Vilas sings a revolutionary song in Bombay Our City, calling for workers’ rule.

His picture is garlanded as a martyr at the 50th Anniversary of Independence of India in Mulund, Mumbai.

The singer sings this memorial: “Sacrificing his life/ He made his protest/ His body may have died/ The poet is immortal.” The chorus replies, “Poet Vilas Ghogre became a martyr.”

Bombay High Court, August 1997, the Gundewar Commission: Bhai Sangare (see glossary) explains to the press that the police officer who ordered the Ramabai shooting was not only not yet punished but has been promoted.

Followed by the police, Sangare states that this is a Hindu Raj (Hindu regime). Protesters shout, “Shame on casteist government!”

Sangare and other protesters are being shaved as a sign of mourning. Others will be taken in the police van.

Sheetal Sathe: A passionate song performed on stage mobilizes her audience to enact the wishes of the dead. Throughout the performance, she holds the blue Dalit flag.

Deepak Dengle, Kabir Kala Manch troupe (see glossary) member, was arrested when the film was near completion.

An everyday scene in Ramabai colony, ten years after the shooting.

Samata and Pradnya, the two daughters of an inter-caste, inter-religion, inter-lingual, inter-state marriage. They are performing a song their parents taught them about social justice.

At Chaityabumi, where Dr. Ambedkar's ashes have been interred, women re-enact his act of immolating the Manusmriti on 25 December 1927. (see info on Dalit history)

Bhai Sangare's funeral march toward Chaityabhumi. (see glossary) When he set fire to the Manusmriti book, he himself caught on fire. Members of the community who came to mourn him explain to us the circumstances of his death. Even though only 50% of his body was burned, he died in the hospital twelve days later. The government had full custody of him. His wife and children were not allowed to see him.

The poet Gadar wearing a traditional costume, sings revolutionary fables in Telegu and Hindi.

Without his beard, Gadar discusses the contribution of Dr. Ambedkar on Indian society, the role of music for the revolutionary singers like him, and the necessary cultural revolution.

The policemen often appear in uniforms in small or large groups as they are surveying crowds, demonstrations, including celebrations to commemorate the martyrs.

In an interview filmed in close-up, the police officer monitoring the Atrocities Act says bribery often prevents convictions for casteist attacks. This image comes from a news report on a sadly well-known case of atrocity, the Khairlanji killings, about which Patwardhan asks questions.

The film presents a series of portraits, notably of these strong women in their homes. The compositions show participants at the centre of their homes.

Her husband, a teacher, got attacked with swords after defending a young boy in the village who had been attacked by drunken people.

Jai Bhim Comrade:
tales of oppression and
songs of resistance

by Catherine Bernier

Anand Patwardhan, an internationally acclaimed documentary political filmmaker, released an epic documentary in 2012, Jai Bhim Comrade, on the Dalit (“untouchable”) struggles for freedom and equality.[1] (also see background information on Dalit struggle) Covering the memory of decades of struggle, Patwardhan’s fourteen-year long project and resulting film provide a rich and dense study of a socio-economic-political movement fighting against caste system with its discriminatory beliefs and atrocities. The Dalits and their comrades must confront police corruption, degenerate politics and ongoing repression. Throughout the film, the main thread of political organizing depicted comes through popular poetry, song, music, and street theater. This film explores and valorizes one of the best examples of cultural and political struggle today.

The film opens with the tragic events of 1997 in the Ramabai colony of Mumbai. Overnight Bhimrao Ambedkar's (see Ambedkar bio) statue had been garlanded with shoes, an insult that gathered together a crowd in protest the following morning. Upon arrival the police opened fire on the Dalit community, killing ten people and injuring twenty-six. The incident was subsequently covered up by the police through accusations that the community had set a truck on fire and that the police were acting in self­defense. Vilas Ghogre, a revolutionary poet­singer who was featured protesting the conditions of city workers in Patwardhan’s film Hamara Shahar [Bombay: Our City] (1985, 75 min.), went around the neighborhood in the following days and acknowledged what happened. Four days later he committed suicide. He died wearing the headband of the Dalits, having written a note on the wall earlier in the day, “Long live to Ambedkarite unity.” Was this an act of protest, a gesture of disgust, or simply the exhausted burden of too great a pain?

