Article 15 is a 2019 Hindi film, directed by Anubhav Sinha. It is a movie set in the fictional village of Lalgaon in Uttar Pradesh, based on the Badaun rapes in UP. The film features Ayushmann Khurrana as an upper-caste IPS officer who has recently been posted to Lalgaon. It intricately knits together the journey of exposure of a privileged city-bred officer, to the socio-political realities of caste discrimination that continues to prevail in India. The film builds up on the case of three missing Dalit girls. The cinematography is an uncompromising in the portrayal of the ugliest manifestation of caste and gender-based violence. An instance of the same is the beginning of the movie with visuals of the rape of girls in a bus followed by the visual of their hanged bodies. The movie draws on multiple characters like the Dalit leader Nishad, the casteist police officers, the activist girlfriend, and the learning IPS. The search for the third missing girl Pooja is what drives the plot through the circumstances that arise as obstacles to the search. The film is named after the Fundamental Right Article 15 of the Constitution of India. This piece is a take on the movie through the lens of historical discrimination that continues to prevail and prevents the actual realisation of Article 15.
The unfulfilled promises of political democracy are hinted at in the very beginning, both subtly and explicitly, through songs. The movie has only 2 songs- one is a folk song Kahab Toh highlighting inequality while another is Blowin’ in the Wind by Bob Dylan.
And how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind
Yes, and how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
And how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, and how many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died?
In one of the scenes, Ayan (an IPS Officer) is educated by the driver as to why he shouldn’t buy water from a shop run by the Pasi. He is told that they are SCs and live with pigs and hence are impure. He is surprised by the prevailing belief that Pasis cannot be touched and that even their shadow shouldn’t fall on higher caste. This shows that even after years of independence, some people are still not free and equal. The juxtaposition of these lyrics of Blowin’ in the wind, along with the book Discovery of India by Jawahar Lal Nehru and a statue of Dr. B.R Ambedkar bring out the failure of the vision our forefathers had.
Ayan’s privileged background and ignorance about the actual existence of bookish realities of caste discrimination reflects in several scenes. It reflects when he is informed about him being Brahmin by his subordinates. It reflects when he asks his subordinates about their castes and to explain the hierarchy (since he cannot understand why the Pasis are referred as “Yeh Log”). It reflects in his statements like – “This is wild wild West” and when he calls Lalgaon a “funny place” because of the untouchability that prevails even in terms of Pasi shadow. However, his ignorance is constantly challenged by the realities around him and by his voice of reason (his girlfriend). The fact that he doesn’t give in to the social norm by buying water from a Pasis’ shop, by putting up prints of Article 15 in the police station and by deciding to “tidy” the ancient “mess” of discrimination, reflects that his education and urban upbringing have broken the perpetuation of caste discrimination to some extent. This reiterates Ambedkar’s belief that unlike villages, where Dalits are restricted to Ghettos, the cities are “bigger and more crowded setting” and are a promise of advancement for Dalits and their liberation from the stigma of untouchability (Cháirez-Garza 2014).
Mirroring the socio-political realities, the movie depicts Us v/s Them through various scenes. It takes a contrapuntal approach when it gives voice to the marginalized by beginning with a folk song being led by a Dalit woman. The song brings out the binary through lyrics like:-
You’ll get offended if I tell the truth
Rich people enjoy delicious food
They even buy mineral water
We make do on chutney and bread
We drink unfiltered water
Rich people’s kids go to big schools
They also take extra classes
While our kids toil hard
They say studies won’t help them
The divide is also reflected in the scenes where Ayan’s subordinates justify not filing the FIR (about the missing girls) because “These people file false complaints” and “Their boys and girls run and come back in a few days. No matter how much we do for these people, they are ungrateful.” In another scene, Brahmdutta (policeman) disparages Dr Malti as, “Quota wali Doctor coming to the rescue of SC girls even when our taxes paid for her education” because she refused to give a false post-mortem report.
