Bollywood’s Article 15, or, How to Be Ashamed of Your Country, by Sheer Ignorance
One can summarize Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15, Bollywood’s latest venture in demonizing India, her society and Hinduism by a few crisp phrases: terribly cheesy dialogues, second-rate acting, and cheap leftist propaganda material.
Deepening and widening already existing fault lines and making victims out of perpetrators of organised violence is a forte of Mr. Sinha. This alumnus of Aligarh Muslim University had earlier created such films as Mulk which did its cheesy best to win soppy sympathy for the family of an avowed jihadi terrorist character featured in that film (as if Barkha Dutt hadn’t already done enough in that regard). Through Article 15, he now focuses on deepening the caste fault-lines, created by the British and duly maintained by the Left.
“There’s a war going on,” says the film’s protagonist, played by Ayushmann Khurrana (I swear I haven’t misspelt his name), at one point in this feature film. That is true, but only partly. To our disappointment, the protagonist does not take the time to provide a context for that war. No comments are made on the history of how this war came to be. He is, however, too quick to link this war – by which he indicates the existing caste fault-lines in India – to the ancient ways of this country. “Yeh raita bahut purana hai” (this mess is quite old) – is how he insinuates that the present-day caste-related problems are nothing but a result of the millennia-old Hindu concept of Chaturvarna (or, the matrix of four varna-s). Of course, he doesn’t refer to this concept by its actual name (and thus misses its essence), but chooses to understand it through what the leftist ideologue-historians have termed as the “caste system” in line with exactly the same way as the British colonisers decided to describe the complex and dynamic social structure of India. This social structure struck them as a most peculiar and unique system. But more importantly, it was so very different from the then existing social structures in Europe and North America that the anthropologists of the West could not make head nor tail of it. They were baffled upon discovering it, bewildered by its vastness and complexity, during their four centuries of consistent struggle to subjugate India politically as well as economically. Therefore they did what they do best: that is, define a newly discovered ‘object of knowledge’ with the help of watertight, boxed categories – which seem to be frozen in time and utterly rigid, immobile, and, above all, exploitative. And, without fail, these categories had to be essentially Western categories – something which would be comprehensible to themselves and to their own folk back home in Europe and North America. That European (chiefly British and German) depiction of the Chaturvarna emphasized only on one aspect, i.e. its prioritization of the society at large over individual aspiration. This was explained away by European scholars, in a grossly oversimplified manner, as the curbing of individual liberty. Now, individual liberty was the new fad in Europe which took a definite shape over the same four centuries (since Renaissance and through the Age of Enlightenment) while they were struggling to colonize and subjugate India and Africa. This new obsession with the idea of individual liberty as the perceived supreme value for all mankind added fuel to the already existing fire of racist white supremacy, that compelled most Europeans (and North Americans) to think that they understand the complex and newly encountered societies in African nations and in India better than any of the natives of those places. Therefore they took upon themselves what they called “the White Man’s Burden” of civilizing us natives – who must be doing whatever they do under the dark and base impulses of superstition and violent competition for power, without resorting to reason. The white man (as well as the white woman) thought that he championed reason and thus championed the cause of mankind. He saw in himself a saviour, styled after the image of his preferred god on the cross, and fancied his ignorance of the social structures of India and Africa as barbarity. Every word of the writings and speeches of the first wave of missionaries, scholars and administrators from Britain testifies to this fact. Lord Macaulay, William Jones, Max Muller – you name it – each of them, in their profound ignorance and hubris, earnestly believed that they were on a mission to ‘save’ native Indians from their own ‘monstrous’ customs and social structure.
The other mistake that the westerner did in his ignorance compounded by arrogance was to identify the corruption in Indian society and the exploitative misuse of power of a section with the jati-varna system itself. They took the exploitation to be inherent in the system and characterised it as an unmitigated evil, thereby ignoring its ability and consistency in maintaining general social order and economic self-reliance of the families constituting its various communities, for centuries on end, through thick and thin.
