Mlechha Sanhaara – India’s Kalki Project, A Film Review

January 31, 2014

By Tathagata Sengupta

Director Subrat Kumar Sahu, in the context of his earlier movie DAMaged, had said, “In order to understand how modern tools of development clinically destroy self-reliant communities and yet succeed in influencing the entire nation to celebrate the outcome as ‘progress’, come to Kalahandi, in the state of Orissa in India!”. With Mlechha Sanhaara, he goes to the other major district of Western Odisha – Bolangir. Situated in the geopolitical context of Bolangir district in Western Odisha, “Mlechha Sanhaara – India’s Kalki Project” is one of the most hard-hitting critique of India’s rural semi-urban political landscape of recent times. A home to lush green forests, mountains, picturesque villages and historic small towns, Bolangir district presents the picture perfect impression of “beautiful rural India” to the middle-class bourgeois urban mind. This movie does a brilliant job of tearing apart that Image to unravel the violence that defines the Indian village.

The movie
The movie starts off with the incident of burning down of dalit homes in Lathor town of Khaprakhol block. An armed militia backed by local upper caste landlords attacked a dalit colony in Lathor last year, and torched down several dalit homes. The rampage lasted for at least six hours as the goons looted gold ornaments and expensive materials, burnt educational certificates and other valuable documents, and even beat up a local news reporter and threatened another reporter with murder. In spite of repeated calls made by the residents to several police officers, including SDPO Patnagarh, L N Panda, no assistance came from the police. Even the fire engine that was sent after most of the damage had been done, did not have enough water to put down the flames. Lathor burning is only the first of a string of similar incidents that occurred in this small district over the last one year. A drinking water well that is used by dalit families in Turla village was poisoned by the local upper caste patriarchs. Luckily someone discovered dead animals floating in the well and prevented people from drinking the water, thus the lives were spared. In Dhandamunda, a dalit settlement was destroyed, again by the local upper caste families, accusing them of “encroaching” into a market place, while in reality they were living in a graveyard. “The interest of the market comes before that of the people” said one of the upper caste elected representatives of the village. This frank comment again shows how the working principles of this semi-feudal brahminic Indian state apparatus are presented in much more bare terms by the lowest rung of its cadres, as compared to the western-educated bureaucrats-turned-politicians residing in the NCR. In Ambahali village, repeated rumours of dacoity have been spread against the dalit families in the area, to justify the creation of a private militia backed by the local feudal forces.

The excuse of “Maoist insurgency” in the region is used efficiently by the police to support such initiatives, as the administration portrays such barbarism as “spontaneous people’s uprisings” against the Maoists. The movie then takes us to Kuimunda where Rabi Bag has been leading a valiant struggle for years for the dalit households of his village in terms of laying claims to their traditional forests under the FRA. Had Rabi been born in an urban upper-caste family, he would have shot into the fame of a celebrity activist by now, given the fights he has been putting up. But due to his caste-class background, this movie will probably be the first time people outside of Bolangir will get to know about him. Single-handedly Rabi has taken up the local feudal upper-caste landed goons, the police force, the oppressive forest department, and NGOs whose interests are being hurt by his kind of activism. His crops have been repeatedly destroyed over the years, his family has been attacked multiple times, his daughter abducted, there have been attempts to murder him, false cases have been booked against him, he has been put behind bars many times. But not only has he held on to his fight, but has also managed to inspire other dalit families in the village to carry on with their farming in the forest land.

