Is dictatorship better than democracy for India’s dalits?

by - 2nd July 2010

Good for Michael Lawson, Archdeacon of Hampstead, for getting his short harrowing film India’s Forgotten Women onto the big screen at Leicester Square’s Vue in London's West End last night.

It’s the first time, according to the press release, a human rights charity has attempted to film the dalit scandal.

But what is a kindly English clergyman, more at home on the vicarage lawn than the Temple of the Goddess of Destruction, doing having to make such a film in the first place?

It hinted at the plight of dalits – a quarter of India’s billion population – and then magnified the horror twofold. Dalit women face a double whammy:  abused because of their sex, and crushed for eternity by their caste.

Thanks to his fixers, he was able to get close enough to victims of acid attacks, children as young as 12 carrying ten bricks on their heads at a time who will do so for the rest of their lives for 50p a day; and grimmest of all, the temple prostitutes whose existence the priest they serve actually denied to camera.

Michael’s film is not a Hollywood blockbuster.  And Salaam Bombay and Slumdog Millionaire have brought the tragedy of India into sharper focus. But it’s only Michael and his campaigning that’s really challenging our own collusion with the lie. 

This is his fourth film on the subject of the dalits – a word that appropriately means ‘the crushed ones’ – and he raises the money through the Pipe Village Trust so-called after the people who live in unused sewage pipes. 

He said: ‘It appears that India has tried to keep the fact of this appallingly exploited underclass to itself.’

The film’s presenter, dancer and actor Anjali Guptara hits the nail on the head:

‘One of the main problems with the issues that we cover is that people think they are historical problems, perhaps even legends or myths.  Contemporary urban Indians in India and abroad are often shocked to discover that these practices continue, despite the fact that they are officially abolished or illegal.

‘There are many programs which point out the problems of poverty in India, yet not many that point out the root cause that perpetuates the poverty and subjugates millions of Indians.’

That root is religion.  Caste is worse than apartheid not just because it’s on such a vast scale and because it’s ritually reinforced, but because it’s racially self-inflicted.

So the answer to the question:  why is nice Mr Lawson having to make such a film? Because the fabulously wealthy Indian diaspora, and the Bollywood industry who could do something about it, are all high-caste Indians who would not be seen dead socializing with a dalit, let alone championing her suffering.  

As the remarkable Lady Kishwar Desai, whose husband sits in our House of Lords, and who spoke at last night’s event, said afterwards:  ‘Because India is a democracy, the world is letting us sort out our own problems, but it’s taking such a bloody long time.  Were we a dictatorship, all of you would have been making films by now!’