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INTERVIEW WITH ANAND PATWARDHAN

By the late 1990’s a right wing government in the shape of a BJP-Shiv Sena alliance had come to power for the first time in the Indian State of Maharashtra. The Shiv Sena: a militant party that formed in the 70s primarily to oppose the forming of immigrant labour unions and continues to carry out attacks on South Indians and Muslims; and the BJP: a populist party with a broad national reach. Their alliance would carry till 2014. On 11 July 1997, members of India’s Rapid Action Police Force opened fire on a crowd of unarmed Dalit protesters in Mumbai’s Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar Colony, killing 10 and
injuring 26.

 

‘Dalit’, which has come to mean ‘the oppressed’, is the term adopted by those who over thousands of years have been treated as ‘untouchable’ by the Hindu caste system. The term ‘Dalit’ was espoused by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), an economist, lawyer, and pivotal architect of India’s constitution following Independence. He was a Dalit himself, and led several social reform movements on behalf of the ‘untouchables’. Ambedkar disavowed Gandhi’s name for the group, Harijan, or ‘people of God’, in part because it enveloped a diverse community into the larger project of the Hindu nation-state.  Among Ambedkar’s political strategies for Dalit resistance against state fundamentalism was the mass conversion of his followers to Buddhism. For Ambedkar and his followers, to fully shed caste required the total disavowal of Hinduism.

 

At Ramabai Colony, Dalit residents had been protesting the desecration of a local Ambedkar statue. They had surrounded a local police station in Pantnagar, before the police fired into the crowd.  Within days of the massacre at Ramabai, Vilas Ghogre, a beloved poet-singer and organiser of Dalit labourers in the slums close to Ramabai, committed suicide. Filmmaker Anand Patwardhan’s 2011 documentary, Jai Bhim Comrade, begins at this tragic intersection and expands outward, examining the pervasive forces of caste discrimination and caste-based violence in India, their infiltration into class dynamics, notions of nationhood, and the possibility of a Dalit-Left unity in India.

 

Vilas Ghogre, a Dalit who combined Ambedkarite politics with Marxism, was known to Patwardhan as they had organised on the ground in support of the homeless in the 80s.  Ghogre’s music is a leitmotif in Patwardhan’s film, Bombay, Our City (1985). In Jai Bhim Comrade, Ghogre’s presence is palpable – it both anchors and fuels Patwardhan’s probing examination of the vicissitudes of the Dalit struggle.

 

As history has shown, when Dalit assertion garners greater public attention, it also leads to reactionary violence from upper caste people that fear the erosion of their own power and privilege. In 2016, in a village in Gujarat – the home state of current BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi – seven members of a Dalit family were tied to the rear of a car and beaten. The incident became widespread knowledge because it was broadcast, by the perpetrators of the crime themselves, on social media. While Jai Bhim Comrade begins on the eve of the new millennium, its resonance is striking today, as the rise of fascist tendencies – both in India and across the world – underscore of the importance of resistance.

 

What follows is a conversation with Anand Patwardhan, conducted over the phone and via email shortly after the screening of Jai Bhim Comrade, which ran at the MoMA, New York, from 1–7 June 2018. The film, which clocks in at over three hours, is deeply engrossing and polemic in its refusal to provide its viewers with definite answers. Leaving the MoMA, I thought about how Patwardhan had screened the film, shortly after its release, to an audience in Ramabai Colony. The distance between that audience, that time, and that location from my own experience of viewing the film seemed to me a vast, insurmountable gulf, only furthered by the fact that I personally had no experience of the caste system.

 

Over the course of a month, I was able to speak with Patwardhan about the film and its relevance to a society still firmly governed by caste, and specifically by caste discrimination. In his communications, Patwardhan was generous with his answers and my many follow-up questions, as we unpacked, bit by bit, the many facets of Vilas Ghogre’s story, his relationship to Vilas, and the broader implications of right-wing fundamentalism on the Dalit empowerment movement.

