Songs That Won’t Be Silenced

Anand Patwardhan’s new documentary Jai Bhim Comrade is an epic that tells the tale of dalit oppression, resistance, politics, and cultural expression;a tale of great ugliness, and also of great beauty and power.

Patwardhan took 14 years to make this film: beginning with the July 1997 police firing on the Ramabai Colony that claimed thelives of 10 dalits who were among those protesting the desecration of an Ambedkar statue. He followed the protracted struggle for justice, through the enquiry commission and the trial, right up to the conviction of the police officer responsiblewho is whisked away to hospital, does not spend a day in jail, instead gets bail within a week, followed by a subsequent promotion.

Soon after the film’s release, came the news of the BathaniTola acquittal, reminding us that the process of ‘justice’ for the poor and oppressed remains as fraught with bias and injustice as ever.

One aspect of the Ramabai Colony massacre story is the political betrayal and opportunism by the RPI leadership. The Shiv Sena-BJP was in power at the time of the massacre. But gradually the Dalit movement’s leaders sell-out. Towering figures of the Dalit Panthers movement like Namdeo Dhasal are shown sharing a platform with Bal Thackeray as he spews the worst communal venom against minorities and advocates extermination: “They say these encounters are fake… This species must be exterminated …the courts can keep investigating after that, they have plenty of time.” Ten years after the firing, the RPI leadership eventually joins hands with Shiv Sena whose government presided over the massacre, touting the formula of ‘Bhimshakti uniting with Shivshakti.’ And even the present generation of Ramabai Colony’s residents begins to undergo a modification of memory.

There are those inimitable moments, typical of Patwardhan’s films, where his disarmingly gentle questions to English-speaking elites – and the answers they evoke – devastatingly expose the irrationality and arrogance of the privileged, who like to believe they are educated and advanced. For instance, there is the young leader of a rally and conference of Chitpavan Brahmans, who claims his caste is superior because its members “inherit Parashuram’s genes.”

The film also establishes how caste prejudice is flourishing amongst young, well-off professionals – a section which likes to claim that caste consciousness is something they have shed, and which it blames quotas for perpetuating. You have evening walkers deriding the huge annual Ambedkar Jayanti rally in Mumbai, because “those people are dirty.” Asked if he knew the reason for the celebration, one English-speaking man says he hasn’t read anything Ambedkar wrote; reminded that Ambedkar authored the Indian Constitution, he says, “Yeah, ‘we the people’ and all that.”A young student at a Barista outlet airily claims that the “Dalit issue” has been “ameliorated” and no longer needs quotas; asked for real-life instances of this, he replies that he has no friends “like that.”

One of the poignant threads probed by the film is the suicide of Patwardhan’s friend, cultural activist Vilas Ghoghre, whose song on the workers’ story – Katha Suno Re Logon – many of us have heard in Patwardhan’s Hamara Shahar. Four days after the Ramabai Colony firing, Ghoghre committed suicide. The film tries to find answers for the question – why did Ghoghre, who had been a Marxist rather than an Ambedkarite, and whose poems and songs reflected his Left ideology and activism, wrap a blue scarf (the colour of the Ambedkarite movement), around his head when he ended his life?

Ghoghre’s expulsion from his cultural organization – Ahwan, belonging to the same political tradition as Gadar - left him embittered and hurt. He was expelled because he sang at RPI functions to earn money to sustain his family. Was this a case of a Left cultural group’s insensitivity to a Dalit activist? For many Left performers, the question of survival and sustenance has often been asource of dilemma and discomfort, irrespective of caste. The phenomenon of Left cultural activists who address pressing needs of family survival by turning to funded NGOs or non-Left parties or commercial performance is a common one – and in most cases, this leads eventually to a rift with the group. But possibly there were other factors at work: Anand Teltumbde, in his discussion of the film, cites “undercurrents of castes and sub-castes” and discomfort with Ghoghre’s Ambedkarite past within the organisation.

But the film does raise deeper problems with how caste is treated in Left theory and practice. Gadar speaks of how class/caste is understood in terms of the base/superstructure metaphor, as ‘economic base’ being accorded primacy as compared to the ‘political superstructure.’ Is this really a correct representation of how Marxism understands struggles that fall outside the strictly ‘economic’ realm?

In What Is To Be Done, Lenin’s seminal early work in which he articulated the ideological-political direction of the communist movement in polemics with ‘economists’ who privileged economic struggle as the sole basis of political struggle, Lenin had clearly treated class struggle first and foremost as political struggle, and broadened the horizon of political struggle from various segments of the economy to diverse layers of the society and its given political form. For Lenin “the class struggle of the proletariat” comprised “the economic struggle (struggle against individual capitalists or against individual groups of capitalists for the improvement of the workers’ condition) and the political struggle (struggle against the government for the broadening of the people’s rights, i.e., for democracy, and for the broadening of the political power of the proletariat).”(Our Programme)

Caste in India inhabits both the economic (in terms of struggles with landlords and employers for wages, housing, land) and political (in terms of struggles which press the State to act against discrimination and atrocities, for representation, for quotas in education and employment, and so on) realms of struggle. As Jai Bhim Comrade shows, the identity of ‘dalit’ and ‘worker’ is inextricably interwoven, with dalits forming the bulk of those employed in jobs like garbage disposal, cleaning and sanitation, and rural landless workers. There simply can’t be a wall between ‘class struggle’ and the struggles for dignity, equality, and political assertion of dalits.

The idea that class struggles must mean economic struggles alone is a social democratic distortion of revolutionary Marxism-Leninism. But, unfortunately, the social democratic notion that class struggles are primarily ‘economic,’ and that gender, caste, and even issues like corruption are somehow set apart from ‘class’ struggle is a very tenacious one, both on the Left, and among the Left’s critics.

One of the most remarkable things about the film, as about most of Patwardhan’s films, is that it takes no shortcuts, and in fact makes several seeming detours – to address gender and communalism, for instance – without ever appearing contrived or effortful.

The film that begins with Ghoghre’s song, introduces you to the Kabir Kala Manch towards the end. The KKM is a troupe of young artists of a radical Ambedkarite and Left tradition, and their performances, filmed by Patwardhan, electrify. It is appalling that the KKM has been banned as a ‘Maoist’ outfit, and that Sheetal Sathe, the KKM’s young poet and lead singer, has been forced underground.

While addressing all the weighty issues of dalit politics, dalit atrocities, and the quest for justice, the film also finds time to explore the relationship of a daughter (Sheetal Sathe) to her mother. The daughter is an atheist and has married against her parents’ will, leading to conflict with the mother, who is a devout believer, her tiny slum-dwelling housing a shrine to several deities.

But this is no conventional ‘ma’ of the Hindi films. Mother and daughter are forthright about their differences, but their deep mutual affection can be felt. One of Sheetal’s most moving and beautifully rendered songs is about mothers. Sheetal precedes the song with a comment on how “Women are there in large numbers in our movement, but few in leadership. Men say – women’s liberation is fine, but my wife mustn’t be part of it!” And at the end, Sheetal’s mother appears in all her quiet and dignified anger, asking why the KKM has been banned and why her daughter has been forced underground?

The many questions – disturbing, but also exhilarating in the radical political possibilities they suggest – stay with you long after the film is over, much like the haunting melodies of Vilas Ghoghre and Sheetal Sathe.

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