“We have the same kind of blood” & “Why dalit?”
Danida (HUGOU), MS-Nepal and Berit Madsen,
Despite their shortcomings, these two films deserve attention for focussing on the dalit issue, an under-recognised problem in South Asia.
The karmas of the sanatan dharma and the dogmas of the neoliberal faith are both impediments to welfare democracy. This is the most fundamental barrier to dalit emancipation in large parts of South Asia. Both the caste Hindu and market orthodoxies refuse to acknowledge that a community oppressed by history needs special measures to enable them to take their equal place in the mainstream institutions of South Asian society and economy. In such circumstances, anything that documents the plight and the continuing oppression of those who are denied the most basic human dignity on the grounds of birth is valuable. These two films are for that reason alone to be commended.
The term dalit is a self-description, unlike scheduled caste which is a statist designation, or harijan, which is a mildly condescending Gandhian description. The term has been adopted as the unifying identity of a large section of the population of South Asia. The term, meaning ‘broken’ or ‘crushed’, was coined by the late-nineteenth century social reformer Jotirao Phule, and used by Bhim Rao Ambedkar, but popularised by the militant Dalit Panther movement of the 1970s. In Nepal, dalit as a definition both of social degradation and political pride, was generalised in the 1990s with the revival of democracy.
The two films are far from flawless. Both of them focus rather exclusively on untouchability, which while undeniably the most extreme form of discrimination is only a receding part of the problem. If the problem was restricted to just untouchability, then would its eradication signify the end of the dalit issue? Clearly not, as the evidence from all over suggests. It is a known fact that even when untouchability is abandoned, the discrimination that dalits still face prevents any real change in their social and economic conditions.
The other problem with the films is that even the degradation associated with untouchability has not been effectively captured. Facets of untouchability that pertain to its eventual economic and social consequences are neglected since the focus is only on social interactions. This is in addition to the silence on economic interactions outside the relationship of untouchability.
Since 1990, there has been a democratic constitution in Nepal which made caste-based discrimination illegal and punishable. But there is no indication of how this has affected the lives of dalits. The only passing reference to the consitution is in Why dalit? and that too only in the songs composed for the film. Politics is relegated to the margins and again any reference to it seems to be only in Why dalit?
The two films seem to separate the footage rather neatly into (a) dalits who attribute their existence to the ‘way things are and have been’ and (b) the change in dalit consciousness and mobility. We have the same kind of blood and Why dalit? focus only on the artisan class whereas many dalits in Nepal are agricultural labourers. Surprisingly, while the films talk at length about untouchability, they refrain from commenting on Hinduism or the caste system on which the ‘world’s most accommodating religion’ rests.
The aim of the films is to create awareness about the dalit condition but they do not quite succeed in realising that goal. As essays in pure documentation they are useful as a window to those unfamiliar with caste divisions in Nepali rural life. But without supplementary material, the films are not a sufficient introduction to the dalit condition in Nepal.
We have the same kind of blood follows the daily life of dalits in a mountain village in western Nepal. The film attempts to give voice to the kami (blacksmith), damai (tailor), bhul (leather worker) and other dalit. In the process, there is a lopsided focus on religious cosmology and the cultural landscape. Though the film manages to go beyond mere phenomenology, the script does not extend to a critical assessment and contextualisation of the issue. Viewers are left to make their own sense of a film whose purpose is always somewhat unclear. As a slice of life, it is mildly interesting, amusing in moments, poignant in parts, nothing more. There is a sense of fixity in the film. Nothing seems to have changed in the village. Viewers are not given any idea of the location (Pachnali village, district Doti, western Nepal) nor its socio-economic specifics. Overall, the film presents a very partial take on the dalit situation in Nepal.
Why dalit? underscores the paradoxes of the practice of untouchability and seems a more balanced picture of dalits. It is shot both in Doti and in Bardiya and Banke districts. The film chronicles dalit awareness about the absurdities of casteist practice and shows how migrating from the hills to the terai is a case of dalits ‘voting with their feet’. This film though shorter, gives a sense of being far more complete.
Having made all these criticisms, it is nevertheless important to stress that makers of the film have rendered a service, partial though it may be. The films are a beginning. It is to the filmmakers’ credit that they chose to film dalits, who never feature in the image of Nepal that the world knows.