This shows that the discrimination is ingrained even in police officials who are entrusted with law enforcement. Article 15 is being violated by these its very custodians. The resultant social dominance and social (and economic) boycott is so powerful that nobody wants to fall on the side that is dominated. An example of the same would be the portrayal of Jatav’s character. Jatav is a lower-caste Sub-Inspector. In a greater part of the movie, he speaks the language of the upper caste. For instance, he tells his colleague that the lack of safety of Pasi women is their own doing since their community “lives in the slums where you shit and eat in the same place, where animal hides rot”. He maintained his distance from them. He justified this by saying that as a Chamar’s son, he had to struggle to become an SI. It took him a lot of effort to be able to sit and make a name amongst them(the upper caste officials), so he didn’t intend to throw it all away by becoming “reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy”. This shows Sanskritization of living patterns (Srinivas 1956).
Ambedkar theorized the concept of graded inequality (Hiwrale 2020). According to this, the caste hierarchy is necessarily a vertical one. This means that for every caste (except the highest and the lowest), there are some castes above and some below. Higher the caste, greater the benefits and lower the caste, greater the burdens. This graded inequality exists within castes as well. This has been depicted in the scene where Ayan asks Jatav if he is of the same caste as the boys since they’re also Dalits, Jatav replies (almost defensively) that he is a Chamar while they are Pasi. Chamars are much higher and cannot even touch the food that a Pasi touches. To this Ayan asks if this is the same reason that Ayan wasn’t allowed to share food from Jatav’s plate since Ayan is a Brahmin. Thus every caste subordinates and is also subordinated. These “burdens” and this inequality are showcased throughout the movie in hard-hitting, soul-searching form. It is evident when the helpless fathers of the girls say that the girls could have been kept and raped for two days, what was the point of killing them shakes one from deep within. This showcases the helplessness of a community in accepting the “burden” of something as gruesome as rape only to survive. This whole narrative of how different lives value differently holds a mirror to the audience to come to terms with magnitude of inequality that exists.
No Political Democracy without Social Democracy
Ambedkar said that political democracy cannot last without social democracy. Social democracy means a way of life that recognizes liberty, equality, and fraternity as the principles of life (Scroll 2016). These principles form a union of trinity and hence social democracy cannot be realized if they are divorced from each other. Without fraternity, equality and liberty will not be a natural course of things. Likewise, without social justice, affirmative action in economic affairs and universal adult franchise will not bring substantive equality and justice. This can be seen throughout the movie. The social norm is much more powerful than the legal norm and this prevents the realisation of Article 15. For instance, Jatav (an SI) is abused by Brahmadatta and asked to go back to sweeping, alluding to his Chamar caste. Similarly, Gaura (a Pasi) gets a job in mid-day meal but everyone refuses to touch the food prepared by her. The gangrape of the Pasi girls by the contractor is a response to their demand for higher wages. The girls are hanged from the tree to send a message to the entire community reminding them of their position in social hierarchy.
However, towards the end of the movie, there has been a transformation through commensality (i.e., all police personnel coming from different castes, eat together) and a cinematic attempt is made to show that caste hierarchies have been broken. This is brought out in the scene where the cook is asked about her caste, but her answer is inaudible (and hence insignificant for those eating) due the horn of a passing truck.
Autonomy: Missing in Action
A key aspect highlighted in the movie is the lack of autonomy of the marginalized section. Gayatri Spivak commented that Sati abolition was “White men saving brown women from brown men” (Spivak 2015). In the movie as well, it was an upper caste man saving lower caste women from upper caste men. The autonomy of the Dalits did reflect through leaders like Nishad but ultimately, he was killed in a fake encounter. Dalit political leaders, too, formed coalition with upper caste parties (Eg: Mahanji’s Unity campaign) but their chances of becoming the CM were bleak due to asymmetrical power sharing. Ultimately, Ayan became the “hero” who “unmessed” the ancient mess (of caste discrimination) as against the transformation that Aditi hoped for wherein people didn’t have to wait for a hero. This resonates Ambedkar’s warning in his final speech in the Constituent Assembly where he warned against hero worship :
“For in India, bhakti or what may be called the path of devotion or hero worship, plays a part in politics unequalled in magnitude by the part it plays in the politics of any other country in the world…But in politics, bhakti or hero worship is a sure road to degradation…”
The Indian Constitution is transformative in two senses (Bhatia 2019). Firstly, it envisioned freedom from political servitude by transforming subjects into citizens. Secondly, it envisioned freedom from oppressive structures and hence transformation of society. The movie depicts how these values have not had complete acceptance. There is a scene where three Pasi boys are flogged on suspicion of eating at the temple. Chandrabhan (the driver) defends the caste hierarchy by invoking his late mother:
My mother used to say…
our society is built upon certain laws.
