FIVE WEEKS BEFORE INDIA CELEBRATED its 50th year of independence, in Mata Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar in suburban Ghatkopar East, a part of northern Mumbai where many Dalits live, someone placed a garland of footwear around the neck of a statue of Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the Dalit lawyer who drafted the Indian Constitution that guarantees the fundamental rights that all Indians take for granted. Even if not the worst atrocity committed against Dalits, it was a mean, insulting act: many Dalits live in abject conditions; many are routinely abused; and many have faced far worse physical atrocities. The act of garlanding the statue with shoes was entirely unprovoked. It seemed it was meant to incite a reaction; if not, at least to remind the Dalits that they had to submit to those who had treated them with contempt for centuries.
Ambedkar not only wrote the rules by which India governs its society, he also empowered his community to assert its rights, reclaim its dignity, and be proud of its identity. And so, that July morning, Dalits gathered round the statue, protesting what many viewed as desecration.
One has to be careful using a word like ‘desecration’ while talking about Ambedkar, because he wasn’t one for placing individuals on a pedestal. Indeed, in Anand Patwardhan’s new documentary Jai Bhim Comrade, which is inspired from the incident at Ramabai Nagar, a leader says as much in a speech to a crowd of Dalits: “Unfortunately, we gave up 330 million gods, but made Ambedkar into a god. We wear Babasaheb (as he was affectionately known) Ambedkar’s photo around our neck. On waking up, we say ‘Jai Bhim.’ Before sleeping, it is ‘Jai Bhim,’ and when having a little drink, it’s ‘Jai Bhim’.” Blind faith was not for him. Another speaker reminds his audience that they should not be Ambedkar bhakta (devotees); they should be anuyayi (followers).
But on that day, 11 July 1997, the Dalits were angry and wanted to protest. The city’s police force turned up at the site, and Manohar Kadam, then a sub-inspector with the State Reserve Police Force, ordered his men to shoot. The protesters were unarmed, and 10 died, including an autorickshaw driver who had left his vehicle on the main road to see what the commotion was about. Many years later, Kadam was found guilty for having ordered the firing without adequate reason or warning. In May 2009, the Sessions Court sentenced him to life. A month later, the Bombay High Court suspended the sentence and released him on bail. The legal process continues.
Few believed the police account of that day that the Dalit mob had turned violent. Over the next few days and months, much of the police evidence of mob violence (including the burning of an oil tanker) began to fall apart. But the case drags on.
Meanwhile, the incident claimed one more victim. Six days after the firing, Vilas Ghogre, a Dalit balladeer who sang for the left-leaning theatre group, the Avahan Natya Manch, ended his life. Ghogre, who used the ektara to anchor his revolutionary songs, had been depressed: he had recently been suspended from Avahan because he had performed for Dalit politicians to make ends meet, and the theatre group believed that his dalliance with mainstream politicians eroded discipline.
Taking these fragments of the story—an insult to a statue, police killings and an activist balladeer’s suicide—Patwardhan has put together in a film shot and edited over 14 years an extraordinary, engrossing and understated history of Dalit and communal politics in Maharashtra, tracing the origin of reforms to Jotiba Phule in the 19th century, who with his wife Savitribai pioneered the education of women, and introducing us to the brimming confidence of two cheerful, bright young Dalit sisters, aptly named Samata (equality) and Pradnya (wisdom). He juxtaposes this development of Dalit narrative with the cultural stagnation among the upper castes, with their fetish for skin-lightening creams, and the popularity of websites like SimplyMarry.com that advertise Brahmin grooms and perpetuate the caste system, all within the framework of the resurgence of exclusionary upper-caste pride in politics.
At nearly 200 minutes, Jai Bhim Comrade is longer than Sholay, GP Sippy’s 1975 blockbuster, or Gandhi, Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biopic, but I didn’t need to look at my watch even once. That doesn’t mean it is fast-paced; it does mean it lingers just long enough over an episode to gently move to the next. Revolving around the Ramabai Nagar firing, the film makes transitions to different stories using music as the glue that binds, ensuring that the framework becomes stronger with each new layer of complexity. Built upon a series of probing interviews that express sympathy for the victim and raise tough questions to those who acquiesce with the status quo without taking obvious sides, the film’s effect is sobering, with the camera doing all the talking.