Well-meaning nationalism should not come in the way of appreciating the fact that fragments of dalit life have been recorded. The films serve as a testimony. Such a recording is all the more important because the South Asian intelligentsia by and large tries to wish away the issue of caste discrimination. In India, where sociology has made the study of caste its professional obsession, there are any number of sociologists who will deny that caste leads to any real discrimination. Issues of social justice are often quietly buried.
The brutal face of casteism needs an audience. In this, pure description can be more effective than prescription. And sometimes the audience has to be international, if India’s recent attitude is any indication. Before the 2001 Durban World Conference Against Racism, India denied its caste problem completely and expunged any reference to it from its official documents. Just as the efforts to bring down apartheid were aided by the solidarity of progressive forces around the world, perhaps external pressure is called for since the chaturvarna system is so entrenched in large parts of the Subcontinent. Minimally, the films can serve the purpose of bringing to wider notice the fact that a community called dalits lives on the margins of society. The one-sided focus on untouchability can at least shock the uninformed viewer into recognising that a problem exists.
The films also augment a meagre corpus of information on the dalits in Nepal. The popularity of ‘dalit studies’ in South Asia stands in inverse proportion to the accommodation of dalits in the political process in these countries. To make matters worse, much that passes off under the rubric of ‘dalit studies’ has very little real information on the community. We can begin with the basic problem. How many dalits? The Nepal government census of 1991, which divided the population into 63 jatis, did not demarcate dalits into a separate category. Estimates based on the census plug the figure at 12 per cent. Dalit activists claim that dalits are underrepresented in the 1991 census and that their population is 20 percent of the total. Take the single growth industry in Nepal-related academia — anthropology. Relative to the reams published on various aspects of Nepal’s variegated population, work on dalits is sparse. In this context of absolute dearth, the films are welcome.
The third reason for judging the films in a positive light is that they debunk the comfortable view that ‘caste is a thing of the past’. Upper caste urban elites in South Asia probably have no reason to think about the caste issue since in their immediate environment caste does not explicitly figure. Hence the common drawing room notion that any talk of caste merely revives a waning caste consciousness. The letters flooding the 2-8 November 2001 issue of Nepali Times, in response to an article by Kanak Mani Dixit, ‘The bahuns and the Nepali State’ (19-25 October 2001) were indicative. Evidently, the same article in Nepali (Himal Khabarpatrika) evoked an equally vehement caste-based reaction.
Some eveyday indices will show why it is necessary to address the dalit problem urgently. The majority of them crowd the congested zone of poverty, stake a claim to only a fraction of the Subcontinent’s vast resources, are mostly illiterate, are more susceptible to infant and maternal mortality and are inadequately represented in the walks of life that are recognisable sgns of social arrival. In India, despite affirmative action, half of the scheduled castes (SCs) live below the poverty line (49 percent of all dalits in urban areas, and 48 percent in rural areas). Two-third of the scheduled castes continue to live in rural areas where access to the means of production is usually denied. According to the 1990-91 Indian census, 65 percent of all SCs are wage labourers at the all-India level, 19 percent are self-employed cultivators, of which few own land larger than 0.5 acres. Unemployment is 50 percent higher among dalits than among the others. About 78 percent of dalit households have no electricity and 90 percent lack sanitation facilities, 60 percent of dalit children below four years suffer from under-nourishment, the infant mortality rate is 90 per 1000. In 1991, the all-India dalit literacy rate was 39 percent against an all- India rate of 52 percent.
The statistics are more appalling when it comes to Indian dalit women. The female school drop out rate is 54 percent at the primary level, 73 at the middle level and a staggering 83 percent at the secondary level. All this in a country that is forever showcasing its electoral democracy and affirmative action.
In Pakistan, the dalit population is relatively smaller (estimates place it at 1.5 million), but it lacks economic power, political leadership and education. No organisation works exclusively for the dalit cause.
In Nepal, where there is no affirmative action and no real statistics, it can be surmised that dalits are perhaps in as bad or worse a situation. According to estimates, which cannot be authenticated for want of statistical data, only 10 percent of Nepal’s dalits are literate. Reportedly there are only about 25 dalit lawyers in the whole country, while dalit representation in the media as journalists, reporters or editors is only about 1 percent. There are no dalits in the lower house of parliament or in the upper echelons of the army, judiciary, or constitutional bodies (including the National Human Rights Commission). The nomination of dalits as candidates in parliamentary elections is low and will not change until there is affirmative action.