 

As with Patwardhan’s films, this conversation attempts to elucidate, but it is by no means conclusive: our perspectives are offered here as a means for further complicating the narrative of Dalit and Marxist resistance within the context of India’s current political climate.

 

Q

The White Review

— The complexity of identity politics in India is often difficult to grasp. Identities – such as, but not limited to, class, caste, language, and religion – are mobilised by savvy politicians who want to capture as many votes as possible, at whatever cost, in any given election cycle. Your film Jai Bhim Comrade indicates that this type of electoral politics is complex – the way it manifests in people’s lives differs greatly, but the film also suggests that despite the co-optation and instrumentalisation of identities, it is possible for the underclass to unite against structural oppression. What might this unity look like?

A

ANAND PATWARDHAN

— The situation in 2018 is a lot worse than it was during the 14 years I took to make Jai Bhim Comrade. In 1997 the rightwing had just come to power in my home State, Maharashtra. Today it rules the whole country. Religious othering, together with a well-disguised upper caste vision that embraces market economics and an authoritarian mindset, is a sure recipe for fascism, albeit one that is not as crude and combustible as the Hitler-Mussolini edition. This is a refined variant and it comes disguised as democracy.

 

But you cannot hide disparity forever. The disempowered and the dispossessed grow by the hour. Propaganda tactics that blame the Muslim, the Christian, the Dalit or the ‘anti-national’ will not fool the disenfranchised forever. That is where my optimism lies.

 

How do we resist this, especially when there is a fault line developing around reason? When I speak of the forces of reason, I’m potentially including all Dalits, Adivasis (the indigenous), the minorities, the landless and marginalised and small farmers, the unemployed youth, the homeless and indeed all those who have fallen off the high table of ‘development’. I am also including people like myself, who come from the privileged castes and classes but reject the politics of hatred and exclusion. We might have other differences, we might not agree on everything – somebody might be capitalist, anarchist, or just be critical of any form of dictatorship – but if you believe in reason, you will still be on this side of the fence.

 

Q

The White Review

— The film also gives us a sense of how Dalit people are mobilised – or we can say instrumentalised – by party politics. You show instances of this with the BJP where they are taking Dalit activism and folding it into their political goals. Has Modi’s reign as Prime Minister impacted this co-optation in any way?

A

ANAND PATWARDHAN

— This is happening even more systematically now under the Modi regime. The Modi government cannot co-opt the majority of Dalits, but it can co-opt some of the Dalit leaders. It engineers splits within the movement by buying off a few top leaders. This isn’t succeeding on a large scale though, because the basic contradictions between Dalit and upper class-caste interests are too great. A BJP type of party can never placate the Indian masses for long.

 

Q

The White Review

—  Jai Bhim Comrade took 14 years to make. What were some of the major challenges or conditions in India that delayed the film?

A

ANAND PATWARDHAN

—  The original trigger for the film was the murder of 10 unarmed Dalits by police in a Dalit colony in Mumbai, followed by the protest suicide of Vilas Ghogre. These events led to the colony residents filing court cases against the police, and the police filing counter cases against the people they had shot at. The police always do that after an atrocity: they cover up by charging the victims. Police tried to pretend it was a riot that could only have been controlled by resort to firing – which was of course a complete lie. The court process itself took many years – first getting it admitted into court in 1997 and then sustaining the battle. Finally, in 2009, Manohar Kadam, the police officer who ordered the firing, was sentenced to life imprisonment. He immediately appealed in High Court, got bail and never actually went to jail. I then waited for the next round. I wanted to end the film when he was actually brought to justice, but that never happened. Instead, in 2011, some musicians who feature in the film {Kabir Kala Manch (KKM), a cultural organisation that spread anti-caste messages through song} went underground because the police branded them as dangerous ‘Naxalites’ (Maoists) and started hunting them. It was a dangerous situation that could have led to their elimination. That’s when I decided to hurry up and finish the film so civil society could take notice before the State perpetrated another atrocity. As civil society members we formed a KKM Defence Committee, the musicians then came overground and surrendered to the police. Finally, after spending four years in prison awaiting trial, all were released on bail.