Ghogre was a balladeer, a shahir, like the powadé singers of the past, who narrated heroic tales to educate their audiences. Music is an essential aspect of Dalit politics: the loud dholak; the occasional harmonium; the ektara; but, above all, the pawād, the rousing, booming voice. And, of course, words, words that inject pride, inspire courage and reinforce dignity. Such jongleurs and balladeers go from slum to slum, colony to colony, basti to basti, village to village, singing songs that resonate with contemporary meaning and inspire people so that they don’t give up hope. Armed only with the ektara, some of these singers trace their tradition to devotional singers like the 16th-century Sant Tukaram, whose Abhanga (devotional poetry) continue to offer solace to many. The lyrics of these modern-day balladeers may not be high poetry, but they lift the spirits of the Dalits and give protest poetry a new rhythm.
So why would a balladeer like Ghogre, whose lyrics were meant to offer hope, kill himself? Trying to understand the motive behind any suicide is difficult, but Ghogre took his own life at a time when the future of Dalit politics in Maharashtra looked dismal. The right-wing Hindu nationalist alliance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Shiv Sena had come to power in Maharashtra for the first time in 1995, following widespread communal riots in Bombay in 1993, which had occurred within weeks of the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. The inclusive, cosmopolitan city Bombay had shrunk into a narrower identity—Mumbai, the ‘old’ name being officially changed in 1996.
In a chilling scene in the film shot during this phase, the Shiv Sena leader Bal Thackeray refers to Muslims as “landya” (meaning ‘small penis’, a crude, contemptuous reference to ‘circumcised Muslims’) before a large gathering of followers. As the Srikrishna Commission, which inquired into the riots of 1993, shows, Thackeray used that pejorative often in his speeches during those years.
Concurrently, the marginalisation of Dalits became even more pronounced. Their party—the Republican Party of India (RPI)—was disintegrating. I can remember at least eight factions of the RPI active at various times, each named after the leader who attempted to claim supremacy: Ramdas Athavale, Prakash Ambedkar, Jogendra Kawade, (the late) BD Khobragade, RS Gavai, BC Kamble, Raja Dhale and Namdeo Dhasal, each forging alliances with mainstream political parties.
The rise of Hindu nationalism coincided with the splintering of Dalit political consciousness among many claimants to its primacy. With the Hindu right resurgent, what would happen to the state’s Dalits who had emphatically rejected Hinduism?
Patwardhan is easily among India’s most thoughtful filmmakers: his documentaries force viewers to think and to demand change. While overtly political, Patwardhan’s tone is not didactic. I remember young people in the audience in tears after an early screening of Hamara Shahar (Bombay: Our City; 1985), which humanised the lives of those who lived in the slums so well that it shook the complacency of the city’s elite, who looked disdainfully at the slums and wanted them removed. In Ram Ke Naam (In the Name of God; 1991), Patwardhan presciently observed the creeping Hindu nationalism of the anti-Babri Masjid Ramjanmabhoomi movement, and how it could destroy the intricately interwoven tapestry of a multi-everything society like India. Jang aur Aman (War & Peace; 2002) was made during the years when India and Pakistan tested their nuclear bombs, becoming de facto nuclear-weapon powers. The film travels through the world of peace activists, focusing on the belligerence of India and contrasting it with the pacifism of Japan and the US.
Patwardhan has made other films, too, such as on the unionisation of Sikh farmworkers in Canada, on ‘Shaheed’ Bhagat Singh, and on the livelihood of fishing communities in India and Bangladesh. Throughout his long career, he has made films without compromising his message: of compassion for the vulnerable. He challenges the powerful without shouting at them, letting the power of his images, his irony and his deft cuts speak for him.
