The little boy displayed on screen to a packed crowd in the Old Redmond Schoolhouse Community Center was only five when he was interviewed by Indian filmmaker Rakesh Sharma for his documentary, Final Solution, about India’s bloody 2002 Gujarat riots.
The film clip shows the boy at his school in India, dressed in a uniform, hair parted to the side. His brown eyes look up in wonder as Sharma asks why he was forced to flee his home.
And then the boy begins to speak.
“After the burning in Chamanpura, I came here,” he said. “They killed people there.”
Sharma was in town on October 23 to discuss the influence of Hindu right-wing fundamentalism, known as Hindutva, in permeating a climate of religious intolerance in India between the Hindu majority and religious minority populations.
The Muslim schoolboy was one of many survivors of what Sharma describes as the politics of hate and intolerance infiltrating societies across the globe.
In the two-hour discussion—which lasted longer than expected at the audience’s request—Sharma, sporting a brown beard freckled with grey and wide-rimmed glasses, was grilled on topics from media bias to extremism in the country.
Educating locals and raising awareness about the string of events in India is crucial, according to volunteer Syed Amad of Redmond. Seattle’s chapter of the Indian American Muslim Council was formed three weeks ago for the sole purpose of bringing Sharma to speak, since he was already in town for the Seattle South Asian Film Festival.
In February 2002, a wave of violence erupted across the state of Gujarat after a train carrying 58 Hindu pilgrims was lit on fire and the passengers burned alive. The incident sparked riots by Hindu mobs against the state’s Muslim population, who were blamed for the fire. In the following weeks, about 1,000 people, mostly Muslim, were killed and around 150,000 people displaced.
“This was a story that was being denied by the state completely,” Sharma said. “It was as if the carnage did not happen, as if the mass killings did not happen, so it became very important to document this story.”
While the film was initially denied certification by the Censor Board of India and rejected as an entry at the government-run Mumbai International Film Festival in 2004, it went on to win numerous accolades and has been screened at more than 80 film festivals.
In the riot’s aftermath, Prime Minister Narendra Modi—elected to office in May 2014 and Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time of the riots—was criticized for his inaction in subduing the violence and for idly standing by as hundreds were killed.
Sharma discussed Modi’s successful 2014 rise to power, influenced by promises of economic development but reliant upon a Hindu hard-liner base. The audience also raised concern over what the fundamentalists within his Bharatiya Janata Party mean for the Muslim minority, which comprises around 13 percent of the population.
“Modi has been clean since the riots, but his right hand people are spreading the hatred and he isn’t doing anything,” said Mohammed Ansari of Bellevue, who volunteered at the screening and discussion in Redmond. “It’s not a religious thing; it’s about a group of people who want to de-privilege the other communities, including their own lower Caste people.”
A major issue within the Modi administration is his continual silence on issues at the local level, which many interpret as an acceptance of these kinds of vigilante activities, according to Sunila Kale, associate professor at the UW and Chair and Director of the South Asia Center.
Since the release of Sharma’s first film, violence across the state has intensified.
“It’s unbelievable,” Ansari whispered as Sharma showed scenes from his film about the 2006 Malegaon bombing that left more than 30 dead and 300 injured. “There is so much hatred everywhere.”
This past October, a Muslim man in northern India was beaten to death by a Hindu mob over allegations that he consumed beef. Meat consumption is an especially divisive issue in India because cows are considered sacred in the Hindu faith.
For attendee Zeeshan Sayyed, who moved to the United States from India, the beef controversy hits close to home. He said he returned to his home country after five years to celebrate the festival of Eid by slaughtering an animal, but couldn’t participate because of the meat restrictions.
“Our freedom to practice our religion was taken away,” he said, pausing to add, “I came here after five years to celebrate the festival with my family and we couldn’t do it in peace.”
Sharma pointed out that the majority of the country doesn’t support these fundamentalist beliefs.
Sridhar Dandapanthula of Bellevue came to the event to learn more about different communities and hear their opinions on the situation. He said that he would have liked to see more positive stories, especially since he is Hindu and many of his friends in India are Muslim.
As scenes from Sharma’s films flashed across the screen, the mostly male, Indian audience—from men dressed in prayer caps to teens with faded jeans—was subdued. Once the lights were on, an audience member asked how they can make a difference from Seattle.
His advice to the crowd was to not remain silent about what is occurring in their country.
“It’s about the idea of India,” he said after the event. “It’s about what is the nation that I want to live in and what’s the nation we want the next generation to inherit. And I certainly do not want this for the next generation.”