Untouchable Voices: Resisting the Violence of Caste

Untouchable Voices: Resisting the Violence of Caste

The individual acts of violence portrayed in Jai Bhim Comrade appear not as aberrations from a tolerant pluralism but as part of a continuum of persecution, which permeates India’s cities as much as its villages.

Courtesy of Anand Patwardhan

Just over twenty years ago, Hindu militants destroyed the sixteenth-century Babri mosque in Ayodhya, northern India, prompting riots around the country that claimed thousands of lives—overwhelmingly Muslim—including nine hundred in Bombay (now Mumbai) alone.* Ten years later, a conflagration of violence in India’s northwestern state of Gujarat killed at least as many Muslims, with the support of the state’s right-wing government. These “hiccups” in the rise of “the world’s largest secular democracy” received international attention at the time, though not enough to shatter the narrative of India as a liberal powerhouse propelled into the twenty-first century by economic reforms.

Sandwiched in between the two massacres was a less widely acknowledged incident. On July 11, 1997, the Dalit residents of Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar—a slum in the outskirts of Mumbai—woke up to find a garland of shoes hanging around their statue of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Long known as “untouchables,” India’s Dalits (literally, “ground down”) are no strangers to abuse. Nevertheless, growing anger at the act of desecration against Ambedkar, the Dalit leader perhaps best known for enshrining a kind of caste-based affirmative action in India’s constitution, led to a mass protest. An ensuing highway blockade was promptly met by a vanload of Special Reserve Police, and within minutes the police opened fire in the direction of the crowd, killing ten unarmed Dalits. Fifteen years later, despite a series of court battles, those responsible have yet to be brought to justice.

This story forms the backbone of Anand Patwardhan’s epic documentary Jai Bhim Comrade, a three-hour chronicle of caste struggles in contemporary India. Filmed over the course of fourteen years and released one screening at a time since Patwardhan finished the project in late 2011, the film finally reached New York in December, screening at the Margaret Mead Film Festival as well as at two universities. Jai Bhim Comrade approaches old debates from an original angle, piecing together a narrative of Western India’s historically vigorous anti-caste movement through its music. The voices of virtually unknown Dalit activists and musicians are interspersed with a trove of footage depicting everything from waste dumps to right-wing rallies; interviews with wealthy Chitpavan Brahmins defending their “genetic capacity” meet images of Muslims hacked to death in the 1992-93 riots.

In its effort to contextualize the Ramabai shooting, Jai Bhim Comrade cuts an ambitious cross-section of the major forms of bigotry and violence plaguing contemporary India, depicting widespread discrimination against women and Muslims as well as against Dalits. Despite its length, the film’s ambition pays off in its compelling synthesis of caste and class issues, chiseling away at the stubborn barriers that separate Dalits from India’s institutional Left. Moreover, the film assembles an impressive visual archive of the pockets of Mumbai’s political culture that continue to challenge the quotidian violence inflicted upon India’s marginalized by an increasingly aggressive, right-wing political mainstream.

Among the strands Patwardhan unravels from the Ramabai shooting is the story of the Dalit shahir Vilas Ghogre, a poet and singer who rallied slum dwellers with fellow members of the communist Avhan Natya Manch cultural troupe in the 1980s. Ghogre first appeared in Patwardhan’s 1985 film Bombay, Our City. A voice of insurgency, he reminded slum dwellers of the generations of toil that had brought them to a city where they continued to be treated as disposable labor. Twelve years later, upon learning of the Ramabai incident, Ghogre—a Dalit—hung himself in his hut, leaving behind only a few words chalked on his wall: “I salute the martyred sons of Bhim. Hail Ambedkarite unity.”