Jai Bhim Comrade opens with such events, which ultimately may never make any sense, to lead us to face the substantial issues that challenge the Dalit communities. Our heads are filled by the film with the tales and songs that echo and pay homage to this tragedy, inviting us to remember and rise up. “This barbaric torture, how can we watch this in silence?” sings Sheetal Sathe of the Kabir Kala Manch Cultural troupe. (See glossary for more background information on the troupe. Editors recommend that readers keep glossary open in new browser window while reading this essay.) Patwardhan's response seems clear: we cannot remain silent and we must fight against what threatens to silence them.

After completing Jang Aur Aman [War and Peace] (2002, 135 min.), a critically acclaimed documentary on nationalism and nuclear weapons, Patwardhan has now made a powerful documentary on the caste system's injustices. Researched and shot over a period of fourteen years in Maharashtra (see glossary), Jai Bhim Comrade is a veritable film­odyssey which gives voice to the Dalits by following some of their singing activists and resistance groups as well as their martyrs and families. It is not Patwardhan’s first cinematographic encounter with this community. Bombay Our City had previously dealt with issues of lodging and employment in the city. (see Patwardan bio for more information and filmography) While Jai Bhim Comrade starts with archival footage from the end of this earlier film, in particular of the only known filmed performance of Vilas, it doesn't so much act as a sequel to this earlier film but as a return to a thread that unexpectedly ended fifteen years later in the suicide of this Communist Dalit poet-singer. Inscribing his perspective within larger critiques of the socio-political landscape of India, Patwardhan engages a Dalit point of view in order to question Hindu visions of society and nation, visions his other films were also concerned about, especially when looked at through the prism of nationalism in Ram ke Naam [In the Name of God] (1992, 75 min.), and Pitra, Putra aur Dharmayuddha [Father, Son and Holy War] (1995, 120 min.). Rejecting religious bigotry, Jai Bhim Comrade accompanies its activists’ call for an order of life guided by secular and Buddhist principles of knowledge and equality among human beings.

A thousand year struggle shot in fourteen years

“It isn't a war between us and the government, it's a war of cultures.[...] Who gave officer Manohar Kadam the order to fire? Was it Chief Minister Manohar Joshi? Bal Thackeray? The order was neither from the government nor the police officer. This order came from the Manu Scriptures.[...] Our struggle is not for state power. It's not about wealth. 50 years after Independence all we ask is that you live and let us live.”
—Bhai Sangare (see glossary)

Jai Bhim Comrade is an epic that tells the stories of a whole segment of Indian society by way of individual encounters and singular voices. The film starts with the tragic events of 1997, after which the filmmaker visits the Ramabai neighborhood to interview those who were present, to detail the police response to those who were injured, and to meet the families and comrades of the victims, who by then have become martyrs. Patwardhan begins a journey into the police and judicial system which will eventually result in a commission and fourteen years of court proceedings against the police officer who ordered the firing. The film documents and builds a defense, interviewing witnesses, recording testimony, and locating original footage of the events, all of which contradict the official police version. The police will eventually, seven years later, lay charges of attempted murder against those who were injured in order to claim that the officers had acted in self-defense. After a long process of court battles and appeals, the police officer is found guilty, but instead of being taken to jail, he is taken to the hospital. Police commissioner S.S. Virk explains this turn of events:

“His bad luck is that he alone has been a victim of a system. So I feel there is nothing wrong in his being admitted to the hospital.”

