A Song that will be sung

Anand Patwardhan’s paean to Dalits, that took 14 years to compose, probes even as it praises, says Saroj Giri in Tehelka

Tragic remains People killed in the police firing in Ramabai Colony in 1997

THERE IS an entrenched tendency to represent Dalits fighting for rights and reservations as just (another) competitive bloc vying for self-interest and power. It leads to a pernicious inversion: ‘Dalit rights’ dividing the nation along caste lines. Victim as perpetrator! Anand Patwardhan’s film Jai Bhim Comrade takes us beyond the grid of cynical power, revealing a vibrant and militant world. It is structured around the double movement of a paean and an elegy. Yet it ends on a note of optimism.

PatwardhanPhoto: Shailendra Pandey

This world is brought to life through intimate portraits of ordinary people, activists and artists in their struggle and in the everyday, often through a telling and retelling of the life and teachings of Dr BR Ambedkar. You see Dalits able to distinguish their politics and struggle at the level of a lullaby, resolve it at the level of school children, question the existence of God or of ordinary people singing the virtues of reason and celebrating festivals outside of the Hindu calendar — a wide and captivating array of images.

The film brings this world to life without any apparent mediation. No authoritative voiceover: it speaks through the voices of people and music, through personal conversations, cultural expression and political speeches. Patwardhan’s forte is his deep immersion in Dalit life, unaffected and sincere, spread over 14 years. In particular, his close comradeship with the late Vilas Ghogre, the Dalit-Marxist artist, inspired the film.

In spite of the immersive positioning, the film is not an ethnography (as Patwardhan has pointed out elsewhere) since ‘politics’/struggle is constantly in focus. And yet, the film avoids foregrounding the internal struggle among the followers of Ambedkar on key political questions — something which would have cast the Dalit world and the immersion in it in a different light.

Scenes of Dalit workers engaged in back-breaking labour in garbage dumps under abject conditions are juxtaposed with fiery speeches and songs in progra – mmes by leaders elsewhere. The major running thread is the aftermath of the Ramabai Nagar (Ghatkopar, Mumbai) police firing on Dalits protesting the desecration of Ambedkar’s statue in July 1997. Ten Dalits were killed and Ghogre committed suicide in protest and horror. Dalits narrate accounts of gruesome atrocities elsewhere in Beed, Khairlanji and other places, and the stony complicity of the state machinery. Official records show that two Dalits are raped and three killed daily in India. The actual statistics are higher.

Scenes of stark injustice contrast with equally stark compromises and betrayals that slowly and depressingly unfold in Dalit politics. Bhim Sena and Shiv Sena join hands, Narendra Modi garlands Ambedkar, Dalit masses applaud. Dalit leaders hobnob with the Congress and the Shiv Sena or BJP, precisely those who engineered atrocities. The politics of forgetting and remembrance reaches a feverish pitch. Towards the end, the court verdict on Ramabai Nagar again exonerates the prime accused, Manohar Kadam, the police officer who ordered the firing. In a travesty of justice, he is let off on bail and his punishment again recedes to the background.

Official records show that two Dalits are raped and three killed daily in India. The actual statistics are higher

The vibrant, defiant spirit of Dalit life-world now seems to be sapped. Corrupt and dubious forces do not reject this world but appropriate it! The paean gives way to elegy. The film now tries to emerge from its immersion, possibly wash it off and retrieve an optimistic point towards the end. The way it does this recasts all that has gone before, revealing how the film is silently structured.

This optimism is expressed in the agency and voice of the Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), a cultural organisation which wants to start afresh. They foreground the internal struggle within Ambedkar’s legacy, so that there is no one Bhim. Sheetal Sathe and her team sing from a Spartan stage. She insists, with a beaming face, on a new Bhim, opening a new register in the narrative. KKM’s politics and aesthetics, crisp and rhetoric-free, avoid invoking Ambedkar as an icon or messiah, instead appealing to the people to get mobilised — a clear departure from the cultural performances and political speeches that raise Ambedkar and let the Dalits down.

Now there is no one Dalit life-world in which to immerse or just one Bhim to follow. There is not even an autonomous Dalit specificity based purely on caste. ‘Dalit’ as a generic term for the oppressed and exploited invokes the question of class. It’s a body blow to any kind of ethnography, a kind of a critique of the film’s dominant trope of immersion — is this why the film later invokes Sheetal’s mother who tangentially critiques or restrains the KKM? Was the earlier immersion then enabled by ‘choosing not to choose’ to split Ambedkar’s legacy?

