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Redemption Songs

Anand Patwardhan’s revelatory, sprawling documentary Jai Bhim Comrade is a remarkable record of the visual and aural history of the contemporary Dalit movement in Maharashtra. Trisha Gupta writes about a film 14 years in the making

Trisha Gupta  29th Apr 2012

Stills from Jai Bhim Comrade

man stands next to a truck, using a massive pitchfork to unload a mound of garbage from it. The camera pans downward, and we see that he is ankle-deep in garbage, garbage that is strewn indiscriminately across a vast open maidan. This sea of untreated, rotting trash, occasionally rising into little hillocks where the trucks have been unloading their cargo, serves as one of Mumbai's few designated rubbish dumps — and the man we are watching at work is a designated municipal sanitation worker.

Yet he is bare-bodied and barefoot, working as hazardously as he has for nearly 20 years: without being made a permanent employee, without being given even the most basic equipment to protect his body from the dangers hidden in the garbage: sharp objects, acidic substances, and the constant threat of infection. For a long time, they did not give us even water to clean ourselves, he says. If our truck broke down, no-one would give us a ride. After they finally created a union, Mumbai's sanitation workers demanded that the municipal corporation supply them with gumboots and rubber gloves. But the corporation has refused, it is fighting the case in court. They have the money to pay the massive fees of big lawyers, says the man softly, but they can't afford to give us gumboots.

The sanitation workers appear for perhaps 10 minutes of Anand Patwardhan's film, but there is something about the sequence that stays with you. The matter-of-fact way in which the workers describe their merciless working lives. The unredeemed grimness of the visuals. The municipal worker who identifies his caste as 'Jai Bhim wala'. And overlaying all of this, a sonorous voice singing "My Raghu went to Mumbai": words and picture and music melding to show us how tenaciously caste still holds our attitudes to labour in its grip.

The work of sanitation in India is still inevitably assigned to Dalits, with both the work and the worker being treated with a palpable disdain that can only stem from deeply-ingrained notions of pollution and purity. Later in the film, watching upper middle class Marathi interviewees couch their distaste for Ambedkar Jayanti celebrations in terms of crowds and dirt, one thinks of the academic Aditya Nigam's disturbing suggestion that modern incarnations of upper caste privilege continue to have a powerful afterlife "precisely because they are no more articulated in the old language of caste", circulating instead in 'modern' discourses of "merit", "efficiency" and "hygiene".

The continuing existence of caste-based discrimination, as well as its consistent disavowal – by savarna elites, by right wing political formations, but also by a tragically blinkered left movement – this is the subject of Jai Bhim Comrade.

It is an epic subject, and in Patwardhan's hands, it receives epic form.

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The work of sanitation in India is still inevitably assigned to Dalits, with both the work and the worker being treated with a palpable disdain that can only stem from deeply-ingrained notions of pollution and purity.

The narrative begins with the deaths of 10 Dalits in Mumbai's Ramabai Nagar locality in 1997, when the police opened fire on a peaceful gathering of people protesting the desecration of an Ambedkar statue. The brutal killing of innocents, and the impunity with which the police justified their action — even producing doctored video footage to suggest that those mowed down were attempting to set fire to some tankers on the other side of the highway – deeply affected Vilas Ghogre, a Dalit musician and poet. 

Ghogre was what in Marathi is called a shahir – a poet for a social cause. He had long been part of Ahavan, the cultural wing of the CPI (Marxist-Leninist), before being expelled from it for "deviations" from the party path. He also happened to be someone whom Anand Patwardhan had worked with closely. No one who has seen Patwardhan's Hamara Shahar (1985) can forget the riveting voice of Ghogre singing 'Katha sunon he logon, vyatha suno he logon' (Listen to this story, people/ Listen to this pain). Patwardhan met Ghogre several more times, recording more of his powerful music on tape, but then lost touch with him. So when, a few days after his visit to Ramabai Nagar, Ghogre tied a blue cloth around his head and hung himself from the ceiling of his hut – leaving behind a scrawled note on the wall that read: "Down with the police action. I salute the martyred sons of Bhim. Hail Ambedkarite unity. Shahir Vilas Ghogre." – Patwardhan was moved and disturbed enough to take his camera and go to Ramabai Nagar. That initial visit was the beginning of a 14-year-long journey, at the end of which Patwardhan had collected over 300 hours of footage.

The 3 hour film he has finally culled out of it is perhaps the closest thing we have to a visual and aural history of the contemporary Dalit movement in Maharashtra. It is first and foremost, a commemoration of the many deaths that have followed the Ramabai Nagar firings: Ghogre, of course, but also Bhagwat Jadhav, a young Dalit Panther leader killed by the Shiv Sena at a protest rally in 1974; Bhai Sangare, a Panther ideologue whose razor-sharp oratory may have caused his death in 1999; the Bhotmanges, killed in Khairlanji in 2006; and many others. So Patwardhan takes us stoically into bereaved Dalit homes, speaking to women who have not allowed themselves to grieve, or men who lament that they have failed to "mentally discard caste". He documents the long-drawn failure of the inquiry commission and the courts to impugn Manohar Kadam, the police inspector who gave orders to fire in Ramabai Nagar.

Patwardhan (second from left) speaks at the VIBGYOR International Film Festival, Thrissur

Patwardhan's quiet interviewing of Ghogre's erstwhile comrades is a clear indictment of the Indian Left's failure to recognise caste – symbolised here in their remarkable comment about his headscarf at the time of death 'not really' being blue, the colour associated with Ambedkarite movements. But even as he tracks the Dalit-led Republican Party of India lurching from one compromised alliance to another (the Congress, the Nationalist Congress Party, even, in a grotesque instance of political erasure, the Shiv Sena and the BJP), Patwardhan seems less interested – or able – to explain how a figure like the radical Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal, once a Dalit Panther, could elect to join hands with the Hindu right.

But perhaps a search for such an answer is futile. It is valuable enough that Patwardhan shows us a whole host of people who question the holy cows of mainstream Hindu society: the daughters of an Ambedkarite father who speak laughingly of how they have to hide their aetheism from schoolmates; the Dalit leader who gets a still-hesitant crowd to say "Ganapati cha baap kumhaar" (The father of Ganesh is the potter who made him); the golden-voiced Sheetal Sathe of the Kabir Kala Manch whose political choices – the Sambhaji Bhagat songs she sings, the man she has chosen to marry – radically depart from her mother's simple religiosity (but without rancour).

In the 10 days since I saw Jai Bhim Comrade, the newspapers have reported that 27-year-old Sheetal Sathe is now on the run, "wanted by investigating agencies for her alleged Maoist links". Meanwhile the Patna High Court has acquitted 23 persons accused of perpetrating the massacre of 21 Dalits at Bathani Tola in Bhojpur in 1996, citing "defective evidence" (all 23 had been convicted by a sessions court in 2010). In legislative news, the government has proposed increasing the penalties for a 19 year old law that prohibits the hiring of manual scavengers: a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that not a single case has been registered under it so far, while 25 lakh households still depend on the manual removal of 'nightsoil' by Dalits.

In such a world, even Patwardhan's too-pat technique – tripping up random English-speaking people with seemingly sanguine questions – seems entirely justified. "Dalit issue frankly is definitely ameliorated over the past half a decade or so," says one undergraduate Barista-goer. Can you cite any examples, asks Patwardhan. "Oh no," says the boy calmly, "there's no-one like that in my circle."

 
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