Patwardhan knew Ghogre, whose music he had used in an earlier film—so his death troubled him; in Ghogre’s despair, Patwardhan saw a helplessness that was at odds with the revolutionary optimism of his songs. Ghogre’s politics was shaped by two progressive movements—the left, which challenged economic and political power structures, and the Dalit movement, which challenged the social hierarchy in India. Maharashtra’s Dalits had shocked the state out of its complacency when Shiv Sena-Dalit Panther riots broke out in January 1974 in the Worli BBD chawls in Bombay. (The Dalits had adopted the ‘Panther’ identity in 1972 after the Black Panther Party formed during the civil rights movement in the US in the mid-1960s.) When the Republican Party of India began to pull in different directions, Ghogre aligned with the left. But, as noted earlier, the left suspended him because it disapproved of his singing for Dalit politicians and extolling their activities. That blow hurt him; his life began to unravel, and the firing at Ramabai Nagar may well have pushed him over the edge.
Using Ghogre’s passing as his hook, Patwardhan sets about probing the history of Dalit activism in Maharashtra. The resulting film is an education for India about the extent of the discrimination and injustice that Dalits continue to face, the cynical way political parties attempt to co-opt them, and the tone deafness of the upper-caste middle class, which believes not only that it is superior to Dalits, but is also convinced that the Dalit problem has been solved.
Patwardhan also castigates the Dalit leadership. In the scene where Thackeray is spewing venom at Muslims, the camera sees, a few feet away, Namdeo Dhasal, the legendary Dalit activist-poet who will receive a special Sahitya Akademi Golden Jubilee award this November, and who, married to Mallika, a Muslim, has somehow made his peace with Bal Thackeray, writing a column for the Shiv Sena mouthpiece, Saamana, and sharing a platform with the then RSS sarsanghachalak KS Sudarshan in September 2006. Patwardhan doesn’t have to say anything; the image says what the words can’t convey about the Dalit tragedy.
Patwardhan also shows the renewed swagger of upper-caste Hindus, ranging from the sinister to the ridiculous. Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Vinayak Godse, gets valorised in Pradeep Dalvi’s play, Mi Nathuram Godse Boltoy (‘I’m Nathuram Godse Speaking’), and members of the audience come out strutting, saying to the camera that Gandhi was wrong in taking up the cause of Dalits. Konkanastha ‘Chitpavan’ Brahmins (or KoBras, the acronym for Konkan Brahmins) demand that their genetic superiority be recognised. In a bizarre cymbals-clashing and smoke-emitting tableau of BJP leaders making a stage entrance as if floating in from outer space, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi emerges like an avatar, wearing a mukut and spinning a chakra, accompanied by senior BJP leaders and serenaded by Lata Mangeshkar’s rousing rendition of Vande Mataram from the 1951 film Anand Math. The coda is even more brazen, with a BJP candidate for the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Kirit Somaiya, canvassing for votes in, of all places, Ramabai Nagar—where the firing took place under the rule of the Shiv Sena-BJP alliance. And, yet, public memory is so short that even some Dalits think it was the Congress in power at the time of the firing.
Patwardhan’s focus on Maharashtrian Dalits may have been practical. He is from the state, and understands its politics. But there is a deeper story here. This is the state where Ambedkar was born, a state that divides north from south. Go south of Maharashtra, and you enter a zone of accommodation where the upper castes have accepted the rise of the lower castes. They live with the reality that a large proportion of college seats and government jobs are reserved for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. But north of Maharashtra, the upper castes revolt at the merest hint of reservation, thinking that jobs and seats in colleges are their entitlement. It’s an entitlement they clothe in the language of merit, implying that merit is hereditary and extending the life of Manu’s appalling doctrine that codifies customary Hindu practices. Maharashtra sits at the centre, a line of demarcation that is itself unable to decide whether it should embrace progressiveness or resist it.
To be sure, reservations have created an elite class within the Dalit community, too—a creamy layer. But for anyone suggesting that the Dalits are now doing fine and don’t need any further support would be wrong or blissfully unaware or deliberately disingenuous. Think of the track record that says otherwise: insults continue to be heaped on Dalits—as recently as the 1970s, human excreta was being flung into their wells; if they marched in protest (as a Dalit woman recalls in the film), ‘they’ would throw large grinding stones on the marchers from their highrise buildings. Virulent upper-caste opposition to reservations continues. If a Dalit falls in love with someone from an upper caste, violent retribution, while no longer exactly common, is hardly unusual. A Dalit demanding rights is often made an example of, usually violently: recall, if you will, the Khairlanji episode of September 2006, in which all four members of the Dalit Bhotmange family in Bhandara district were lynched (the two women were paraded naked before being killed). It happened in Maharashtra, the frontline of both the regressive north and the progressive south.
