We did not go on to the stage,
Neither were we called.
We were shown our places, told to sit.
But they, sitting on the stage, went on telling us of our sorrows,
Our sorrows remained ours, they never became theirs.
- Waharu Sonawane, a poet from Maharashtra, from the poem Stage.
There is a long history of discussion amongst Dalits on whether organisations owned by so-called upper castes, or so-called upper castes themselves, really do any work for Dalits. And, if Dalits should align with such organisations and people. On 30 May, 2019 Zee Studios released the trailer of Ayushmann Khurrana’s Article 15. The movie borrows its title from Article 15 of the Indian constitution which bans discrimination on the basis of “religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth”, and features a Brahmin policeman, played by Khurrana, on a mission to win justice for Dalit victims.
The trailer (which has been watched by over 16 million times on YouTube since it was released), has prompted many Dalits to rejoice, claiming the movie gave voice to Dalit suffering. Many more have said the movie appropriates Dalit struggles and makes a Brahmin the center of a Dalit story.
This is not new: Dalits do not have any representation in Bollywood, and Bollywood is fascinated with, and loves, Brahmins saviours.
By making a Brahmin police officer a lead character, the movie humanises casteist behavior and puts a Brahmin character in charge of telling a Dalit story.
“How many articles and movies are made where so-called upper are taught not to practice untouchability? Why doesn’t Bollywood or society see the need for such movies?”
Dalits are already aware of the ills of the caste system. It is the so-called upper-caste people who must understand that casteism, Brahmanical supremacy, and upper castes privileges are real and that Dalits continue to suffer because of the same. Article 15, the movie, is not here to teach anyone any lesson, it is not here to end casteism nor will it increase upper caste guilt. It might be useful for those who do not know the ABC of caste discrimination and might act as a primer on the caste system.
Criticising a “Brahmin” hero in Article 15 or so-called upper castes saviours is not meant to discourage or stop so-called upper castes from doing good for others, but to stop them making themselves the heroes of each story or every effort. They must continue to do good but by focusing among their own caste groups.
In Indian society, it is hard to find a programme or event focused on telling so-called upper castes not to discriminate, not to practice untouchability, or to go away from caste practices. Almost all the events related to caste discrimination are for teaching Dalits how to survive caste practices, or how to accept your position in society and live with that.
Almost a century ago, Dr BR Ambedkar noted that, “It is usual to hear all those who feel moved by the deplorable condition of the Untouchables unburden themselves by uttering the cry ‘We must do something for the Untouchables’. One seldom hears any of the persons interested in the problem saying ‘Let us do something to change the Touchable Hindu’.”
Recently, a journalist said “I am a Brahmin but I don’t support such caste discrimination” in response to a tweet of mine on a particularly disturbing instance of discrimination.
My reply was, “Okay, but do you speak against caste discrimination, do you write against that or do you teach your fellow family members the same?” and I didn’t get any reply. It is not just about whether you discriminate or not, what matters is if you are able to make a difference and strengthen the fight against caste system or if you choose to stay silent.
Dalits need upper caste allies who work among their own castes and teach them how caste is affecting everyone, not saviours to explain the caste system to Dalits.
So-called upper caste people who see themselves as progressive should work among themselves. Dalits are not casteist. When ‘progressive upper caste people’ profess a desire to work with Dalits, they are just taking the escapist path to prove that they are with Dalits.
But by taking this escapist path, they are not solving the problem of caste discrimination. As said above, Dalits are not casteist, so ‘progressive upper caste people’ need not prove to Dalits that they are not casteist; what ‘progressive upper caste people’ need to do is to work among their own community as your voice carries more value among your own community.
What ‘progressive upper caste people’ need to do is teach their own fellows about the realities of caste discrimination and that Dalits suffer, Dalit women are raped and Dalits are murdered every single day because of the caste system.
“Nothing about Dalits without the participation of Dalits should be the mantra, and Dalit lives and stories should be shown through Dalit eyes and minds.”
Recently, I was part of a voice4voiceless event organised by media4change at the Lithuanian Parliament where organisers were white, but the speakers were migrants, Roma, Dalit, Muslim, homeless and other discriminated communities in Europe.
In India, discussions about discriminated communities and policies for their betterment are invariably conducted without their participation. Nothing about Dalits without the participation of Dalits should be the mantra, and Dalit lives and stories should be shown through Dalit eyes and minds. It is high time that so-called upper caste saviours stand behind the cameras and let Dalits have their turn in the light.
In another event “Non-Roma for Roma”, organised in Budapest, non-Roma participants were taught by the Roma. The Roma community in Europe suffers similar kind of discrimination in Europe as Dalits in India. Views expressed by Roma participants about their lives, struggle and experiences in a racist society were accepted without judgement and speakers were not interrupted even when their views were uncomfortable for the white saviours.
I have participated in various Roma-led events and protests such as ‘Roma Pride Day’, where non-Roma bring their posters openly saying “non-Roma for Roma” and act as backstage supporters, not leaders. Such events and displays of respect towards those who are suffering discrimination are important, and I wonder if accepting Dalits as leaders and experts in their own stories would ever be acknowledged by India’s casteist society. When will a much-needed “non-Dalits for Dalits” movement start in India?
Dalits do not need, or want, daily shows of sympathy, in which so-called progressive upper caste preachers show sympathy at some Dalit ghetto by day, only to sit in their Mercedes by night and vanish into the dust, while Dalits return to their ghettos and live the same life.
One might say that I am biased against ‘progressive upper caste people’ who are working sincerely. I am not.
Let ‘progressive upper caste people’ form their own organisations and work among their own communities, and let Dalits form their own organisations working among Dalits. Dalit organisations will give full admiration, credit and recognition to such so-called upper castes organisations. If our goals are the same, we’ll meet the result: end of caste.
Article 15 might do well as people love to listen and read upper caste accounts of Dalit suffering, and assume upper caste saviours are needed as Dalits cannot act or speak for themselves. It is not true so in the end, a piece of friendly advice to would-be allies:
Dear so-called “Upper Castes”,
For once, be quiet, sit down and listen.
Not every space belongs to you,
Not every stage is yours.
Let oppressed speak,
Oppressed know their pain,
Oppressed know their story better.
Pardeep Attri runs the Ambedkar Caravan, a website that runs anti-caste campaigns.