3 Dalit youngsters who are breaking caste barriers to script own stories

  • Manoj Sharma, New Delhi
  • Updated: Mar 13, 2016 14:28 IST
Arjun Singh had to run from pillar to post to organise funds for his film. (Kedar Jain/ HT Photo)

At a time when incidents such as University of Hyderabad scholar Rohith Vemula’s suicide and the arrest of JNU union leader Kanhaiya Kumar have raised the country’s caste consciousness to a whole new level, many youngsters among us work towards uplifting the backward castes through mediums as varied as chalk and cheese.

Take Arjun Singh, for instance, who toiled for years in an environment of poverty and cynicism to make a movie on Dalit idol Kanshi Ram; Ashok Das, who went from hiding his Dalit identity to championing it through his work as a journalist; or Bal Gangadhar Bagi, who found the keenest platform to battle discrimination in something as fluid as poetry. A look into the lives of Singh, Das and Bagi — three Dalit artistes who strive to achieve a common goal in a discriminatory world, but in completely different ways.

Capturing his idol on celluloid

Even as a teenager, 24-year-old Arjun Singh was deeply influenced by late Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader Kanshi Ram. He felt the leader’s life was a message that needed to be taken to Dalit youths, and cinema was the way to do so. But Singh had a problem: he had neither the money nor any formal training in filmmaking.

After a three-year-long struggle, Singh realised his dream. The Great Leader: Kanshi Ram, a feature film he had directed and produced, is ready to hit the silver screen.

However, the story of Singh’s struggle to make the biopic is as inspiring as the movie itself.

In 2012, Singh dropped out of college and headed to Mumbai to work as an assistant with Vijay Solanki, a Bhojpuri director. Six months later, he returned to his hometown, Gwalior, and made a documentary, Atyachar, to test his newly acquired filmmaking skills.

He screened the documentary, the story of a village head who perpetrated unspeakable atrocities on the poor, regaling critics and the audience alike. “This gave me the confidence to work on my dream of making the Kanshi Ram movie, “ said Singh. “All I needed was funds.”

But that was to be a very difficult task.

Singh approached district and state-level netas, confident that he would get all the support he needs from BSP politicians. “They made tall promises for months but did nothing. One of them promised financial help once I registered my own production house. Taking him on his word, I set up Baba Film Maker -- named after BR Ambedkar -- but the leader stopped taking my calls.”

Just when all hope seemed lost, Singh went to see Dr MR Raipuriya, a Gwalior-based college teacher who had done a PhD on Kanshi Ram. “You came to my house by cycle... how will you make the movie?” he asked.

“I replied that even Kanshi Ram started his journey on a cycle,” said Singh. “ Impressed, he suggested I approach intellectuals within the Dalit community instead of politicians. He himself contributed Rs 50,000.”

“It worked for a while. I collected Rs 3. 5 lakh, and then approached a few people with the offer of becoming a co-producer for my movie. Two people came forward and contributed Rs 3 lakh. I now had Rs 6.5 lakh. I knew it still was not enough, but I started on the project anyway,” Singh said.

Raipuriya wrote the story, Singh wrote the screenplay and hired theatre artistes to feature in the movie. Raghvendra Singh Rathore, a theatre artist, agreed to play Kanshi Ram for Rs 2 lakh.

But the money was spent in a few days, and with no further funding in sight, Singh asked his mother for help. His mother decided to sell the family’s ancestral land, and his wife sold her jewellery. With the Rs 20 lakh he got from this, Singh began shooting once again. “ I shot for a month and a half at a stretch, and completed the film. I hope to release it by April.”

The film has two songs and 50 characters.

Sing said he learnt a lot about life and politics during the making of the movie. “I have begun to wonder if Dalit politicians really care for the community,” he said. He has a message for Dalit youths: “Do not trust politicians of any party. Be your own light.”

Caste in a new journalistic mould

Ashok Das, 31, always wanted to be a journalist. However, when he finally became one, he found the going tough. A few days into his first job with a Hindi newspaper, he felt he was being treated ‘differently’. “After studying mass communication at IIMC, I joined a well- known Hindi daily in Maharashtra in 2006. My colleagues would insist on knowing my second name. I often lied,” said Das, admitting that he used the surname ‘Kumar’ to hide his Dalit identity.

