Confronting Untouchability, But Not Too Close

The actor Aamir Khan last year launched the spectacularly successful talk show Truth Alone Prevails (Satyamev Jayate), which crusades against various social ills. Outlook’s S. Anand watched the episode on Dalits with trepidation, expecting that there would be little or no mention of radical Dalit activist B. R. Ambedkar, or the form of Dalit affirmative action Indians call ‘reservation.’ As expected, Khan’s show was heavy on the emotion but retained a patronizing and high-caste point of view; there was no discussion of the active role the state needs to play in bettering the lives of India’s poorest.

This Sunday morning I received a call from a friend who alerted me to the tenth episode of Aamir Khan-anchored Satyamev Jayate, since the focus was on caste and untouchability. I mumbled something about his spoiling my Sunday, but tuned in nevertheless. The episode began with Kaushal Panwar, narrating her harrowing tale for about twenty minutes: from a childhood where she was forced to join her mother in cleaning shit [‘scavenging’] to her pursuit of a PhD in Sanskrit. I was glad that the audience heard her say that the discrimination she experienced in her Haryana village school was no different from what she faced on the enlightened campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi-where she continues to be denied a rightful job.

Following Kaushal, we saw a glimpse into the life of Balwant Singh, author of the tract An Untouchable in the IAS. I took note of a shot of him looking up to a larger-than-life portrait of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, and realized that so far-30 minutes into the show-there had been no verbal mention of Ambedkar. Balwant Singh, among the first Dalits to enter a career in civil service in post-independence India, said in his interview that he was perhaps the first and only IAS officer ever to be demoted to the rank of tehsildar [the equivalent of a tax collector]. But that bit of information was edited out of the final cut. I intuitively felt the show was going make a scrupulous attempt to avoid any mention of two key ideas: Reservation and Ambedkar. I hoped to be wrong. I wasn’t.

How did Kaushal Panwar complete her advanced degrees and land a job with Delhi University? What facilitates access to hitherto-excluded spaces for Dalits? What is the one policy that enables Dalits to stop cleaning up shit and reclaim their humanity? The one weapon that helps them obtain an education or job? Reservation. And who made this policy possible? Ambedkar. But Aamir Khan wouldn’t mention the ‘R’ and ‘A’ words even once for fear of alienating his middle class audience, which as a friend perceptively said, is fed “bourgeois moralism of the most pathological sort,” on a program where “the only solution turns out to be nothing more than emotional catharsis.”

Not surprisingly, Khan did not mention the fact that an atrocity is committed against a Dalit every 18 minutes, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. The penchant Khan and his research team showed for various laws and statistics in the first two episodes of SJ-on prenatal sex determination and domestic violence-was now unseen. Hence no mention of the Prevention of Atrocities Act of 1989 and its dismal failure to curb violence against dalits. No discussion of a case like Khairlanji, where, in 2006, a mother and daughter, Surekha Bhotmange and Priyanka Bhotmange, were not just raped repeatedly but also tortured in ghastly ways (stripped, paraded naked, with fact-finding reports saying bullock cart pokers were thrust into their vaginas, and that Priyanka was raped even after her death). An interview with Bhaiyalal Bhotmange, the sole survivor of the Khairlanji carnage, may have not fit into the preordained script.

Then the show featured documentary filmmaker Stalin K. Padma and several clips from his three-hour film India Untouched. Again, the cherry-picked excerpts skirted any reference to Ambedkar and Reservation. In a cringe-worthy moment, Stalin even fawned over Khan and congratulated him for taking up the issue of untouchability on television 65 years after independence.

I would have given up right then but for the fact that I spotted Bezwada Wilson in the audience-a man who had pioneered the demolition of dry latrines across India. I was waiting to see if this leader of the Safai Karamchari Andolan [a group that tries to eradicate illegal manually cleaned toilets]would salvage the morning. He too was asked to narrate his early life, and he too shed tears.

