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. It began with Kaushal Panwar narrating her harrowing tale for about twenty minutes: from her childhood where she was forced to join her mother in cleaning shit to her pursuit of a PhD in Sanskrit. I was glad that the audience heard her say that the discrimination she had experienced in her school in a Haryana village was no different from what she faced in the enlightened campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi—where she continues to be denied a rightful job.
Following Kaushal, we were allowed a glimpse into the life of Balwant Singh, author of the tract An Untouchable in the IAS. I noticed a shot of him looking up to a larger-than-life portrait of Dr B.R. Ambedkar in his Saharanhpur house, 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, had said in his interview that he was perhaps the first and only IAS officer ever to be demoted to the rank of tehsildar. That had been edited out. I intuitively felt the show was going to scrupulously avoid any mention of two key ideas—Reservation and Ambedkar. I was hoping to be proved wrong. I wasn’t.
How did Kaushal Panwar do her BA, MA and PhD and land a job with Delhi University? What is it that facilitates access to hitherto-excluded spaces for dalits? What is the one policy that enables dalits to stop cleaning shit and reclaim their humanity? The one weapon that helps them get an education? Get a 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 programme where “the only solution turns out to be nothing more than emotional catharsis”.
Not surprisingly, Khan would also not mention the fact that an atrocity is committed on 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 that I had seen—on prenatal sex determination and domestic violence—was nowhere on display here. 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, the mother and daughter, Surekha Bhotmange and Priyanka Bhotmange, had not just been raped repeatedly but 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 A and R. In a cringe-worthy moment, Stalin even fawned on Khan and congratulated him for taking up the issue of untouchability on television 65 years after independence.
This was followed by homilies from His Holiness, Justice (retired) C.S. Dharmadhikari, who in his self-introduction, pretending to denounce labels, paraded every label of privilege that adorned his CV—including the ‘blessings’ allegedly bestowed by Adi Sankara on his ancestors. This man could equally pompously announce his Deshastha Brahmanness as his apparent rejection of it. I would have given up right then but for the fact that I had spotted Bezwada Wilson in the audience, and I was waiting to see if this leader of the Safai Karamchari Andolan—a man who had pioneered the demolition of dry latrines across India—would salvage the morning. He too was asked to narrate his early life, and he too shed tears. As did Khan with practised ease.
The next day I called Wilson and told him I was annoyed that even he did not bother to mention Ambedkar and Reservation. Wilson clarified that he indeed had. It had been edited out, as was his rant against the Supreme Court and Parliament—since both institutions had been 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 being 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 total isolation, in an empty studio. And yet on Sunday we saw, every once in a while, close-ups of fretful, anxious, pained and agonised faces of members of the studio audience as Kaushal was narrating her story. They even clapped on cue, like when Khan asked Kaushal 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 further found 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 8 July 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 an exponent of ‘dalit capitalism’, watched the show with Kamble in Pune, they could not believe their eyes. Kamble’s interview with Khan had been shot with Dharmadhikari and Kamble seated next to each other on the studio couch; but Kamble had been weeded out. Prasad wondered if some ‘dirty trick editing’ made this possible. More likely, Dharmadhikari took a leaf out of Khan’s book and did not mind giving a ‘fresh take’ minus the unsuitable presence of Kamble. I also discovered that every participant on the show is forced to 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”. Perhaps Khan and his ghostwriters did not ever hear about what young Bhimrao had to face right in Satara at age 10. 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—an issue largely and sadly neglected even within the dalit movement—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 held a view that 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 is publisher, Navayana. A shorter, edited version of this appears in print.
What S. Anand fails to mention in his column Silence Eva Jayate (Jul 23) while quoting Gandhi on night-soil cleaners is that Gandhi said those words in 1934, when times were different, and he’s criticising them in 2012, when the world has changed so much. What Gandhi said was meant to bestow honour upon the untouchables, and in those times, it might have been necessary. And why should Aamir Khan necessarily bring up Ambedkar and reservations? Can’t we discuss untouchability without those shibboleths?
George Cheriyan, Bangkok
I’d like to ask Anand when was the last time he did something even a 100 people took note of? It’s easy to criticise, perched on our armchairs. Aamir is raising awareness and sensitising the middle class to various issues. And any TV programme needs editing to make it watchable. Maybe Anand should host a TV show to tell us how to deal with “middle-class shit”.
