As a courtroom drama that puts law and justice itself on the witness stand, Jai Bhim has become quite the sensation. Though the story is not told by the Irula community itself, the movie is a sincere attempt at depicting the institutional nature of caste discrimination.
The politics of the film has not been watered down in the slightest. It stands tall in the face of the mainstream film industry making a strong case for the need for the acknowledgment of the wrongs inflicted upon the marginalized. Suriya’s Jai Bhim shows a mirror on our society, confronting us with the many injustices we’ve passively borne witness to.
Jai Bhim does much to highlight the systemic injustices the DBA communities have had to endure. It has stripped the audiences of the notion that instances like these are isolated. As necessary as that is, it is time we take notice of the psychological damage depicting only stories of violence and pain inflicted upon the community.
Graphic, prolonged scenes portraying caste atrocities do in part give us a glimpse of the unimaginable violence tribal communities have had to endure. But it also fuels the binary narrative of caste issues: caste issues exist only if there is violence. The result of this mangled logic is a gross repetition of the chillingly vast history of erasure. A comment on an Instagram post said,
“It is so mentally exhausting explaining to savarnas that caste is very much still a real and functional issue.” “…we don’t owe them explanations, if they don’t see, it only reaffirms how they are casteist themselves.”
Many movies that portray violence against marginalized communities do so in an individualistic way, eliminating the broader sociological issues that lead to it. Society here is reduced to a bunch of individuals who make independent choices. This reductive framework portrays generational social injustices as the consequence of the actions of a few bad apples. In so doing, movies tend to present a skewed sense of reality. The result? Almost complete erasure of the role social institutions and systems play in fueling social injustices. Jai Bhim did not suffer said phenomenon, but it very nearly did as it portrays Chandru as the hero and corrupt cops as the primary villain.
Many falter when they herald this movie as a positive step in the direction of representation. Saying so would be a cliché and- in this case- completely untrue. Yes, having a movie entitled thus is big; but by fixating on brutality, it becomes a film about awareness. This begs the question: who is this film for? The crux of having good representation is accuracy, sure, but it must also highlight the successes of the community. In fulfilling the first half of representation alone, filmmakers reveal the Brahmanical lens with which they view the world. The restrictive representation of caste subjects people from DBA communities to a lot of anguish and psychological scarring, sending the grim messages: this is all that happens to people from the community. The lines of sensationalizing trauma and honest depiction of real issues begin to converge. Regrettably, filmmakers aren’t the only ones who are blind to any nuance in their perception of caste discrimination and atrocities. Such willful ignorance of the part of Savarnas and the privileged could cause significant pain, trauma to DBA communities.
Numerical Confinement of Caste Issues
Myriad political careers have been built at the expense of limiting caste issues to economics. Caste inequality has been increasingly acknowledged by governance authorities, yet their view on the matter hovers meekly around economics. Although valid, this reductive view ignores almost entirely the social and psychological consequences of discrimination.
India’s tribal people get the short end of the proverbial stick in terms of nutrition, infrastructure, health, and governance. Yet, politicians don’t move past the numerical contours of caste issues. Contemporary politics acknowledge caste issues as such only if it benefits them. Such conditional token recognition of issues pushes DBA communities further into the margins. Their trauma, often generational, is capitalized by media, governance authorities, and authors.
Those in power especially conveniently ignore the effects of their supposed development projects. An estimated 40% of 60 million people displaced belonged to tribal communities. Another jarring statistic is that over 50% of most minerals and dam sites, 90% of coal is mined from tribal regions.
Such willful disregard has dire consequences. Historically disadvantaged castes typically overlap with low-income communities and have a 40% higher rate of depression than the national average according to the National Mental Health Survey of 2016. Owing to the economic disparity coupled with the casteist notions of masses, therapy, and mental health diagnosis have become a farfetched daydream for many in DBA communities. An NCBI survey shows that India has an estimated 9,000 psychiatrists for over 1.3 billion people. Divya Kandukuri, founder of Blue Dawn said that even fewer understand the “intersection of caste and mental health.” She said,
“I have had therapists tell me that I need to work hard and not be lazy.” Such seemingly harmless comments mask a systemic rigidness to understand the extent to which casteism affects tribal communities. As Buffalo.intellectual, an important intellectual voice on Instagram puts it,
“For most Savarnas, unless there is a very bold, overt declaration of caste supremacy during an atrocity they fail to see caste as responsible for it.” “…Savarnas will keep waiting for a giant neon sign glowing ‘C-A-S-T-E’ to appear before affirming the role of caste.”
