Where The Republic Still Lives
Javed Iqbal, DNA, 2 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
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
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
sawat 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
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;
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
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 performancemy kids always assured methat
they'd never take up arms,that they'd change the world only through song and
Yet cultural and social revolution is a threat in the same country when 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
she replies: ‘I can't afford to lose. What'll happen to my children if
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 decades of caste oppression, has found
that symbols of joy, hope, perseverance and resistance, always survive.
The film shows the self-awareness in the movement.Dalit leader Ashok Saraswati
says: ‘Unfortunately we gave up330 million gods but made Ambedkar into
a god. We wear Babasaheb Ambedkar's photo around our neck. On waking up, we
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 then 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. Anand 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
relief when the National Crime Records Bureau reports that ‘Everyday
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.
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.
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