Ghogre’s parting salute to Ambedkar evinced a lingering political hope that he could no longer personally sustain, perhaps in part because he had recently been expelled from the Avhan Natya Manch for deviation from the party line. An Avhan member interviewed later in the film blames Ghogre for flirting with more centrist Dalit parties, despite admitting that he did so in an effort to supplement his meager income; but it is hard not to infer that the dispute involved a deeper rejection of Ghogre’s Dalit identity. Patwardhan uses this personal crisis to jab at Indian Marxists who relegate caste issues to the “superstructure” and sideline it as a form of identity politics.

Jai Bhim Comrade also digs into Western India’s, and specifically Bombay’s, rich tradition of protest music. A few clips of songs by Ghogre—very likely the only recordings ever made of his captivating voice—launch Patwardhan’s pursuit of the few remaining inheritors of this tradition, including legendary Ambedkarite shahirs (poet-singers) such as Vitthal Umap. However, as historian Anupama Rao noted in an article in the Indian monthly Seminar, Jai Bhim Comrade only hints at the depth of this working-class cultural heritage, which includes a variety of forms of folk drama once adapted toward revolutionary ends by artists and activists in Bombay’s central textile mill district.

These forms peaked around mid-century, and were epitomized in the work of Annabhau Sathe, a playwright and novelist born into one of the most stigmatized Dalit castes. As a founder of the local Communist Party’s Lalbawta kalapathak (Red Flag performance troupe), Sathe lauded working-class unity while maintaining an Ambedkarite commitment to the Dalit struggle. Dozens of his plays and stories are still available in Marathi and a handful in other languages, but documentation of the performances he orchestrated in the streets of Bombay, in the shadow of the city’s mills and chawls (tenements), remains well-buried if it exists at all. Jai Bhim Comrade does not probe this far back, but by chronicling some of the more recent—yet similarly un- and underdocumented—incarnations of Bombay’s legacy of radical performance, the film nevertheless pays homage to the city’s historic culture of solidarity and the daily struggles that fostered it.

The sounds of protest have faded somewhat in Mumbai, but the struggles faced by the city’s poor—whose numbers are growing daily—have endured, if not intensified, since the decline of its textile industry in the 1980s and the concurrent liberalization of the Indian economy. Early on in Jai Bhim Comrade, Patwardhan interviews workers at the Deonar garbage dump, on the outer fringes of Mumbai. Trapped in the dehumanizing, stigmatized line of work that has defined the Dalit condition for centuries, they wade ankle-deep in sludge, some wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts. One interviewee lost an eye when his pitchfork snapped as he was lifting waste; he appealed to the municipality for compensation but never received any. Another complains of human shit dumped over his head.

Both have worked at the dump for over a decade on a contract-to-contract basis. When they formed a union, says the second worker, they achieved a minimum of recognition, including a court order requiring the contractors to buy boots, masks, protective suits, and other essential equipment for their workers. But the contractors opted to appeal the decision to a higher court, squandering huge sums in lawyers’ fees, rather than simply buy the equipment. Their defiance not only of legal sanctions but of the most basic economic logic is testament to the virulence of the caste prejudice that continues to permeate the subcontinent, as well as an indicator of the kind of everyday violence that this prejudice fosters.

The film quickly moves on to more gruesome examples of such violence. We learn that one of the workers at the Deonar dump was killed in the Ramabai shooting; Patwardhan later shifts his focus to rural areas, where the overwhelming majority of violence against Dalits continues to take place, with the burden falling disproportionately on women.

