In the past few years, the voice of Dalits and Adivasis in wanting to choose how to narrate their own stories has become louder, even if not by much. Thanks to their passionate use of social media and creation of their own platforms to speak their mind, privileged people like us at least get to hear them from our Brahminical ivory towers, even if not completely understand or comprehend what they are trying to explain.
Of late, amidst the increase in reportage on violence against minorities and oppressed communities, several Dalit and Adivasi voices have been stating that they don’t want their battles to be appropriated by Savarna liberals, who continue to have the power, bestowed by their social position, to set the tone of public discourse. The struggles of Dalits and Adivasis are their own, and they want priority in not only narrating their stories, but also in choosing how their stories are narrated by others. They want agency in narration of their own battles.
The response to this from the ‘Liberals,’ who usually ignore or turn down such requests, is on expected lines – ‘you are dividing the opposition against BJP-RSS’, ‘this is not the time for you to complain about the Left’ etc., and ignore the larger point being made.
Today, even as Kakkoos film director Divya Bharati faces immense harassment, abuse, death threats and misogyny online and on her phone, the underlying protests of the Pallars (Dalits), or Devendra Kula Vellalars, has been buried even before it was born.
To be clear, this is not a ‘but’ line of argument. No one can condone, justify or digress from the crass, misogynistic harassment which Divya has been facing single-handedly from angry men of different political affiliations as a part of an engineered attack on her. As journalists though, it is only fair to also communicate the genuine points raised by Pallar leaders who have devised their own strategy to negotiate with the system and overcome oppression.
Kakkoos controversy and Pallars
In her documentary, Divya exposes, which much-needed rawness, the way India’s most disadvantaged communities are forced into manual scavenging, and trapped into a social prison which does not allow them to have any social mobility, thereby forcing them, and their descendants, to remain manual scavengers forever. The documentary is a much-needed, yet another, wake-up call for the Savarna masses who pretend to be ‘progressive’ while asking a conservancy worker to go down a septic tank to clean their shit.
But not everyone liked the documentary, especially some Devendra Kula Vellars (Pallars), who were unhappy with the way their community was projected.
Recently, after Divya Bharati shot and published another video of manual scavenging at Anna University, showing how the Dean of the University Chitra Selvi harassed a Dalit couple into manual scavenging, things went out of control and she received threats and abuses. Hear what happened, from TNM’s interview with her.
“I posted the video on July 21. After this, a poster which had Puthiya Tamilagam Krishnasamy’s quote saying that my Kakkoos film showed the Pallar community in bad light went viral. The threat calls started from then on. They say that they have been given money to kill me, sexually abuse me, and make these abusive calls,” says Divya.
“I did not know that the dean was from the Pallar community and that other Pallar parties would start threatening me for my first documentary. Even the Hindutva groups are supporting them in this. Many of the calls I get, Truecaller shows the name as BJP Saravanan or BJP Muralidharan,” claims Divya.
What seems to have happened is that as a response to the ‘expose’ on the Dean Chitra Selvi, also a Devendra Kula Vellalar (Pallar), a mass attack has been engineered using the statements of Puthiya Thamizagam leader Dr K Krishnasamy, who has been at the forefront of the Devendra Kula Velalar movement. She has since also been booked for ‘promoting enmity between groups’ and other IPC sections.
I spoke to Dr. Krishnasamy.
Just as I mentioned to him that I was calling regarding Kakoos controversy, he exclaimed, “This has been blown out of proportion, and this is not such a big issue for us.” He, however, stands by what he said.
“I never chose to speak on this issue myself. When a few reporters recently asked me about Goondas Act being imposed on activists like her, I mentioned that I have some reservations about her documentary.” Krishnasamy says he made his reservations about the documentary public even before the Anna University video went viral. There is a press meet video, shot on July 26, in which he talks about Divya, after asking ‘Who is Divya?’
Divya was arrested on July 25. It is unclear if he has spoken about the issue earlier, and if he had, he had forgotten her name when asked on July 26.
So, what were those reservations?
“Her intention might have been to highlight the issue of manual scavenging, that is good. But she has to be factually correct, and she must not divulge the identities of the people involved. What is the necessity? What is the motive in doing that? If you speak about fishermen issue, do you talk about their caste?” Dr Krishnaswamy asks.
“Devendra Kula Vellars have been fighting to remove the SC tag from ourselves. We are wetland agriculturalists, and not manual scavengers. Mentioning the name of our community in that documentary itself is unwanted and unwarranted. She has disrespected us. She should show some respect to our wishes. When we ask her to remove our community name from the documentary, she should,” he says, adding that he has not taken any legal action against her so far, and that he cannot be held responsible for what happens on WhatsApp and Facebook.
In his press meet on July 26, he clearly states he will take legal action against her.
Divya remains defiant. "I will not remove the word 'Pallar' from the documentary nor beep it. Whatever I saw during my field work, I have documented it. The documentary was published in February, why do they have a problem after so many months? Why are they creating this issue now? It is all political drama because I did a video on the dean of Anna University," says Divya Bharathi, in response to Dr Krishnasaamy.
Activists and writers have said, rightly so, that the level of abuse and threats which Divya got online could have been quelled if Dr Krishnasamy had intervened, asking people not to indulge in such discourse. As Divya asks, why such a furore only now, and not when the documentary was released months ago? The sequence of events points strongly towards the attack on Divya being a coordinated, systematic one, sponsored by a political combine after the accusations on Chitra Selvi.
Dr Krishnasamy says his statement on the documentary had nothing to do with the Anna University video or Chitra Selvi. But activists ask, can a senior leader really wash his hands off by saying that he cannot be held responsible for the parallel, vicious attacks on Divya?
However, as Savarna writers or activists, we also have to be mindful of our own caste location while calling out misogyny among the Devendra Kula Vellalars.
It must be noted that the struggles of the Devendra Kula Vellalars to be called as such, and not as ‘Pallars’ or other such names, and to be relieved from the stigma of the ‘SC’ label, is not new. And it has been backed by the BJP, and we – as Savarna people – are in no position to tell them who they should be taking support from. This also explains why many of the ‘abusive’ calls to Divya could have been from ‘BJP’ numbers as she claims.
The story has now spiraled into another shining example of liberal India being crushed by right-wing BJP. Here is an example:
It is not as simple as that.
It is important to hear some of the voices in social media which bring the much-needed nuance to the chaos.
I do not endorse those threats or calls of abuse against the filmmaker but I am quite perplexed about this ‘Saviour...Posted by Karthikeyan Damodaran on Tuesday, 1 August 2017
Of course, the misogyny and abuse against Divya Bharati cannot be condoned or justified, and the battle against it has to be fought without conditions. As one of the posts above says, the fight against misogyny has to be fought within Dalit-Adivasi communities too.
Let’s also not lose sight of what the Devendra Kula Vellars are asking for – agency in how they are being represented – which Divya, being a Savarna film-maker, has clearly refused even after being asked for it. The demand doesn’t justify the verbal attacks, the verbal attacks cannot nullify the just demand.