And it is in Maharashtra that Ambedkar showed a new path to the Dalits, urging them to discard centuries of oppression by taking leave of Hinduism, even if it meant turning their backs on the well-meaning but patronising embrace of Mohandas Gandhi. While Gandhi meant well, his aim was not the emancipation of Dalits but the reform of Hinduism. He wanted the Dalits to remain part of the culpatory fold; his calling them Harijan (Children of God) was well-intentioned but, according to Gandhi’s Dalit critics, the rubric reinforced the existing hierarchy that the Dalits wanted to overthrow. They sought equality, not tolerance, and Ambedkar turned to Buddhism in the belief that its non-hierarchical ethos would empower the Dalits: they would no longer feel beholden to the upper castes; they would shed their fear. And many did.
In a telling sequence in the film, Patwardhan takes us to Beed district in the Marathwada region, where upper caste men raped a young woman. When her family challenged the attackers, they were also beaten up. An old man from the family tells Patwardhan’s all-seeing camera: “We are responsible for this. We never got organised or converted to another religion. Had we done it, we could have mentally discarded caste and made others understand we are humans. We, Mangs, bear the brunt of injustice.”
Patwardhan asks him: “But those who converted to Buddhism have also faced atrocities.”
“Yes, it happens to Buddhists, too,” the old man says. “But they now have the strength to retaliate. We lack that strength.”
Inarguably, the Dalits who heeded Ambedkar’s call have acquired this pride, this courage, their empowerment coming primarily from education. And even as they demand their rights, powerful and recalcitrant elements among the upper castes want to crush their spirits even more. The film refers to an edict from Manu: that if the Dalits want to study, pour molten lead in their ears. These ancient tables of caste are truly turned when you see, in a terrific scene, school-going Dalit children laughing when a Brahmin priest on a Hindi TV channel tells viewers they should utter a particular mantra to cure themslves of some ailment.
How is an upper-caste stalwart to tame such temerity? Perhaps garland with shoes a bronze statue of Ambedkar to remind the Dalits of their long history of being subjugated. Your leader may have written the Constitution, an upper-caste hothead might say, but for us, he means nothing: That’s the message of the footwear festoon.
What the Dalits seek of their effrontery is not just nominal equality, but also respect and dignity—it’s an inalienable right, but that right remains elusive. Early in the film, Patwardhan takes us to a large garbage dump where we meet a man whose job is to sort through the rubbish and load it on trucks. In the waste he must clear is human excrement, which he must carry on his head in a basket that has holes that often leak, and when they leak, the human waste smears his body. He stinks. Why wouldn’t he? He isn’t allowed to board buses; in trains, people don’t sit near him; nor can he afford a rickshaw. So he must walk.
During the rains—Mumbai’s monsoons are harsh—his employers won’t give him gumboots or raincoat or mask or rain-hat. This man has worked for 10 years at this site, 10 to 12 hours a day. At the end of each day, he takes home R73 ($1.40).
Through Jai Bhim Comrade, Patwardhan shocks our senses and appalls our smugness continuously by exposing us to such facts without embellishing them. Even as he shows us raw injustices, Patwardhan notes the failure of the better-off to see how the worse-off live. A student at an elite college in the city says, with entirely misplaced certainty, that Dalits face no discrimination, and that their situation has improved in the past decade. On the screen you see plain data noting that each day, three Dalits are raped and two are killed—and that the conviction rate of crimes against Dalits is about one percent. Patwardhan then asks the student if he knows any Dalits, or if he has had any direct experience in support of his claim that their situation has improved. The student looks slightly hesitant, and then shakes his head.