The question assumes salience since this perspective takes us back to the period after Ambedkar’s death in 1956 to a tradition within Ambedkarites that examined caste through class and land relations. Recall the famous ‘Jail Bharo’ campaign for the redistribution of surplus land to the landless peasants in Konkan region of Maharashtra. It was led by the ‘rustic’ Dadasaheb Gaikwad, eventually sidelined as unfit to carry on in the footsteps of Ambedkar as a ‘saheb’ doing high politics, with university degrees and law books in hand. Or RB More, a close associate of Ambedkar and chief organiser of the Mahad Satyagraha (1927), who parts ways with Ambedkar by joining the Communist Party.

So class was a live issue even among Ambedkarites like Gaikwad. The Left might have been one-sided in their focus on class but that cannot be a pretext to then drive class out of the picture. For that will undermine even an effective caste struggle — which is the real (disavowed?) lesson of the film. The question unasked: if the Shiv Sena-BJP is able to co-opt Dalit voices, was there something in the iconisation of Ambedkar which allowed this to happen?

PATWARDHAN’S EARLIER masterpiece Father Son and Holy War (FSHW) wonderfully exposed the ideals of machismo underlying Hindutva politics — how high symbolic politics derives from certain enduring social mores in the mundane everyday practices. But is Dalit politics or Left politics too informed by such or a different kind of a machismo? In Jai Bhim Comrade, an elderly woman claims to follow Ambedkar’s critical approach but is unsure of extending it to her relationship with her domineering husband. An FSHW moment?

The film is a repository of a rich and textured lived social history where caste and class intertwine. Ghogre, the story goes, was wearing a blue band (Ambedkarite colour) at the time of his suicide, thereby apparently affirming his ultimate castigation of Left politics as unable to address the caste issue. Let us accept this castigation. But recall Ghogre singing a working class song, Ek Katha Suno Re Logo, Hum Mazdoor ki Karun Kahani in a working class area in Mumbai with tall buildings in the background — a striking image. The associated affect and the emergent structure of feeling are absolutely revolutionary and proletarian. It has a richness accruing precisely from an absence, without a grand stage, without the symbolic excess or rhetoric of the kind we see in the other Dalit cultural programmes that one way or another overlap with mainstream Hindu programmes. No wonder the filmmaker too seems more attached to what can be seen as a proletarian singing scene, which is neither specifically Dalit nor neo-Buddhist. Is class and its symbolic field entering the picture again? There are several other instances like this in the film.

Far cries Stills from Jai Bhim Comrade

Can we then say that the film’s portrait of Dalit politics unfolds into an elegy of a pure caste-based politics? Isn’t Patwardhan, in spite of his apparent conscious intentions, reinstating class and giving it its due? Nothing to be depressed about, however. One starts with caste and wants to stay with it (the rational conscious movement of the film), partly to make up for the apparent blind spots of the Left parties. And yet, in the search for optimism, class sneaks in (the disavowed movement) not to undermine caste but to firm it up, to make it politically legible and efficacious for a radical politics — happening here under the sign of a new Bhim. Thanks to the rich complexity of the film, such fine conjunctures of caste and class are made visible.

One starts with caste and wants to stay with it, partly to make up for the apparent blind spots of the Left parties

This has immediate resonance. With the upward mobility of the OBCs (responsible for most recent attacks on Dalits), caste as the basis of atrocities on Dalits attains a deadly efficacy when it is stamped by the distinction of class. More starkly, this concerns Dalits themselves: the case in Khairlanji is a gruesome illustration. Dalits in top administrative posts refused to side with Dalits facing terrible violence at the hands of upper castes. As is well-documented, having undergone ‘class transformation’, Dalits in top administrative posts sided with upper caste perpetrators of the heinous attacks on poor Dalits.

Finally, the basic dilemma of Left politics today comes to the fore. Popular movements and electoral mobilisation of the marginalised are appropriated by mainstream or right-wing parties, the judiciary and courts again and again let you down, while those who still resist and dissent (like the KKM) are labelled Maoists. And not making matters easy is Sheetal’s mother who has this to say: “At every performance, my children assured me that they’d never take up arms, that they’d change the world only through song and drums.” What is to be done? The film is an artiste’s passionate plea to pose the question again for radical politics. It is a powerful intervention.

Giri teaches Political Science at the University of Delhi.