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Brahmins Took Over Dalit And Adivasi Land In This Village, And This Film Captures It All

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When the collector of Kalahandi is asked whether there is a caste angle to the land-grab in a village of the district, she denies it, offering instead that caste has vanished with development. The village in question is Ichhapur in Bhawanipatna block of south-west Orissa. The episode with the collector takes place in the documentary “Flames of Freedom”.

A movement in Ichhapur started when the space for worshipping a local deity was threatened with the arrival of Hindu gods and goddesses. The filmmaker, Subrat Kumar Sahu, told me that this encouraged those fighting to retain this space- their last identity- to dig their history. When they learnt how the Brahmins of the village had not only invaded their homes with pictures of Hindu deities but also robbed them of their land, the movement transformed into a fight for land-rights.

The story of Ichhapur is not unique to it, but it is nonetheless symptomatic of what goes on in the rest of the country, and it is helpful to revisit it. Sahu tells me that non-Adivasis started moving into Dandakaranya region, where the village is located, after the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793. The necessity of a land-title to prove ownership meant that those with access to the administration- the upper-castes- had an opportunity for exploitation. “They moved there and, without the knowledge of the local people, they actually made the pattas of large tracts of land in their own name,” he told me. This continued after Independence, where, either as the educated or the financially privileged section, these caste groups continued to have power and influence.

“Flames of Freedom” documents the struggle of the Dalits and Adivasis of the village for reclaiming this land, which they have tilled for generations but which now belongs to the Brahmins. The documentary, however, also ends up as a commentary that at least for the upper-caste in the country should be essential reading. It is commonplace for them to propose that caste does not exist while they lament the lack of ‘merit’, ‘industriousness’, etc in those among the lower castes. When such rhetoric is juxtaposed with counter-arguments in the story of Ichhapur, the Brahmins end up caricaturing themselves. They mislead while they can, but the moment they are faced with hard facts, they run away or plead ignorance. The peals of laughter with which the audience greets these moments in the documentary is a lesson in how risible the denial of privilege or the attempt at preserving it looks.

There are some moments which might unsettle the leaders of the country too. An old man, for instance, denies any knowledge of Independence. The camera then cuts to shots of a tattered Indian flag flying over the collectorate and shots of flags over temples, which remain unaffected by time or weather. It is hard to miss the meta-narrative here. “Only the hands have changed but the structure is still there,” Sahu says.

The stubbornness of this system is such that even today the villagers of Ichhapur are yet to get their land, although the movement, Sahu tells me, is “on with full force”. The common pasture land and the forest land, however, has been reclaimed. The hope perhaps is in the movement alone, which demands that the state heed “what Baba Ambedkar has ordained”.

The viewer perhaps can take note from what Sahu helpfully pointed out while answering whether upper-caste people can take a message back from the documentary: the voice-over in the documentary quietly slips away after the introduction. “I consciously felt that I don’t need to say anything,” Sahu says.

As it happens, the documentary too resulted from the villagers demanding the filmmaker to narrate their part of the story (Sahu further told me that except a local daily, where a report by a Dalit writer was carried on the front page, the matter remained largely unreported). Listening to what the Dalits and Adivasis of Ichhapur have to say, an act which the privileged often elide in their effort to absolve themselves of accusations of privilege, is then perhaps the most helpful contribution the upper-castes can make if the injustice moves them.

Note: “Flames of Freedom” was screened at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, on November 20 by Matidari: Forum for People’s Land, Life and Dignity as part of a two day documentary film festival- ‘When the Camera Speaks’. More information on the festival can be availed here.

Featured image source: Youtube

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