The movie thus takes us into the heart of the semi-feudal brahminic state structure that has perfected the art of class exploitation through caste oppression. It is a cultural war of 3000 years that the Indian state is taking forward. The caste system was invented by the Indo-European settlers of the Indo-Gangetic plains to efficiently carry out their programme of primitive accumulation through clearing of forests and bringing more and more land under the plough. The same caste structure, perhaps now in its complicated best, is still being used to further the agenda of accumulation and dispossession. If the flashpoints of caste Hindu oppression on the struggling masses of this landmass are the carnages of the likes of Godhra, Kandhamal and Babri Masjid, the caste oppression going on every moment everywhere in western Odisha and the rest of the country is the slow grinding process of destruction – the robust stage on which such acts of carnages are played out. The movie does a brilliant job of portraying the casteist nature of the Indian state – from the higher administrative apparatus to the lowest stratum of village-level state structure. Primary education has been sanskritized, the number of temples have multiplied manifold in the last few years, the State Government has declared economic support for bhagavat toongis, police stations and all kinds of administrative offices have been converted to mini temples, regular melas and yatras are organized to openly spread caste Hindu propaganda and hard core communal values. Psychological trauma is being inflicted on children born into dalit-adivasi families. Women’s bodies and dignities are more and more becoming the playground of male hierarchies, like what happens in any conflict, resulting in directed violence against dalit-adivasi women, the strongest case in hand being the abduction of the daughter of Rabi Bag by the upper caste patriarchs. Similarly we find examples of pregnant women having to run for their lives, women falling in ditches and giving births to babies there, old women being tortured and beaten up. We find examples of dalit children dropping out of schools because of social boycott.

The caste and class debate
At the core of all this lie economic interests – the political-economy that sustains the caste hierarchy, and is sustained by it. The biggest land-owners in the villages of Bolangir are mostly caste Hindus and OBCs, with the exception of an occasional tribal land-owner. For instance, in the village of Kuthurla, most of the families are landless or marginal farmers, with the exception of one OBC family which owns around 100 acres of land, controls the irrigation, and is also the primary source of loan for the villagers, giving out loans at an outrageous interest rate of 10% per month. The villagers have very little access to the larger economy, and are essentially tied to this family for their livelihood. Landless dalit and tribal agricultural workers in Kuthurla are prohibited to work on other small farmers’ fields unless they have put in their quota of labour in the OBC landlord’s farms. Irrigation canals are completely controlled by the large land holders and they resist the digging of canals to the fields of the marginal farmers.

The economy of Lathor and the neighboring villages, for instance the village of Boriali, are mainly controlled by the Marwadis and the Mehers (OBC). They are the land-owners, the moneylenders, the suppliers of agricultural inputs, and the traders of the agricultural produce. Same is true for Bagjharan in Mohorapadar panchayat. Agricultural wages are decided in village meetings dominated by upper caste large land owners. In Boriali, dalits have been denied NREGS work by the local power lobbies. Ratha Majhi, a dalit small farmer of Boriali, was beaten with sticks and forced to eat human excreta by an OBC landlord, who is also a brick kiln contractor (and whose mother is the current ward member from the village), Ghanshyam Bemal, when the Majhi couple refused to go to work in a brick kiln. The reason why his “punishment” was eating excreta, as opposed to, say his hands being chopped off (which also happened recently to 2 workers in Nuapada district), is clear – it is a move to inflict caste humiliation upon this family, and in fact to make them an outcaste in their own community. In the absence of a working class consciousness, physical injuries on a working class family may humiliate the individual family but not the entire working class. But caste humiliation achieves the larger purpose of putting the larger community in its place. And such acts of reminding producer and working classes of their social position are essential for engineering such severe economic exploitation in a semi-feudal economy. The movie describes how the dalit atrocities in Lathor were in fact engineered by the most powerful Marwadi trader in Lathor, Ghanshyam Aggarwal, who is also a big player in the local liquor mafia. The Marwadi traders were the ones who in fact distributed liquor and petrol freely for burning Dalit houses in Lathor. According to a testimony in the movie, historically the Marwadis had hegemony over Lathor market, but in recent times Mehers have started to gain footing. The Marwadis therefore sparked caste violence between the Mehers and dalits in Lathor, to further their own business interests. The Dhandamunda dalit basti was demolished clearly to assist the big traders in the local market.

