For Canadians who may not be aware of the ongoing caste-based oppression in the world’s so-called largest democracy, the latest Hindi crime drama Article 15 is worth watching.
It's the story of a police officer (played by Ayushmann Khurrana) who comes from a privileged background and who confronts structural violence against Dalits, or so-called untouchables, both within and outside the department.
The film touches upon some recent incidents of caste-based brutalities in India, including the gang rape and murders of two Dalit girls whose bodies were later hanged a tree, and the public flogging of Dalit men by right-wing goons. Certainly, some alterations have been made with the names of individuals and places and the context. But for those who have been following news from India, it is not coincidental.
The movie also exposes how upper-caste Hindus continue to discriminate against Dalits under an ancient caste system that refuses to die in spite of article 15 of the Indian constitution, which bars this. Ironically, the Indian constitution was coauthored by a towering scholar and Dalit icon, Dr. Bhim Rao Ambedkar, who was repeatedly referred to in the film.
In fact, one of the characters in the movie is based on a living legend, Dalit activist Chandrashekhar Azad, founder of Bhim Army. It's a revolutionary group named after Bhim Rao Ambedkar.
Azad was arrested and detained under National Security Act for his resistance against Dalit repression.
The film goes to the extent of showing how those who embrace the caste system have become emboldened under a right-wing Hindu nationalist government that currently governs India. It pulls no punches when it comes to revealing the doublespeak of the mainstream political parties of Dalits, which have frequently aligned with the right-wing parties for their survival and deceived their own community.
These parties have also abandoned the Bhim Army, which advocates for radical change to the system.
Without making it obvious, Article 15 shows how leaders of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party are trying to appropriate Dalits in the name of Hindu nationalism and making them believe in their integrity through a public display of fake unity by dining with them.
The film also reveals how caste-based prejudices are deeply entrenched in the police department that either protects the oppressors or is complicit in such crimes. Officers refuse to take water from them and often contemptuously describe Dalits as “these people” and blame them for crimes, even with the atrocities inflicted upon them by upper-caste goons.
In one scene a police officer blames Dalits for going inside a Hindu temple and inviting upon themselves the punishment of a public flogging. This particular character is shown as dog lover who gives away biscuits to stray dogs, but he is also involved in sexual violence against Dalit women and justifies the discriminatory caste system.
The role of the Indian state is powerfully exposed, irrespective of who has been in power for the past many years in strengthening such a system. This itself is a powerful statement against a state that claims to be secular, but actually remains a majoritarian Hindu nation that is not willing to shed its caste privilege.