In the third of our series of reviews from the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, Richard Moran reviews Jai Bhim Comrade, a film which explores the caste system in India.
In a year where inequality has been pushed to the front of the global agenda, Anand Patwardhans’ documentary Jai Bhim Comrade shines a light on the Indian caste system. This social structure has, for hundreds of years, sustained conditions of social exclusion, bonded labour and limited opportunity for millions of Indians born as Dalits (or “Untouchables”) – the lowest of India’s scheduled castes. Following the lives of this diverse group of people over 14 years, the film explores the idea of identification and identity, how these have been used to maintain the caste system and how they are being used to challenge it today.The film begins in July 1997 after a protest over the desecration of a statue of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar in Ramabai Colony, Maharashtra, ends in tragedy. Mumbai police fired on protesters killing 10 Dalits and injuring many more. Four days later, Dalit singer and poet Vilas Ghorge committed suicide, despairing at the continued persecution of his people.
Dr Ambedkar is a heroic figure for many in the Dalit community. Born into an untouchable caste in 1891, he was able to break through the barriers of the system to attain a college education, complete a PhD and train as a lawyer. Following his return to India from the US and Europe, he became responsible for drafting the first Indian constitution after independence. Despite his inspirational achievements (and laws to prevent caste based discrimination), many Dalits in India continue to face considerable constraints and injustices.
Following the deaths at Ramabai Colony, Manohar Kadam, the police officer who gave the order to shoot, was finally found guilty of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2009. However, instead of going to prison, Kadam was initially held at a hospital before being freed on bail pending an appeal. The film revisits the families of those killed over the following 14 years, showing the continued anguish they feel. These stories (and those of the people inspired by them) are used to explore the exploitation and suffering of Dalits over the following years.
Despite this, Jai Bhim Comrade is not a film about downtrodden and helpless people, but one about resilience and perseverance. Throughout the film runs a powerful discourse about the difference between being identified and identity. Having been shunned as untouchables for hundreds of years, the diverse people of the lowest castes now identify as Dalits (the oppressed). This identity helps position them for resistance and defiance.
Some groups of Dalits have taken this process of re-identification further and followed Dr Ambedkar in converting to Buddhism. Speaking after the screening at the London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, Patwardhan explained that, in making this conversion, people were able to overcome mental self-disrespect and separate themselves from a system which diminishes them.
The film goes on to follow Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), a group of artist-activists in Maharashtra. Singer Sheetal Sathe uses their songs to build on, and move beyond, the conversation about a positive Dalit identity. Referring to non-Dalit Indians as the “330 million Gods”, she encourages the crowd to rally against economic inequality, which has worked alongside social exclusion to keep Dalits oppressed. She pushes for gender rights, goading the men in the crowd that “everybody wants women to join protests…but they don’t want their own wives to”. The film depicts a progressive and dynamic movement, ready to struggle to attain social justice for their community.
But it also highlights the battle they face. The progressive nature of KKM has led to its members being identified as Naxalites and targeted by the police under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. At the end of the documentary, they have been forced into hiding where they remain today, over two years later. We are shown that a strong positive identity is still held by members of the upper Maratha castes encouraging a sense of superiority and justifying the status quo. Even in today’s modern India, there are clearly structural barriers standing in the way of those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy.
The film is certainly lengthy, running for just over 200 minutes. Much of this time is given to public performances around Maharashtra, where singers and speakers address growing crowds. Initially this can be frustrating for the unaccustomed British viewer. However, as the film moves on, this reminds us of alternative systems of sharing knowledge and the powerful position that groups such as KKM can hold as agents of change.
Although focusing on the story of Dr Ambedkar and Vilas Ghorge, this is really a film about the Dalit people. It’s a documentary about oppression and how a strong, positive community identity can play a role in overcoming discrimination. It demonstrates the nobility of struggle in a battle which is still very much being fought.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.
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