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Jai Bhim Comrade: Irony of caste oppression and Dalit activists’ 'tumultuous' fight

By Abid Ahmed Khan*
When I was presented this one-of-a-kind opportunity to interview renowned documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, I decided to dig deep into his cult film “Jai Bhim Comrade” which took over 14 years to make.
There’s little that’s not been written about Anand Patwardhan’s 2011 cult film “Jai Bhim Comrade.” From essays analyzing the use of all its songs, to in-depth coverage about the various dark moments in Dalit history the film chooses to highlight, it’s all been dissected with the precision of a surgical knife. So, when I got this opportunity to watch, appreciate and review the film’s nuances, I wondered what I could bring to the table that’s not already been spoken about at length.
With this scepticism in mind, I set out to watch the 169-minute English subtitled cut with my notepad handy in case I missed any minute detail. Being unfamiliar with Patwardhan’s work proved to be a blessing in disguise as I was gobsmacked with the raw, unrelenting tone of the film. 
It catches you by the gut the minute Vilas Ghogre’s only filmed performance from “Bombay: Our City” plays in the first frame, and never lets you go as you’re taken to the dark underbelly of caste discrimination in India, vastly different from the surface-level experiences we’re used to discussing with our friends and families.
Perhaps what struck me the most was the way the film deliberately uses ironic scenarios to contrast two starkly different sides of the same coin. Take for instance, Ghogre’s song, “My Raghu went to Mumbai”. It talks about the delectable sweets and delicacies Raghu delivers to his clients, but quickly contrasts this visual with his dangerous routine as a Bombay dabbawala. 
The song plays in the background as we watch Dalit sanitation workers lament how they’re not given access to the most basic of accessories like gum boots and raincoats. Thus, the initial upbeat tune gives way to the tragic undertones of caste discrimination.
I’ve seen several filmmakers use this framing device, particularly for satire. “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’s” many bizarre scenes come to mind that offer a black-comedic take on the functioning of the media. More recent films like “Peepli Live” used ironic commentary to shed light on grave, disconcerting problems such as farmer suicides. But unlike these mainstream offerings, there are no light moments in “Jai Bhim Comrade”.
The scale of the tragedies it portrays is such that the irony only makes you squirm, wreath in anger, and feel the helplessness humans like us were subjected to for no fault of their own. Here I delve deeper into five such ironic scenes that made me understand the extent of the ugliness of caste-based oppression:

A mother recounts the harrowing murder of her school-going son

One of the victims of the 1997 killings at Ramabai was 9-year-old Mangesh, whose skull was shattered after being hit by a police bullet. His mother recounts this unparalleled tragedy and groans about how he did not even get the chance to scream “Aai” (Marathi for “mother”) before succumbing to a brutal death.
You see the screen filled with her deep sense of rage, but at the same time you can’t help but draw comparisons to the sadness felt by the families of the other victims. As interviews with these families play out in subsequent scenes, there was a strange sense of relief I felt for Mangesh.
At least, he did not have to grow up and deal with the cruelty and systematic oppression Vilas and the others were subjected to. At least by meeting a horrific end, he was freed from the years of endless struggle that was in store for him.

Upper caste citizens express disdain over Ambedkarite celebrations

It was chilling to witness the matter-of-fact manner in which most upper-class citizens dismiss celebrations that they feel aren’t pious enough to be conducted with fanfare. The ‘us vs them’ view is inherently visible here when one of them immediately becomes defensive when asked to draw parallels between the Ambedkarite celebrations on display and the festivities of a Ganapathi Visarjan.
Even when the similarities are fully etched out, they cannot get themselves to compare an upper-class festival versus one that’s rooted in Dalit tradition. This scene, then paves the path for the many instances of upper-class ignorance the film portrays, be it superficial claims about reservation in higher educational institutes, or the furore created demanding a separate quota for the Marathas.

Locals in Ramabai Colony forget who the ruling party was in 1997

Twelve years after the Ramabai killings, when a BJP-Shiv Sena alliance finally dares to enter the colony in 2009, we see how its once-secular dynamics are gradually getting influenced by the Hindutva narrative. 
The cursory campaigning and sensationalist oratory skills of Hindutva leaders are on display, and these visuals are complemented with the locals recounting the Congress as the ruling party during the killings when, in fact, it was the BJP. Babasaheb Ambdekar’s newly-erected statue then paints the screen, indicating the ironic shift away from the principles he preached so vehemently.

