RAJEEV KHANNA | 1 JULY, 2019
#TheCitizenHasRights - An article of faith
Today we kick off a series of stories revolving around the Fundamental Rights guaranteed by the Constitution of India. Through field reports, interviews, photo essays, histories and analysis, we discover these rights of strength and their shortcomings.
Article 15 is disturbing. Whether it’s the new Bollywood film or the right guaranteed in the Indian Constitution, it disturbs. Why?
Because it talks of equality for those who have been denied this fundamental right for centuries, and this denial continues.
Article 15 of the Constitution prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. And the movie in question revolves around the denial of equality to Dalits in India.
Article 15 is one of those rare films coming out of Bollywood that hits viewers hard to make them realise that the real India is very different from what they normally dream in films sitting in plush multiplexes.
The movie drives home the point effectively, that the atrocities the dominant castes perpetrate against Dalits stand completely negated by the very same castes, who erase or do not acknowledge the wrongs that continue to be committed against these sections of society.
It is all conveniently brushed under the carpet, “In logon mein aisa hi hota hai. Yeh log toh aise hi jeete hain. In logon ki yehi kahani rehti hai” – This is what happens among these people. It’s how these people are used to living. This is their usual story.
As the protagonist played by Ayushman Khurrana asks “Kaun hain yeh log?” – Who are these people? – it shows the uncomfortable reality of the dominant castes and classes refusing even to acknowledge the presence of Dalits by their name. One simple reason for this is often the names of Dalit communities are abuses hurled by the dominant castes with impunity.
I remember Mehul, one of my friends from the Dalit community in Ahmedabad, telling me some years back how getting a job remains the biggest challenge for a Dalit. “Your identity is revealed by the PIN code of your address mentioned in your curriculum vitae, along with the surname. Your caste is never asked because it can be deciphered with a search engine on the internet. The only thing that is ensured is that a Dalit never gets to a decision-making level.”
Several years back while doing a radio series to mark 75 years since the historic Dandi Yatra undertaken by Mahatma Gandhi, I was unable to answer a young Dalit girl in Aslali village of Ahmedabad. She asked me “Why do we have a different set of Gods to worship, with names like Boot Bhawani?”
She wanted to become an artist.
The movie makes one recall so many instances of atrocities that have become a day to day affair. After all, violence has different forms and levels and you do not always have to hit someone to be violent.
A builder in Ahmedabad candidly related a decade back, “If I sell a flat to a Dalit or a Miyanbhai (Muslim) in a building society, the price of the others on that floor automatically falls, as upper castes won’t want them as neighbours, and people from those communities won’t have the resources to purchase flats there.”
I remember Ram Swarup, a sanitation worker in a factory back home in Himachal Pradesh. The poor man gave his blood for almost 15 years at the annual blood donation camps held to mark the birth anniversary of the organisation’s topmost official, in the hope that his services would be regularized. His wish never came true, and he left not only his job but also the town one fine day never to be seen again.
It was only last year that the youngsters at a gathering in Solan narrated tales of atrocities one after the other. They spelt out how there are instances of children of dominant castes refusing to eat midday meals that had been cooked by Dalits. They disclosed that just like many other parts of India there exist separate cremation grounds for the upper and lower castes. They also narrated how upright officials trying to address concerns of Dalits are often threatened with transfers.
The film Article 15 depicts an instance of flogging of Dalits that bears resemblance to the infamous Una incident of 2016 in Gujarat, where Dalits were publicly flogged for skinning a dead cow, which is their traditional vocation, and often the dominant castes bind them to it by denying them opportunities for advancement.
One of the ways the Dalits had hit back then was to stop skinning dead cattle in many places. “It’s your mother, you take care of it,” said some of the protestors in Gujarat.
This is another important dimension the film touches on: it is important for those in influential positions to ensure that status quo is maintained and the Dalit communities do not leave their caste-bound traditional vocations.
Many Dalit activists and scholars have remarked of late that the increasing instances of assault on Dalits stem from dominant-caste anger that they are giving up their caste-bound vocations in villages and small towns.
The story of the film revolves around the gang rape of three Dalit girls after they demanded a 3-rupee hike in their daily wages. These assaults by dominant-caste men are again something that continues to happen while we maintain a calculated silence.
Recently during the release of a landmark study on the ‘Socio-Economic Conditions and Political Participation of Rural Women Labourers in Punjab’, agriculture economy expert Gian Singh pointed that among the most critical issues that concern these women is that of sexual exploitation, which they have been reluctant to share.
“More than 70 per cent of respondents kept quiet when asked about their experiences. The reality can be inferred from this. A lot of work needs to be done in this direction. Almost 92 per cent of these women are Dalits,” Singh said.
Paramjit, an activist from Sangrur pointed out at the conference that higher-caste employers consider it their right to exploit even educated Dalit girls. “The women have to bear casteist slurs on an almost daily basis,” she said.
While covering the Jat reservation violence in Haryana in 2016, I was unable to understand the attack on Dalits in Gohana town. It was only during an interaction with a local media person that I saw it better. “The main reason is, how can a Dalit mohalla (neighbourhood) exist on prime piece of land in the centre of the city?”
That explained everything. Some lynchings of Muslims reported in Delhi in recent years have followed a similar pattern: of dispossession.
We have to keep our eyes and ears open to learn about the hidden violence that the dominant castes continue to unleash against the Dalits on a daily basis. These atrocities are often made invisible by a media controlled by the upper castes.
A look at the punishable offences listed under the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, such as forcing a Dalit to eat excreta, provides a sobering example.
Then there are instances of denying them entry into religious institutions. There are almost daily reports of denying them the right to ride a horse in wedding processions. Those who dare to do so face violent backlash in the form of assault, or economic boycott like Sandeep of Bhusthala village in Kurukshetra.
The fact remains that the people need to be brought face to face with this reality of continuing violence against the Dalits. All talk of equality is a sham that needs to be exposed, just the way the film Article 15 tries to do.
As I sat watching the film, an encouraging sign was the presence of a large number of youth among the viewers. But the sad part was that many of them could not take it, and left the hall in between.
Article 15 disturbs, which is all the more reason that adolescents should see the film, apart from the grown-ups in charge.