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The power of drama: Of money lending, forced labour, keeping Dalits out of voting booths

By Gagan Sethi* 

The power of television reaching rural Gujarat was envisioned way back in late 1970s and early 1980s. At the Behavioural Science Centre (BSC) in Ahmedabad, I was involved in bringing about awareness on issues of discrimination and untouchabilty with the help of Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in Pij village of Kheda district. This project came to be identified as ISRO-Pij experiment.
BSC and ISRO seemed strange bedfellows to me, but there I was, working with ISRO. A dynamic producer K Vishwanath, a leftist at heart, wanted us to get real life stories, which would be enacted and shown across the Kheda district.
For organisations aiming at social change using Paulo Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” as a frame, this seemed to be a dream come true. Several stories were collected from the field, and professional writers like Chinu Modi and a few theatre actors were roped in. But the result was half-baked version of urban actors mouthing rural dialogues. Not quite pleased with it, we suggested involving people who experience that life.
What ensued was a series, titled ‘Have Na Sehvu Paap’, of real stories of how Dalit Vankars lived in Pandad and Golana villages. So powerful were the episodes that when they were shown they created a huge furore, so much so that the political wheels –largely controlled by upper caste rural landlords–started rolling. We were forced to close the series. Dejected that our Trojan horse theory didn’t work, we started on our own an audio version with Gurjarvani.
I was asked to write with a Gujarati translator, and also act in those audio dramas. They covered usurious practices of money lending, forced labour, keeping the Dalits out of the voting booths, different forms of untouchabilty and more.
We would take the plays to villages at night as part of our awareness camps. This had its impact. It triggered anger and a resolve to act among the Dalit community. They even narrated new stories, which motivated us to continue with our experiment.
We soon realized that mere awareness without increase in income was more frustrating than the state of helplessness that prevailed all around.
When we were still playing our fourth episode in a village, two young Dalit men accosted me, caught me by my collar, and with burning red eyes said, “You have no right to do this to us! What do you want us to do, kill the upper caste? Let us live in peace with our misery.” I can’t forget the words they used: “Chhele to aa loko dev pujela chhe, ne ame dev ne pathara marela” (ultimately they have worshipped gods and we have stoned them).
I returned to my office and angrily told my colleagues, “Unless we have a plan or a strategy, and resources to break this shackle, we have no right to just raise awareness. Making pain more painful is a dangerous game.”
I see politicians playing this dangerous game after every communal incident even today.

*Founder of Janvikas & Centre for Social justice. First published in DNA

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