 

Q

The White Review

— The film resists an easy or packaged narrative partly because its main character, Vilas Ghogre is missing: his absence is the centrepiece of the film. There is something really interesting happening in the film between the rise of the Dalit justice movement, and what a unified leftist movement could look like. How does Vilas Ghogre fit into this?

A

ANAND PATWARDHAN

— In a sense Vilas was betrayed by everybody, including myself. Born into a poor Dalit household Vilas soon became an accomplished poet-musician steeped in the Ambedkarite tradition of poet-musicians like Vamandada Kardak, who spread Ambedkar’s life story and emancipatory message through song and told everyday stories of Dalit suffering and Dalit resistance.  By the 1980s Vilas was beginning to feel restless because Ambedkar’s revolutionary message was getting compromised with the co-optation of leaders of the Republican Party of India (the party that Ambedkar inspired before he passed away in 1956) into mainstream political parties like the Congress and later, the Shiv Sena and BJP. So Vilas joined a revolutionary Maoist party. Initially this gave him a huge creative impetus. His songs became more militant – they were always militant, but they took on a Left consciousness, and yet remained rooted in the Dalit experience. If you compare his ballads that first describe working class Dalit life before then pointing to a Marxist solution, to traditional Left songs that have the rhetoric of revolution without the lived experience of working class life, you will realise how precious Vilas was.

 

But in the end Vilas was expelled by his Left Party, the Communist Party of India’s Marxist-Leninist faction {the CPI (M-L)}, for petty disciplinarian reasons and Vilas was heartbroken by this. The party he had given the most productive years of his life to expelled him because they didn’t understand caste or his living conditions. Vilas worked as a peon and sang to supplement his very tiny income. But this went against party discipline and he was deemed to have sung at non-party venues. I was never in his party but I include myself in the list of people who betrayed Vilas because I did not stay in close touch with him beyond the film we collaborated on in 1985, and was unaware of the trauma he suffered at the hands of the party and in the aftermath of the Ramabai firing. I now, belatedly, remain in touch with his son Milind.

 

Q

The White Review

— What would a Left consciousness look like in India, within the context of the justice movement for the Dalit community? Would it necessarily be party based? There are quite a number of forms of Marxism, for instance, within India, and they are not always unified.

A

ANAND PATWARDHAN

— I cannot speak for the Left, as I do not belong to any political party or any fixed ideology. I speak as someone who gives equal weight to Left, Ambedkarite and Gandhian thinking without accepting the limits of any one body of thought. For me each of these has something unique and valuable to offer. I will not spell all this out for want of time and space. The Left, as you rightly point out, has many divisions. And yet there is a common thread that makes them the enemy of communal forces.

 

Q

The White Review

— How did you get involved with the Dalit movement initially? Was it through Vilas?

A

ANAND PATWARDHAN

—  As someone born into a Gandhian Socialist family that fought British rule (my father’s entire family spent many years in British jails) I was never made conscious about caste except to regard it as a distant evil. I was never asked to undergo the thread ceremony that marks upper caste males. At the same time, to my shame I did not read a word by Ambedkar till late into adulthood. The fault lies with my family, schooling and friends circle that the real plight of Dalits didn’t strike me with great force till I volunteered to work in a village project at the age of 22. From that moment on caste was never far from my consciousness. Waves of Revolution, a film I made on the Bihar Movement in 1974–75, has a scene of people breaking their caste threads (a mark of being upper caste). In Ram Ke Naam/In the Name of God (1995) I keep asking people their caste in order to underline that it was mainly the upper castes who wanted to demolish the Babri Mosque. The film ends with a Dalit woman who says that as her people are being evicted from their birthplace, why should she run after the birthplace of God Ram?

 

By the time I met Vilas I already had an understanding about caste but his music was piercingly sharp and later, after his death, the story of Jai Bhim Comrade took me much deeper into a world I had not experienced personally.