Other upper-class (and upper-caste) Indians appear callous. One couple complains about the crowds of Dalits that come every December to Dadar’s Chaitya Bhoomi, a Buddhist memorial to Ambedkar, with a gate resembling an ornate Shinto shrine torii and a white dome like a stupa, located where the ‘Father of the Constitution’ was cremated in December 1956. When Patwardhan asks if those crowds are any different from the ones that take over Mumbai’s streets during Ganesha Chaturthi in the late monsoon, a woman responds, “You can’t compare this with Ganeshotsav (the festival of Ganesha)!” suggesting that whatever she thinks this is, it is disgusting.
Another man complains about the mess the Dalits leave behind in their nice middle-class neighbourhood. He doesn’t seem to know much about Ambedkar either. When Patwardhan asks him if he has read the Constitution, he responds, derisively: “Yes, yes, yes, we the people, for the people…,” at once conflating the opening lines of the Indian Constitution with a misremembered phrase from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The man’s offhandedness reveals just how deracinated he is, how alienated from his milieu. He is a resident non-Indian, an ‘RNI’.
IT IS INSTRUCTIVE that Patwardhan has titled his film Jai Bhim Comrade. Some think that the Dalits should have been the natural constituency of India’s left, but the Indian left never liked Ambedkar: in his constitutionalism, they saw the postponement of ‘revolution’, and collusion with the Indian state that they so wanted to overturn. Ambedkar’s focus on caste, not class, interfered with Marxist orthodoxy. The founder-member of the Communist Party of India, Shripad Amrit Dange, worked to defeat Ambedkar in the 1957 Lok Sabha election, which he won. In 1975, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency, Dange—and the CPI—supported that authoritarian retreat from democracy. (Patwardhan astutely observed after a recent screening in New Delhi that like all Indian major political parties, Brahmins dominated the communist leadership, too.)
(And the communists do have apparently more pressing priorities. The week I saw the film in Delhi, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) was hosting a major meeting of its politburo. At a time of grave disenchantment with the Indian state over charges of corruption, debasement of the polity, violence upon the poor, marginalisation of the vulnerable, and increased authoritarianism, the issue that divided the leadership—and which led to a walkout—was whether to call North Korea and China socialist anymore.)
The film also shows that neither the slogan “Jai Bhim” not the word “comrade” will do much for the Dalits. An Ambedkar who becomes an icon will no longer be their comrade. But the comrades don’t appear to have a clear strategy of wooing the Dalits either.
The film does not set out to be a critique of the Indian left, and wisely so. Jai Bhim Comrade steers clear of Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party and its politics, in particular, and of Dalit politics elsewhere, in general. But Patwardhan’s film is not unremittingly bleak. Towards the end, he shows us the emergence of a spirited musical troupe from Pune, Kabir Kala Manch. This leftist cultural group, founded in 2002, with students and professionals as its members, draws inspiration from Kabir’s poetry, and conveys its social message—of denouncing injustice and oppression—through public performances. The film introduces us to a lively singer, Sheetal Sathe, who married a fellow group member not from her caste and against her family’s wishes. She has a lovely voice, full-throated and high-spirited, and sings about feminism, casteism, equality and unbridled capitalism.
The state doesn’t like her music. Maharashtra’s Anti-Terrorism Squad is after her, and she is on the run, along with other group members, because they have been accused of being in contact with Maoists. S Anand of Navayana Publishing, referring to the plight of the Kabir Kala Manch, pointedly observes in his April 2012 essay on Jai Bhim Comrade in Outlook that the Indian media, which rightly championed the protests against Binayak Sen’s detention, hasn’t shown much interest when the victims are Dalits. Whether that’s because of the media’s caste prejudices or not is a legitimate debate. But it can no longer be out of plain ignorance, for in a film with many heroic victims, Sheetal Sathe’s winsome personality and cheerful spirit make her a very special heroine. There should be posters demanding that she should be free to sing; there should be Facebook pages celebrating her. Yes, one can hope.
Sheetal’s mother, who hasn’t seen her for a year, takes assurance from a fortuneteller who has told her that her daughter is safe. Such faith in a fortuneteller is disquieting, and reveals the scale of the task ahead. Faith is comforting, but it can be an illusion. You have to break that illusion and take charge of your life. You have to reclaim your dignity—and you alone can do it.