The same pamphlet that targeted Aam Aadmi Party’s Atishi, also said this about Manish Sisodia: “He is a handsome man but a SC cannot be handsome”. A year ago, a 13-year-old Dalit teenager was beaten up in Gujarat for wearing leather shoes and jeans.
The moment one says the word ‘Dalit’, a particular image, mostly inspired by social media, comes to mind — an image of a half-naked, malnourished person living in a village. Such images are often generated to evoke pity. India’s urban citizens, living in their comfortable apartments, scroll through these pictures — sometimes indifferently, sometimes with a degree of sympathy. And then they move onto something else.
What if someone tells you that Dalits actually look sexy and urbane? Most Indians won’t buy it. Some upper caste people might even get angry and defiant: “If they are wearing good clothes and partying then what the hell ya! What’s the whole fuss about oppression?” But that’s actually the point.
Dalits are not aliens who reside in tiny stories on the fifth page of newspapers. Neither are they limited to remote corners of the country where politicians sometimes visit for a ‘photo-lunch’, bringing their own food and water from outside. Dalits are around you — participating in a college fashion contest, eating a burger at McDonald’s, or hanging out at a pub.
The most important thing that the Dalit movement needs is to change the imagery associated with the word.
It’s important to make Dalits part of mainstream imagery. Perhaps a Dalit with a beer in hand dancing wildly in a nightclub to DJ Snake songs. But the pictures of oppression suit condescending academics and filmmakers. It helps ‘sympathy storytelling’ rather than taking a nuanced look at the subject.
Though perhaps not fully comparable, the situation is different in America. Blacks are not always presented as voiceless and powerless, despite being a historically oppressed community. In fact, Black culture is very much part of the US pop culture, and they are trendsetters in the field of music, fashion, dance, and films. They have a grip over the mainstream imagination and their style is in fact emulated by people across the world.
In India, the situation is quite the opposite. Here Dalits in mainstream films like Lagaan are made to look a certain way and on top of that assigned names like ‘Kachra’ (garbage). Writer Harish Wankhede writes on Dalit representation in Indian cinema: “But the Dalit, as a person, remained distant from the normal imagination of a civilised person. The Dalit character is showcased as scantily dressed and primitive (Mrigaya, 1977), dark and pale (Damul, 1985) patriarchal and alcoholic (Ankur, 1974), corrupt and immoral (Peepli Live, 2010). A Dalit character as a cheerful, happy and a normal family person has hardly been shown on screen.”
‘You don’t look Dalit’
Has the word ‘Dalit’ become synonymous with misfortune and misery? Recent data clearly shows that there is also a growing group of well-to-do Dalits in cities. In addition to opting for medical, IAS and private sector jobs, the new generation of Dalits is also discovering unexplored fields of literature courses, filmmaking and even startups. I am an author and filmmaker from the same community.
This is not to deny the reality of the dismal images, but the debate is about monopolising only one kind of image and being carefully oblivious to others, thus, carrying forward entitled biases. It results in ‘othering’ of a community. This is also the reason why an urban Dalit expressing his/her Dalit identity is often questioned. “But dude, you don’t look like a Dalit,” we are told. After all, what is the use of a smiling and cheerful Dalit who is manoeuvring through the new world in a confident way?
Tips from Ambedkar
Ambedkar who, undoubtedly, is the most visionary leader to be born in the country, wanted to dismantle such images and that is the reason he wore suits. His pictures show an intellectual man dressed in a suit; oozing with confidence — challenging the very idea of how a Dalit should look.
Even the statues of Ambedkar are high on symbolism. Anthropologist Nicolas Jaoul writes, “The statue’s usual iconographic features are the three-piece suit, the tie and the pen clipped in the front pocket, that recall Ambedkar’s excellence in higher education and statesmanship; the raised arm recalls his relentless struggle and his stature as a national leader; and last but not least, the Constitution recalls his contribution as Chairman of the Constitution Committee.”
Every image is symbolic. To change this politics of image-making, Dalits need to create their own unique subversive images, so that they are no longer at the mercy of some unimaginative visual maker.
Perhaps, they can present themselves as the new age intellectuals or Instagram-savvy youth. So that the next time they walk into a bar, they can shake hands proudly and say, “ I am a Dalit and I like to party hard on weekends.”