 

Q

The White Review

— In one scene, he goes to sing at an event for the Republican Party of India (RPI) – which is an Ambedkarite Party – and his Marxist comrades holds a meeting. Where does the RPI fit into the matrix of Indian politics?

A

ANAND PATWARDHAN

—  In those days, the RPI was categorised by the Marxist group as a bourgeois party, so this was seen as a serious compromise. It’s not like Vilas went and sang on a rightwing BJP platform; he still chose an Ambedkarite platform, and that should have been okay, but it wasn’t. There were other issues of discipline and in fact he was made to recant and he apologised to his party, the CPI (M-L), and was taken back, but by this time his passion was gone. When the killings at Ramabai happened it was the last straw.

 

That’s the question I had at the beginning: why would a Marxist revolutionary commit suicide? Vilas had reached a moment of despair. But it’s not enough to say that he did it out of despair alone – he also did it as an act of protest against the killings. He didn’t let his death go to waste. On a small blackboard in his hut he wrote a denunciation of the police and called for Ambedkarite unity, and people finally took notice.

 

Q

The White Review

— There’s that scene where Marxists discuss what colour headband he had on. They wonder if it was really blue, which is a Dalit colour, or purple – which is a mixture of communist red and Dalit blue.

A

ANAND PATWARDHAN

— That’s an example of a section of the Left not wanting to come to terms with the fact that there can be other progressive colours than just red. In a way, the whole film is talking about the contradiction and cooperation between caste and class. The intersection between Dalits and the Left is a running theme, which in fact gives the film its title {Jai Bhim translates to ‘Victory to Bhim’, Bhim a reference to Ambedkar. The addition of Comrade to the title of the film without punctuation, marks the connection between the Dalit and the Leftist struggle in the story of Vilas Ghogre}. In the beginning before they had seen the film some Dalits were upset with the title because they thought I was calling Ambedkar a communist. After seeing the film they understood that the title pointed to people like Vilas Ghogre and the intersection between class and caste.

 

Dalits are scattered across the country and constitute 16% of the population of India. They also have many internal sub-divisions. To bring real change they would need to unite not only internally but also with other progressive forces.  As for Marxists who want to unite the oppressed in a class struggle, how can they succeed if the poor are subdivided by caste?

 

Q

The White Review

— The caste system is a specific injustice to Dalits because it has positioned them as so far below that they are outside its ranks. Part of Ambedkar’s appeal seems to have been his leadership ability, but also that he offered Dalits a way out: by converting to Buddhism and encouraging his followers to do the same, he made a significant shift to the nature of the Dalit struggle. What would you say is his legacy?

A

ANAND PATWARDHAN

— Ambedkar was no celebrity politician. He was a revolutionary who struck a huge blow against the caste system. Not only did he help draft India’s Constitution guaranteeing Liberty Equality and Fraternity, he later walked out of Hinduism in disgust and together with hundreds of thousands of followers adopted Buddhism – a religion that did not harbor caste. There is very good reason for him to be in an iconic position. He singlehandedly took the movement forward. Of course there was a background of history, there were people like Mahatma Phule and older traditions of rationality and resistance. And while Ambedkar’s mass base came from the most dispossessed he also had support from across caste lines from all those who had drunk from the cup of egalité and imbibed the spirit of an Enlightenment that had swept across Europe in the eighteenth century.

 

Q

The White Review

— In one scene in the film, we are introduced to a Dalit family whose two daughters are named Equality and Knowledge. The daughters sing songs of protest, and shyly recount an instance where they tell their classmates that they don’t believe in caste, because they don’t believe in God. With this, we’re seeing how Ambedkar’s influence has extended to generations beyond his time.

