A Documentary Film That Brings Alive Dalit Struggles in UP
‘Sangharsh’ is a film that goes beyond the electoral results to show us grassroots Dalit politics.
Sangharsh, a 2018 documentary film made by French anthropologist Nicolas Jaoul, based on fieldwork in the Kanpur region between 1997 and 2001, provides an unusual grassroots glimpse into Dalit politics in Uttar Pradesh. It helps to understand the historical background of violence against Muslims and Dalits, and the politics which give rise to young leaders like Bhim Army’s Chandrashekar Azad.
By Jadumani Mahanand
Following the Dr B.R. Ambedkar centenary year 1991, the significance of Ambedkar came to the forefront in Indian politics. Ambedkar became a symbol of struggle encompassing the experience of oppressed masses in multiple ways. In particular, Dalits associated themselves with Ambedkar as an icon of self-respect and dignity in speaking against humiliation and hunger. The emergence of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Other Backward Class (OBC) politics in north India created a new political vocabulary for Dalit Bahujans. Another parallel development in the North was the decline of the Congress and the emergence of the BJP’s right-wing politics.
Sangharsh portrays the Dalit Panther movement in UP led by three local Dalit activists. Dhaniaram Panther and Aakash Singh Badal are from the Chamar caste while Dev Kumar Asur is from the Valmiki community. Although they are not BSP supporters, they are part of the formidable movement of Dalit assertion which took place once the BSP came to power. Even though the film was shot after the BJP took over, it shows how Dalit activists were ready to fight back.
Jaoul captures the vision of the Dalit struggle profoundly, bringing out its mobilisation against Brahminical Hindu culture, an exploitative feudal structure entrenched in caste oppression, and state oppression. The most important part of the film is the way it highlights the significance of statues of Ambedkar, and how the installing of an Ambedkar statue is a symbol of contestation and struggle for Dalit emancipation. Since the film depicts Dalit struggle at a time when the BJP was the ruling party both at the state and national level, it has important implications for Dalit politics today.
The film began with sad music and a famous quotation by Ambedkar, where he says, “With great difficulty, I have brought this caravan where it is seen today. Let the Caravan march on and further on despite the hurdles, pitfalls and difficulties that may come in its way. If my people, my lieutenants are not able to take the caravan ahead, they should leave it where it is seen today, but in no circumstances should they allow the Caravan to go back.”
Some sequences shot in a village expose the feudal and exploitative caste structure of an Indian village in which Dalits are forced to work without salary. In the workplace, the upper castes give them leftover food. If Dalits refuse to work, they are beaten up and even murdered. Insult, humiliation and hunger is the everyday experience of Dalits. “They terrorise us so much so that we can’t even go out,” says one Dalit man in the film. The police is also scared of Thakur and Brahman power control, and hence they do not register complaints by Dalits.
It was not only BSP’s capture of power in UP, but Ambedkar as a symbol of assertion which represented a challenge to this upper caste power structure. The installation of Ambedkar statues by Dalits gave them a sense of power on the one hand and the motivation to pursue a new life on the other. Upper castes responded by desecrating Ambedkar statues. The film shows Dhaniram Panther, a member of the Dalit Panthers, addressing a gathering on caste atrocities, asserting,
“We won’t tolerate this oppression anymore. There will be no more raping of our mothers and sisters. Our dignity won’t be defiled anymore; our homes won’t be set on fire. And no one will be burnt alive, caste humiliation will stop. The statues of Babasaheb Ambedkar will not be desecrated anymore; we will be ready to fight back. We don’t give a damn for the so-called governments…we have seen all kinds of governments whether high or low. We were born into adversity, so we’re not afraid of being killed…we aren’t people who break statues. Statues bring us together and we follow the Indian constitution that was written by Babasaheb Ambedkar.”
In one scene, Aakash Singh Badal who mobilised the Dalits in his area says, “Babasaheb said that before the proclamation of democracy, the rulers used to come out of the queen’s wombs. But ever since democracy gave equal rights to all, they do not come out of the queen’s womb anymore, but from the ballot box. Give birth to your rulers. Babasaheb used to say that temples are empty whereas parliament contains everything. Capture the temple of power for your emancipation…the day of election is our greatest festival; we must celebrate it with great pomp because the vote result can uplift you, but it can also make you fall…!” Even today, BSP continues to speak a similar language in articulating electoral politics.
It is always alleged that in UP the Ambedkarite movement is a Chamar movement. However, the film shows Dev Kumar Asur, a radical cultural Ambedkarite activist and singer from the Valmiki community, who intervenes against the blind faith of the community which keeps them away from political awareness. His songs are directed at awakening the community: “Read his books from your heart! Youths, come and sing!” One song describes how in those days, a spitoon was tied to the neck of Bhangis, so that they carried their spit along with them. The broom was tied to their back to erase their footprints. They had to carry a bell to warn that they were coming so that others could avoid them.
“This is how they treated us. Yet, we continue to praise the God. If I am denied access to wells, why should I continue to praise the God? The well remains forbidden for me, what does God do? Nothing! I do not have any land, while Thakurs and Brahmins have plenty of land, what is God doing? Why does he discriminate?” Asur’s attack on Hindu Gods was to make people realise that they were merely a construction to maintain the caste system. The film brings out how renunciation of Hinduism is the core philosophy of Dalit politics.
Apart from the Dalit struggle, the film also shows Muslim and Dalit solidarity, even though this is not the main subject. All three characters are from different shades of the Dalit movement, but their words resonate with each other. Sangharsh helps us go beyond electoral politics to understand the historical roots of the agitation around Ambedkar statues, political mobilisation for the BSP, and cultural assertion against Brahminism.
Jadumani Mahanand has submitted his PhD at the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
Courtesy: The Wire