These events are not isolated. They seem to be a part of the innumerable atrocities committed against Dalits and Adivasis (see more information on Dalits), which the film brings to light and which are structured by socio­religious principles. As the film argues, these acts are inscribed in practices of untouchability that were outlawed in principle but not in actuality by the Constitution of India (1950), drafted by Dr. Ambedkar (see his bio). As Bhai Sangare declares in the quote introducing this section, neither these calamities nor their perpetrators are unique, nor are they exclusively contemporary. The scripted principles that underpin this culture of discrimination and its tradition seem endless. The film shows us the problems’ magnitude through exploring the systemic beliefs and principles animating caste discrimination, including the “female caste.” It does this both by filming plays put on by Dalit troupes, accruing critical commentary on sacred scriptures, and by showing political leaders’ speeches appealing to and dividing castes. Accessing people’s homes and work places, we glimpse in concrete terms the everyday practicalities and difficulties of being Dalit. The upper castes and classes are shown attending political rallies with immense pride, as well as interviewed on the fly in coffee shops, near colleges, and in the streets of well-to-do areas, sometimes speaking with unnerving overtones of race war. Their unguarded and often contradictory comments betray the systematic nature of outsiders’ perceptions of Dalits.

But the real story this film tells is that of the Ambedkarite resistance movement for social justice. Patwardhan presents stirring encounters with Dalit and Marxist activists and intimate moments with their comrades, friends, and families. Performers and charismatic orators tell the legendary stories of Ambedkar and of Phule (see glossary on Phule) as well as honor martyrs. We slowly familiarize ourselves with the Ambedkarite movement’s mobilization efforts in agitating, educating and organizing—especially through protest, street chant and public theater. A notable delight in the last hour of the film is the breath­taking performance of singer-activists from the Kala Kabir Manch cultural troupe. They present a fabulous repertoire of songs, staged and street performances that dwell on such topics as the contemporary effects of liberal economic reform, gender inequality, and the fallacy of beauty that rests on skin color. The film ends with an interview with the mother of two of these performers, Sheetal Sathe and Sagar Gorkhe, who had recently gone underground along with Sathe's husband, Sachin Mali, and three other KKM members following threats from the police. Two of their comrades, Deepak Dengle and Siddarth Bhonsle (although the film doesn't mentioned the latest) had already been arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. One of the effects of such an ending is to leave us questioning what kind of world would shut down their vision. I can offer an update as of now: Dengle and Bhonsle out on bail. After almost two years spent underground, Sathe and her husband comrade Mali came out in public and were arrested under various similar charges on April 2nd 2013. On May 7th, four KKM members voluntarily courted arrest, and among these Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor were arrested. A defense committee has been organized to accelerate their bail and prevent their mistreatment, a committee on which Patwardhan is an active member. On June 27th, Sathe, expecting a child in the next month, was granted bail on humanitarian grounds by the High Court but the three other members are still in jail.

Patwardhan’s long time doing research, inquiry, documentation and interviews has impressive results. We see certain participants grow up, like the little girls Samata (whose name signifies Equality) and Pradnya (Knowledge), the young and already singing daughters of a militant family. We see others die in mysterious ways, like the fiery orator Bhai Sangare. We see people forget. They forget the political party who was in power during the 1997 Ramabai shooting, and now the same party a decade later is asking for their votes. We see people’s memories distort over time, reshaped by contradictory narratives of the ongoing political situation that seems to leave them powerless. Over fourteen years, from 1997 to 2011, we traverse national and state politics. During that time the Srikrishna Commission's report on the bloody riots of 1992-1993 (following the Ayodhya events: see glossary) is acknowledged. We pass the 1995 election of Shiv Sena (The Army of Shiva, see glossary), led by Bal Thackeray (see glossary), in coalition with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP: see glossary), both right­wing Hindu parties. In fact, the documentary shoot started a year before the BJP national government was elected in 1998 (it stayed in power up until 2004). These parties are hardly small players in terms of reinforcing orthodox Hindu nationalism. In the documented 92-93 Bombay riots, the Shiv Sena leader was blamed for organizing Hindutva (see glossary) forces to launch attacks on Muslims, as the lawyer P.A. Sebastian states in the film.

