To commemorate the 121st birth anniversary of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, Navayana presents a screening of Anand Patwardhan's film Jai Bhim Comrade
Date: 9 April 2012
Venue: Stein Auditorium, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi
Time: 6.45 p.m.
Duration: 3 hours and 18 minutes
In 1997, when a statue of Dr B.R. Ambedkar in a Dalit colony in Mumbai was desecrated with a garland of footwear, an angry mob gathered in protest. In no time, a police van drew up a couple of metres from the mob, opened fire, and killed ten persons. Vilas Ghogre, a leftist poet, hung himself in protest.
Jai Bhim Comrade, shot over 14 years, follows the music and the tradition of Ambedkarite reason that Vilas had been a part of.
The screening will be followed by an interaction with the director.
Entry free. All are welcome.
JBC is the Winner of the Best Film award at the Mumbai International Film Festival 2011 and Special Jury Award at the National Festival. It also won the best film at Film South Asia, Kathmandu.
Anand Patwardhan is one of India's most well known documentary filmmakers. For more see www.patwardhan.com
Read Javed Iqbal's review of the film here.
This article appears in Daily News Analysis on the 2nd of February, 2012
Early on the morning of 11th July, 1997 at the Ramabai Nagar in Ghatkopar, Mumbai, a woman saw a garland of slippers on the statue of iconic leader B.R. Ambedkar. Within a few hours angry Dalits had gathered on the highway to protest against the desecration.
By 7:30 am, a police van would stop 450 meters away from the protesters, disembark and immediately start firing. They’d fire over 50 rounds within twenty minutes into small lanes and by-ways and into people’s homes – into the homes of people who were not even protesting.
They killed ten people.
Young Mangesh Shivsharan was shot in his head, right in front of Namdeo Surwade who was shot on his shoulder.
‘The boy’s brains were all over my father’ said Manoj about his father Namdeo Surwade, a handcart puller who could never work a day after the injury and died a few years later, becoming the eleventh victim.
But there was another casualty of the killings at Ramabai Nagar.
Vilas Ghogre, Dalit poet and singer, committed suicide horrified by what he saw at Ramabai and the realization ‘that this country is not worth fighting for anymore’ as witnessed by his friend, singer Sambhaji Bhagat in Anand Patwardhan’s new film Jai Bhim Comrade, screened at Ramabai Nagar on the eve of the nation’s 63rd year as a Republic.
For three and a half hours, over fifteen hundred people saw the film on a makeshift screen, many standing through its entire duration. The film details not just the life of Vilas Ghogre and the police firing but its aftermath – the movement for justice that led to the police officer who ordered the firing to spend less than a week in ‘hospital’ (not jail), before being let off on bail by the High Court. It tells other stories – the martyrdom of a young Dalit Panther Bhagwat Jadhav, killed by the Shiv Sena at a protest rally in 1974; the incisive and fiery oratory of Panther leader Bhai Sangare that possibly led to his martyrdom in 1999; the Khairlanji massacre and continuing atrocities in the countryside. It examines the assault on the Constitution and the slow appropriation of radical Dalit leaders into mainstream Congress or hardcore rightwing politics while also critically examining the role of the left in dealing with caste.
Highlighting precarious livelihoods, it paints intimate family portraits of ordinary Dalits across Mumbai and Maharashtra and all this intersects seamlessly with the central role of music in not just the film but in the Dalit politics of resistance. Protest songs sung in every chawl, basti and galli lead us to the newest generation of cultural activists/musicians such as the Kabir Kala Manch, whose songs are viewed as such a threat by the State, that they’re branded as Naxalites and forced to go underground.
The religious mother of the enigmatic singer Sheetal Sathe of the Kabir Kala Manch, would say, ‘At every performance my children always assured me that they’d never take up arms, that they’d change the world only through song and drum.’
Yet cultural and social revolution is a threat in the same country where freedom of speech and expression is a privilege.
At Ramabai, young teenagers with moist eyes watched the screen quietly, listening to a spirited widow describe how her husband’s hands were slashed by upper caste men, and how he bled to death while the police refused to take their statement. The proud woman had saved Rs.5 and Rs.10 a day over the years to buy herself land and educate her children. When the filmmaker asks her how she kept up her spirit, she replies: ‘I can’t afford to lose. What’ll happen to my children if I lose?’
When a group of boys were asked what was their favourite part of the three and a half hour film, they replied, in unison: ‘The songs of the Kabir Kala Manch.’
No wonder the state views them as a threat. Resistance and symbols of resistance need to be wiped out like Pochiram Kamble who was killed for uttering the words ‘Jai Bhim’. Yet the film that documents the recent decades of caste oppression and it’s growing denial, has found that symbols of joy, hope, perseverance and resistance, always survive, irrespective of thousands of years of oppression.
Another Dalit leader Ashok Saraswat’s speech in the film drew laughter from the crowd at Ramabai: ‘Unfortunately we gave up 330 million gods but made Ambedkar into a god. We wear Babasaheb Ambedkar’s photo around our neck. On waking up, we say “Jai Bhim”. Before sleeping, it’s “Jai Bhim” and when having a little drink, it’s Jai Bhim!”
“Listen people! God is not in temples or idols. God is found through service to the poor. Gadge Baba would ask – ‘Is Ganapati a god ?’
‘Who made Ganapati?’
‘A potter did.’
‘So tell me who is Ganapati’s father?’
‘The crowd wouldn’t answer.’
‘Ashamed to say it?’
“Then softly they’d say: ‘Ganapati’s father is the potter.’”
The crowd of Ramabai, especially the young, laughed out loud but none of them found the scenes of puerile racism from the middle and upper middle classes very funny.
