Some thoughts on the 2021 Tamil film 《Jai Bhim》- available on Amazon Prime.
The film is based on an actual court case from 1993, involving the custodial death of a member of the Irula ethnic group at the hands of the police. When her husband goes missing, Senggeni seeks help from the advocate K. Chandru, who files a habeas corpus on her behalf.
The first thing that many viewers might be a little surprised by is the role of overtly communist imagery in the film. This is because of the historical role that the Communist Party of India (Marxist) played in this incident.
Even more shocking to many viewers will be the unconstrained police violence which results in the death of Senggeni’s husband. Unfortunately such violence is quite routine in India, which has one of the highest rates of custodial deaths in the world.
Even if the film is a bit long and melodramatic it manages to bring an important issue to the screen in a dramatic and entertaining manner. But it is not without some serious faults.
In one scene K. Chandru scolds the other lawyer (who had complained he was giving a history lecture in court). Chandru says that a proper knowledge of history could have avoided such problems in the first place. But the film’s own history is sorely lacking.
The Irula, who are spread across the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, are referred to in the film as “low caste,” “scheduled tribe,” and “habitual offenders.” This can be quite confusing.
It is the last category, “habitual offender” which gives us a clue. The term was defined in the “Habitual Offender Act” of 1952. This was a replacement for the colonial era “Criminal Tribes Act” enacted in 1871, 150 years ago this October.
Even though the act “denotified” around two hundred ethnic groups, no longer listing them as “born criminals” the text of the Habitual Offenders Act was nearly identical to the Criminal Tribes Act, and many groups were subsequently re-listed as habitual offenders.
A very similar case to the one depicted in the film, the 1998 case custodial death of Budhan Sabar in West Bengal, would eventually launch the Denotified Tribes Rights Action Group (DNT-RAG) and lead to the repeal of many such Habitual Offenders Acts.
The group @budhantheatre was named after this events of this case, the subject of their first play (PDF).
Today, many former “criminal tribes” and “habitual offenders” are seeking to be officially recognized as “DNTs”, but not all. Depending on local politics, some wish to be recognized instead as Scheduled Tribes, Scheduled Castes, or Other Backward Classes.
So the fact that DNT didn’t become common as a term till after the case depicted in the film, and the contested status of many DNTs does explain why the film opted to avoid going into the subject in detail. However, that doesn’t let them off the hook.
By never once mentioning the colonial history of the Criminal Tribes Act, the film relegates the Irula to being mere generic victims of the state, an undefined mix of marginalized identities, rather than one of over two hundred groups with a shared history.
It seems to me that there is something very similar going on here to the tendency of certain kinds of western Marxists to downplay the role of specific forms of oppression such as ethnicity and gender in favor of a simplistic narrative of class oppression.
Such people always say that they don’t dismiss such specific forms of oppression, they just think that class is primary. But the result is the same: they silence and erase the history of the people whose interests they claim to represent.
Still, I think it is a very worthwhile film and I hope people will take the time to watch it. Afterwords, if you want to know more, consider our film, 《Please Don’t Beat Me, Sir!》 in which DNTs themselves are the heroes.