Even high office is not a guarantee against harassment. Just recently, the vice chairman of Kotbhairab VDC (Village Development Committee) in Bajhang, Nepal, was reportedly denied tea at a teashop. Dalit Voice, a Bangalore publication reported that when Jagjivan Ram (former union minister of India) visited Banares on invitation and gar-landed the statue of Sampurnanand (a kayastha), the statue was washed with Ganga jal and mantras were recited to make it ‘pure’. In India, dalit civil servants are given postings that no one else wants and they are far more susceptible to disciplinary action. The names of various dalit castes — ‘bhangi’, ‘churra’, ‘chamar’ are still commonly used terms of abuse.
The safai karmachari
In Nepal, where lawmakers are predominantly upper-caste, where is the scope for structural transformation? As the films clearly bring out, escape in many cases has nothing to do with policy. It is a function of mass transportation and urbanisation. One of the men in We have the same kind of blood felt that passengers in crowded buses do not care about the caste of fellow passengers. In Why dalit? dalits interviewed in the tarai felt that there is a huge difference between town life in the plains and rural life in the hills. Discrimination is less widespread in urban areas. Public space is freer. But city life, though relatively better, is not without its tensions. Government policy, if anything, often perpetuates the occupational degradation of dalits. Most municipal sweepers are dalit. In many areas in India, particularly in Gujarat, dalits carry ‘night soil’ on their head despite a militant dalit movement. Many of these government employees are graciously designated ‘safai karamcharis’. Such is the power of a time-honoured system.
An outstanding feature of the films is that while the filmmakers empathise with dalits they do not shy away from looking at discrimination that dalits practice among themselves. Dalits have never been homogeneous. We have the same kind of blood testifies to the practice of untouchability even by dalits. This is a problem many dalit activists often fail to address. Paradoxically, affirmative action in India has strengthened hierarchies among dalits by creating a new elite, distanced from the many real problems confronting those who have never received the benefits of welfare measures. Nepal’s dalit movement too is plagued by such internal caste-hierarchies. This, however, cannot be an argument against affirmative action, though it does speak volumes for how that policy has been implemented.
We have the same kind of blood and Why dalit? are at their best in offering a preview into dalit perceptions of their own social condition as well as upper-caste perceptions about casteism. In We have the same kind of blood, dalits were unaware of why they are dalits and attributed their status to tradition, poverty, illiteracy, or simply because they labour. In their perception, it has always been like this, a condition ordained by god, which is above question. Why dalit? showed more conscious individuals who pointed to the anomalies of the practice of untouchability.
The films foreground women and shows the triple burden of caste, gender and class. Why dalit? has Baadi women who speak of ‘the profession’ and the inconsistencies in the behaviour of upper caste men. As one of them says, “It is okay for them to sleep with us, but not okay to call us to their house since we are polluting”. Where paternity determines citizenship, many Baadi children go through life without this official recognition of nationhood. Without an identity card, they find it difficult to enrol in schools.
Upper-caste voices are recorded, but mostly from the villages. One woman says that there have always been lower caste and it does not matter if they are clean now, they remain untouchable. Such voices and views recur: “Their behaviour is not pure”, “They are born dalits because of improper conduct in previous births, hence the discrimination”. An upper caste builder who hires bhuls and lohars as stone carriers says, “How can we be equal? In any case, we don’t like equality. We like it like this.” Shorn of intellectual finery, many of the arguments of the South Asian intelligentsia are not very different. The language of efficiency, market and merit does not help in understanding the dalit condition.
It seems surprising that democracy and its institutions have not made much difference to the dalits of Pachnali village. In Nepal for example the practice of untouchability invites a fine of NRs 1000. The law is a recognition of the problem. It is a first step. But by itself the legal penalty cannot bring about change. These two films can be seen in the same light. They document some concrete elements of the dalit problem, and therefore like the law mark the start of a social documentation in Nepal.
(The writer thanks the disscussants at the films’ screening in Martin Chautari, a public discussion forum in Kathmandu, who helped clarify her perception of the films)