Hemanth Raj, Gloucester
I thank Anand for speaking up against the deification of Gandhi as the saviour of Dalits and the constant efforts to erase the efforts of Ambedkar.
I quote Aamir to answer the questions Anand has raised: “Through this show we try to understand the problems of the people. We are not here to make a change. I am no one to change anything. I feel understanding a problem, showing feeling for those facing it, hugging them is also important.”
Vishakh Unnikrishnan, Bhubaneswar
The truth, it seems, has to be edited, morphed and photoshopped to suit one’s purpose. There’s a strong undercurrent of disingenuity in Aamir’s manner. It’s effective communication, no doubt; but so was Nazi propaganda. Besides, all his ventures have corporate sponsorship: Satyamev Jayate is sponsored by Reliance.
Nityanand Jayaraman, Chennai
I am at a loss to understand why the show should even mention the ‘A’ and the ‘R’ words. Why can’t we grow up and look at casteism and untouchability without the older frameworks? As for the show being edited, does Anand think no one knows how such shows are prepared for broadcast? Granted Aamir’s is a packaged effort; but if it can bring about even one per cent change, it’s worthwhile.
Karpagam K., Dubai
By not bringing up ‘A’ and ‘R’, Aamir stuck to the core issue: manual scavenging.
Haridas Mandal, Hyderabad
There’s a yawning gap between reel life and real life. Aamir, an intelligent actor, has used Satyamev as just another project. It provides an hour or two for the middle class to shed a few tears in guilt. What beats me is the need for such pretentious efforts.
Ratul Mukhopadhyay, Patna
Aamir’s show is based on his beliefs, combined with what the business aspect such productions allow. At least he’s trying to do something, bringing serious issues to people’s notice. This habit of tearing to shreds—as Anand’s done—anyone who tries to do something must end.
T.S. Sothy, on e-mail
Why blame Aamir alone? Don’t we all know our class affiliations often influence the solutions we offer to the world’s problems?
G. Rajasekaran, Salem
For God’s sake, Anand, spare Ambedkar. Ambedkar is for all Indians, not just for Dalits—or for people who have made a career out of Dalit activism.
In every episode of Satyamev, I see a subtle campaign for the Congress. It won’t be long before Aamir joins the Congress campaign trail.
Srinivas N.R.J., on e-mail
It’s Aamir’s show. The subject he chooses are his, as is the treatment. If it is slickly produced and has the desired impact on his audience, it’s successful—period! I don’t understand Anand’s anguish. So what if Aamir doesn’t mention the ‘A’ or ‘R’ words. I think the show focused on our social interactions and how society deals with Dalits. Anand should remember it’s a TV show, not a PhD thesis.
Ashutosh Kaul, Toronto
Anand forgets Ambedkar wanted reservation only for 10 years, not till eternity.
R. Narasimhan, Chennai
Aamir’s show was less about reservation and more about untouchability—and the continuing bane of manual scavenging. The episode definitely highlighted what it meant to. Reservation is a different topic—albeit related. Anand is churning the pot with his mischievous article.
Lalitha S., Chennai
Aamir is a mere anchor on the show, delivering lines that have been scripted, following dos and don’ts set for the show. Complex dissection of issues is beyond the purview of such shows. But Gandhi, by eulogising scavenging, has done a disservice to the communities trapped in the demeaning task. The show should have mentioned this.
A.K. Biswas, Calcutta
Hate-mongers like Anand and Kancha Ilaiah need to be ignored, that’s all.
Gandhar, on e-mail
S. Anand hits the nail on the head (Silence Eva Jayate, Jul 23). I recall that during the ‘Youth For Equality’-led agitations against reservations for doctors in PG, Aamir had sided with those sceptical about the competence of doctors from ‘reservation backgrounds’. As for Gandhi’s views on manual scavenging, it is also very much in keeping with his condescending views on the people he gave a now-proscribed broad label to.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
The raging controversy on Aamir Khan’s show captured my attention. I have been an avid follower of the show. And consider myself to be an educated, rational thinking individual. And so to add to this debate, here is yet another viewpoint.
On the surface of it, there is little to dispute in Anand’s ‘Silence Eva Jayate’ featured in the Outlook and thereafter gone viral. There can be many flaws that jar the eye in SMJ and challenge the viewer’s rational thinking. And I do not seek to defend them. However, I think a broader view would probably condone most if not all of them.
