Movie Article 15: Casteist India: Do We all deserve punishment for violating Article 15?

Movie: Article 15: Do We all deserve punishment for violating Article 15?

Author: Ms. Udita Singh, Law Faculty, Law Centre, DU.

Co-ordinator: Ms. Paavni Thareja

We all feel proud of being born an Indian. The diversity in languages, cultures, and habits form a part of our identity- as individuals and as citizens. After all, “Unity in Diversity” is our strength. Two Indians are never alike and yet there is no discrimination. There is a sense of inclusiveness in our diversity. Our politicians have played a pivotal role since Independence to make India one, despite the cultural, linguistic and religious differences. Our media houses show the brotherhood we Indians believe in. Oh, Wait! I skipped the disclaimer at the beginning. “This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.” How badly I wish that the “unity in diversity” we boast about was a reality and not a myth. Yet, unfortunately, the reality is scarier and saddening. We all are guilty of infringing Article 15 of the Indian Constitution. This article prohibits discrimination of any sort on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Admittedly,  this is hardly adhered to in India. Recently, a Bollywood film “ARTICLE 15” directed by Anubhav Sinha, starring Ayushmann Khurrana in the lead, made it to the silver screen. The movie is a mirror showcasing the brutal truth of India’s Caste- divide, thus disregarding what our Constitution provides.

Movies are a reflection of what society beholds. It is a personification of history, present and future of the society we live in. Director Sinha stated that “this film is an investigative drama where the audience too is an accused party.” If reel and real combine, one sees a mirror- appreciating the beauty, yet noticing the freckles, marks, pain and the truth. The movie has its roots in the infamous Badaun Rape Case of 2014 which gained both national and international attention, where two Dalit sisters were found hanging from a tree, after being brutally gang-raped. In a statement, the humanitarian organization ‘Save the Children India’ called the attack “a part of an alarming trend of brutal violence against those from marginalized communities”. The plot of the movie follows one police officer’s attempt to figure out what happened and why. What initially looked like a case of honor killing, soon unfolded as a grave consequence of the upper-lower caste divide in a rural area. The movie further shows the ugly nexus between police, businessmen, politicians and CBI officials. It portrays a failed attempt of CBI officials to negate the possibility of rape and murder. It is quite similar to the reality in the Badaun case where the CBI announced on 27 November 2014 that they have concluded that the two cousins were not sexually assaulted and murdered as police initially said, but took their own lives. In December 2015, the POCSO court of Badaun, in a written verdict of 25 pages, rejected CBI’s closure report. Additional district judge Virendra Kumar Pandey dismissed the CBI’s closure report.  The movie is thought-provoking, hard-hitting and portrays the social evils of India in the most brutal and honest manner. It answers all uncomfortable questions without underplaying any issue. It is not a mere “dramatic representation”, but the reality we all witness but ignore. The sarcastic tone, the underlying humor, and the poetic dialogues highlight the problems of India in 2019. No movie can change the reality magically, yet it can start a journey by initiating a change through discussion and acceptance of an evil that plagues our minds and society.

Indian society is badly plagued by the Caste-divide. I have heard more “pandit jis”, “Singh saabs”, “khan bhais” than being called by their first name in colleges, offices and other places. While this may seem harmless at the offset, but it does reflect our mindsets. We have developed a tendency to associate people with the caste they belong to. It defines us more than anything else. Meet a new person and he will inevitably judge you on the basis of the second name you carry. But I fail to find logic in how being born in a certain family qualifies someone to be an “upper” or “lower” being. What pride does any caste hold in today’s time, and who gives the license to anyone to label someone else as a “lower being” in a democratic country like India? The questions are many, but answers are lost.

To understand the issue it is important to know the background of the caste system. Initially, it was a way of dividing society into differently ranked tiers of people on the basis of occupation. A person who was born in a particular family necessarily had to take up that occupation by virtue of his birth. This led to a clearly demarcated caste division. The ones belonging to Lower castes were denied access to basic healthcare and education and often shunned entirely from society and left to do jobs considered ‘unclean’ such as waste disposal, toilet cleaning, and cremation. Dalits, also known as ‘untouchables’ who were considered to be outside of the caste system, suffered particularly badly under this system- Indian History is marked with stories of ‘untouchable’ children being spat on and forced to bathe in the same water like animals. The localities for lower castes were usually made outside the main area where only the upper castes were allowed to stay.

