By Abir Misra:
One fine day, a Dalit colony wakes up to the site of their revered leader’s statue garlanded with shoes. Dalits come out in outrage, only to face bullets from an aggressive team of policemen who later claim to have retaliated in response to the burning of a truck by the public, the Dalits. The video submitted as evidence in the court does not reveal anything conclusive. Meanwhile, a revolutionary folk singer from the community visits the colony only to commit suicide a few days later, adding to the sorrow and anger. The accused policeman is eventually sentenced, only to be taken to the hospital immediately after coming out of the court. He is defended on the grounds of being made a scapegoat as it is not him alone but the ‘system’ itself that is flawed. The system, to put it more explicitly, is casteist.
Anand Patwardhan’s film is an exercise in the breaking of an extended silence. A silence that exists not because there is no sound, but because our ears are accustomed to not listening. The sound is that of caste, of rape, of exploitation, of humiliation, of frustration, of suppression and of retaliation. Juxtaposed with this silence is another evil which, ironically, is voiced a bit too often and a bit too loudly than people are ready to digest. This evil is communalism, of the religious kind.
Jai Bhim Comrade (hereafter JBC) while tracing the two evils shows how the two lethally converge.
Untouchability as an issue had gained national importance by the third decade of the 20th century after the rise of Gandhi on the national stage. The Congress had officially recognised it as a problem to be eradicated. However, its policies were not found to be radical enough by sections within the Dalits who were now looking for a respectable place in a free nation that was to be born. To them, the Congress policy was of a charitable nature and they wanted to gain respect and dignity not as a favour, but as a right.
Thus rose Bhim Rao Ambedkar, a Mahar from Maharashtra, a barrister and a scholar of great merit, who led Dalits to first a temple entry movement and then the famous Mahad Satyagraha only to end up in disgust over the violent reactions from the ‘savarnas’ (upper castes) in the region. The attitudes of the savarnas led Bhimrao to become more and more suspicious of Congress’ efforts to mobilise Dalits for the nationalist movement.
His frequent criticisms and refusal to go along with the official boycott of the 1932 Simon Commission by the Congress brought him eventually in direct confrontation with Gandhi who sat on a fast in opposition to his demands for separate electorates. Eventually, a compromise was reached via the Poona Pact with untouchables getting reservation in the Assembly as well as in educational and government institutions, but not separate electorates. Ambedkar later established the Republican Party of India (RPI) to mobilise Dalits towards political consolidation.
Incidentally, it was around the third decade of the 20th century that there was the a rise of nationalist Hindu organisations. It was felt by some that Hinduism was in a crisis due to decreasing numbers and frequent conversions. Muslims and Christians were accused of being the villains here. The rise of these Hindu nationalist parties was also in part a response to the disillusionment with Gandhi and Congress who refused to make cow protection a national issue and were seen as giving too much importance to the Khilafat movement. The Hindu nationalist parties too were interested in mobilising Dalits to stop them from converting to Islam or Christianity. Hence, they too tackled untouchability and tagged it as something alien to Hinduism.
Keeping this history in mind is important as one watches JBC for it exposes how the two contradictory forces emerging in response to the Congress, the RPI and the Hindu nationalist parties, eventually converge in today’s political scenario in Maharashtra.
And yet, JBC is a much more complex film than it seems. It sheds light on a range of issues without losing its main focus. While breaking the silence around caste oppression and mixing it with communalism, it also sheds light although only hintingly, to something that is very seldom discussed – the problems within the Dalit movement today. The garlanding of Ambedkar’s statue with shoes by unknown agents comes across as a planned conspiracy to invite a predictable reaction from the Dalits which then creates conditions suitable for their slaughter. The Dalit community, in this case, seems to have failed in deciphering seemingly obvious conspiracies. They literally played into the hands of their upper caste oppressors. It is precisely here that the problem lies.
The filmmaker deserves applause for highlighting the plight of the Dalits while resisting the tendency to romanticise them as noble souls subject to oppression. Dalits come across as a community neck deep in hero worship. A major part of the film precisely showcases community gatherings as spaces for critiquing the state and caste system as well as singing praises of Babasaheb and recalling instances from his life, some factual others mythical yet significant. Bhimrao Ambedkar for them is not just a reformer but a saint in whose praise folk songs are to be composed and plays are to be directed and staged. He is a ‘bodhisattva’, showing Dalits the Buddha’s path to emancipation.
For a community forever subject to appeasement by savarna dominated political parties for votes, a community forever caught in a tug of war between leaders post the Gandhi-Ambedkar clash, for a community so political yet without a political party that can exclusively and genuinely represent it, for a community which has decided to reject every political figure of every other caste except those from its own, for a community filled with extreme and sometimes even exaggerated but not unjustified distrust and even hatred towards other higher castes, Bhim Rao comes across as a balm on their collective wounds, a ray of hope which promises a lot but unfortunately provides very little. The community is exposed to the lure of anyone who promises to erect a statue of Babasaheb or simply garlands him to appease the community.
Bound up with the issue of caste is the issue of labour. Dalits are shown working in unsafe and unhealthy environments with no safeguards that should generally be provided to them. Dealing with stench and humiliation on a daily basis, Dalits are still barely able to provide the basic necessities of life to their families. Due to their unclean and undesirable living conditions, they are not allowed to travel back home in buses due to their dirty clothes and smell. Again, for a community so eager to politically mobilise itself into a block, it seems to get very little opportunity to do so for sheer lack of free time away from family and labour. Growing frustration throughout the day is vented out at night in the form of songs and poems against caste and for Babasaheb.
While JBC is a story of lower caste humiliation and liberal upper caste hypocrisy, it is also the story of growing contradictions. Communities like that of Chitpavan Brahmins who claim to possess Parashuram’s genes, make the hypocrisy of the liberal savarnas appear saintly. Dalits are killed for leaving their traditional jobs and exploring new avenues. Refusal to work for savarnas brings death too. All this and several other instances point out to the inadequacy of the Dalit movement in bringing about a change in the attitude of the savarnas. The sheer numbers and might of the savarnas makes it impossible for Dalits to radically retaliate without suffering severely.
With the example of Babasaheb, Dalits have learnt the ways of critique but are yet to learn the ways of shrewd political practice. Young men and women with a lot of creative energy, like those who are part of the Lalit Kala Manch and now Rohit Vemula, tend to plunge into the field without fully deciphering its rules. They end up as radicals with very little political influence and run the risk of being victimised through conspiracy. For unlike critique, practice requires cooperation and negotiation with the other – the savarnas, who in retaliation to the radical critiques of the Dalits have either turned even more hypocritical or overly violent suppressors.
Jai Bhim Comrade, thus, is an insightful documentation of the Dalit discourse, its problems and as well as dilemmas. It encourages one to think about Ambedkar and also inspires you to seek possibilities beyond him. With the recent suicide of Rohit Vemula, the film deserves a definite revisit, to re-explore the complexity of the problem that we face today.