The filmmaker interviews a young student from Jai Hind college who says, ‘Dalit issue frankly is definitely ameliorated over the past half a decade or so.’ A sentiment that is not only echoed in the mainstream media that is beginning to cite Dalit neo-liberalism as a way forward, yet those comments are put in sharp contrast to the National Crime Records Bureau that mentions ‘Every day three Dalits are raped and two killed’ and the conviction rate under the Prevention of Atrocity Act is a mere 1%.
In Beed district of Maharashtra, a young woman was raped by upper caste men, and her entire family was beaten for confronting the attackers. An old man from the same family begins to speak: ‘We are responsible for this. We never got organized or converted to another religion. We failed to do that. Had we done it we could have mentally discarded caste and made others understand we are humans. We Mangs bear the brunt of injustice.’
‘But those who converted to Buddhism also face atrocities.’ says the filmmaker.
‘Yes in some places it happens even to Buddhists. But they have the strength to retaliate. We lack that strength. That’s the point.’
At that point, the crowd at Ramabai Nagar, was moved to cheers and applause.
Read Sunalini Kumar's review here.
by Sunalini Kumar
How many murdered Dalits does it take to wake up a nation? Ten? A thousand? A hundred thousand? We’re still counting, as Anand Patwardhan shows in his path-breaking film Jai Bhim Comrade (2011). Not only are we counting, but we’re counting cynically, calculating, dissembling, worried that we may accidentally dole out more than ‘they’ deserve. So we calibrate our sympathy, our policies and our justice mechanisms just so. So that the upper caste killers of Bhaiyyalal Bhotmange’s family get life imprisonment for parading Priyanka Bhotmange naked before killing her, her brother and other members of the family in Khairlanji village in Maharashtra, but the court finds no evidence that this may be a crime of hatred – a ‘caste atrocity’ as it is termed in India. Patwardhan’s film documents the twisted tale of Khairlanji briefly before moving to a Maratha rally in Mumbai, where pumped-up youths, high on testosterone and the bloody miracle of their upper caste birth are dancing on the streets, brandishing cardboard swords and demanding job reservations (the film effectively demolishes the myth that caste consciousness and caste mobilisation are only practised by the so-called ‘lower castes’). Asked on camera about the Khairlanji murders, one Maratha manoos suspends his cheering to offer an explanation. That girl’s character was so loose, he says, that the entire village decided to teach her a lesson.
Hmm. Perhaps, after being raped, paraded naked and killed, she will re-evaluate her choices, in particular of being Dalit and female? Caste has always offered a lovely way out of the ethics of taking life in India – as an upper caste (male) person, you are given a package deal – express your loathing of the lower orders, get a little sexual excitement if the victim is female, AND re-establish the rule of dharma in the community. Which right-thinking savarna man wouldn’t jump at this offer? And so the hate crimes continue in their depressing uniformity. One has to wonder what imagination of morality must put the adrenalin into the limbs of men who are able, at the right moment, to know exactly what to do, which limbs to hack, which clothes to tear off and how to celebrate afterwards. To express through their bodies and words a hatred that can only be satiated by the utter dehumanisation of their victims and of themselves. Weeks and months after the crime, perhaps decades later as old men, do they sit in their armchairs and feel a twinge?
We will never know. In the meanwhile, Patwardhan offers us this labour of love, this labour of anguish, shot and edited over fourteen years in a city he calls home, Mumbai. Starting with the suicide of a friend – the gifted Dalit poet-singer Vilas Ghogre – Patwardhan delves into the making of what I have called elsewhere ‘one tragic statistic’. Patwardhan discovers that Ghogre hanged himself from the ceiling of his tiny hut a few days after visiting Ramabai Colony – a predominantly Dalit slum in Mumbai that had just lost eleven of its residents (including a boy) in police firing. That was the last straw for Ghogre – a poet and singer, humiliated by lifelong poverty and having been expelled from the Communist party for ‘deviations’ from the path, Ghogre decided, as his friend and comrade puts it in the film, that “this country was not worth living in.” Jai Bhim Comrade is about Ghogre’s death and Bhai Sangare’s death and other Dalit deaths; it is primarily about connections that we prefer not to make, a million synapses and nerve-endings that even the most sensitive of us must cauterise to live our alienated lives in “this country”. This country, which treats 165 million of its population as if they deserved to clean our shit and unblock our sewers, lie low, remain invisible, not dare to form a party, unionise or God forbid, observe their dirty festivals in our public space. Including Ambedkar Jayanti, a joyous annual celebration of the life and teaching of the only national leader, Patwardhan reminds us, whose popularity continues to grow long after his death. A leader whose prediction that without a social revolution, the political revolution of independence would become meaningless has been coming true for the past six-odd decades. But Jai Bhim Comrade is not a depressing film – it is a profoundly layered meditation, a sombre one, certainly, on the matrix of power and blindness that buttresses our society. It is a provocative, sometimes angry tribute to a lost hope – the hope that the Left movement and the Dalit movement in this country could speak to each other, a hope that flickered in the seventies and eighties with the formation of the Dalit Panthers but was swallowed either in bitter feuds or in mind-numbing discussions of the party line on ‘The Caste Question’. Above all else, Jai Bhim Comrade is a film about music and poetry – the music and poetry of those who often have little else. Bursting out of loudspeakers and drums and one-stringed instruments, riding on the beautiful young voice of Sheetal Sathe of the Kabir Kala Manch, soaring over rooftops and narrow streets in shanties and slums, spurring on an ancient Dalit woman to dance at a midnight concert, this music cannot be contained. Hopefully, the revolution can’t be, either. Jai Bhim Comrade.