A

ANAND PATWARDHAN

— Equality and knowledge were both traditionally denied to Dalits. For the better part of the history of caste oppression, Dalits were made to believe that they themselves were unclean and inferior and therefore untouchable. That was the first thing that had to change – their self-image had to change. I think this self-image has changed. Now it is by physical force that they’re kept at the bottom. That is the major contribution of Ambedkar but also of Mahatma Gandhi – I know it’s not popular in some circles to point out that Gandhi was an anti-caste crusader in his own right – but I believe that the day he picked up night-soil {excreta} and insisted that manual scavenging was not a dirty job to be done only by Dalits, he broke the purity-pollution principle that lies at the heart of Brahminism.

 

Q

The White Review

— There are critics of Gandhi who claim that he was fundamentally committed to the caste system, however. How would you respond to those critics?

A

ANAND PATWARDHAN

— Frankly, the critics are content to quote Gandhi at one or the other point in his life without seeing his entire trajectory. Gandhi came from a conservative upper caste family – we are talking of well over 150 years ago when caste rules were far more unbreakable than today. It is a telling fact that when Gandhi’s egalitarian principle first pushed him to do manual scavenging himself rather than get it done by a Dalit, no other upper caste leader or intellectual of his time, Leftwing or otherwise, had done anything like this. It was truly a revolutionary moment in time and Gandhi morally forced all his followers to do the same. He fought for temples and village wells to be thrown open to Dalits. He lived in the homes of the poorest Dalit in the village. Towards the end of his life Gandhi declared that the only marriages he would attend would be inter caste marriages. Inter caste marriages followed over decades is the surest way to break the endogamy that defines the caste system.

 

So I will never agree that Gandhi was committed to the caste system. What people must realise is that Gandhi was a nonviolent warrior. He could never succeed by running miles ahead of his flock. A few steps ahead would suffice. So untouchability was the first target.  I have written elsewhere about how both Gandhi and Ambedkar were liberation theologists. Both realised that Indians were steeped in religion. Ambedkar re-imagined Buddhism as his casteless Mecca. Gandhi did the same with Ram Rajya {a system of beliefs in which an ideal society is governed by the rules of Lord Rama}. They took what they liked from the religion they adopted and uprooted the rest.

 

Q

The White Review

— There is so much misinformation today, particularly with the propaganda machine of the news. The film contains clips of religious figures such as yogis and babas going on national, state-sponsored television shows, such as the Aaj Tak News Channel, spreading blind faith, and a lot of ahistorical information.

A

ANAND PATWARDHAN

—  Fake news is happening everywhere – on mainstream print and electronic media as well as social media. Public memory disappears in no time. Everything is fresh breaking news, and you’ve forgotten what happened three days ago. It’s ideal for fascist demagogues.

 

On one side are those who speak incessantly about a glorious Hindu past – with a telling of a past where evils like caste oppression are denied or forgotten and all greatness like scientific discoveries or military conquests are rediscovered, or re-imagined through a Hindutva lens.  Knowledge control disguised as religious ritual and indecipherable mumbo jumbo has always been the historical weapon of the religious elite. It comes in the form of an embedded corporate media, a pliant or terrified judiciary, an intellectual class ready to sell its soul and stormtroopers drawn from hordes of unemployed underprivileged people who have been deliberately dumbed down to the extent that a single WhatsApp fake news message on their prized possession- the ubiquitous cell phone – can jumpstart a lynch mob.

Q

The White Review

— What is the antidote to this? Particularly with issues of caste-based violence, there are so many impediments to talking about this in the public realms of discourse that are dominated by upper caste people: politesse prevents it from being anything other than an abstraction in academia, or amongst members of an artistic and literary milieu, for instance.

A

ANAND PATWARDHAN

—  Films like Jai Bhim Comrade, made over 14 years, are small attempts to preserve memory. If people watched these on a large scale, it could help. The battle to screen them widely continues. The mechanism for this has to be re-invented and sustained.

