are asked whether they were molested or teased by boys of a given community, they all say the obvious – it does not matter what community the boys belong to, because molesting and eve-teasing are independent of communal identities. “Why should girls be forced to be the stakeholders of the family’s izzat? Why not men?” asks one, as she smiles into the camera.

The roads are deserted, the homes are in shambles, machines are broken or burnt and a gas cylinder rolls on the road reminding us that it once took pride of place in someone’s kitchen that once was. This is in the wake of a Muslim young boy having been brutally killed and his body left on the open streets because allegedly he raped a Hindu girl, the sister of a Hindu boy. In retaliation, the two Hindu boys who had reportedly killed the Muslim boy were also killed. When the camera closes in on a film clip of two bodies curled in death, the voice-over says that this clip is from a Pakistan incident that happened two years ago!

Sawhney has not tried to compromise on the content by harping on the aesthetics of filmmaking. The empty roads, deserted of people, small children wandering aimlessly, not knowing what to do, women gathered together not knowing what to expect next, the fireworks symbolising the change of guard at the centre and also in Uttar Pradesh at the same time, spell out their own story.

Sawhney tries to maintain an objective and neutral stance as much as the situation permits him to, but the story comes across during the pre-election hate speeches filled with communal colours more from the majority and some from the minority as well. The camera returns to an old man who was once the headmaster of a school in the neighbourhood whose name no one remembers because everyone calls him “Master” and respects him a lot. He sadly says that this attack on their community was something he had never witnessed before.

The film focuses on children who are the worst victims. No going to school for them. One sees the bandaged foot of a small child standing near a ditch. Another small boy lies down in the ditch again and again and this “die-die and into the grave” is reduced to a child’s game for him. The ditch for these innocent little kids symbolises a grave and since they have nothing better to do, they play at lying down in it and coming out again and again. A father laments that his little boy is so shell-shocked by the riots that he keeps repeating the sentence.

The Muslims have been completely sidetracked almost into invisibility and this is reflected in the election campaign that led to Narendra Modi’s candidature as PM and then his winning to become PM of the nation. The sometimes quiet and sometimes vocal resistance of those who want to come back but cannot because they have no homes to come back to brings out their spirit of keeping alive both in Muzaffarnagar and in Shamli districts. Have they given up? Maybe some have but most have not because hope still rages in their minds that sometime in the future, their lives will become better. Will they?

Muzaffarnagar Baaqi Hai explores the tremendous impact of this violence on ordinary residents and how it has changed the original equations that existed between and among the paradigms of society, economics, and politics within which the people lived. On the one hand, while the film journeys across the affected areas to explore the question of women’s –honour’ that is the easiest sandbag used to provoke people, on the other, it explores different aspects of Dalit politics and the questionable role played by the Samajwadi Party which was the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh at the time of the riots.