On January 29th and 30th, acclaimed documentary-maker Anand Patwardhan was in campus to screen his latest venture — Jai Bhim Comrade –– and to deliver a lecture as part of the EML series. Jai Bhim Comrade is a film which depicts the life of Dalits (term used to refer to the ‘oppressed’) in the north of the country. For the most part, the film revolved around the lives of the Dalits in Maharashtra who converted to Buddhism, under the leadership of Dr. Ambedkar. The film begins with the suicide of Vilas Ghogre, a folk singer from Mumbai. He killed himself because he was depressed by the Ramabai Colony deaths — the killing of eleven Dalit members of the colony by the police because, according to official record, they threatened to blow up a tanker in protest against the vandalising of a statue of Dr. Ambedkar. But as the film unfolds, we see that no story is ever as simple as that. A lot of the evidence against the colony members was cleverly constructed, as Patwardhan shows. Since the Ramabai incident in July 1997, he has collected footage spanning fourteen years, following the lives of colony members, the police official charged with the murders and Ghogre’s family, interspersing it with the anti-caste movement in Maharashtra, a resistance he says is as old as the caste system itself.
The issue of caste is a dangerous one to broach, especially in urban circles like ours, where the topic of reservation is still a loaded and contentious one. But as much as we would like to believe that caste as an institution has been eradicated completely, it remains the fact that for a large majority of the people of the ‘lower caste’, discrimination and violence is a reality they live out every day. Only in relatively urban settings does caste take a backseat. Patwardhan’s film is a harsh wake-up call to anyone who righteously claimed that reservations were unfair and only recreated caste.
The film is a compilation of footage gathered over fourteen years and presents a scary picture of the practice of caste in India today. We see men from the colony working in a garbage-dumping site in situations absolutely inhuman. They have not been provided with the mandatory gum boots and clothing, and consequently, injuries when unloading are common, but they neither consolation nor compensation is granted by the municipality. Meanwhile, as we are shown in later scenes, Bal Thackeray was busy rousing hate against the ‘circumcised’ in the most unsubtle manner possible, even publicly referring to the population as a ‘species to be exterminated’. The documentary shows us many people — Ghogre’s wife and children, children who are ridiculed in school because they’re ‘godless’ (Buddhists are by default atheists in this sense), and many, many folk singers like Ghogre who spread the message of equality, brotherhood and the history of oppression to people, and how some of them live everyday in fear of the Forces Above for their work. Patwardhan shows that even after the passing of the Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989), rape, assault, murder and torture are carried out with little resistance from a people for whom loss and injustice is a way of life. In most cases, not only do the police turn a blind eye, they also partake in this violence.
The film lasted three hours and thirty minutes and also has footage of many politicians delivering speeches and many songs sung by the folk artistes throughout. It can get tedious after sometime but the message it gives is as clear as it is shocking.
The next day Patwardhan screened clips from many of his films, made over a period of forty years, starting from documentaries on the political prisoners of the Emergency, and moving on to topics like Bombay’s slum dwellers, India’s nuclear tests, the struggle of Indo-Canadian farmers to form a labour union, the people whose lives were thrown into chaos after they were forcibly evicted so the Narmada dam could be built, villagers around Pokhran who still suffer from rare and incurable genetic conditions because of the fallout from the test, the riots before and after the Babri Masjid demolitions, right-wing Hindutva parties, the nexus between masculinity, religious fundamentalism and violence … The list is long and astonishing. Each film, from the clips shown, is a painstakingly put together venture, and almost every single one has run into the problems with the Censor Board. Yet Patwardhan himself is a man of great humour and dry wit, very approachable and responsive, even after decades of being witness to horrendous events. After each clip, he encouraged questions. He spoke against the neo-liberal policies of the Central government, but added that that seemed a much better fate than a dystopia which was certain if a party which openly proclaims its core ideology of Hindutva was voted into power. The sessions were informative and insightful.