There’s a king and his subjects.
Attendants and servants.
Society has a balanced order that was
created by Lord Brahma. In Sanskrit.
We have no right to upset
And, sir if everyone is equal,
who’ll be the king?
In a scene, Ayan points out how more manual scavengers die than soldiers but not a tear is shed for them. These scenes reiterate what Ambedkar said about untouchability being a “gold mine” to the Hindus (Baxi 1995). The master class is sustained because there is a servile class below. This was depicted in how the work of the police station came to a halt due to the protest called by Nishad. The work could only resume when a manual scavenger took multiple dips in the sewer to clean it. The Untouchables do the dirty work and act as shock absorbers during economic shock. Thus, it is for the benefit of every caste (except the Dalits), for untouchability to continue.
In the Constituent Assembly debate on Objective Resolutions, Radhakrishnan observed – “We wish to bring about a fundamental alteration in the structure of Indian society…to abolish every vestige of despotism, every heirloom of inorganic tradition.”
The movie which echoes incidents like the Badaun case and Una case, is a reminder that the transformative character of the Indian Constitution hasn’t materialized completely – social norms stand in its way, power stands in the way. This fear stems from the fact that after work (where they may be equals), they have to go back to society. The complacency is because miscreants like Anshu have strong connections which silences (against injustice) the likes of Satyendra. The representatives and guardians ignore the very Constitution they swear by. This is reflected Nishad’s statement where he says,
“Hum kabhi Harijan ho jate hain, kabhi Bahujan ho jate hain. Bas jan nahi ban paate hain taaki jan gan man me hamari bhi ginti hai”
(There are times when they treat us as ‘Harijans’ and at times just as a part of the crowd, only never as individuals with rights)
The movie concludes on a bitter-sweet note. Justice prevails owing to Ayan not crumbling under political pressure. However, the despair that haunted Ambedkar continues to haunt the likes of Nishant. A strong semblance can be seen in Rohit Vemula’s final note. The helplessness arising from the accident of birth is evident from Nishant’s concluding remarks:
I wanted to be a writer.
And a scientist.
I thought I’d write about science.
But it came to nothing.
Because the place I was born into
was a terrible accident.
Thus, the Hindu society continues to remain a tower (in overt and covert ways) with no staircase. There may be a ladder now, but mobility is far from free.
Srinivas, M. N. 1956. ‘A Note on Sanskritization and Westernization’. The Far Eastern Quarterly 15(4): 481–96.
Hiwrale, Anup. 2020. ‘Caste: Understanding the Nuances from Ambedkar’s Expositions’. Journal of Social Inclusion Studies 6 (1): 78-96.
Cháirez-Garza, Jesús Francisco. 2014. ‘Touching space: Ambedkar on the spatial features of untouchability’. Contemporary South Asia 22(1): 37-50.
Scroll. 2016. ‘Why BR Ambedkar’s three warnings in his last speech to the Constituent Assembly resonate even today’, (https://scroll.in/article/802495/why-br-ambedkars three-warnings-in-his-last-speech-to-the-constituent-assembly-resonate-even-today) (posted on 26 January 2016) (accessed on 4 September 2022)
Bhatia, Gautam. 2019. The transformative constitution: A radical biography in nine acts. Harper Collins.
Baxi, Upendra. 1995. ‘Emancipation as justice: Babasaheb Ambedkar’s legacy and vision.’ Crisis and change in contemporary India: 112-149.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 2015. ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’. Colonial discourse and post colonial theory, Routledge: 66-111. Routledge, 2015.
 Sanskritization is a process by which a lower caste or tribe or any other group changes its customs, rituals, ideology and way of life in the direction of a higher or more often twice-born caste
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Nice to read. Good work!!