While economic interests might be there at the core, caste-based hatred and dominance also plays a lead role in such incidents. The Lathor incident was sparked off when a dalit boy was falsely accused by a local shopkeeper of stealing clothes from his shop. The boy was brutally beaten up in public. When an elderly relative came to his rescue, he was also beaten up with footwears. After this a few dalit youth from the neighborhood protested, which is when the upper castes retaliated with the arson. An old dalit woman from Dhandamunda narrates how it is people like her who clean all the garbage of society, including the excreta of human beings and animals, but the same people are treated as garbage by the same society. Although the Dhandamunda demolition was done to make room for the local traders, the incident of a dalit boy eloping with an upper caste girl had outraged the upper caste residents. According to a dalit woman who lost her little shelter due to the demolition, this incident was the main reason why the upper castes attacked the basti, primarily to teach the dalits a lesson. The poisoning of the well in Turla was again done mainly to send a “strong message” to the dalits to understand their place in the social hierarchy. The fact that Rabi Bag, being a dalit, can show such disregard for the upper caste gaontias, the feudal landlords who have traditionally ruled the village and still now have their sway over the village politics, is one of the main factors that has infuriated them. As the movie captures, dalits living on the foothills of the Gandhamardan hills have been forbidden to play the Nissan, their traditional instrument. The Nissan is not only a livelihood option for these families, but also an instrument of dalit assertion, and a tool for mobilization and organization. Of course the upper caste oppressors cannot afford to ignore such a powerful tool in the hands of the oppressed.

Through these incidents, and also through interviews of various leftist and Ambedkarite movements and individuals, the movie skillfully brings out the dialectic relationship of caste and class exploitations, and portrays how both go hand in hand in semi-feudal rural India to maintain economic and cultural hegemony of the ruling classes.

The larger picture and the role of the administration
All of the above goes much beyond just local level politics. The big traders in these areas are also some of the biggest Government contractors and the backbone of all the major parliamentary political parties. They have big investments in local cement factories, transport industry, liquor industry, cotton mills, paper mills, cement factories, rice godowns, and local markets. Now their capital is beginning to collude with the larger global capital, as can be seen in the case of the Lower Suktel irrigation project. They await many more such opportunities in near future, and hence have to make sure that the producing class is kept under the boot. Caste obviously becomes the natural tool for this suction of capital. And they have the police department, the political powers that be, the forest department, NGOs like the RCDC and the District Forest Forum, the Hindu brigade, and the whole of the administration on their side, when it comes to inflicting caste atrocities on the dalit-adivasi population. Thus today in Lathor, right next to burnt abandoned houses from the 2012 attacks and a statue of Ambedkar erected by the Indian state as a token apology, we find numerous imposing newly-constructed Hindu temples. The funds for the construction and the maintenance of these temples come mainly from the Marwadis. The state which swiftly reacted after the burnings by commissioning the Ambedkar statue and by renaming the colony as ‘Jai Bheem colony’, has done nothing to ensure that such incidents don’t recur in future, just as it did nothing to prevent the attacks from happening, or to bring to justice the people responsible for the massacre.

The movie clearly brings out this nexus between the administration and the feudal landlords, the big traders and the moneylenders. It reveals how SDPO Patnagarh, L N Panda, took no measures the day Lathor was burning, even after he was called repeatedly by the people under attack. Only the foot soldiers, such as the person who actually abducted Rabi Bag’s daughter, are booked. The feudal lords who employed him are still untouched, even after the kidnapper publicly disclosed their names as the people who planned the abduction “to teach Rabi a lesson”. As the movie brings out, everyone in the forest department – from Abhiram Naik (DFO Bolangir), to Haladhar Swain (Forester, Lathor), Kamalakanta Tripathy (Forest Range Officer, Lathor) to Umakanta Chhatar (forest guard) – has been active in ensuring the safety of the perpetrators. Incidentally, the wife and children of the kidnapper are to this date kept captive in a brick kiln in Karnataka, and are awaiting some agencies to rescue them. Thus these are the people who subsidize not only the production processes but also the morality of the “democratic state” when it comes to dispensing justice. Regular imprisonment under false charges of anyone who stands up about any of these issues is a standard phenomenon. Anyone who raises demands about land redistribution, rate of kendu leaves, dalit issues, etc. is branded a Maoist and hounded or incarcerated.

