Many of these short films contain speeches that Modi delivered after the carnage, including during his Gaurav Yatra and campaigning for the state election several months after the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom. Many of these speeches are no longer available online, Sharma said. Sharma will also release six more clips this week and six the next week, containing more speeches as well as portions of his new film on Gujarat in the decade after the carnage. The short films are all less than 15 minutes long. Click here, to watch them. In this interview, he tells Scroll.in why he put the clips up, discusses his new film and talks about Gujarat under Narendra Modi.
Are you putting these clips up now because the general election is around the corner?
Yes, in a manner of speaking. The fact is that Modi's more communal utterances have disappeared online. There's been a whitewash and a PR makeover of his image. I felt that it was important to put in the public realm what I had documented in 2002 – that in his Gaurav Yatra that year, Modi was endorsing the carnage.
In recent months, Modi seems to have toned down his rhetoric. Does this indicate an understanding that this is necessary to gain the support of other parties or even a genuine change in approach?I don't think there has been a fundamental change in his beliefs. His image as the 'Butcher of Gujarat' had to be whitewashed into the one of the 'Development Messiah' who has all the answers. [Lots of money] has been spent on this image makeover. Gujarat has been made out to be an idyllic land, one that all of India must aspire to imitate.
In any case, Modi has never expressed regret about what happened. His ministers are still under the scanner. It's not as if there has been a great realisation. If Modi is at the helm, similar fundamentalist policies to the one we saw in Gujarat will be played out in other parts of the country. Muzaffarnagar is a similar kind of politics – polarisation for electoral gain. It's not as if this has ended.
When there is this propaganda, I want to refresh people's memories and talk about the ground realities in Gujarat.
What are these ground realities?I've been documenting and filming in Gujarat since 2002. If you travel in Gujarat, you will find that even today the fault lines remain deep. In Ahmedabad, for instance, the localities of Naroda Patiya and Gulbarg Society are on the list of officially declared disturbed areas. If everything is normal, why are they on the list?
What has the Gujarat government done by way of relief and rehabilitation? Very little. The victims of the carnage have suffered twice and thrice over. First they lost everything during the carnage. Then they have been displaced and are living in terrible conditions. For instance, Citizen Nagar in Ahmedabad is next to the biggest landfill.
In the districts and villages, it's not as if those who were victimised and lost property have been able to go back and resume their lives in any normal way. Most people have been uprooted and there has not been any state support. So at the ground level there is no evidence to suggest that there has been any change of heart among the political leadership.
Has the propaganda worked?
Propaganda works. That's why money is poured into it not only by oppressive regimes, but also in contemporary politics, such as the American elections.
As far as the media is concerned, the propaganda has worked. I am not talking only about conventional media, such as print and TV, but also social media, whose spaces are very easy to infiltrate and manipulate. The Bharatiya Janata Party and its affiliates have managed to do this well. If Facebook were to hold elections, Modi would be the uncontested prime minister.
A part of Modi's image makeover is to remove from online spaces his communal speeches, ones on the basis of which he built up his image in the first place. The speeches he made during campaigns he ran before previous elections, suddenly you find some of them are no longer available online.
The myth of Modi is now as the Vikas Purush, the Man of Progress. A certain section of the middle class has bought into it, but it is only a section. Even within the Gujarati middle class there is a certain opposition to Modi. Even the best opinion polls, many of which have now been discredited, have a sample of 9,000, which works out to less than 20 people per constituency. So the extrapolations based on such a small group of people are open to serious questions. Both in 2002 and 2009, similar overestimations of support for the BJP took place.
What is the basis of this opposition in Gujarat to Modi?
It is not as if people's lives have become better in the past 10 years. The fact is that from a surplus state, the per capita debt in Gujarat is Rs 26,000.
Take the Tata group's Nano project in Sanand. Not only were many concessions given in 2008, when Tata Motors moved the plant there from West Bengal, but the condition that local labour must be employed was relaxed for that project. Yet the BJP lost the election in that constituency in the 2009 general election despite the fact that it swept Gujarat on the back of Modi's campaign.
So why was that project so necessary? Because it was after the Nano project and Ratan Tata's endorsement that Modi's makeover could begin. I have been tracking the situation in some districts, and through direct interviews and applications through the Right to Information Act, I know that famerrs are committing suicides in Saurashtra and other areas because they can't repay their loans.
The whole policy is skewed, where state funds are being used to create an image. It is not about development but the development of Modi's image.
Prominent economists such as Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya say Gujarat has fared well under Modi.
Statistics can be very malleable. Also, we need to step away from the macro-indicators that they are looking at and look at people at the ground level and see whether their lives have improved. Yes, highways have been developed and yes, there is infrastructure. But that has always been the case in Gujarat for a long time. Constructing highways from Gujarat to Mumbai, for instance, has been part of the state's policies, driven by the business ethos in that state.
But the fact is that he has been elected three times in a row
For the past 20 years, there has been no real opposition party. Gujarat has been reduced to a one-party state. The Congress's institutions and agencies, such as dairy and farmers' collectives, have been taken over by the BJP with little resistance from the Congress. The Gandhian activists in these agencies have not resisted. I have no doubt that when there is a credible opposition of any kind, and actual politics contesting issues at the ground level, things will change.
Tell us more about your new film.
It is a critique of the Vibrant Gujarat story and looks at the political and social impact on Gujarat of the carnage of 2002. I have been documenting the situation there for the past eight years. I have gone to the very people I filmed in 2002. Even in the current clips online, there are two clips of several kar sevak families who were cynically exploited for the election and whose tragedies [in the Godhra train fire] were constantly evoked by Modi in the Gaurav Yatra. That's what talked him up in the first place.
I have filmed about half a dozen families, and they unequivocally condemn the violence that was meted out in their name. Several of them are very critical of the BJP. Some say they won't ever vote for the BJP.
So how do you fund your films?
Even when I did not take any funding whatsoever for Final Solution, trolls online hurled invective and allegations that I have been paid millions by dubious sources. When you take money, credibility could suffer. But I also don't want to take funds because I wish to exercise complete control over the way I distribute my films.
In the case of Final Solution, TV channels did not want the film. It was too hot for them to handle. But I earned a lot of money outside India and I used that to cross-subsidise the film in India, by selling it at Rs 20 and Rs 50 to some audiences.
I have clarity that I am making films not to make money but to intervene, and the intervention has to be through a variety of networks that typically don't operate on a commercial basis. It makes no commercial sense for a classic producer-distributor to adopt this model. A foreign co-producer would be aghast at my distribution methods.