Let’s begin with a couple of the typical rejoinders thrown at the programme. The first and most common one is about the payment that Aamir Khan receives for his role and hence how it devalues the entire show. For one, the inherent suggestion that if the content of an entertainment programme is of a ‘moral’ or ‘social’ nature, then remuneration goes against its grain is outright ridiculous. By that logic, no social documentaries, public welfare campaigns can profit from a pretty face or a popular one. Remuneration, at its root, acknowledges the effort that has been undertaken! And there has been some effort here. By turning the focus of the show and the discussion on the host, we undermine the issue on hand. Let’s be clear that the focus of the show remains the issues it presents. Whether it’s an actor aka Aamir Khan hosting it or a cricketer or a politician has to be immaterial. Just as one walks away from a book, wondering more about its characters and the story and less about the author, let’s have the intelligence to separate the chaff from the grain. And at a more mundane level, let’s acknowledge that Aamir Khan has spent money to research, shoot and air the programme. And that would not have been free of cost. Do we really expect him to shell out the money to educate us?
The next typical criticism that the program bears is of its crafty editing and manipulative techniques. Let’s start by acknowledging it. And then move on to also acknowledge it is not a documentary. None of the promoters of the show claim this to be the work of a research thesis and neither does the audience expect it to be one. It is as the host himself highlights ‘a forum to highlight some of the social issues our country faces that captured his attention’. And a forum it remains. Not a documentary, not a film and definitely not a public-welfare campaign. And honestly, it should also remain ‘issues that captured his attention’ albeit ones that should capture ours as well.
Now let me take a different look at SMJ, despite all its criticisms and about people who ‘mumbled something about his spoiling my Sunday, but tuned in nevertheless”. By no means is this program a panacea to all the ills that Indian society faces, ills that make me cringe to call myself an Indian and cause me to falter when I take up my country’s cause in front of those ‘cultureless westerners” (Yes I am a NRI). As a student of feminism and history, as someone who had seen these ills at close quarters and as someone who railed against it in the small confines of my family, this program came as a liberation – as the first mainstream attempt of putting the issues out there. I deliberately say mainstream because there are and have been innumerable crusaders in their homes and in khadi clothes (yes the euphemism for the NGO types) who have been steadily losing their battles to rid our society of its nefarious cultural shames. It has reached minds (however closed) that would have shut down discussions with a stare or worse still the ubiquitous Indian slap (?). It has emboldened the tired warriors to once again take on their fathers, mothers, grandparents, uncles, aunts and who not and enlist more such warriors. And may be turn the tide this time in their battles... whenever that glorious moment will come.
None of the issues spoken about on SMJ are going to be done away by laws or an enlightened enforcement mechanism (considering we seem to have laws on just about everything written in some dark corner of the “what was that called again” constitution). It will change only with the change in each Indian’s thinking and behavior.
Now, the issue of Dalits and the interestingly virulent criticism of side stepping the issue of R and A (Reservation and Ambedkar, as I myself just learnt). I would actually venture to congratulate the SMJ team on this. Not because the program has, in my very humble opinion, skirted these issues but because it has sort to keep the focus firmly on the human factor and more importantly keep it at that basic denominator where none of our 1.2 Billion people (at least sane ones, any left?) can deny the shame. The program has sort to bring together everyone on a common platform – reach a consensus on acknowledging the ill. The consensus at the basic level: is that not the first step towards solving it?
SMJ could have turned on a tap to flower Ambedkar but at what expense? By alienating those who do not even understand the great man’s work and whose only understanding of his crusade is now maligned by corrupt and self-serving politicians? Or are we going to talk about reservations without dredging up all the immolations in 1991 that were senseless and divided a nation on an issue it neither acknowledged widely nor discussed maturedly?
I can wax and wane about reservations and Ambedkar’s contributions. But all that it will get me is perfectly valid arguments from the other side of the aisle (whichever it is). Introducing areas of inherent controversy divides the audience and steps away from acknowledging the issue. The need of the hour is for us to educate and force as many of our 1.2 billion co-citizens of the urgent need to change our social fabric. Then comes the extensive education needed to have mature discussions that can also excite the intellectual, arm-chair enthusiasts.
Before you decide to target me as naïve and a coward, I assure you I am not. I am not naïve that we will not have to face these questions. Neither do I fear encountering them. But if everyone agrees that discrimination due to family of birth is wrong, then I am just ever so slightly more optimistic that I can have a more intelligent discussion on reservation. Because reservation is just one of many tools to end this ill but if we do not acknowledge the issue, the tools remain meaningless.
