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An Interview with Gita Sahgal on Writing and Documentary Filmmaking (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2019/06/15


Gita Sahgal is the Executive Director, Centre for Secular Space. She discusses: becoming involved in writing and documentary filmmaking; and secularism and Islamism. 

Keywords: Centre for Secular Space, documentary, filmmaking, Gita Sahgal, secularism, writing.

An Interview with Gita Sahgal on Writing and Documentary Filmmaking: Executive Director, Centre for Secular Space (Part One)[1],[2]

*Please see the footnotes, bibliography, and citation style listing after the interview.*

*This interview edited for clarity and readability. Some information may be incorrect based on audio quality.*

*This interview was conducted November 13, 2016.*

1. Scott Douglas Jacobsen: How did you become involved in writing and documentary filmmaking?

Gita Sahgal: I joined a film company in the mid-80s. People thought it was a tourism program. However, it was radical or Left-wing Progressive in the old sense. It is African and Asians producing a black current affairs program. In Britain, I should say, a lot of Asian people call themselves black as part of the broader black movement. Asians tend to refer to East Asians in America. However, in Britain, Asian refers to South Asians, as in Bangladeshis, Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, by origin, and so on.

They tend to use black as a solidarity term with the black movement. There were a bunch of autonomous organizations that started in the late 70s and early 80s. I was already part of Southall Black Sisters when I was part of this

his television program called Bangdam Files. It was run by a famous Trotskyite who is now appalling on the War on Terror. He was then a very progressive Pakistani who had his hay day in Vienna and the bombing of Vietnam.

We brought together various left-wing groups and a publishing company called Bercer. He had gotten together with another black activist, who had come from left-wing black tradition. That had come out of various confrontations with police.

It was an incredibly exciting time to be an activist on television. Channel 4 is a strange British mix. It is funded commercially. It had a charter with the government. That said it had to deal with minority interests and other issues – a minority in the widest way.

It had very exciting films and obscure documentaries, which were artistically challenging as well as not being straight documentary coverage Documentary filmmaker from all over the world – including North America – looked to Channel 4 to make films with funding – films the way they wanted.

They had films with different takes on things, e.g. feminism, LGBT activism, black things, and so on. Before that, the work was very basic, how to settle into British life. Somehow, we all the sudden had this program that dealt with police violence.

We had investigative stories. One of the first things that it did was an investigation into the influence on Hindu Right and being treated as a cultural group and being given money by labour councils from all over London.

In fact, it is a story still going on. Now, it is the Muslim Right. Under multiculturalism, it is treated as a cultural group and the given money like Labour councils all over London and other places.

Fundamentalist groups have been given money by local councils for ages. We exposed it with the Hindu Right in 1986. Something like that I started by reading the news. I did not want to be doing that, but the job was available.

Then I became a researcher and became a director. Later, I went freelance and became a director and producer and so on. I did these amazing stories on racism in employment. Police racism with the beating of a young man who turned up in prison with a concussion.

The police and prison authorities helped each other. Nobody would have admitted to having been caught in that state. We had a lot of run-ins. We could not go into areas with riots, where the police said that these were no-go areas.

But we went into these areas because we were the people. I did stuff on racism in employment and work practices with Heathrow strikes and other things like women’s rights. I did things on dowry murders in India.

The revival of the practice of Sati that is killing women all over with putting the women on the pyre of the deceased husband. Then later, when the Rushdie affair broke, I was still working with Bangdo. It was public.

There were some rumblings in India and elsewhere. It found its way to Britain from there. There were people marching on the streets in Britain. We started formulating it. I did an interview with Rushdie. I did a program called [… Satanic Verse]. That went out on the 14th of February, which was on the night of the fatwa.

Nobody knew it would grow that large and that bad [Laughing]. I chose passages for Rushdie to read. I was talking to the director. One of that passages I chose was in the Satanic Verses in which a character he jokes about this Khomeini-type character about this stopping history and a blood tide.

The director said, “I do not understand this passage” I said, “We’ve got to have this! This is crucial.”

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Sahgal: He had no idea what we were up against. It is up on YouTube. Then we did another a few months later, which started being directed by someone else and then I took it over. It was on a demonstration supporting Rushdie. 40 women were protesting and supporting Rushdie against 20,000.

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Sahgal: So, I wasn’t filming at that point. As I said, I wasn’t the director. The film was very much about racism, I think. I made a film about secular values and feminism, and secularism, in relation to the Rushdie affair. I did two big films there. I worked with independent filmmakers in India on films.

I worked on various other things. I continued to work on several major films in Britain, which broke new ground, politically. One major film, which became part of a campaign, was about women who kill their husbands because of domestic violence. That was the first done in Britain about that issue.

There had been issues done about this in America. There were several cases. We focused on Kiranjit. He was an old man in jail. We followed their stories. Southall Black Sisters, which I was a part of, campaigned to get her out. Absolutely against the odds, we were able to re-open the case. We had no legal aid.

In Britain, there is no automatic right to appeal, so she was already in jail. It was completely hopeless. Partly because of the film and partly because of intense legal work was mainly done by Southall Black Sisters, we found a way to force the case open.

