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The Casteless Collective: New Age Ambedkarites Take India By Storm By Raveena Joseph and Sandhya Ravishankar
Tamil Nadu

The Casteless Collective: New Age Ambedkarites Take India By Storm By Raveena Joseph and Sandhya Ravishankar

Raveena Joseph

Raveena Joseph

Kabali Director Pa Ranjith in the cultural space and Jignesh Mevani and Chandrashekhar Azad in the political space are the new age voices of the Dalits

On the face of it, they may appear completely unconnected. A ‘Yuva Hunkar’ Rally held by Vadgam MLA and Gujarati Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani on January 09 hogged the headlines not just for the “empty chairs” at the venue, but also for the traction it received amongst students.

Mevani’s call for a protest was to demand the release of another Dalit leader, Chandrashekhar Azad of the Bhim Army, who hails from Uttar Pradesh.

Three days earlier, on January 06, in Chennai, similar rumblings took place at the CSI Bain School in Kilpauk, although it was not a protest in the traditional sense of the term. Kabali (2016) director Pa Ranjith spearheaded a cultural initiative, a music concert, called The Casteless Collective, bringing together musicians from the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai and North Chennai to perform the tunes of the urban Dalit communities in Chennai – gaana.

The songs were in colloquial Tamil – on honour killing, unemployment, reservations, agricultural labourers, fishermen issues and other similar themes that haunt the Dalit youth of today.

In Delhi, as 1500 paramilitary personnel turned Parliament Street into a virtual fortress, Jignesh Mevani too spoke of the realities of the day. “The way corruption, poverty, unemployment and the real issues are being swept under the carpet and ghar wapasi, love jihad and cows are being given space, we stand against that,” he said to mediapersons.

In early November 2017, the Uttar Pradesh police slapped the National Security Act against Bhim Army founder and young Dalit leader Chandrashekhar Azad. He had earlier led massive protests against the atrocities committed on Dalits in Saharanpur. He is still lodged in jail.

The rhetoric of this breed of new age Ambedkarites is similar, although the language is different. Ground realities are spoken of to their audience, in a language that they are able to understand. And experts say that they are gathering large followings simply because of their ability to communicate and identify issues impacting the Dalits of today.

“These young leaders are addressing the core and fundamental issues of their community, unlike the old guard which simply keeps saying some quotations or statements or addressing only the question of reservations or atrocities,” said C Lakshmanan, Associate Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, a Dalit studies expert in Chennai. “During the Una protests (of 2016), Jignesh Mevani coined a slogan – ‘Keep your cow’s tail and give us back our land’. Instead of mere rhetoric he speaks basic and simple language.”

Lakshmanan argues that Ranjith may seem to be different as he is not involved in active electoral politics, but his endeavours to politicise the young Dalit community have made him as much a politician as the other two. “Even though the community may be literate, it does not mean that they can think in a critical manner. So art and culture needs to be used to send across a political message. Especially in Tamil Nadu, this is an important means of communication to the masses. Ranjith is using theatre, films and music as a practical way of addressing people’s problems,” he added.

While the first wave of the Dalit movement emerged in the early 1990s on the back of the Mandal reforms and reservations, the liberalisation of the Indian economy and the centenary of Dalit icon BR Ambedkar, a number of aggressive and at times violent Dalit voices entered the political arena in the country. In UP, it was Kanshiram and Mayawati, in Bihar it was Ram Vilas Paswan and in Tamil Nadu the firebrand Thol Thirumavalavan came to the fore.

Dalit history experts say that the current lot of new age Ambedkarites such as Pa Ranjith, Jignesh Mevani and Chandrashekhar Azad are a product of that first wave of Dalit empowerment and have combined those lessons with their own realities.

“Ranjith has used the influences of activist Iyothee Thass Pandithar and politician Thirumavalan and brought in his own influences like showcasing gaana, which is an urban Dalit art form to forge a new narrative,” Stalin Rajangam, Dalit studies expert based in Madurai told The Lede.

Rajangam gives an example of Ranjith’s use of ideology and politics in his film Madras (2014). “The film Madras revolves around a wall, which is a symbol of the Dravidian movement. In a crucial scene, the hero uses the colour blue to blemish the wall. This blue is the colour associated with the Ambedkarite movement.”

This symbolism was evident at The Casteless Collective concert where stages and chairs were blue. Ranjith, introducing the concert on stage, stated that this performance was an attempt to politicise the people. In an exclusive interview to The Lede, he made his anger clear – “There was a notion earlier that people will not accept such forms of music (gaana, an urban Dalit genre). But who decides what people will like or not like? Why won’t people enjoy the music that we (Dalits) love? Aren’t we one among the people? It was due to this anger in me that I decided to start The Casteless Collective,” he signed off.

Pa Ranjith speaks exclusively to The Lede