The next day I called Wilson and told him I was annoyed that he failed to mention Ambedkar and Reservation. Wilson clarified that he had indeed mentioned them but it was edited out, as was his rant against the Supreme Court and Parliament-since both institutions were dragging their feet on the issue of manual scavenging. Then he revealed something that shocked me. He said he had not been in the audience when Kaushal Panwar was interviewed by Khan. I countered saying I had seen him ‘reacting’ to what Kaushal said on stage. “Even I saw myself in the audience and hence was shocked,” said Wilson. He said Kaushal had been interviewed in an empty studio. And yet on Sunday we saw, every once in a while, close-ups of fretful, anxious, pained and agonized faces of members of the studio audience as Kaushal narrated her story. They even clapped on cue when Khan asked Kaushal for her heroic father’s name. Clearly, all this had been manipulated and faked-with clever editing and splicing of shots.

I checked with Kaushal if this was true. It was. I also discovered that Khan and his team had shot interviews with two members of the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry-its chairman Milind Kamble and key advisor Ashok Khade. They were informed just a week ahead of the July 8th telecast that their interviews wouldn’t be aired since they, “did not fit in with the story.” In fact, when Chandra Bhan Prasad, mentor to DICCI and supporter of ‘dalit capitalism,’ watched the show with Kamble in Pune, they could not believe their eyes. Kamble’s interview with Khan was shot with Dharmadhikari and Kamble seated next to each other on the studio couch; but Kamble had been cropped out. Prasad wondered if some ‘dirty editing trick’ made this possible. I also discovered that every participant on the show must sign a ‘confidentiality agreement’ saying they will not speak about their participation-recorded many months ahead-in any social media.

In his weekly column in The Hindu, Khan began his discourse with “Gandhiji’s struggle” for “those ostracized as untouchables.” After a few paragraphs extolling Gandhi, Khan mentions “Babasaheb Ambedkar” in passing, as someone who led the drafting of the Constitution. Since the bulk of SJ’s episode chose to focus on manual scavenging, and since Dharmadhikari and Khan chose to highlight Gandhi’s imagined role in the fight against this practice, let us turn briefly to what Gandhi said about “the most honourable occupation.”

Gandhi wrote in Harijan in 1934: “I call scavenging as one of the most honourable occupations to which mankind is called. I don’t consider it an unclean occupation by any means. That you have to handle dirt is true. But that every mother is doing and has to do. But nobody says a mother’s occupation is unclean.” In another essay entitled ‘The Ideal Bhangi’ in 1936 he wrote, “My ideal Bhangi would know the quality of night-soil and urine. He would keep a close watch on these and give a timely warning to the individual concerned. Thus he will give a timely notice of the results of his examination of the excreta. That presupposes a scientific knowledge of the requirements of his profession.” It is this stranglehold of Gandhism that has kept manual scavenging alive.

Ambedkar’s view was the exact opposite: “Under Hinduism scavenging was not a matter of choice, it was a matter of force. What does Gandhism do? It seeks to perpetuate this system by praising scavenging as the noblest service to society! What is the use of telling the scavenger that even a Brahmin is prepared to do scavenging, when it is clear that according to Hindu Shastras and Hindu notions, even if a Brahmin did scavenging he would never be subject to the disabilities of one who is a born scavenger?” Ambedkar argued that in India a man is not a scavenger because of his work, but because of his birth, irrespective of whether he does scavenging or not.

Khan and his team not only deviously censored any discussion of Ambedkar and Reservation; they seemed content to use the 1920s language of high-caste reformers. A friend chided me, saying I shouldn’t expect Khan to be an activist. But surely my friend did not know how Khan manipulates and fools his audience-in the studio and outside-to nod and cry at moments he chooses. Wilson said, “In fact, during the shoot it was not I who actually began crying. Aamir Khan started to cry, so I was forced to cry along.” Khan obviously thinks we can flush away middle class shit with tears.

S. Anand

  • Charlie

    What was the point you were trying to articulate in this article? If you are criticizing Ambedkar because of Reservation, I would have to disagree with you.

    • Yehya

      I think the point was more that mainstream society in india nowadays ignores the importance of Ambdedkar, and glosses over Reservation, preferring instead to just pretend that everything progressive that has happened in the past 70 years is all thanks to Gandhiji.