Issues of Caste and Gender in India through a Documentary Lens

Caste and gender issues have a ubiquitous presence in the Indian society; however, one still turns a blind eye to them. Documentary videos act as a magnifying lens in drawing our attention to these seen, yet unseen problems plaguing our country’s development. They have the power of making a person understand the harsh truth of reality by depicting real life events, real people and real situations. They also act as an inspiration for people, and inspire one to foster the urge of bringing in a change. One such documentary is titled ‘India Untouched- Stories of People Apart’. It is an outstanding work by Stalin K, who travelled around India for four years to film this documentary. The themes depicted in India Untouched are untouchability, insensitivity of the upper caste towards the lower caste, power hegemony of the Brahmins, oppression of the lower caste and inhumanity.

Free, yet fettered by the caste system

India attained independence in the year 1947, but our country is yet to attain real independence as it still continues to be enslaved by the shackles of the caste system and untouchability. Though practicing untouchability is a violation of human rights, some people find pride in following it. As seen in the above mentioned documentary, even 6 and 7-year-old children know and follow this gruesome age-old tradition. Upper caste children, irrespective of their age, demand respect from and all their work done to be done by the Dalits. We can see in the documentary how across 8 states, Dalits are used for doing labor work, painting houses, sewing clothes, delivering babies, oiling the babies, working in municipal corporations and collecting dead bodies, dead cats and dogs from around areas such as railway stations. Even then, neither any respect is paid to them nor they are invited to weddings, allowed to sit on a cot in front of a person belonging to the upper caste, wear slippers in a designated upper caste area, draw water, enter temples, or receive education and the list of these outrageous rules goes on. Upper caste people have been oppressing the lower caste in the name of religion. They don’t share food with the Dalits saying it will pollute them. They justify their acts saying these are the rules of God, but wasn’t it Lord Ram himself who ate half-eaten fruits offered by Sabri, a lower caste woman herself? Using religion and caste as a means of enjoying power over others is blatantly inhuman. What is most alarming is that this practice of untouchability is seen in all the religions – Sikhism, Christianity, Hinduism as well as Islam.
In a quote by Dr. B R Ambedkar, this scenario is perfectly explained – “Religion must mainly be a matter of principles only. It cannot be a matter of rules. The moment it degenerates into rules, it ceases to be a religion, as it kills responsibility which is the essence of a true religious act.”

Denial of basic human rights

Education, which is always said to be an asset for developing countries and a weapon for everyone to fight with against injustice, is also not provided to Dalits. The ones who get a chance to receive education are made to clean school toilets, school grounds, wash vessels and are made to sit behind in the class because apparently, they don’t deserve to be sitting in the front with the upper caste children. According to Hindu scholars, people belonging to the Dalit caste should be forbidden from reading Hindu scriptures, simply because they do not have the capability or mental construct to comprehend them. But it should not be forgotten that the mother of Veda Vyasa, the greatest of all sages who is credited for writing the Mahabharata, belonged to a ‘low caste’ fishing community.

In areas like Kerala, untouchability is not followed openly but its presence can be realised in everyday speech. People use the word ‘Dalit’ as an insult to others and do not even allow a lower caste person to have a good name; people belonging to the lower caste are supposed to use names that do not hold a good meaning. Traditionally, the upper castes are supposed to give names to the lower castes and it has been seen that they give them names synonymous with those of devils and demons. This act of treating Dalits worse than animals cannot ever be justified. Arun Kamble, a Marathi Dalit writer explains the ignorance and indifference of the oppressors against the miserable life of the oppressed in his poem ‘The life we live’ in the lines-

“Wouldn’t the world change, and fast
If you were forced to live at last
This life that’s all we’ve always had?”

People have been fighting against the system of reservations saying that the lower castes have all the justice that they deserve and that, they have been well treated, but is that true? This is the India that witness but we all turn a blind eye to it.

Water crisis leading to women’s rights crisis

Poverty is the main reason for all injustice, and another documentary titled ‘India’s Water Wives’ by Action Aid is one of the most outstanding short films that depicts the harms caused by poverty, gender discrimination, water paucity, inequality and injustice. This documentary perfectly shows the threats posed by the water problem and moreover, an outrageous practice that it leads to. Based in Maharashtra, it introduces us to a middle-aged man who marries for the third time to have one more person to fetch water for the household. Neither of the previous wives are consulted, in fact, the first one does try to convince the second wife who resents – though mutely – to her husband’s third marriage. It becomes even much sadder to see these women accepting oppression as their destiny and justifying the acts of patriarchy. While the whole country is debating about abolishing polygamy amongst Muslims, here in a remote village in Maharashtra, polygamy is so rampant amongst Hindus too, which is both unethical and unconstitutional. This is a strong attack on the politics of the government that does little to eradicate water scarcity issues and other social evils and chooses to remain a mute spectator of this violation of laws.

Men have always been told to find a woman who can manage the house for them while they earn outside. Sometimes the mentality is such that, if one wife cannot handle the work alone, they should marry one more. Then as per this logic, women should also marry multiple husbands if one doesn’t earn enough! What has been expected of a woman from marriage is to fulfil her duties towards the house, the husband, children, in-laws and the list never ends, though it fails to include the duty towards herself. The institution of marriage has been reduced to finding for a man, a bonded labourer for life who would not just manage the house but cater to his physical needs as well. This can be clearly understood by seeing how, in the documentary, even though the old man had a son of marriageable age, he got married to a young girl himself. But this degradation of women is not just limited to remote villages but can also be seen in urban settings among educated people as well, who consider their wives nothing more than a housekeeping staff. Many well qualified women are forced to sacrifice their career post marriage or giving birth and even if they continue, they are expected to balance it all like a ‘supermom’. Dr. B R Ambedkar rightly said – “I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved.” If this measure is taken into consideration, our nation is very far behind realising the principle of equality enshrined in Preamble to our Constitution.

To quote Benjamin Franklin, “Justice will never be served until those who are unaffected are as outrageous as the ones who are.” But does a scenario like this seem possible in our country where the unaffected fail to even acknowledge the miseries of the affected? Where the educated young generation, who ought to be the torch bearers to guide society out of this dark pit, see the atrocities but blow the torch out themselves? These are pertinent questions that remain unanswered.

Picture Courtesy- Countercurrents

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