The film Article 15 chooses to look at India through these very same lenses. Multiple characters in it openly speak of their shame of belonging to this country and to this society, and thereby perpetuates the same old colonial trope of shaming India and Indians, and especially Hindus. It urges us to be ashamed of the social structure that our ancestors had envisaged, thanks to which vision, India has been able to keep intact its ancient civilizational character through the turbulent times of Arab, Persian, Turk, Mughal, Afghan and finally European invasions and carried it into the modern times. Despite all its corruption and misuse for exploitation that springs from basic human greed which is a common feature of every well-meaning system involving human beings in every age and in every nation, India could withstand multiple waves of invasion and serious attempts to obliterate its unique civilisation thanks to this very vision of the society. It held the Indian society, with all its various divisions and sub-divisions, together and kept it firmly rooted in its ground; and did not allow it to be overwhelmed by the multiple political upheavals that kept taking place during the last twelve odd centuries. Thanks to that wise vision of our sagacious ancestors, our motherland, despite her significant losses, traumas, and amputations to her physical body, is still largely the same in her civilizational character. Seventy percent of us still worship the same old gods, revere the same sages, listen to the same epic stories and learn from the same knowledge systems that are recorded for the greater part in our sacred ancient language of Sanskrit. Overlooking all these positive sides, the film puts the blame squarely on the Hindu tradition and its alleged characteristic ‘caste system’. In its profound ignorance of India, something which is only comparable to that of the likes of Lord Macaulay and their children the ‘brown sahibs’, it does not inform its audience of the distorted representation and interference into Chaturvarna by British colonial administrators. Through its very casual and shallow depiction of the problem, which is fittingly at par with its bland dialogues and acting (or overacting in some cases, notably in the case of the forced melodrama displayed by Sayani Gupta), the film fails to report the fact that it was Lord Risley, a powerful bureaucrat in the British administrative machinery in India and an anthropologist by vocation, enumerated the jati-s and varna-s through an elaborate survey with the deliberate goal of defining them according to something called a ‘nasal index’ based on the misguided racial speculations by Max Muller. Result: distortion and freezing of “the dynamic quality and mobility found in the jati system within the varna matrix” (Malhotra and Neelakandan 2011). Ultimately, the film openly urges Indians and Hindus (irrespective of their caste identity) to be ashamed of their heritage (as if the ideologue-historians hadn’t done enough of that already) and, in what is the most worrying aspect of it, insidiously portrays the anti-Hindu Bhim Army in a very sympathetic light, lionizing its leaders all the while (the Bhim Army is an extreme-left Ambedkarite organisation with some influence in U.P. and Maharashtra, with a dangerous tendency towards militancy – as is evident by its name and recent involvements in violent incidents – and rallying Dalit-s against Non-Dalit Hindus). By doing so, it not only brushes over the Bhim Army’s many perpetrations of hooliganism, destruction of public property, and human rights violations across North and West India, whitewashing it all, the film also lionizes the organisation and its leaders and projects them as some sort of well-meaning band of revolutionaries. Here it will be pertinent to remember a spate of incidents from April 2017 in Saharanpur, U.P, as a result of which a Dalit person and another from the Thakur community had died in communal clashes. The top leadership of Bhim Army were arrested by the Special Task Force of the U.P. Police as a result of this series of violent clashes. The character of Nishad in the film, portrayed by Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub, is styled after Chandrashekhar Azad ‘Ravan’, the co-founder and president of the Bhim Army. This leader of the Bhim Army styles himself as ‘Ravan’, in an obvious bid to provoke Hindus and to mislead Dalit-s to imagine the anti-hero of Ramayana as some kind of victim of caste atrocities perpetrated by the “upper-caste” Kshatriya Lord Sri Ram! He also sports a pair of handlebar moustache and often curls it upwards after Chandrashekhar Azad (just as Nishad in the film keeps doing from time to time), the freedom fighter who had made the supreme sacrifice in the struggle to free India of the British colonizers. Drawing comparisons between himself and a legendary freedom fighter as well as a powerful anti-hero from the epics: those are just a few ways of fooling the youth that the Bhim Army president has resorted to. There are more. The freedom fighter Chandrashekhar Azad was, by the way, a Brahmin – his surname being Tiwari, and the name ‘Azad’ was used by him as a young boy in defiance of a colonial magistrate’s question, when he was produced before the latter after getting arrested for his participation in MK Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement. So was Ravan – a Brahmin, scion of the house of Sage Pulastya, one of the seven greatest rishis revered in the Vedic tradition. Using two Brahmin characters, one national idol and the other an epic anti-hero, in the same breath to instigate hatred against Brahmins and other Non-Dalits: such is the perverted way of distorting and misinterpreting Indian tradition and history that this organisation and its leadership has taken resort to! Through these means, they seek to propagate a culture of hate; they wish to perpetuate nothing but ignorance, resentment, anti-Hindu and anti-“upper caste” hatred among Dalit-s. And the film allows itself to become a channel for their propaganda, furthering the cause of these hate-mongers.
At the same time, the film doesn’t miss the chance to insinuate evil ulterior and narrow political goals to the efforts of Non-Dalit Hindu leaders to unite with Dalit-s on the common ground of their Hindu identity. Not even one slightly politically aware viewer of this film will fail to recognize the target of this insinuation; for the character of the Hindu leader at the helm of this welcome effort is accurately named as “mahantji”, who wins by a huge margin in the elections, the ending scenes of the film inform us – and there is no mistaking Yogi Adityanath, the mahant or head monk of Gorakhnath Mutt of U.P, as the target of this depiction.
Perhaps the only depiction that comes across as factual and unbiased through the film is the abysmal state of today’s civil servants’ knowledge of India, her history, her society and her traditions. The protagonist of Article 15 happens to be a newly appointed IPS officer, who has studied at Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College and also boasts of a stint of higher studies in Europe, and who gets to know about the various jati-s and varna-s from his subordinates at his workplace the police station – for the very first time in his life! He also confesses to his activist girlfriend that he had hardly any idea about the social make up of his own country before taking up his present charge. How does this reflect upon the selection procedure of the civil services of the country? Precisely as things are, until this point in time. Even after seven decades since India’s partition and independence, the state of affairs have changed little; the bureaucracy still remains heavily laden with colonial ideas and notions of administrative efficiency, with colonial ways of understanding India and her complex set of problems. The very syllabus of the UPSC civil services examinations, and the books that are frequently recommended as “essential” for passing the same (almost all of which are written by the cabal of ideologue-historians mentioned at the beginning of this article) use colonial lenses to look at India’s past, present and future. We can heartily congratulate the makers of this film for exposing this lingering colonial hangover of the bureaucratic machinery of this country. Oh, and while watching the film we have been also scratching our heads over this: in what universe does a newly appointed IPS officer regularly go around the village, where he got his first posting, in immaculate suit and ties? And how on earth do those clothes maintain their shine and remain unsoiled, without giving rise to a single crease, even after that wondrous officer has finished combing a wide swamp, covering 2-3 square kilometres of forest area for hours on end? Daag acche hai to babu sahib ke kapdo mein lagte kyun nahin?
Featured Image: Deccan Herald