A few months back, I watched the Tamil movie, Jai Bhim, a movie that narrated the struggle of Sengani, a woman from the Irular community in Tamil Nadu who takes on a legal fight against the Tamil Nadu police as she searches for her husband, Rajakannu, who is murdered in police custody over a false case. The film shows how the Irular community is often at the receiving end of casteist police brutality in Tamil Nadu. Sengani meets advocate Chandru, who takes up the case to prove that Rajakannu was murdered and wins Sengani compensation in the form of land and a house in her name in the middle of the village – a landmark judgment given the casteist history of the village. That this is a true story makes the movie so much more powerful.
The title Jai Bhim is an ode to Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, independent India’s first Law Minister, the man behind the Indian constitution, and one of the most profound Dalit leaders in the fight for Dalit and women’s rights. I do think Ambedkar’s ideas are far more structural than just confined to the legal arena but he did foreground legal rights for Dalits and women in many ways, including Hindu women’s right to property. As a feminist who grew up in India, I was rarely educated about the feminist struggle that Ambedkar led, even resigning from his position as law minister because upper-caste Hindu men blocked the Hindu Code Bill, which included legislation regarding intercaste marriage, divorce, property rights, maintenance, guardianship, and inheritance. Read my review of Against the Madness of Manu: B.R. Ambedkar’s Writings on Brahmanical Patriarchy which includes his writing and speeches about caste and patriarchy. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1329055049 Coming back to the movie, while Ambedkar and Marx are present all through the movie as guiding forces for advocate Chandru, the concluding scenes of the movie with the background song, gave me goosebumps. I am a sucker for such movies.
Tamil, as a language, is beautifully poetic and emotive. Although I speak Tamil at home, I’ve never learned Tamil formally, but I’ve always felt that Tamil allows me to feel like no other language does. I digress but I played this song on repeat when I was going through some tough times and you’ll see why. The song offers a wonderful way to think about justice. It’s one thing to think of yourself as a lone warrior in the struggle but as the film shows, during the darkest times, there will be compassion in the world. In material ways, the film shows that when Sengani fights the case in the court, activists take the fight in the streets bringing attention to the case and making it impossible for the powers to ignore her struggle. As the song says, even the thorniest forest has flowers. The first four lines of the song go like this:
Mannile Eeramundu [There is moisture in the sand. PS: Moisture is often a metaphor for compassion in Tamil]
Mulkkattil Poovumundu [Even in a thorny jungle, there are flowers]
Nambinaal Naalai Undu [If you trust, there will be a tomorrow]
Kai Thaanga Jeevanundu [There are lives who will give you a hand]
A capitalist world is one that tells us to be paranoid about people around us. It further fosters an individualistic culture where people are encouraged to protect their lives by accumulating more wealth. This song and movie ask us to question that instinct and instead nudges us to trust in the kindness of people. My favorite four lines from the song pay tribute to both the courage of those who struggle and the compassion in the world.
Unmai vazhi nee nadanthe povathu thaan vaazhvin aram [Walking the path of truth is the purpose of your life]
Anbin kodi aethi veikka thunai serum kodi karam [To hoist the flag of love, a crore hands will rise in support]
Thedal illaatha Uyir undo sollamma [Is there a life without a quest?]
Ellam unnulle, Athai thedu kannamma [Everything is within you, seek it my dear]
Here’s the song. It ends with some information about the Irular community and about Chandru, who later on went on to become a judge and gave various progressive verdicts on many cases of police brutality, caste bias, and women’s rights. It also ends with a quote on Ambedkar.
Jai Bhim is light
Jai Bhim is love
Jai Bhim is the path from darkness to light.
Jai Bhim is the tears of millions of people – A Marathi Poet.
But notice the statue of Lenin in front of the girl, as well. Chandru’s politics inspired by Marx, Lenin, and Ambedkar is visible at every point in the movie.
Having watched the movie, I became curious about Justice Chandru and checked out his new book, Listen to my Case. When Women Approach the Courts of Tamil Nadu. It’s an easy read where the author, Justice Chandru summarizes various cases where women approached the Madras High Court for justice. It seems like if there has been an injustice of some sort, some woman in Tamil Nadu has taken the struggle to the court. Whether justice was served even when the woman won the case is debatable in some cases but in all the cases, there is no doubt that there is a brave woman who decided not to bow down. The cases in the book are about police brutality, gender bias, trans rights, sexual violence, and discrimination among others. The cases of police brutality are indeed heart-wrenching and I am not convinced that the court is the way to seek justice against casteist brutality entrenched in the police state.
I started writing this post because this book became a little more personal in a very pleasant way. I had done my dissertation on Anganwadi workers (child care workers) in Tamil Nadu. I could have chosen to conduct my fieldwork anywhere in Tamil Nadu. But I chose to go to Thiruvarur district. Eventually, I had to change districts for other reasons but I had decided on this area because I happened to read a case decision in the Madras High Court – D.Pothumallee vs District Collector, Thiruvarur. Pothumallee, an Anganwadi worker had approached the High Court to argue that the administration should follow the prevalent affirmative action policy that reserves seats for Dalits in the recruitment of Anganwadi workers. Till then, the Tamil Nadu government had not been implementing the affirmative action policy in the case of Anganwadi workers because they were honorary workers and not full-time government employees (which is a bigger issue in it’s own right). I remember feeling very inspired about my research as I read this progressive verdict. I didn’t notice the judge but I remember thinking that the anganwadi workers in this area must be courageous women who used the law to challenge casteism in the institutions and in society. I had to meet these women! The favorable verdict, in that case, had resulted in Dalit women’s recruitment as Anganwadi teachers and cooks. Untouchability is most visible in the context of food. Upper caste families and other non-Dalit families often refuse to eat food cooked by Dalits. By upholding reservation in positions of cooks and Anganwadi teachers, this judgment has challenged very deep-rooted caste bias. Caste bias still continues in the villages that I visited but this judgment and the many Dalit women I interviewed would continue to demonstrate mighty courage as they challenge caste discrimination every step of the way. As I read about the case, I went back to check the decision. This verdict was given by Justice Chandru. In many ways, Justice Chandru had influenced my research without my knowing. I also needed to read this book to be reminded of the Anganwadi workers whose courage had inspired my research. A pleasant surprise indeed 🙂