The caste system and untouchability stand together and will fall together. Prior to Independence, people from upper castes considered touching people from lower castes a sin. Untouchables were restricted from entering houses, temples, schools, etc. of the Upper Caste people. Fortunately, after India’s Independence, The Indian Constitution abolished untouchability under Article 17. The practice of untouchability is an offence and anyone doing so is punishable by law. Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1976 provides penalties for preventing a person from entering a place of worship or from taking water from the tanks. However, it will be ignorant of us to consider this as a problem of the past. The caste divide and untouchability are so intrinsically mixed that in every nook and corner of the country, the Dalits face handicaps, suffer discrimination and are meted out injustice as a daily routine due to the problem of untouchability. It is saddening to realize that untouchability is still “normalized” in our society- the ones who oppress consider it as their right and the ones who are oppressed, consider it as their destiny. It is more common in rural areas than urban areas. In a documentary named “India Untouched: Stories of a People Apart”, it is shown how a Dalit man, removes his slippers to enter the area which is owned or controlled by people belonging to upper caste. And this all is happening in the 21st century, after 70 years of illegalizing untouchability. They are still not allowed to enter temples, draw water from public taps, etc.

In 2006, then PM of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh acknowledged that the practice of untouchability based on caste still exists in India, despite stringent constitutional and legal safeguards. This might sound like a sad state of affairs, but thinking rationally, our politicians have benefitted the most through this caste-divide. I do not see much difference between British Rulers in colonized India and political leaders of Independent India. Just like Britishers, our politicians survive on the politics of “Divide and Rule”. India has seen the majority of the political parties rooting out of a particular caste or religion or representing a certain ideology based on communal thoughts. These shrewd politicians look like “opportunists” waiting for one communal incident to spark the sentiments of the public for gathering votes. The situation currently is worse because there are more debates on “Which religion or caste produces more criminals” than discussing “which political party works more to fight criminals”. However, the onus does not lie on politicians alone. We need to blame ourselves too. For Indian voters, a politician’s caste matters more than his work credentials and ethics. How can the “caste” of a politician determine his political will to improve our lives? It won’t be an exaggeration to say that we choose the leaders who divide us. In Thol.Thirumavalavan vs The Home Secretary, 2013, Madras High Court observed: “Some of the caste-based political parties very often kindle casteism and racism in the minds of the public”. We, the gullible, caste-ridden and ignorant voters fail to see the real intent of the politicians. To allow them to rule us is our mistake and we need to take responsibility.

Our caste is so embedded in our identities that India follows the system of caste-based reservation for the upliftment of backward classes under Article 16 of the Constitution.  The reason given is that certain castes are more oppressed than other castes and thus need upliftment. While reservation surely opened new avenues and provided opportunities to people belonging to oppressed classes, its validity is now again in question. It has become a tool for appeasement and votes bank politics. Our politicians have included a large number of communities in “Other Backward Classes”. By 1990, the quota rose to about 49%, and it applied to groups that were classified as “Other Backward Classes”, “Scheduled Castes,” and “Scheduled Tribes” (groups of historically disadvantaged indigenous Indians). Recently, the Maratha community in Maharashtra has been given reservation. Considering the fact that they are politically and socially influential and their population is in good numbers, such reservation is nothing but mere appeasement. This also leads to persistent demands by other communities to grant them the status of “backward classes”. The example of violent protests by “Patel community” from Gujarat and “jaat community” from Haryana to grant them reservation shows how the states come to a standstill owing to communal tensions. If two communities having such a large population have the power to halt the entire state, are they really “backward”? The problem does not stop there. There is resentment from the general category due to lack of job opportunities in the government sector, owing to a 50% reservation and even more than that in a few states ( Tamil Nadu has about 69% reservation). Further, the poorest and the most oppressed people within the reserved category are not able to get the benefit of reservation. These classes in the reserved categories are the ones who actually need a reservation for upliftment. But unfortunately, the creamy layer of these reserved categories get the maximum benefit- generation after generation. They are already in a situation where they can ensure equal opportunities for their families, they wake enough to ensure justice in case of any oppression, then why do these already uplifted citizens need reservation has to be seriously debated on. In Jarnail Singh vs Lachhmi Narain Gupta, 2018 the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court held that the concept of creamy layer shall be applicable in reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes which is currently applicable only to OBCs. The Court observed that “The whole object of reservation is to see that backward classes of citizens move forward so that they may march hand in hand with other citizens of India on an equal basis. This will not be possible if only the creamy layer within that class bag all the coveted jobs in the public sector and perpetuate themselves, leaving the rest of the class as backward as they always were”. But do we see any political will to give effect to this judgment? obviously not! After all, who will ensure votes if this concept is introduced.