It became case law. Her sentence was squashed. Then it was sent back to retrial, and then a new retrial. It made case law, changing the law of provocation. That was incredibly exciting work, to be a part of that campaign and being fortunate enough to be through a film and get the work done.

Another central on was called The War Crimes File. It is on YouTube. That was about three British men who were from Bangladesh, who we found were being involved with either issuing fatwas or death squads in Bangladesh, or leading lynch mobs.

The extraordinary thing about that. One of those three now died. The other two rose to high positions in Britain, even though the material was handed to the police. A lot of the films I have done have underlying human rights arguments, not just underlying and even up front. What are these men doing?

They should have been tried under British law of war crimes, which allows for extraterritorial jurisdiction. Some crimes are so serious. Even if they have been committed abroad, they can be tried in the country that they are in now.

So, Britain in this case; some countries have broad definitions like Belgium, but Britain is quite narrow. We tried because we felt at least one could be prosecuted. But there was no political appetite to do that.

One man involved in death squads and taking people to torture centers was eventually convicted in absentia in the tribunal set up in Bangladesh. The film eventually became part of a movement for justice and accountability.

I believe, it became the most popular issue around war crimes that ever existed anywhere in the world. You may not know about it because no one talks about it abroad. There was a film made in the last few years.

The other film was made much more recently with larger international news, which led to huge discussions about genocidal killings in Indonesia in the 60s. I think my film made in the mid-90s was that equivalent.

It energized a movement within Bangladesh. It is interesting to me for people to talk about terrorism, Islam, and Islamic terrorism, but they pay no attention to popular movements against it. None. The whole counter-extremism exercise is totally divorced from where people are.

Not much government backing or help. That movement that I have been a part of has had a lot of problems. I do not believe in the death penalty. But I think they arrested the right people who were the leaders of the Dawateislami.

It was a fundamentalist group acting alongside the Pakistan army, which was the main people who are killing civilians. We do not know how many. We do not have the figures, but thousands of people. 10 million refugees fled.

These are killings on the scale of Syria now, even the refugee crisis was even bigger. The US was backing the Pakistani government. I am trying to shut down this thing. There was a guerilla war with the people in the Bangladesh army.

The government that came to power had a huge democratic landing. Unlike Syria, which went on for four years or something, there was a humanitarian intervention by India, which the elected government got out of the country and ended the slaughter.

Many refugees went back. So, it is an amazing history that is not told. People do not remember it when they talk about Syria or anything. My small part is to be part of this investigative film with these people in Bangladesh and the people who have families killed by the fundamentalists.

People who helped us dig out and find people to interview and who are witnesses. We found journalists and other people who have been eyewitnesses at the time. This was in the mid-90s when there was no political appetite for it.

Later, a friendlier government got elected into power and, as a result, it is never only one thing. However, the film became part of a Campaign in Bangladesh. The government came to power on a promise that they would set up a war crimes tribunal. That is an extraordinary thing. How seldom that happens in history, people get away with murder and governments do not want to take it all up.

Because it can cause a backlash. That backlash against the Bangladeshi bloggers is a big issue. The reason for the backlash is because they were atheists. So, a lot of them were caught up in the movement.

It was an accident when the help came when it did. The War Crimes Files was in the 90s. It was my last big work. After that, I did some other smaller work. I write, occasionally. I have never been able to make a living from writing. I went into Amnesty International for several years.

I was doing policy work rather than writing work. The writing has been quite intermittent, but important to me in talking about issues of fundamentalism. It speaks to fundamentalism. Two people, including myself, wrote something called Holy Rollers, which is available online.

Women Living Under Muslim Rule published an online version of it. That became a point for people to discuss fundamentalism in religions. It has been always important to me to look across religion and not simply at one threat.

2. Jacobsen: I want to touch on something when you talked 1986 and doing an expose on fundamentalist Hindu sectors of the population. You mentioned the reaction to it. What was the reaction to it? Does this reflect a lot of the exposes occurring, and ongoing now, about some fundamentalist Muslims sects with Britain, for instance?

Gita Sahgal: I think the reaction is a lot worse, a lot worse, but a lot of people who are more prominent in the fundamentalist sects get death threats like the activists from the Muslim fundamentalists. If on email, then by email; if on Twitter, then on Twitter.

We have interviewed a person who became the mayor of London. He becomes infamous for being a Holocaust denier and embracing Shayk Qaradawi of the Muslim Brotherhood and hanging out with Hamas and Hezbollah.

It was more Jeremy Corbyn. However, he embraced Qaradawi. He gave him a platform and engaged him on a platform. When we interviewed him about the Hindu right, we did not know that they were fascists. We were mistaken [Laughing].

Jacobsen: [Laughing].

Sahgal: He knows what he was doing. They continue to do it. That was pretty much what has happened in Britain since then. The Islamist groups get exposed and then they do not back off. They go online.

They have a lot of supporters in parliament and continue doing what they are doing [Laughing].

Appendix I: Footnotes

[1] Executive Director, Centre for Secular Space.

[2] Individual Publication Date: June 15, 2019:; Full Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2019:


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


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