New Delhi: On July 25, Divya Bharathi, the filmmaker behind Kakkoos, a documentary on manual scavenging, was arrested and produced before a magistrate for failing to attend a court hearing about a student protest in 2009.
Divya maintains that she was never issued summons by the court.
The 2009 protest was organised to draw attention to the state of Dalit hostels in Madurai after a student living in one of them died of a snakebite. Students blocked roads and shouted slogans. Five FIRs were filed that day, all regarding the protest that Divya characterised as ‘peaceful’.
According to Chennai high court lawyer K. Bharathi, this police reaction is not wholly surprising. Tamil Nadu has a long history of cracking down on student protesters, right from his own student days as an organiser to the present day, as the Goondas Act is increasingly used by law enforcement to silence dissent.
“Instead of welcoming (student protests) as good for democracy,” authorities tend “to look at this as rabble rousing,” said Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India progressive Women’s Association and a former member of the All India Students’ Association. Krishnan said she gets the impression that Tamil Nadu has had “a quiet crackdown on democracy, for a very long time”.
But the timing and very public nature of her arrest have Divya and her supporters wondering if the charge of ignoring court summons was just an excuse to intimidate her into silence on the subject of manual scavenging.
About a week before her arrest, Divya had uploaded a film on YouTube that shows the dean of Anna University Engineering College, Dindigul, employing manual scavengers. Public screenings of Kakkoos have frequently been shut down by the police citing law and order concerns, particularly in her home city of Madurai, where six such screenings have not been allowed to proceed. “They have also told us not to circulate the DVD,” Divya said.
“I don’t think it is a coincidence, considering the topics she raises,” Krishnan said. “There is a tendency to imagine that the mobilisation of Dalits is provocative.”
Bezwada Wilson, the Ramon Magsaysay award-winning activist and founder of the Safai Karmchari Andolan, has been advocating for manual scavengers for over 30 years and is struggling to understand why their predicament has become a politically-charged issue in recent years. “I condemn (Divya’s) arrest,” he said. But “I am confused. What is the political motive” for trying to silence her, he asked, thinking out loud.
Samuel Velankanni, the Safai Karmchari Andolan’s Tamil Nadu convener, said that the reaction to the film must be understood against the backdrop of the Indian state’s “refusal to acknowledge the existence of manual scavengers in the first place”.
In 2013, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act prohibited the employment of manual scavengers and made provisions for the rehabilitation of manual scavengers and their families. The rehabilitation package includes scholarships, vocational training and loans. It also called for a survey of people employed as manual scavengers across the country.
The Tamil Nadu government has claimed that there are only 377 manual scavengers in the state, according to The New Indian Express. Velankanni said that his andolan alone has identified over 3,000 manual scavengers in the state so far, none of whom have received rehabilitation packages. Many of these manual scavengers were intimidated by local government officials into withholding their self-declaration forms, a document that identifies them as manual scavengers to the state and renders them eligible to claim rehabilitation packages, he said.
Velankanni added that he has forwarded the list of names of the over 3,000 manual scavengers to central and state government authorities but has yet to see them take any action.
In this climate, the fact that manual scavengers take centre stage in Kakkoos to tell their own stories is particularly moving and important, Velankanni said.
Referencing a scene in the documentary where an old man cries as he cleans faeces with his bare hands and urges viewers to think of the fact that he is unable to buy his children clothes, Apoorva Sripathi noted that Kakoos‘s intense focus on the personal narratives of manual scavengers has the ability to puncture widespread public apathy regarding their condition.
But in recent years, the movement to liberate manual scavengers has criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signature Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, a campaign which aims to build two crore new toilets and end public defecation by 2019. Without proper sewage systems, activists worry that the construction of new toilets will only perpetuate manual scavenging and caste hierarchies.
“They want to keep this community in this work for ten generations, for that only they have (the Swachh Bharat programme),” Velankanni said. Taking on Swachh Bharat might be another reason why manual scavenging is becoming a politically-fraught issue, Velankanni added.
While Kakkoos does mention the Swachh Bharat campaign in unflattering terms, Divya is quick to point out that it also criticises Left movements and the Dalit movement. Nevertheless, the majority of the abuse she has received since the arrest has been from right-wing factions, she estimated. She said that many of the over 1,700 abusive phone calls she has received threatening her physical safety were from BJP-affiliated individuals.
Divya was told by the police that the sheer volume of calls made it difficult to apprehend the culprits, she said.
Divya has also run afoul of K. Krishnasamy, the leader of Puthiya Thamilagam, and some members of the Scheduled Caste Pallar community who dislike their caste being associated with manual scavenging in her film, she said. Krishnasamy publicly threatened to serve a legal notice to her in a video seen by The Wire.
For the time being, Divya is out on conditional bail and has been required to report at a police station each morning, she said. She is careful about answering the phone. In the midst of all this controversy, she is dismayed that the focus has shifted from the people forced to enter manual scavenging in the first place.
Kakkoos has been viewed over 2.2 lakh times on YouTube. A number of reviews – such as this one in The Hindu – mention how difficult it is to watch the film and be confronted with the atrocities of the caste system. But, as Krishnan notes, filming Kakkoos was not an easy experience for Divya either – right from stepping into a public toilet for the first time to now living with the documentary’s release.
Kasturi Pananjady is an intern at The Wire.