Morari Bapu is a religious leader and kathakaar (or storyteller) of the Ramayan with a wide following. In 2002, after the Gujarat communal massacre, he set out on a peace march, effectively distancing himself from the perpetrators of the violence.

When concerned Gujarati citizens formed a Sadbhavana Forum to bring understanding between people of different faiths, Bapu extended  wholehearted support to them. He began hosting their annual conference at his ashram in Mahuva in Bhavnagar, while refraining from interfering in any of their decision-making.

Earlier this month, activists like Aruna Roy and Saeed Naqvi, school and college teachers and other concerned citizens who could carry the message of harmony to their respective fields attended the Sadbhavana Forum along with Bapu’s followers.

Cathartic discussion

I showed long excerpts from my films Ram Ke Naam, War and Peace and Jai Bhim Comrade as well as all of Father, Son and Holy War, followed by animated discussions. Proponents of Hindutva have long attacked these films without having seen them and this has prejudiced others. The act of watching the films seemed cathartic and the discussions that followed were frank but friendly.

On the last day, Bapu gave away two Sadbhavana Awards, chosen by a jury selected by the Forum. One went to the Gujarati activist-journalist Indukumar Jani for his unflinching focus on the working class, and the other to me, as a representative of media activism in the rest of India.

This was my acceptance speech (delivered in Hindi).
"I am deeply honored by the Sadbhavana award given to me by Morari Bapu and the Sadbhavana Forum.

Bapu, when he lent his support to this Forum, had declared that 'all religions should spread harmony, peace and love'. The Forum invited leaders of all religions so that dialogue could take place and religion could guide the world to a better place.

I have a slightly different understanding of religion but we share the same goal of communal harmony.

I am not personally religious. I have never been able to answer for myself the question of whether God created man, or Man created God. Some would call me an atheist but I prefer the word agnostic, meaning, 'I do not know.'  Not only do I not know, I suspect that what happens in the world outside our own, is unknowable. In your Gujarati, there is a wonderful term for death. It is 'off thai gayo'. Off, like an electric switch. Only the dead can tell us what happens afterwards, but the dead do not talk.

This lack of knowledge does not frighten me. It only tells me that my job is not to pray to a God who may not exist, but to try to live as a good human and work to make our planet more livable for all.

Does my lack of faith put me in conflict with religious people?

Mahatma Gandhi fought and died in an attempt to better the world he inhabited. Gandhiji was religious. But he was really a liberation theologist who interpreted his religion from the viewpoint of his modern ethical ideas. He threw out what he did not like. He avoided ritualism. He rejected hatred and bigotry.

Babasaheb Ambedkar had important differences with Gandhi, but was similar in this respect. When he decided to walk out of a Hinduism that had denied his people basic human rights, he searched for another religion better suited to his egalitarian and rational ideals, and found Buddhism. With him over one lakh followers converted to Buddhism in the largest mass conversion the world had ever seen.

Why did Gandhi and Ambedkar need religion to spread their basic message of justice and peace?  Why didn’t they rely on rationality alone? Perhaps it was because they knew that India is an ancient land where people are steeped in religious culture. Rather than being four steps ahead of the people they chose to go one step at a time. They remained grounded in the cultural systems of this land, using religious idioms but interpreting their beliefs in radical new ways.

Today as we all know, this country and the world at large is full of religious hatred.  This hatred claimed the life of Mahatma Gandhi and thousands of others all over the globe. Yet we know that it is not religion but the political use of religion that is the real culprit. Today we see the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant wreak havoc and heap untold cruelties in the name of Islam. But if you research who and what created ISIS you may see the pivotal role of the US and allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. Three decades ago in Afghanistan and Pakistan they had armed and unleashed Islamic jihad to weaken the influence of the Soviet Union. Religious atrocities like the Inquisition from the Christian past need no reminding.  In Sri Lanka and in Myanmar today we see that even Buddhists are capable of cruel massacres.

Nearer home we see a resurgence of caste atrocities. In Gujarat we see the killers of minorities being let out of jail. We see brave activists like Teesta Setalvad hounded by the state only because she and her organisation were able to put 126 people behind bars for their role in the massacre of 2002. In my own state of Maharashtra we witnessed the daylight murders of Dr. Narendra Dabholkar and then Comrade Govind Pansare, two fighters against superstition and religious hatred. No one has been arrested to date.

My own voice does not reach far enough. My films often get stopped or delayed by the State. When I win court battles to screen them, extra-constitutional bodies attempt to stop them.  Even yesterday someone here wanted to know why I bring up the past, why I show conflict. I think these films if seen with patience can bring understanding rather than add to conflict.  We cannot wish away the past, but we can learn not to repeat it.

The clear message I have heard here is that all religions lead to God.  This is an ethos I trust and I trust that you who have a much bigger voice than mine will speak out, not only for love and peace but also for justice. Without justice, peace will never last.

I congratulate Sri Morari Bapu and the Sadbhavana team and humbly accept the honour bestowed on me. The prize money will be used for our Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee, which is fighting to free young Dalit poets and musicians wrongly accused and kept in jail for over two years without trial. Thank you."

Morari Bapu in his hour-long closing address to a largely Gujarati audience, made a point to speak in Hindi. He turned to me: “Do you believe in satya (truth)?”  I nodded. He asked: “Do you believe in love?”  I nodded. He asked: “Do you believe in karuna (compassion)?” Again I nodded. He said: “Then we have no quarrel for this is my definition of God.”

Bapu then spoke about how passion was good but could be destructive if unaccompanied by vivek (wisdom and insight). He said that if I thought going to court against the censorship of my films was an ordeal, imagine what he, Morari Bapu faced when he represented Lord Ram without a bow and arrow.

His formless arrow struck home. Had I been too arrogant in delineating my own lack of faith as if it were somehow superior to the faith of the person I was addressing?

I was aware that Morari Bapu had not boycotted the Vishwa Hindu Parishad despite its role in the demolition of the Babri Mosque, had not criticised Narendra Modi despite the 2002 pogrom. He had done the right thing by taking out a peace march, but he had not said the right thing.

The beginning of a journey

Was it strategy? All I know is that a young man brought up in the tradition of a kathakaar of the Ramayana is now a spiritual leader who propagates universal democratic values.  He and the team he helped foster had the openness and courage to screen my films, critical as they are of sectarian agendas. A dialogue had begun. What more could I ask?

Two weeks later in the Congress-led state of Kerala, a crowd from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s youth wing, the Akhil Bharati Vidhyarthi Parishad, attacked the Government Law College in Thrissur where a screening of Ram Ke Naam was underway. They tore up the screen and halted the screening.

There is a section of India that still wants to control what we know.