The documentary provides us with footage of moments in some disturbing political rallies over this period. Scenes presenting the frenzy of some participants in political and caste-based rallies and their passionate slogans constitute a troubling aspect that shows the alarming force of fundamentalist discourse and its pragmatic hold on militants. It is frightening to see footage of Thackeray declaring to a crowd that the activists showing love to the circumcised should be shot with a stun gun. We are left abashed to see Narendra Modi, the so-called lion of Gujarat (see glossary), dressed as a god on stage introduced with words such as, “A lion never eats grass. He only eats meat,” while protesters outside claim he is a murderer and urge him to go back. Throughout the film, the intensification of Hindutva influence in Indian and Maharashtrian politics over these decades is tied with the Mumbai Dalits’ struggles for a secular social climate and equality.

Invited to Mumbai, Chief Minister of Gujurat province, Narendra Modi (see glossary) is dressed as a god on stage. Protesters claim, “Narendra Modi is a murderer! Little Hitler go back home!”

Operating from within the movement, the documentary serves up criticism at several levels: against caste, religion, superstition, Hindu nationalism, the government, political parties, the police, and everyday perpetrators. An informative and combative assemblage, the film conveys moments of frustration and sustains indignation. While also enabling compassion, stirring hope of better days and strengthening solidarity, it acknowledges people’s struggles in a comprehensive manner. This film is not only an admirable work nurtured by compelling research. It is more significantly, a necessary film, a majestic piece of oral and poetic history revealing the disgraceful truths fought by this subaltern tradition of resistance. If some performances and vibrant moments are pure gems, the inspiring teachings of their resistance are stunning and these voices and melodies are haunting. In hope that revisiting certain episodes might provide some insights as to how the film succeeds in orchestrating such a journey, in the following sections I plan to engage in more depth some of the issues raised in the film, the enlightening words of its participants, and the art and labor of skilled storytelling.

"Educate, organize, agitate!"

“But those who got educated and organized finally compromised. ”
—Sheetal Sathe of the KKM

Bhimrao Ambedkar’s presence is immanent throughout the film. How do we learn about him through the film? Newspaper headlines and captions provide basic biographical information. But really the songs and speeches tell the story of Ambedkar’s conviction and transmit more significant knowledge. The orators tell these fables with great passion. And while some opponents claim he’s become a “God” to the Dalits, these speakers prove the opposite: Ambedkar disagreed with blind devotion and sought the growth of resistance. He was a powerful example to follow, a man who resisted, a man questing for concrete social and political power for Dalits. The statue standing in the market could represent the immobility of a figure from the past invested by competing contemporary meanings. Everyone is trying to take advantage of its mobilizing power, its political capital. Yet now Ambedkar is a statue and cannot respond to the politicians mobilizing his mass appeal for their purposes. What the Kabir Kala Manch singers call for is a renewal of his message: a real acknowledgement of and resistance to caste discrimination. In their final performance, which closes the film, they call for an awakening that takes his example in the form of concrete actions—very far from ideas of devotion and passivity. They call for a return to the “essence” of Ambedkar in indignation leading to taking action.

To escape a caste system integral to Hinduism and to gain equality for his people, Ambedkar announced at the 1936 Yeola Conference that he would not die Hindu and called for a massive conversion to Buddhism. Along with hundreds of his followers, he and his wife converted to Buddhism in 1936.

Dr. Ambedkar's statue. Vitthal Umap sings, “I born Hindu but I won't die Hindu,” honoring Ambedkar's speech at that conference.
Shots inserted and coordinated with the song's lyrics, cut to its rhythm. We see the focal point of bars in the window… ... shift to make an image of the Buddha clear.