Mental Health and Caste
There is no way nor is there a need to sugarcoat the urgent need for addressing the institutional nature of caste issues and violence. By turning a blind eye to the intergenerational trauma of DBA communities, society has made trauma the primary inheritance of marginalized communities. Psychological issues like PTSD go undiagnosed since the affected communities are actively denied fair access to the resources that might allow them to heal.
This manifestation of casteism, of the many that exist, highlights the institutional nature underpinning it. As a reaction to trauma, many people from DBA communities tend to have chronic anxiety, emotional dysregulation, depression, and many more psychological issues. Such consequences escape the privileged’s indifferent perusal of caste issues. As B.R. Ambedkar said,
“Indifferentism is the worst kind of disease that can affect people.”
It is vital to understand that psychological well-being, or even general well-being for that matter, does not exist in a vacuum. It is affected by a plethora of sociological institutions and attitudes. For example, most news channels chalked up Rohit Vemula’s untimely death to depression, turning a blind eye to the role institutional harassment played. Such negligence gives rise to a punitive cycle of gaslighting, a reality many Savarnas aren’t even conscious of. This attitude finds its way into therapy and counseling rooms too. Seeing as most therapists are privileged and/or Savarnas, they fail to view certain trauma through the prism of caste. Divya Kandukuri says,
“People in India sometimes don’t even acknowledge that caste exists in India, forget bringing it into your therapy sessions”
Self-esteem too bears the brunt of casteism. The way one views oneself is a result of a variety of things including gender, sex, caste, sexuality, religion, etc. To put it simply, identity is sociological. The stigma and stereotypes surrounding caste play a significant role in defining the way a person from a tribal community views themself. The stamp of criminality wrongfully pushed onto DBA communities only serves to worsen their mental well-being.
Financial constraints are yet another barrier that obstructs the path of tribal communities to get the help they want and deserve. The average cost of therapy in India is around 800rs-2000rs per session, an amount that could be someone’s monthly salary. As Jyotsna Siddharth says,
“We need to go beyond Dalit women being able to access basic amenities only, we need to give them resources, grants, and scholarships so that they can dream of a life more than just basic.”
This must extend to every person in DBA communities; in the field of academia and mental health too. Accessibility to resources, mental health included, plays a part in supporting or toppling an individual’s well-being.
Tha Se Gnanavel’s Jai Bhim is a film based on the real story of Parvathi(Sengani in the movie), a woman from the Irula community and her struggle to find justice for her husband who died as a consequence of custodial torture. The film’s portrayal of custodial torture has been labeled ‘bold’. As important as representing reality is, it is also important to understand the collateral damage of such depictions. Media, mainstream cinema especially, must tell stories that don’t revolve around ghastly violence as well. It must also pass the mic to those from the community instead of telling the stories of marginalized groups themself.
Representing violence and brutality in such a graphic way, seems exploitative of the trauma generations of tribal communities have had to endure; especially when stories like that of the Dalit Ph.D. scholar, Deepa Mohana, go largely unreported. Tulsi Gowda’s rich contribution to the environment, too, was seldom spoken of until just a few days ago.
The mental health environment in India today is, for the most part, inaccessible to people from marginalized communities. Inequality operates on several axes, but none more than caste. Savarnas and the privileged, who can’t possibly understand the psychological effects of casteism dominate the mental health scene. Initiatives like Blue Dawn are incredibly important and must be appreciated for their work. Founded by Divya Kankundari, Blue Dawn is a mental health initiative dedicated to promoting community healing in the Bahujan community.
So, the question remains, what should we do? How can we be better? As movements like #DalitLivesMatter become more widely known, many have claimed to be allies of DBA communities. At a cursory glance, this movement has revealed many allies who are willing to stand up for what is right. But if we were to examine the nature of said support, hollow performative allyship rears its ugly head.
Caste and inaccessibility to the many developments in the sphere of mental health are inextricable. We, as a collective, must realize and acknowledge the extent to which we have internalized the toxicity of casteist ideologies and attitudes. An active effort must be made to change them. Only then can we begin to understand the magnitude of the damage our silence and ignorance have inflicted.
About the writer: Bhargavi Barnabas is a Content writer, English literature student, researches and writes on feminism, mental health, and LGBTQIA+ issues, she is also a Bouncbk user.
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