The inconsequential nature of the Atrocities Act

There was a lot of hullabaloo created over the Prevention of Atrocities Act that was passed in 1989 to protect the rights of socially and economically disadvantaged sections of the Indian society like the Dalits. In one scene, we see Shalini Patil, a renowned Maratha speaker, referring to the act as excessive and a means for the lower castes to blackmail/threaten upper caste individuals unjustly.
When the graphic details of some of the atrocities against the Mang and Mahar castes are explained later in the movie, we realize how far she is from the truth. In a chilling interview with the wife of a Mahar man who was cut in half for stepping up to save his nephew, she describes how the police did not take immediate action and let her husband bleed to death. The Atrocities Act, far from being unjust, isn’t even practiced in the most remote regions of India.

Manohar Kadam is taken to hospital, not jail

The biggest lump in your throat is generated when you realize that Manohar Kadam, who was the chief perpetrator of the Ramabai killings is never incarcerated, despite being sentenced to life-imprisonment in 2009. This is captured in a scene where you think he’s being dragged to jail, but the text tells us that he’s actually being escorted to a hospital.
Kadam’s face is never visible throughout the duration of the film and even in this pivotal scene, he’s shown being shielded by multiple security personnel. This visual metaphorically reiterates the government’s repeated reluctance and indecision in persecuting him.These scenes stayed with me long after the film was over and made me ponder about the various what-ifs the film presents.
What if Manohar Kadam had spared a thought for the families of the people whose lives met with a merciless end on that fateful day? What if the government was more proactive in preventing atrocities like the Ramabai killings, than merely catering to Dalits to forward their own vote-bank agenda? What if upper-class citizens were more aware of the caste bias ingrained in their systems through years of conditioning? These questions have no easy answers, but there’s no film that makes you think about their after-effects more than “Jai Bhim Comrade”.
***


Interview with Anand Patwardhan

Q: With the current government’s strict censorship of any form of art that is supposedly ‘anti-national’, what is the scene like for Dalit folk singers? I understand that many of the singers from the Kabir Kala Manch are still underground, but are there other factions/groups coming up looking to represent Dalit issues through song and dance?
A: In a very general sense, the attacks of Dalit resistance are not new and so not directly related to the ruling party. KKM had in fact come overground in 2013 after they saw the positive response from people and media to the many JBC screenings we had done. They gave themselves up to the police to face charges in the presence of the media and the public. Some were released on bail early, but 3 others only got bail in 2017 following a Supreme Court order. The KKM later had internal differences and split into two groups, but both performed in public in various parts of Maharashtra and India. Last year, three KKM members were arrested in the Bhima Koregaon matter. So, repression is increasing. However, today there are many Dalit cultural troupes who still perform. It is a felt need that repression cannot extinguish.
Q. The film speaks about how the Hindutva-centric parties are looking for co-option among Dalit leaders as they can gauge that Dalit votes will be instrumental for their sustenance. Do you think Dalit sentiments towards these parties have been shifted by this rhetoric?
A: Yes, you see towards the end of JBC that a few Dalit leaders who had spoken out clearly against the casteist BJP earlier, had been bought over. But while leadership can be bought or compromised, the rank and file cannot. I feel the teachings of Dr Ambedkar as well as the actual ground reality of people will ensure that Dalits as a whole will never become a vote bank for such parties.
Q. I still see many upper-class colleagues/acquaintances make sweeping statements about reservation and how it should be implemented based on economic status. These people fail to see the systematic oppression these communities have faced for years and get triggered by a few uplifted families who aren’t at the bottom end of the economic spectrum. Do you think there’s a way to weed out the root-cause of such conditioning among the upper-caste masses? Can empathy and awareness be incorporated in school curriculums etc. so that this vicious circle of discrimination isn’t carried forward through generations?

A: Of course, it can be, but it needs a great concerted effort from top to bottom. My own feeling is that during the freedom struggle itself had Mahatma Gandhi (who appealed to all castes and creeds) and Dr Ambedkar (who was the unparalleled leader of the oppressed castes) combined forces in both spirit and deed, India would have indeed marched hand in hand towards caste annihilation. But on both sides, there were forces who did not allow this to happen, the British of course being the primary one but upper caste Hindu sectarians were their junior partners. Today if Bhagat Singh, Gandhi and Ambedkar could be combined we would have a potent force for radical change.
---
*Student of the PGP program at Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore

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