More than who killed rationalist Dr. Narendra Dabholkar, Communist leader Govind Pansare, professor M M Kalburgi and journalist Gauri Lankesh, Anand Patwardhan’s latest documentary Reason seems to delve into why they were killed. What was it about their work and ideas that cost them their lives? Through a direct, riveting narrative, the eight-part film connects current events with ideological forces, and attempts to answer this searing question while asking many more.

In the opening chapters, Patwardhan reconstructs the life of Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare, from hours of archival footage, photos, press coverage and family interviews. As the story unfolds we realise why Dabholkar’s work, if left unchecked, could have been detrimental to the political and ‘spiritual’ careers of many an influential men and women.

For much of his life Dabholkar, a doctor by profession, campaigned for the eradication of superstition, black magic, blind faith and the ‘miracles’ of godmen. He did so with good humour and ease, breaking down complex ideas into simple language, visible in the sections of footage Patwardhan stitches together. In one of his public addresses, Dabholkar pulls out a wire from his tongue in exact imitation of the godman in the scene before. “Anyone can do it … You put the tongue in the wire, not the wire in the tongue,” revealing the loop where the tongue can settle. In another instance, a young woman activist of the Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti (MANS), an organisation Dabholkar founded, reveals a fake plastic thumb to explain how godmen pull out gold chains from thin air. An advocate of rationale over blind faith, Dabholkar enabled people in the furthest villages of Maharashtra to think for themselves, and not be exploited in the garb of religion.

For much of his life Dabholkar, a doctor by profession, campaigned for the eradication of superstition, black magic, blind faith and the ‘miracles’ of godmen. He did so with good humour and ease, breaking down complex ideas into simple language, visible in the sections of footage Patwardhan stitches together.

Parallel to Dabholkar’s social activism is the political work of Govind Pansare who was out to expose another set of lies — those that have made their way into history books. He argues with candour and laughter, that Shivaji was a secular leader, entrusting the charge of his armoury to Ibrahim Khan, a Muslim general. By no means was he a ‘protector of cows and Brahmins’ as his popular appellation suggests. The people of Kolhapur, where Pansare was based, remember him as the man who offered legal counsel cutting across caste, class, gender and religion, sometimes only in exchange for a handful of grain. Reason foregrounds Pansare’s legacy as it lives on in the little known Shahu Maharaj Vedic School in Kolhapur that admits students from all castes. Today, the organisation assists in inter-caste and inter-religious marriages.

In the summary words of a Shiv Sena foot soldier, both men were asking for it; someone had to get provoked. Same for Kalburgi, who popularised Basaveshwara’s teachings against caste, class and gender discrimination, and Gauri Lankesh whose critique of right-wing extremism, gender and caste based discrimination is well known. The documentary suggests that the same ideology that killed Gandhi, Socrates, Tukaram, Galileo also killed the four activists. The ability to inquire, and enabling others to do the same, is dangerous business in this country.

In a scene from “Reason”, a passerby joins in a student protest performance at the Film and Television Institute of India.

Another assassination that looms in Reason is that of Gandhi’s. The film keeps coming back to the question of Gandhi’s death and to Vinayak Savarkar, the ‘father of Hindutva’ and one of the primary accused in Gandhi’s assassination. Patwardhan, who has made such investigative documentaries in the past such as Ram Ke Naam (1992) and Jai Bhim Comrade (2012), tries to draw an ideological connection between Savarkar’s resurgence during BJP-led governments and the 17 bomb blasts between 2002 to 2008, linking them to the Malegaon blast case and finally to Hemant Karkare, the IPS officer martyred in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. The narrative suggests that Karkare, as chief of Anti Terrorism squad, was set up by extremist sympathisers within the government for his dogged investigation into the Malegaon blast case, which implicates, among others, the current BJP candidate from Bhopal, Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur. She has very recently commented that it was “her curse” that killed Karkare.

Saffron rage, violence and terror aside, the documentary is most moving in its quiet moments. As Patwardhan reads out Rohith Vemula’s suicide note in a voice over, it is hard not to think about the brilliant minds that have been lost to divisive politics. It is even harder to comprehend the amount of courage it must require to continue living in the shadow of violence. Sartaj, a young Air Force corporal whose father was beaten to death on allegations of killing a cow, talks about his father’s death without a trace of anger in his voice, remarking instead of “how fortunate he is to be born here [in this country].” He is calm, dignified and gentle in his response. “It is difficult to find this kind of country … But there are a few people who want to destroy the atmosphere here … By destroying all this, what exactly are they going to achieve?”

Questions abound in Reason. But it also provides some answers, and with it some hope. For one: is democracy dead? The answer is a resounding no. In the songs, claps, chants and drum beats of the series of protests that Patwardhan captures –– from the villagers of Ramnathi staging dharnas outside the Sanatan Ashram, to the monthly gatherings of the safai karamcharis protesting the lack of initiative in Dabholkar’s murder, from the peaceful gathering led by Rohith Vemula’s mother at India Gate, to the drum beats of Dalit activists rejecting the cow’s tail for land –– democracy is alive, beating within our hearts.

In September 2018, right after its premiere in Toronto International Film Festival, an article in Scroll predicted that political pressure will not allow Reason to be shown in India. On the contrary, the entire documentary is available on YouTube as a 16-part series. So watch before this important document of our times from one of the most lucid voices of our times disappears without reason.

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