Excellent article by Sanjay. Many congratulations to Sanjay and Outlook. He has hit where it hurts the most The reservation policy has been vindicated and justified by numerous judgements of verious courts including the Supreme court of the land but still the middle-class is unable to digest it. The reason is very simple - they would never understand the sufferings, humiliation and discrimination a very large section of the society have been going through for past many centuries. Who have benefitted from all these things - it is no secret - the same middle class. And Aamir would make sure that any of his program does not alienate the most vocal, visible and important audience that is middle class. Aamir would definately not create a program on how urban middle class - working women (you term them as liberated/ independent/ empowered working women) are engaging and exploiting 24X7 slaves - (you call it by fancy names such as domestic help/ maids)..yeah they are converting large
population of poor women/tribals of places like Jharkhand, Orissa..into slaves...imprisoned
in the homes scores of working class of metros. It is challenge to Aamir to create a program on the plight of urban slaves imprisoned in the houses of urban middle class in modern India. I am eagerly waiting.
The number of comments and the vast number of likes and dislikes are proof of the passion this article has raised. To be fair to Anand, he’s not the first to point out flaws in the Amir episodes; however, his subject – caste – is what has raised temperatures.
I’m not very sure about the anti-arguments. If edits have been made that cut out very relevant portions of a debate such as this, it needs to be pointed out; if a discussion about manual scavenging and caste omits earlier debates, mention of about Ambedkar, reservation, etc., it needs to be informed to readers – it is part of journalistic ethics to expose flaws in narratives and helping readers to place events within a context.
This core ethic should not be compromised just because Amir Khan happens to be the producer. Viewers are not watching his great acting from one of the many movies he’s done, but watching a real human interest real story. They are being informed and are forming opinions – and for many of them it’s a first about issues such as caste, child marriage, scavenging and all the rest. While it is understandable that such programmes usually have to cater to middle-class sensibilities, because they happen to comprise the largest and most vocal viewership, pillorying a writer for pointing this out is way over the top – and a reflection of our own squeamishness about facing up to truths.
One also finds the “at least Amir helped to focus attention” argument superfluous, at least in regard to this forum. To say that many in this forum had heard of such practices as manual scavenging only after Amir’s show is stretching one’s imagination – unless one assumes that the middle class is just not bothered about its shit (sarcasm intended). Most newspapers have raised this issue one time or the other; a detailed report can be found at http://www.flonnet.com/fl2318/index.htm.
Would Amir’s show lead to some lasting change (not at least one less scavenger or at least one less child marriage)? I remain sceptical of TV-induced, arm-chair responses, but let’s hope for the best. At least many can no longer plead lack of knowledge.
An old African proverb says: “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” – Imagine a show where the narrator is a manual scavenger, the producer is a rich Dalit, the show is a huge hit with the middle class, we have genuine empathy for the narrator, we square up to our own biases and get agitated for all the right reasons. That would be some programme.
>> also well off and live in urban metros with near absent untouchability. The law is very ambigous on whether such folks should benefit from affirmative action that favours the dalits.
It is not so ambiguous. The purpose of the law was to create more such well-off couples that will provide self-sustaining assertive political voice so that not every vulnerable person or couple has to look over their shoulder all the time to protect their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
>>how to we frame laws to cover both ends of the spectrum?
Laws are generally intended to protect those who need protection. If you have access to data from Tata Institute of Social Studies, it is not that hard to figure out who those are. Most of the time it's a matter of will, otherwise even doing the laundry is complicated.
Jaipat S Jain >> The men who provided for reservation - both for the scheduled castes and tribes - dreamed of an inclusive society the like of which never existed in India. Alas, reservations have been a wedge issue rather than a collective effort at setting things right. What a shame.
It is not about shame. it is more because the world in 2012 is much more complex than in 1952. A simple example is consider the case of children of inter caste couples (where one of parent is dalit and one is a upper caste) who are also well off and live in urban metros with near absent untouchability. The law is very ambigous on whether such folks should benefit from affirmative action that favours the dalits. And this is just one example. India as a nation exists not just one one century but in many centuries, we have places where medevial practices exist and places where 2012 era liberals rule and command. And how to we frame laws to cover both ends of the spectrum?
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