Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Inheritance Of Injustice

“Everyday, 2 dalits are raped and 3 killed,” goes a shocking statistic in celebrated filmmaker Anand Patwardhan’s latest documentary, ‘Jai Bhim, Comrade’. It begins on one such murderous day, 11th July 1997 when 10 dalits gathered to protest the desecration of an Ambedkar statue, were shot dead by Mumbai Police.

Six days after this massacre, unable to take the pain and grief of his people and as a mark of protest, dalit singer, poet and activist Vilas Ghogre committed suicide.

‘Jai Bhim…’ then traces the legacy of the unique democratic protest style of the Dalits, through their stirring poetry and music and the story of Vilas Ghogre and other singers and poets.

What emerges, are tales of injustice and atrocities in the world’s largest democracy that will wrench your gut. Its riveting parallels span not just Maharashtra (where the film is situated) but the world.

The 11th July incident, you realize, resembles the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 where the British fired upon an unarmed, peaceful assembly without warning.

A dalit leader in the film is heard saying, “We have a singer, a poet in every home.” It is here that you realize the similarity between the fight for justice of the mostly lowly and oppressed of Indian people, with that of Afro-Americans. Both share a strong tradition of music and poetry that provides them relief, strength and prepares them to fight against injustice.

This is the reason why the state of Maharashtra blacklisted one of the strongest Dalit music groups (prominently featured in the film), the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) by calling them Maoists. Truth, after all, can unsettle an unjust order which the powerful need maintained. 

Anand Patwardhan has a keen sense of social satire. He rips apart the notion that equal justice prevails for everyone in India. When you see political leaders of national stature speaking of wiping out entire castes and religions, which in a true democracy would have landed them in jail, you realize how truth can sneak out from rhetoric and rewriting of histories, and punch you in the gut.

Documentaries thus serve as a public justice system. The powerful may not be punished for their murders, but those who see the film can see their true face, and remember.

‘Jai Bhim…’ also abounds in irony of how a constitution drafted by a ‘dalit’, Dr. B R Ambedkar, continues to fail his own community. It balances the grand sweep of Dalit injustice with individual stories. Thus on one side you see a dalit working in a garbage heap without the basic protection, cleaning Mumbai’s filth, you also see middle-class Mumbai talk about ‘how dirty and filthy these people are.’

The films objectivity is laid bare because it spares no one, from the Left parties who claim to speak for the oppressed but refuse to see the similarity between their ‘class’ and ‘caste’ and even the dalit movement itself which, led by opportunist leaders, has been sold to the same politicians who caused the 11th July 1997 massacre in the first place. Anand Patwardhan says, “What really attracted me as I went on my 14 year voyage of discovery was that the underclass in India has a long, unbroken tradition of reason right from Charavaka and the Buddha to Mahatma Phule and Dr. Ambedkar. Despite the oppression by the elite this core belief system has survived through the ages.”

Through the film, Anand makes the 11th July incident a fitting metaphor for what has been happening in the country with the Dalits for thousands of years. It is also symbolic of how the state, often ruthlessly and often cunningly, rips apart and decimates movements for justice and equality in India.

In a fitting screening which Anand calls its ‘real’ premiere (previously screened in a few film festivals), over eight hundred people in BIT chawl in Byculla, where a part of the film was shot, sat mesmerized on the 9th of Jan, without a break for its 200 minute duration, the chill of the cold Mumbai wind managing not even half the chill of the film.

In an ideal world cries against dalit-injustice would have sprung all over. Since we don’t live on a just planet, “Jai Bhim, Comrade” will retain relevance till caste based atrocities are not uprooted. For it may have taken Anand Patwardhan14 years, in reality this story of those who inherit injustice in their genes, has been in the making for thousands of years in India

A shorter version of this feature was written for the wire service IANS and appears in thousands of publications online and print publications across India and  abroad. 

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