In the second half of the film, Patwardhan interviews villagers in Khairlanji, Maharastra, where a Dalit family was murdered in 2006. The Bhotmanges belonged to the Mahar community, like Ambedkar, and were practicing Buddhists in the Ambedkarite tradition. (Ambedkar’s last major campaign for Dalit emancipation centered around complete renunciation of Hinduism through mass conversion to a Buddhism, which he construed as a rationalist antidote to prejudice, superstition, and hierarchy.) Following a dispute over a small plot of land and an alleged affair involving a Dalit police officer, the mother and daughter were reportedly paraded naked through the village by a drunken mob before being beaten and killed along with the two Bhotmange brothers, ages nineteen and twenty-one. The doctors who conducted the investigation denied that the women had been raped, though their bodies were found naked, with their genitals mutilated. Allegations of bribery help fill the gaps in the story. Dalits responded with mass protests in Mumbai and elsewhere in Maharashtra, earning the case some much-delayed media attention and ultimately a settlement, including prison sentences for the eleven accused murderers and monetary compensation for the Bhotmanges’ next of kin. Nevertheless, judicial manipulation at various levels ensured that the sanctions would not meet the standards set by the 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Act, which established strict penalties against caste-based violence.

The individual acts of violence portrayed in the film appear not as aberrations from a tolerant pluralism but as part of a continuum of persecution, which permeates India’s cities as much as its villages.

The Khairlanji killings, as well as another village murder that Patwardhan documents in Jai Bhim Comrade, illustrate a phenomenon now commonly known, and legally recognized, as the “caste atrocity.” In pairing such cases of rural violence with cases of urban police repression and setting both against a backdrop of consistently degrading labor, Patwardhan broadens this trope and reframes it as “the atrocity of caste.” The individual acts of violence portrayed in the film appear not as aberrations from a tolerant pluralism but as part of a continuum of persecution, which permeates India’s cities as much as its villages.

The nature of the everyday violence against Dalits—bitter and recalcitrant, gendered and sexualized, ritualized and widely accepted as the norm—demonstrates the irreducible particularity of caste and confirms that class-based explanations cannot account for the full scope of discrimination that it entails. Patwardhan nevertheless makes a strong case for integrating a class dimension into the critique of untouchability. By deracinating and isolating one or another feature of Dalit oppression, even the most conservative politicians have been able to twist the Dalit cause into their party platform and attract votes from the constituencies they have historically marginalized. Patwardhan sees this danger realized in the recent alliance of the Dalit-based Republican Party of India (RPI) with the right-wing Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—the ruling party that oversaw Gujarat’s anti-Muslim pogroms in 2002—and the even more militant Shiv Sena, which is widely alleged to have triggered the worst of Bombay’s riots in 1992-93. By the time the Shiv Sena-BJP-RPI coalition introduced itself in a 2009 local election bid, most of the Ramabai residents Patwardhan interviews seem to have forgotten that a Shiv Sena-BJP government oversaw the massacre there in 1997. Riding on such collective amnesia, mainstream parties simply incorporate the figure of Ambedkar into their pantheon of political idols to recruit Dalits disgruntled with whichever party failed them most recently.

Enter the Kabir Kala Manch, a young performance troupe seeking to resurrect the radical approach of figures like Annabhau Sathe and Vilas Ghogre and, moreover, of Ambedkar himself. Driven by the fierce female voice of Sheetal Sathe, the KKM sing of rejecting corporate control, ending women’s oppression, and reclaiming Ambedkar’s legacy for a new age. Sheetal sings an homage to her hardworking mother, a devout Hindu who calls her household goddess Mahalakshmi “as secure as a government job”; in the same breath, she calls for Bhim (as Ambedkar is affectionately known among his followers) to emerge from his statue and reignite their struggle. The optimism embodied in the KKM—with their commitment to an inclusive movement and the powerful songs they use to propagate it—is quickly subdued, however, when we discover that two of the group’s members have been arrested and the rest gone into hiding following police allegations of their involvement with the terrorist Naxalite (Maoist) movement. While the film does not detail the allegations, Patwardhan dismisses them as an empty excuse used to silence the most recent generation of radical voices.