Ashok Das publishes a magazine called Dalit Dastak. (Saumya Khandelwal/HT Photo)

Not comfortable with hiding his caste, Das quit in a couple of months. “I joined another Hindi paper in UP, and this time I let everyone know that I was a Dalit. But again, I felt a sense of unease among my colleagues, most of whom were from the upper caste,” he said. “I was denied a promotion, and I knew it had nothing to do with my performance. I quit once again.”

In 2010, he changed his second name to Das and became the Delhi correspondent of a Marathi paper. “After that, most people thought I was someone from West Bengal or Orissa. No one asked questions about my caste anymore.”

Das, however, felt that the mainstream media — especially Hindi newspapers — was not giving enough coverage to stories on atrocities against Dalits. So, in 2012, he decided to launch his own magazine — the Dalit Dastak.

Das says that the magazine, with a readership of over one lakh, is run mostly through donations. It publishes opinions, interviews, success stories as well as articles on anti-Dalit atrocities.

“It’s not easy to run the magazine because many companies, even those owned by Dalits, are not comfortable with advertising in a Dalit magazine,” said Das, who also co-founded a publication house earlier this year. “The idea is to publish Dalit writers who are otherwise ignored by mainstream publishing houses.”

Have the lives of the Dalit youth changed in the past decade? Das believes so. “Dalit youngsters these days are quite comfortable with who they are. They do not hide their caste anymore,” he said.

His magazine carried two cover stories on Rohith Vemula’s suicide — one with the headline ‘Nahi chahiye ek aur Eklavya’ (We do not need another Eklavya), and a second on how Dalit students continue to face discrimination in premier educational institutions.

Read more: Casteism has deep roots in MP schools: Activists

Das said Rohith Vemula’s suicide has mobilised Dalit youth like never before. “Initially, the news of his suicide came as a shock, but it soon galvanised them into launching fierce protests both offline and online. Social media has ensured that it is no longer possible for people to suppress stories of atrocities on Dalits. Lakhs of Dalit youths used Vemula’s picture as their profile pictures on their social media accounts,” Das said.

Reservation, he said, should continue as long as the caste system remains. “It is the responsibility of the upper castes to end the caste system; only those who made caste can unmake it,” he said.

Das said his biggest dream was to start a Dalit daily newspaper by 2020 — the centenary year of the now-defunct Mook Nayak, a fortnightly launched by Ambedkar in 1920. “It marked the beginning of activist Dalit journalism,” he said.

This rebel seeks ‘poetic justice’

Bal Gangadhar Bagi, 26, firmly believes in the idea of ‘poetic justice’. A young Dalit poet whose work revolves around oppression, social justice, poverty, marginalisation and discrimination, he is a founder of the Bahujan Poetry Forum — a platform to bring together poets from the lower castes.

“Only poetry can capture the pain of the oppressed; people may forget a rousing speech after a few days, but not a deeply felt poem,” he said.

Often invited to recite poetry by Dalit organisations, Bagi is a much sought-after man on April 14 — the birth anniversary of BR Ambedkar. His recitation at a programme titled Ek Sham Baba Sahib Ke Naam in November at Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium got him a standing ovation from a gathering of over 20, 000 people.

Bagi has also received several awards from Buddhist and Ambedkarite organisations. His poetry sessions at JNU, where he is pursuing a PhD, are always well-attended. His two poetry collections — Aakash Neela Hai ( The sky is blue) and Ithas Ke Panno Par ( On the pages of history) — are slated for release later this month.

Gangadhar believes in poetic justice. (Sanjeev Verma / HT Photo)

Bagi, who hails from Basti district in UP, said he decided to give himself this unique surname (Bagi means rebel) because he had a rebellious streak since his childhood.

“In my village upper castes perpetrated atrocities on Dalits and I would often rebel against them. For me everyone who is oppressed, underprivileged and living on the margins is a Dalit. The whole objective of my life is demolition of the caste system and poetry is my weapon,” he said.

Read more: Varsity students can lodge caste discrimination cases online

Bagi generally writes his poetry on the go. “A dog in a luxury car, a man in torn clothes, a child begging on streets are all subjects of my poetry. I stop and type out my thoughts on my smart phone, which I then refine at home. I really wonder, when people can love dogs so much why cannot they love fellow human beings?” he asked.

What does he think of the recent occurrences at JNU? The real issue, he said, is not Kanhaiya but Rohith. “The Kanhaiya episode was a conspiracy by all political parties — including the BJP, the Congress and the Communists — to divert attention from Vemula’s suicide.”

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