Violence and crime against Dalits and Harijans is another issue that needs to be addressed. It is sad, that years of patriarchy, have made women the worst victims of crimes inspired by castes. It needs to be addressed because Article 15 prohibits discrimination on sex too. The discrimination of Dalit women is two-fold – because they are born both Dalit and a woman. Rape has been used as a weapon to maintain power and discrimination and this has been clear as violence against Dalit women has been on the rise in recent years. The statistics of the National Crime Bureau show that Between 2007 to 2017, crimes against Dalits increased by 66 percent, while rape against Dalit women doubled. To keep them oppressed, even the police don’t file and investigate these crimes, marking them as “trivial”, “insignificant” and “fake”. The political, monetary and muscle power has corroded the police forces. “Crimes against Dalits are often not properly registered or investigated, conviction rates are low, and there is a large backlog of cases. Police are also known to collude with perpetrators from dominant castes in covering up crimes by not registering or investigating offences against Dalits,” a report by Amnesty International said. let’s not ignore another dirty side of the Dalit women oppression. If any Dalit women is raped, she is socially excluded by her own community too. Access to justice for Dalit women in India is a tough battle with little hope due to political nexus.

A note of caution needs to be added for the privileged people like you and me if we think that the caste system, untouchability, and caste-based oppression is prevalent only in Rural Areas. While it is true that the lines of caste demarcation are more visible in rural areas, it is not completely lost in urban areas. Schools, colleges and offices still witness discrimination directly and indirectly. A major problem in urban areas is related to Inter-caste marriage. Our literate and well to do communities are still not open to the idea of inter-caste marriages. Young people marrying someone belonging to another caste, against the “family wishes” is the primary reason why honor killing is on the rise. The recent example from Kerala where a father of a young Brahmin girl murdered his daughter’s husband because he was a Dalit,  is a harsh reality coming from the most literate state of India. Evidently, literacy and humanity have no direct connection and do not always go hand in hand. Can two people belonging to the same caste ensure a happy and lasting marriage? Before questioning others we need to question ourselves to realize how our mind has also built around the caste divide. We need to ask- will I go to a marriage of our maid who belongs to the lower caste? Will my parents allow me to marry someone belonging to a lower caste than mine? Will I have a problem with sharing food, water, etc with a person of any other caste? if we answer in negative, we are equally to be blamed.  In Thol.Thirumavalavan vs The Home Secretary, 2013 the Court observed- “Though our country has developed a lot, caste system, racism, caste discrimination, and untouchability have not changed. some leaders from the caste-based Political parties created animosity between the upper caste people and the Schedule Caste people through their speeches, interview, and writings. Our great leaders like Dr.Ambedkar and Thanthai Periyar greatly fought for the abolition of caste discrimination and they also taught to abolish caste discrimination and their teachings mostly say that inter-caste marriages will be the foremost source for the abolition of the caste system.”

Though illegal, the caste system continues to be one of the key drivers of inequality in India’.  The Hon’ble Supreme Court in Punit Rai V. Dinesh Chaudhary, (2003), observed that the caste system in India is ingrained in the Indian mind. The most deprived, extremely poor people belong to the lower castes, specifically in rural areas. Redressing economic, social and political inequality between the castes is essential. Even after 70 years of Independence, our minds are not free from the evils of the caste divide, untouchability and social abhorrence in the name of religion and caste. We Indians don’t respect the Book which empowers us- our Constitution. Even if the current plight of the nation angers and saddens us, are we doing enough to change the situation or are we simply waiting for a messiah to free us when the evil lies within us? The questions and problems are innumerable, but answers lie within us. The tunnel is long and dark, but there is a light at the end of it. It’s upon us to reach the brighter end of the tunnel.  As the movie suggests- Farq bhot kar liya, ab farg layenge. A few steps here and there, a few movies addressing this issue is not the solution. A collective and bold initiative is the need of the hour.  We need to shun our caste-ridden identities. If we don’t change and become the solution, our politicians will continue their policy of “divide and rule” and our sold media will continue glorifying them. The change should take place from the grassroots level. Why do we need to teach the children about the caste division in Indian society when we should make them learn about fundamental rights. History of the origin of the caste system can never be more important than making the fresh minds of children need more sensitive to social issues. It’s time we start evaluating, questioning and shunning the old and unreasonable notions. We need to have reasoning. Small initiatives are needed- like questioning the need to fill your religion or caste in application forms, or questioning the communal remarks made around us, or questioning the communal speeches made by the politicians. As the movie very rightly suggests- let’s be Indians firstly and lastly. We need to take responsibility as India’s citizens. This is our country, its future is in our hands, and we are the heroes this nation is waiting for.