Jai Bhim Comrade paints an altogether grim picture not only of Dalit struggles but of contemporary India as a whole. It is a limited picture, to be sure—one that elides, among other things, a number of the complications and paradoxes involved in contemporary caste politics. At times, the film’s level of critique remains somewhat superficial; Patwardhan is eager to exhibit the prejudices of latte-drinking upper caste Hindus while only skimming the tensions between Dalits and the “Other Backward Classes” (OBCs, as they are officially known)—the most disadvantaged of the “touchable” castes, and those responsible for much of the current violence against Dalits, including the atrocities in Khairlanji. Jai Bhim Comrade sometimes paints in broad strokes to achieve its unequivocal portrayal of continuity, rather than change, in the Dalit situation, and as Patwardhan himself is eager to admit, the film hardly endeavors to be encyclopedic.

That being said, the film evokes a question that it leaves, for the most part, unanswered: how has the liberalization of the Indian economy affected Dalits? As Katherine Boo illustrates in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, for example, liberalization has made itinerant urban workers from various caste backgrounds so desperate for work that there is now fierce competition for dirty, dangerous, unstable jobs like scavenging, once reserved chiefly to Dalits. Has this eroded some of the stigma surrounding Dalit labor? Or has it only made matters worse for everyone?

Still, unlike some of Patwardhan’s previous films, Jai Bhim Comrade leaves the viewer with few open-ended questions. Rather, in the face of often unspeakable violence, it seeks urgent answers. When will the perpetrators of the Ramabai shooting and similar crimes against Dalits face adequate sanctions? When will the Kabir Kala Manch be able to return from hiding and perform in the open? Patwardhan’s demand: now. Jai Bhim Comrade is a powerful indictment of a political status quo that has revitalized archaic forms of violence under the banner of liberal democracy, as well as an inspiration to those seeking creative ways to transform this status quo. With Manohar Kadam (the officer who ordered the shooting in Ramabai) out on bail, Narendra Modi (the chief minister of Gujarat who oversaw the 2002 pogrom) being symbolically coronated in a Mumbai Hindutva rally, and members of the Kabir Kala Manch threatened with prison sentences for singing about equality, one is left with the impression of a looking-glass world in need of being turned upside down.

Anand Patwardhan is nothing if not an unwavering believer in the power of documentary film to do just that. As in Bombay: Our City, he devotes a pivotal moment of the film to an interviewee who casts doubt on his project, asking, “What’s the point of you taking pictures? None at all,” she continues as she breaks down in tears. “Just more trouble for you and for us.” Patwardhan never answers the question directly, preferring to let his completed films do so for him, but I did hear him affirm his belief off-camera.

After a community screening of Jai Bhim Comrade at Pace University on December 9, he commented that if more people had seen his 1992 film In the Name of God, which chronicled the rise of Hindu fundamentalism, the riots that took place later that year might have been prevented. Wishful thinking, perhaps, but if it is such faith in the power of cinema to educate and agitate that continues to drive Patwardhan after forty years of filmmaking, it is hard to reproach him for the sentiment.

While it may take more than a film like Jai Bhim Comrade, even at its full three hours, to salvage a radical anti-capitalist, anti-caste movement, the film provides an incredible archive for such a movement to draw on. Furthermore, by exposing the case of the Kabir Kala Manch, it highlights a pressure point that pro-democracy activists in India and outside can rally around to begin confronting the deeper issues the film raises.

Colin Kinniburgh is an intern at Dissent.

Middle image: a Kabir Kala Manch performer.

*As Arjun Appadurai explained in “Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing: Notes on Millennial Mumbai” (Public Culture 12.3, Fall 2000), the transformation of “Bombay” into “Mumbai” was as much a product of the “explosive violence of 1992–93” as of “a widespread Indian pattern of replacing names associated with colonial rule.” The name change was decreed by the right-wing Hindu chauvinist Shiv Sena government that presided over the city at the time. Though the name Mumbai “carries the surface respectability of popular nationalism,” it is more emblematic of attempts to create an “ethnically pure but globally competitive,” re-Hinduized India. I account for this shift by referring to the city as Bombay when discussing events prior to 1996 and Mumbai when referring to events thereafter.