At a garbage dumping site in Mumbai, a man has been lifting all sorts of shit for the past 13 years. He is paid a measly Rs 73. The municipality, as in most cities of India, does not provide safety nets like gloves and masks, and one of his eyes has been pinched by a sharp fork while at work. The filmmaker asks him: “What is your caste?” “Buddhist,” he says. Not ‘achut’ or ‘chamar’.
Buddhist! In that answer lies the complex, alternate/mainstream history which filmmaker Anand Patwardhan’s latest film, Jai Bhim Comrade, charts.
History, we are told, is subjective. You shift the gaze and it changes. Lazy students of history are happy with this insight in itself, and make this the beginning and end of all arguments.
Jai Bhim Comrade is the exact opposite of a lazy history student’s engagement with retelling. Patwardhan documents a history that is not told, but he doesn’t seem satisfied and also shows the cracks within. It is not rhetoric, it is never propaganda.
"In order to live, Dalit, be prepared to die,” Ghogre wrote
In what is known in the Dalit narrative as the infamous Ghatkopar killings in Mumbai and the mass uprising that followed, the police of the BJP-Shiv Sena regime had brutally, randomly and rapidly, shot in cold blood 11 people who were protesting the desecration of Ambdekar’s statue on July 11, 1997. Soon, poet-activist Vilas Ghogre decided to end his life after he saw this tragedy in Ramabai Nagar in Bombay. “In order to live, Dalit, be prepared to die,” Ghogre wrote.
It is Ghogre, who Patwardhan had recorded for an earlier film, and the brazen injustice at Ramabai Nagar, that the film begins with. It then goes on to chart different forms and layers of Dalit protests – institutionalized in the form of the Republican Party of India (RPI), the party Dr BR Ambedkar founded, as well as the radical Black Panthers. Also, non-institutionalized forms: through individuals, cultural groups and music, poetry, self-reflection, rhetoric and performance.
In these tussles and negotiations within Dalit politics, it is those who function outside institutionalization and rhetoric that have emerged powerful. Hence, while the discredited RPI (led by a shifty Ramdas Athawale) – after having earlier aligned with the ‘secular’ Congress-led UPA – ends up joining hands with the xenophobic Shiv-Sena-BJP, despite the latter’s extremist, anti-Dalit worldview, it is the creative Dalit cultural group, Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), which seems to threaten the State.
In fact, it is so intensely threatened that the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) in Mumbai registered a criminal case against KKM activists – hounding them, terrorizing them, branding them Maoist. The film ends with the activists going underground.
Sheetal Sathe’s mother works in a hospital. Sheetal is a Kabir Manch activist. Sheetal’s conversation indicates that her family is conservative; when we finally meet her mother, Patwardhan makes us see her differently. He tells her that somewhere it must have been her influence. She has brought up her daughter with values that, to quote her, made Sheetal grow up into someone “who doesn’t live for her family, she lives for others”.
The film spans a broad scale across several years of shooting. Many things on screen change meanings in the course of the three hours of thinking, feeling, transforming cinema. Like Dalit leader Bhai Sangre, who dies while taking part in the burning of Manusmriti. It is a moving moment as his funeral is shown on film, while you witness the incredible power of his thought in his speeches.
The State is so threatened that the ATS registered a criminal case: hounding, terrorizing, branding them Maoist. The film ends with Kabir Kala Manch going underground
There is no one Dalit movement inMaharashtra; the film documents this multiple narrative. Bhim, as Ambedkar is known, is interpreted and reinterpreted in different contexts. So a leader tells an audience self-reflexive things about the difference between followers and devotees, and about Ambedkar’s belief in encouraging the former, not the latter. In one of KKM’s performances, the need for a ‘new Ambedkar’ is stressed.
And while all this is happening, national parties like BJP and Congress, over a period of time, come to realize the ‘use’ of Ambdekar as a legitimizing symbol, and make use of him with cold-blooded opportunism.
Ultimately, the film also documents the unsettling manner in which history changes meaning, how meaning is made to change, and the reality of forgetting. This happens most glaringly when years later the same BJP-Shiv Sena, under whom the Ramabai Nagar firings had taken place, reclaims yesterday’s outraged space in a new election campaign. The RPI joins them and together they rewrite that history.
The camera turns to residents of Ramabai Nagar and asks them about the government under whom the 1997 firing had taken place, and the mass outrage that followed. Many, having given in to the Righwing campaign’s power, say it was Congress. One or two, finally, say it was the BJP-Shiv Sena.
In a recent discussion inDelhiafter the film, Patwardhan remarked that many younger generations of Dalits do not know this history. But he also believes the Dalit movement has the inherent possibility to be a historic counter to Hindu Rightwing mobilization. Eyewitnesses report that tens of thousands of Dalits had come out on the streets of Mumbai after the 1997 killings, openly abusing and challenging Bal Thackeray and Shiv Sena – something not seen since then. Athawale ran for his life at Ramabai Nagar, chased by hundreds of Dalits.
Somewhere in the middle, the film tells us that although many of Ghogre’s songs were recorded, only one remains on film. Somewhere towards the end, a young girl recounts the 1997 Ramabai Nagar firing and speaks of a school being attacked, though no such thing had happened. She was only a baby at that time, and her memory is shaped by modernity’s folklore – what she hears and is taught in school. Her Dalit father, who featured in Patwardhan’sBombay, My City (1985), tells us that she goes to an affluent school and what the school teaches her is not in his control – whatever his own ideas and ideology might be.
It is erasures like these that Jai Bhim Comrade displaces. So Vilas Ghogre’s songs can remain etched in history. Indeed, the young girl can find a new prism through which she can understand her collective context and history, and discover creative and political counters to ‘official’ versions – the school’s or the nation-state’s – that try relentlessly, every day, to ensure that we don’t see what Jai Bhim Comrade so graphically shows us.
(The article was first published in the Hardnews)