From Vilas' story to comrades,
martyrs, and family homes

My husband paid a terrible price for the martyrs. People pay homage with words. My husband didn't fear to pay with his life.” —Asha Ghogre (Vilas’s wife)

Patwardhan’s film enters the Maharashtra Ambedkarite movement following the death of his friend Vilas and the Ramabai killings which provoked it. This leads him to the stories of the movement’s martyrs, of their families and to their public speeches and concerts of resistance. The judicial development of the Ramabai case is perhaps the thread the film follows the closest, as its journey through the system of courts punctuates the progression of the narrative. The thread's pace frames the contradictory function of the justice system itself. Patwardhan does not intend to map all of the Dalit factions and sub-castes or their active struggles, but he still manages to present an overview of the means by which contemporary Dalit communities transmit knowledge, struggle and legacy. By means of ethnographic techniques and activist strategies, we are constantly confronted with the political subjectivity of the Dalits through which everyday affairs are revealed as intrinsically connected to larger socio-political contexts. Not only does the film put together some tales of Dalit struggles but more importantly, we visit individuals in their homes, relating their memories.

“Look at the politician setting off to Delhi, he'll forget the slum in the alley.”
– chorus of a song

Difficulties in maintaining unity, Vilas’ last wish, and the meaning of his choice to wear a band on his head are discussed by his friends and comrades. We meet young and old activists who tell the stories and principles of their organizations: formations, collapses, renewals. For example, the story told by Bhagwat Jadhav's brother, about the Dalit Panther stoned to death in a march during the 1970s, is complemented by archival images and contemporary shots of the locations where it took place. It bears witness to the violence which radical groups have faced from political parties and their militants. This story helps us understand the tensions between radical organizations and political parties, including the tensions between the Dalit party and activist groups such as the Aavhan cultural troupe, of which Vilas was a member. Some comrades explain the discordances, indicating ways that fissures within and between groups structure the struggle’s history. For instance, we witness several critiques of the political party that claims to defend Dalits’ rights but that remained silent on atrocities, triggering new mobilizations elsewhere. We hear mistrust of parliamentary politics from activists but also from victims, noting the absence of political leaders in court, for example. The danger of being “recuperated” by opportunistic political parties seems to be a persistent theme in the comrades' stories and perhaps also in Patwardhan's treatment of this topic. The filmmaker takes us to meet Vilas’ friends, who make allusions to his being ejected from the communist Aavhan cultural troupe after he was seen singing at a Dalit political function, and the challenge of maintaining a double identity as both Marxist and Dalit while also taking care of family obligations. Vilas’ unresolved dilemma adds another layer of complexity and pathos to his death. The sensitive interviews with his comrades and family speak to the contradiction between participating in a political movement struggling for society as a whole and simultaneously fulfilling one's family duties.

Castes and class struggle

Scene of labor at the Deonar dump, near Ramabai colony, where one martyr was working before the events. "Jai Bhim” (Ambedkarite Dalit) replies this worker to Partwardhan's question about his community. As this shot is held, the worker states his identity staring directly at the camera.

“ [...] Communist parties until recently argued that this was not a problem of the “Base” but of the “Superstructure”. If the economic “Base” changes, the rest will follow. But things don't happen that way. That's why a cultural revolution is required. So it is with caste, it persists! You can't wish it away.” —Gadar (see glossary)

Vilas attempted to bridge the gap between labor and caste struggles. The Dalit situation binds together the social discrimination of the caste system with the economic disenfranchisement of the worker as inherited states. Castes and classes are intertwined, whereby the transmission of the father’s profession to his family under a caste system, in addition to the gendered division of labor, has served to reproduce the working class for capital. Asking someone their “jati,” which refers to caste, is often answered by invocations of work or the profession a person’s family has cultivated.

At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to the stories of the martyrs of the Ramabai killing and the lives of their families and colleagues. One of them has been working at a garbage disposal site. Both the worker’s story and the visuals exemplify the harsh conditions of Dalit labor. With the melody of Raghu, a migrant worker's story, as the soundtrack, we explore the landscapes of labor in the mounds of trash and waste. These dramatic images of the physically arduous and unsafe working conditions, as well as the difficult stories people tell about their struggles to fulfill basic needs and protections, show the intertwined relations between caste and class.

