The debate around Aarakshan, Prakash Jha’s movie on reservation, has several major implications for our civil society and state. The objections raised by several organisations, individuals and also the ban imposed by three state governments — Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab — because of their suspicion that the film is against the interests of pro-reservation forces, made it controversial.
The film has been seen by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and certified U/A without any cuts. But the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes demanded to see it before it was released.
After the viewing the commission felt that there are many dialogues that were objectionable from the dalit point of view. However, the CBFC felt that the SC/ST commission’s opinion was not binding on them, and they did not agree to cut some of the dialogues suggested by the commission and other organisations. However, after some cuts were made, the film was released in Andhra Pradesh.
I watched the film on the first day of its release. It evoked a good response from filmgoers. Aarakshan presents a paternalistic upper caste view of balancing the problems of reservation and commercialisation of education. Amitabh Bachchan’s role of a paternalistic Hindu teacher could well be viewed with suspicion by any Ambedkarite.
However, a serious issue to debate is whether the right to freedom of expression of a director/producer could be taken away by dalit/OBC groups or individuals opposed to a film? What is the difference between the Right-wing forces that attacked M.F. Husain’s paintings and the dalit/OBC organisations that opposed Aarakshan?
I happened to take part in a panel discussion on the issue on an English news channel where Soli Sorabjee, a well-known Supreme Court lawyer, argued that Mr Jha’s freedom of expression cannot be taken away in this manner.
We must understand the pro- and anti-reservation contentions from the point of view of caste and historical oppression that the majority population suffered for centuries.
Bollywood as a film industry still represents the upper castes and, to a small extent, the Muslim minority. Few years ago even the best of the Muslim actors had to adopt Hindu names (like Dilip Kumar) to survive in the industry and the market. Now, because of strong identity politics among Muslims, there are several visible Muslim heroes and heroines with their own names.
Even a film like My Name is Khan was made to assert that identity. But most of them come from rich families. Why is it that no dalit/OBC could become a visible actor in that industry? Hollywood overcame its white hegemony and now blacks have come to occupy a very important place (like Will Smith) in that global industry.
But blacks constitute just 12.6 per cent of the total population of the US. Whereas dalits, tribals and OBCs constitute about 70 per cent of the population in our country, yet there is not a single visible person in the film industry from these communities.
Also, how many SC/ST/OBCs are in the CBFC today? Perhaps none. When the industry itself is constituted of upper castes, and rich ones at that, a lot of scope for suspicion about their intentions in making a film on reservations exists.
Suppose they deliberately make an anti-reservation film or a film that treats the productive castes as polluted people based on the Brahminic sociological premise? Should these castes keep quiet?
And if they create hurdles in the film’s release, is that “curtailing the positive freedom of expression?” When the oppressors’ right to freedom of expression impinges upon the very right to life of the oppressed, the oppressed need to invoke their natural right, as John Locke rightly proposed, to fight against the oppressors’ right to freedom of expression.
If “castocracy” begins to operate, using the liberal space the Constitution provides, against the historical victims, they have to stand up and say, “No, we will not allow this.”
In democracy, if one does not examine the political position of the oppressed seriously, if a mechanical “right to freedom of expression” is deployed in the discourse, as John Locke himself foresaw, the oppressed masses have no choice but to resort to the right to revolution. For SC/ST/OBCs, the right to defend reservation (in the absence of uniform English-medium school education for all) is equivalent to defending their right to life.
Because of caste and cultural degradation and denial of right to education and employment for centuries, the SC/ST/OBCs have lost many opportunities to develop themselves. That should be the core anchor of the debate. The problem being treated paternalistically, as has been done in Aarakshan, is not a solution.
In a situation of rabid casteism and educational commercialisation, Prabhakar Anand’s (the character played by Bachchan) paternalism might appear positive. But Ambedkar himself opposed such paternalism of Gandhi and attacked it in his classic book, What the Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables.
The film, as it is being shown in Andhra Pradesh, does not warrant a ban in any state at all. But it certainly needs to be debated. Ideologically it does not represent Ambedkarism but Gandhism. That itself is a major problem. A Bollywood film with an Ambedkarite ideology on aarakshan can be possible only when aarakshan is implemented in Bollywood itself.