Q

The White Review

— Music is also very important. Historically, it has been crucial to the Ambedkarite movement. As a form of protest it provides information that might not be accessible or easily understood to a larger swatch of people – we see this with the Kabir Kala Manch, which was a cultural group of students and young artists and singers who performed protest songs and poems in Maharashtra. Their presence in the film underscores the social impact of music — and their later arrest and accusation of being ‘Naxalites’ by the Maharashtra government indicates how music is seen as a threat by the state.

A

ANAND PATWARDHAN

— This film was made in 2011, and Kabir Kala Manch was underground at the time. Partly because the film was shown a lot, we created civil society awareness of what was happening – the government couldn’t have just gotten away with calling them Maoist and shooting them. We formed a defense committee for the Kabir Kala Manch and they finally came overground, surrendered to the police and said You can charge us with what you want. After a few months, Sheetal Sathe, the poet-singer of the KKM, was released on bail. And after four years, her husband Sachin Mali and three other KKM members who were also arrested were released on bail. Now they’re all out on bail, but they’re no longer one group. Over the years, they developed differences and Shital and her husband Sachin started their own separate group though they were originally the backbone of KKM. Both groups are active and vibrant.

 

Q

The White Review

—  In the film, the KKM have a protest song about multinational corporations that the audience might not otherwise have learnt about through newspapers. Music functions as information.

A

ANAND PATWARDHAN

— This approach — to look at the effect of multinational corporations on the Indian economy and its impacts on marginalised groups — was a contribution of Left consciousness entering the Ambedkarite movement. The earlier tradition was more often confined to stories of Ambedkar’s life and teachings. Of course the Right also uses music to spread its message, but since religious culture has been dominant for thousands of years they have immensely more resource material than those who are trying to rediscover the roots of rationality.

 

Religious iconography is in your face all the time, and the Right makes political capital of it. Every religious festival becomes a weapon in their hands. By falsifying history, the Right has also appropriated nationalism. People who never fought for India’s freedom, who never went to jail against the British, those who were in fact were collaborators, now drape themselves in the national flag – the very tricolour that they poured scorn upon until recently. Since they had no heroes of their own, they have started to appropriate all those whom the people still respect, be it Gandhi, Ambedkar or Bhagat Singh. To the extent they succeed it is because people read original texts so little, and rely on hearsay and fake news so much.

 

Q

The White Review

— When it comes to propaganda from the right, they also control the major channels for distribution. For instance, they control the national newspaper – The Times of India – as well as many state newspapers, including the one in the occupied territory of Kashmir.

A

ANAND PATWARDHAN

— The rationalist message is more truthful and also more poetic – but it has no effective outlet. The right-wing message can be crude and completely false, but is repeated endlessly.

 

Q

The White Review

— You have often been asked, especially by members of the audiences at screenings, if you feel hopeful at the end of the day. How do you respond to that?

A

ANAND PATWARDHAN

— If I didn’t feel hopeful it’d be hard to continue! I am actually hopeful. I think in the last 150 years progress has been made, at least in consciousness. You couldn’t imagine 150 years ago that there would be so many Dalit professionals in all walks of life. Of course it’s not what it should be by any stretch of the imagination, and atrocities against Dalits are increasing, but atrocities are also increasing because resistance is increasing. People are fighting back. Caste survived for thousands of years because both the oppressor and the oppressed had internalised it as ‘God-given’. Today the oppressed are no longer docile and self-subjugated, and this is where hope lies.

 

Q

The White Review

— A broader question perhaps is, what does justice look like? As I think about the film from both a Dalit perspective and a Leftist perspective, justice might not look like something that is limited to its representation.
A

ANAND PATWARDHAN

— The methods of destroying caste may sound idealistic but all they require is genuine political will. One key to is to create a free common school system where children of any given neighborhood study side by side regardless of caste, class or creed. But by far the surest way of destroying caste is intermarriage. When several generations marry and procreate across caste lines, no one would be able to pinpoint what their caste actually is or was. Once endogamy is destroyed, caste is destroyed. Of course all this cannot be implemented through a dictat. We need to change hearts and minds. For that we need every cultural warrior we can find.
 

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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

is a writer based outside of New York.

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