We meet these young men, almost naked, explaining they are working twelve hours a day for Rs73 (approximatively $1.50 US). They bare their injuries and wounds and show us how they work without protection. Even though the Supreme Court ordered the garbage company’s owners to provide them with rubber boots, the company hired more lawyers to appeal the decision. One indignant man states that before they created a union, two years prior to the interview, they didn't even have water on site and were rejected from restaurants because of the smell they carried from the disposal site. Even though drinking water is now an international human right, it has been an object of struggle for the Dalits throughout much of their history since they were traditionally thought to pollute water by contact. The conjunction between long-lasting socio-­religious discrimination and the film’s particular illustration of present working conditions makes the image track even more compelling and disturbing. Because caste discrimination structures labor and educational opportunities, the Dalit are more likely to stay in particularly dehumanizing conditions of exploitation. The fact that they overwhelmingly make up the body of municipal “cleaners” or domestic servants, jobs associated with the perceived dirtiness of their caste, only reinforces social reasons for restricting their access.

Atrocities and the film as a
document of parallel investigations

  • “The girl was found dead naked and there was no investigation on rape?” asks Patwardhan.
  • “That is poor investigation,” replies the Officer.

The film makes reference to several atrocities that took place in Maharashtra, notably the Khairlanji killings, where a family of Dalit Buddhists were tortured, murdered, and possibly raped by members of another caste from the middle of the caste hierarchy. By way of a Dalit human-rights activist organization, we get introduced to a Mahar village and victims’ family members. Among them is a woman dressed in a red saree, who “can't afford to lose,” as she states it. Her husband died in a senseless act of violence: he was cut by swords while defending a young villager under attack, and then the police left him to bleed to death in the station. Afterwards, his widow fought this injustice in court. The perpetrators tried to buy her silence, to which she replied: “I don't want their money, I want them to be punished. Otherwise, what are they going to do next, crush us? When they got out of jail, they were celebrating with fire crackers.”

Some of the atrocities Dalits regularly face include murder, kidnapping, sexual and physical assault, parading naked women, torching dwellings, and tainting water wells with feces. As the film states in captions, “According to official government figures, on an average two Dalits are killed and three raped every day across India.” The 1989 Prevention of Atrocities Act was meant to punish acts of violence, intimidations and public humiliations committed against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The act also includes a clause against the fabrication of false evidence. The problem is that the case needs to go before a court by means of a police investigation. Through this process, very few of the cases have resulted in convictions. To inquire more into this, Patwardhan goes to the police chief whose task it is to monitor the Atrocities Act and who states, caught on film, that it’s the result of money, that the rich can bribe the police and judiciary.

By leading its own parallel “investigations” and documenting incomplete cases, the film shows how the Act’s non­implementation serves to create another set of injustices. Public reaction to this Act has itself been subject to political maneuvering, which has created the space for caste-based rallies to stir up resentment and claims of “reverse discrimination.” Indignation is used as a political tool to sway political masses, while individual perpetrators and systemic factors continue to operate. The failure of the justice system occurs at many levels and in many forms: poverty and social vulnerability meet corruption and a slow judiciary.

The Ramabai shooting, the main court case we follow throughout the film, gives us the opportunity to take a closer look at the intricacies of a particular case. The film presents strong evidence of a police cover­up and details incongruities, such as charges for attempted murder the police levied against those injured seven years after the events. An alternative inquiry provided by a documentary film can act as a weapon by relating truths rarely seen or spoken about in public. Needless to say, Patwardhan is reclaiming justice by leading these parallel investigations, and he operates like a public defender. This is a militant documentary committed to presenting the social struggle of the Dalits from their perspective. He explores in an “insider” manner the Dalit communities he sympathizes with before he questions and turns the camera to film the “outsiders” and their perceptions.

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