Over the last three weeks, I have been encouraging most of my friends to watch the Nagraj Manjule directed Marathi movie, ‘Sairat‘, insisting that people take their friends and families along, promising them that they’d really love it. I remember when I first watched ‘Fandry’ by the same director, and I remember feeling numb at the end of it. For those of you who have watched it, you’d understand when I say that while the last scene ends with a stone thrown and sudden silence, the viewer feels an uneasy certainty about the retribution that was sure to follow. It reminded me of the Khairlanji massacre. The facts, of course, are different, but I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about the consequences for Jabya’s family, for him having had the nerve to assault the son of the village Patil.
Sairat establishes Manjule at the very top – it reassures us that his success in telling the truth as it is, in ‘Fandry’, was not a fluke, but comes from deep personal conviction and a lifetime of struggle as a Dalit. You might know that Manjule’s father used to break stones for a living and his mother was illiterate. Today, Manjule’s second commercial film has become the highest revenue earning Marathi film of all time, having raked in Rs. 45 Crores in its first two weeks. Having watched the trailer and followed the murmurs about the film, I was already excited about how subversive it would be for a film about inter-caste love made by a Dalit to become commercially successful. But as the film entered its second hour, I became conscious of the fact that I was sitting next to the woman I love (who is not a Dalit), and my cousin brother (who is a Dalit from Tamil Nadu) and the message of the movie sank in deeply. On the way back home, my brother told me that he, too, had once fallen in love with a Nadar girl (in TN, this is one of the frontline Dalit oppressor castes) and how that didn’t work out. I also felt relieved that I had the fortune of falling in love with a non-Dalit girl in a metro like Mumbai, where I wouldn’t be murdered for it.
It also reminded me of the assault on an inter-caste couple in Tamil Nadu last month, where the Dalit boy was killed and the girl was wounded. The boy, Shankar, was about to be the first generation engineering graduate in his family. The girl, Kaushalya, has decided to remain in the boy’s house as she feels a part of the new family. A few days ago, she tried to commit suicide, unable to deal with the loss of the man she loved. I read a very moving translation of her interview which was (surprisingly) published in HuffPost – it says that the murderers, when hacking away at 22-year-old Shankar, asked him, “How do you dare you love, you Pallar son-of-a-bitch?” I felt choked as I read this – I come from the Pallar caste. It probably wasn’t more than a few reckless decisions of my father that made him settle in Pune instead of Tamil Nadu. Under other circumstances, I could very well have been that ‘Pallar son-of-a-bitch’.
Dr Ambedkar said long ago that inter-caste marriages are crucial for the destruction of caste. This is rooted in the sound argument that there are two classes of total outsiders because of the Hindu social structure – Dalits, as the untouchable castes, and the woman, as the untouchable race. He argues forcefully in the ‘Annihilation Of Caste‘ that the chaturvarnya system doesn’t even seem to provide for the place of women:
“The protagonists of Chaturvarnya do not seem to have considered what is to happen to women in their system. Are they also to be divided into four classes, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra? Or are they to be allowed to take the status of their husbands. If the status of the woman is to be the consequence of marriage what becomes of the underlying principle of Chaturvarnya, namely, that the status of a person should be based upon the worth of that person? If they are to be classified according to their worth is their classification to be nominal or real? If it is to be nominal then it is useless and then the protagonists of Chaturvarnya must admit that their system does not apply to women. If it is real, are the protagonists of Chaturvarnya prepared to follow the logical consequences of applying it to women?
They must be prepared to have women priests and women soldiers. Hindu society has grown accustomed to women teachers and women barristers. It may grow accustomed to women brewers and women butchers. But he would be a bold person, who would say that it will allow women priests and women soldiers. But that will be the logical outcome of applying Chaturvarnya to women. Given these difficulties, I think no one except a congenital idiot could hope and believe in a successful regeneration of the Chaturvarnya.”
The Hindu society has identified all women as objects who cannot exercise independent choice, and whose bodies are naturally acted upon by others. While Dalit males were restrained from marrying women from higher castes, the men from the higher castes could freely cohabit with women from the lower castes, regardless of their supposed impurity. Women are so insignificant in the Hindu psyche that, regardless of their caste, they were outsiders to the logic of purity/pollution – they are freely tradeable property.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that even today only 5% of the marriages in India are inter-caste. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that when young couples fall in love and run away to marry, they are hounded across state boundaries, brought back and murdered. Inter-caste love is the most fundamental assault on the caste system because the caste system can only survive by refusing women the right to love and make love according to their own choice. By virtue of having been born into a Schedule Caste, the lens with which I tend to view most arguments for social justice as ‘How will this act be a step towards the annihilation of caste’. Given where I come from, it becomes all the more poignant when I think of the possibility that most of the inter-caste couples who are being murdered probably never see themselves as waging a war to annihilate caste. They are simply falling in love. In a different way, it also inspires me. It tells me that modernity and education are enabling mobility of different classes of the oppressed in often unexpected ways. For women as well as the Dalits, it finally offers a chance to leave the oppressive space (be it the household or the Dalit ghetto in the village) and work towards a better future, one that is in their control. Secondly, it gives these young women the option of falling in love with someone of their own choice. To put it brutally, it finally gives them control over their own bodies. Note that in most cases, with these young couples, the families try to reason, and threaten, and then abduct the girl – it appears that there are stages, where the savarna families try to change the minds of the young couple. It is after realising that they can’t control the minds of the young that they decide to re-impose control over their bodies.
I tend to be exacting when it comes to political arguments and recently was reminded by someone that, in becoming aggressive when I argue questions of social justice, I revealed that I had forgotten something crucial. The struggle to build a better society for all is, finally, a struggle for a world where each one of us can live with dignity and, amongst other things, love and make love the way we desire. I remember being deeply ashamed of the fact that I had lost sight of this in my anger against the many injustices we see around ourselves.
It is true – the struggle for a better world is inherently a struggle of love against hatred. It is true that a human being can oppress another only in a world where it is acceptable to treat a human being as sub-human. Paulo Freire captures this truth beautifully in the ‘Pedagogy Of The Oppressed’, when he explains that the oppressed, in their fight against the oppressor, actually have to fight to establish the legitimate worth not only of their own soul, but has the responsibility of enabling the oppressor to reclaim the soul he lost, by virtue of being an oppressor. For this reason, we must learn to understand and respect the monumental courage of young people in India who recklessly challenge the foundation of Indian caste society, by daring to fall in, and continuing to remain in love.