For over 2000 years Indians have lived in a strict hierarchy, called the caste system, that mandates a social structure in perpetuity. Now a new film – quietly released last week only to become surprisingly popular – has proved powerful enough that some privileged people seek a ban.
On June 28, Article 15, a Hindi film, was released across India. Already declared a successful money-spinner, it has opened up space for debate on an issue that usually remains buried from public space.
The caste structure that was created by ancient Hindu texts saw a minority of the population labeled as “upper caste” while the rest came to be called “lower caste” and, at the very bottom of the social structure, “outcaste” – the “untouchables.” This led to centuries of oppression and denial of basic human rights.
Article 15 is already being compared by critics to Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, the seminal film on racism and oppression in the American south, and it has scored 93% on the film critic aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes.
The film takes off from the rape and murder of two young women in Badaun, a small place in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, in May 2014. Descendants of untouchables, the women belonged to the Dalit Maurya community.
Priyanka Dubey, a young journalist with the BBC, India, wrote about the case in her book No Nation for Women and detailed how the families of the girls had to face many tribulations in their quest for justice.
The film’s title refers to article 15 of the Indian Constitution, which prohibits any discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or religion. Adding redolence to this reference is the fact that Dr B R Ambedkar, the national leader who is known as the father of India’s Constitution, hailed from the Dalit (former untouchable) community.
Truth and fiction
“I have been angry for a very long time,” Anubhav Sinha, the director of Article 15 told Asia Times, “but I had not realized how angry I was until I started scripting the film with Gaurav Solanki. We see discrimination and oppression every day around us, but we have internalized it and willingly ignore it.”
The film departs from the basic premise to weave the story of a young upper caste police officer who is sent to his first posting in the boondocks of Uttar Pradesh and chances upon the rape and murder of the two young women. His attempt to investigate the case sparks off an exploration into themes of caste, oppression, justice and identity.
Sinha is aware of the many controversies that have erupted after the film came out. A hitherto little-known group, the Brahmin Samaj, filed a petition in the Supreme Court seeking a ban on showing the film.
The pushback from Dalit intellectuals and writers surprised Sinha. Senior journalist and author Dilip Mandal was one of the first to raise a nuanced critique that addressed a major lacuna in the film.
“The Dalits, who have been waging a relentless struggle against the caste system for ages with their sweat and blood, have no agency in the movie,” Mandal wrote on June 2, long before the film was released. He pointed out that the lead protagonist was depicted as an upper caste Brahmin, reminiscent of films that depicted white men as “saviors.”
Mangesh Dahiwale, a scholar and activist for Dalit rights, also criticized the “Brahmin savior” in the film. ”The movie shows Dalits as weak and helpless and in need of a savior, who turns out to be a person of upper caste and a Brahmin,” he said.
“This is very problematic. Brahmins cannot be the savior of the Dalits,” Dahiwale told Asia Times. ”The upper caste has normalized caste and most organizations, including the media, are dominated by them. So the kind of circles where conversations on caste are happening is crucial.”
Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd, a political theorist, writer and activist for Dalit rights, said such films should not be taken seriously. “Many films have been made on such issues but the caste system still exists. Biographies on lives of Dalits or Shudra leaders will create better value and a new discourse in the society,” he said.
“I understand what they are saying,” Sinha said. “I truly agree with the criticism, but my position is that those of us who are privileged have to use it to fight against what has prevailed for centuries. It is not to depict the privileged as saviors, but to show them acknowledging what has gone wrong.” To Sinha, the film is already a success because of the many debates it has sparked across the the country.
“I wanted to address a generation, which has been immunized to these issues,” Sinha said. “In our gated apartments we happily practice segregation by keeping our drivers, helps and maids away by assigning them different elevators. That is how we have become. Our generation failed to address these issues. I am hoping this film will help the next to take them on.”
The film’s appearance followed the suicide on May 22 this year by a young physician from the Dalit community, Dr Payal Tadvi, which itself sparked off discussions on the atrocities and humiliations that had been endured for centuries.
The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), which collates data on crimes in India, records a steady rise in atrocities against Dalits. However, the conviction rate for such crimes has also declined substantially. In 2016, 40,801 atrocities were reported, up from 38,670 in 2015. And Uttar Pradesh reported the highest number of atrocities against Dalits at 25.6% of all cases reported across India.
Researchers like Dahiwale question the “reality’”of the NCRB data. ”Police records and reports have shown that out of 10 crimes against the Dalit only one is registered as an FIR [first information report]. And the FIR is the basis of this NCRB data. So the number of crimes against Dalits reported need to be multiplied to understand the actual numbers,” he said.
Perhaps, the most inhuman symbol of the atrocities against Dalits is the practice of manual scavenging. Dalits have been traditionally forced to lower themselves into sewers and manholes choked with human excreta to clean them.
Even though manual scavenging has been officially banned, Dalits continue to be forced into it and many die after being exposed to poisonous gasses. The National Commission for Safai Karamcharis (NCSK) is a statutory body set up by an act of Parliament for the welfare of sanitation workers. This is something that is depicted in the film: a manual scavenger is called to clean a choked sewer outside the police officer’s office.
According to data from NCSK, between 2016 and 2018 up to 123 manual scavengers have died on the job. However, the Safai Karamchari Andolan, an organization run by Bezwada Wilson, leading activist and Magsaysay awardee, has rejected the NCSK number. The group claims that 429 manual scavengers died on the job between 2016 and 2018.
Know your place
India’s system divides caste Hindus into four main categories. In descending order of status the top three, considered upper-caste, are Brahmins (priests, scholars), Kshatriyas (warriors, kings) and Vaishyas (tradesmen, merchants, landowners). Upper castes account for about 15% of the population.
The fourth category, considered “lower caste,” are Shudras (commoners, peasants, servants), who constitute 42% of India’s population (2011 census). For purposes of affirmative government action in hiring and educational opportunity, Shudras are now officially categorized as “other backward classes.”
The basic breakdown is further divided into about 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes, each based on a specific occupation.
Outside of the original Hindu caste system was the category of people who were subjected to untouchability. Since 1935, their descendants are known as “scheduled castes” under a government act, but politically they prefer to be known as Dalits. They make up 16.8% of the population.
For centuries the Dalits were condemned to carry out all menial tasks. Any social change of status was strictly forbidden. While many converted to Islam or Christianity, descendants – of whatever faith – have continued to encounter mistreatment on the basis of ancestral social status.
Even India’s President, Ram Nath Kovind and his wife, who are Dalits, were allegedly barred from entering a famous temple in the state of Odisha.
In India, no one can escape caste.