Although the Maoists have taken up some of these issues, many of these movements predate the Maoist movement in the area which is actually fairly new. The Indian state apparatus has since inception worked on the principles of violence, hegemony, coercion and intolerance towards any rudiments of democracy. But given the added reasons and urgency to grab resources to satiate its neo-liberal ambitions, the state now has all the added funds, resources, centralised planning and a well-oiled arsenal of media and legalities to go after every movement, violent or non-violent, in the name of
Operation Green Hunt. No one is, or ever was, left with an iota of democratic space, and people were always being, and continue to be, pushed to violent resistance. Now even the rights discourse has been substituted by the politics of doles, patronage and compensation, thanks mainly to the NGOs and an administration ever willing to ensure such co-option of political movements. The interview of Bolangir District Welfare Officer, Amiya Mahanty, in the context of compensation for the Lathor victims is particularly illuminating. Thus, this is not an issue of mere physical, structural and cultural violence by some non-state actors. The brahminical state is a major player as well, because of its own casteist nature and its collusion with the predatory social and economic exploiters.

Semi-feudalism and semi-capitalism – the brick industry
One significant phenomenon that the movie refers to is that of migration. Tens of thousands of people, if not lakhs, from this district migrate in the month of December to work in brick kilns in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The sole reason for this large scale migration by these landless and marginal farmers, mostly dalits and adivasis, is distress. And the core reason for the distress is landlessness. The extremely skewed land distribution, the lack of irrigation and the semi-feudal agricultural relations of production in the region push people into debt cycles. The only temporary respite people can afford is the advance money paid by various contractors, locally referred to as sardars, under the promise that they will go and work in the kilns for the next 6 months without wages. The payment of minimum wages at these kilns will leave people with significant amount of money by the end of the season, given the huge number of bricks each family ends up making. The wages worked out by the caste Hindu (mostly Kamma and Reddy) brick kiln owners are such that the workers return to their villages around the month of June with no money in hand. This ensures that they get into the debt trap yet again, and the cycle continues, ensuring that there is supply of labour for the next season. At the kilns, the workers have to survive one of the worst forms of physical, economic and sexual exploitation, and many even die in the process.

The brick-making season is such that it does not come in conflict with the agricultural season, given the lack of irrigation in Bolangir, where most of the agriculture is rain-fed. This means there is no shortage of labour for either industry. The sardars only have to pay some amount of money to the village heads for each migrating family. Thus this is a classical example of how an exploitative casteist semi-feudal mode of production and an equally exploitative, if not more, urban semi-capitalist industry have worked out an equilibrium, and reinforce each others’ profit extraction. This equilibrium promises to continue till technological advances in future, such as mechanization of the brick kiln industry or better irrigation networks in the source area, lead to any possible conflict between the two. Till then, they go hand in hand, and the same marginal landless dalit adivasis keep subsidizing the agricultural and brick kiln industries through their labour. While many NGOs and trade unions have entered the arena of brick kiln workers’ organizing efforts, no one seems to be raising the core issue of land distribution at the source – an issue which will ensure that the exploitation continues no matter how much organizing happens at the brick kilns.

One hopes that Mlechha Sanhaara will be followed up by an equally incisive documentation of the production process at the brick kiln industry, and how the exploitation in this industry ensures the preservation of the casteist semi-feudal mode of production in Western Odisha with its devastating land distribution patterns. Meanwhile, not surprisingly, the makers of the movie are finding it hard to organize screenings of the movie in Bolangir. This movie is a significant living account of all that is happening in Bolangir, together with the historicity of such processes, and deserves a lot of attention from everyone, particularly the struggling masses and those who are working on these issues. Whether it is going to be BJP or Congress who loots the nation for the next 5 years, it is going to be the same caste Hindu semi-feudal state structure they are going to inherit, use and further entrench, in continuation with the war of the last 3000 years.

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