'Aarakshan' and the politics of affirmative action
Updated Aug 10, 2011 at 06:27pm IST
New Delhi: Filmmaker Prakash Jha is no stranger to controversies, but
his upcoming film 'Aarakshan' threatens to rekindle a bitter debate on
an issue that has in past driven a wedge between some of India's most
sharply defined classes traditionally exploited for votebank politics.
Former royal, Saif Ali Khan, the son of the erstwhile Nawab of
Pataudi, plays the role of a Dalit teacher in the film that takes a
hard look at India's reservation policies and brings the focus back on
a subject that has been the thorn in the side of successive
governments as they struggled to balance a popular vote bank with
policy implementation and social democracy.
Aarakshan has run into troubled waters with a spate of protests across
India against Jha's perceived anti-quota stance. But the filmmaker has
repeatedly maintained that his film strives to show both sides of the
issue which has sparked extreme emotions among both the middleclass
and the "backward" classes.
But the first relief for the producers of Aarakshan came with the
Bombay High Court declining to stay the release of the film and
rejecting a petition by two advocates demanding a special screening of
the movie before its release. The court posted an August 22 date for
further hearing in the case. But the film would have been released by
The issue that divides India
The Constitution requires 22.5 per cent of government jobs and
government-funded educational institutions to be reserved for the
socially backward communities. At the time the political thinkers
attempted to safeguard the interests of India's long oppressed
"untouchables" and ensure their holistic growth along with the
nation's newly scripted social, democratic agenda.
The Mandal Commission in the 1980s, entrusted by the Janata Party
government led by Prime Minister Morarji Desai to identify socially
backward classes and look into seat reservation for them in educations
and jobs, endorsed the existing affirmative action programme and
recommended that Other Backward Classes be given exclusive access to a
certain portion of government jobs and slots in central educational
institutions, and recommended increasing the quota by 27 per cent to
49.5 per cent.
Affirmative action refers to policies that take factors including
race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or national origin
into consideration in order to benefit an underrepresented group,
usually as a means to counter the effects of a history of
The Mandal Commission report was met with a string of violent protests
and several self-immolation bids by students of so called upper
castes, who stood to lose, as subsequent governments tried to
implement the recommendations.
In 2006, Parliament passed the 104th Constitution Amendment Bill,
providing for reservations for the socially and educationally backward
classes, besides the Scheduled Classes and Scheduled Tribes, in all
private aided and unaided educational institutions.
The Supreme Court of India in 2008 upheld the Government's move for
initiating 27 per cent OBC quotas in government-funded institutions.
The Court said that the "creamy layer" should be excluded from the
ambit of reservation policy. But reservation in private educational
institutions, seen as the recourse of the wealthy and dealt with in
Jha's Aarakshan, still remains a contentious subject.
Politics of reservation
The film has run into trouble with several political leaders including
Chhagan Bhujbal of NCP and Republican Party of India (RPI) chief
Ramdas Athavale. Surinder Dhanda, President of Ambedkar Sena and a
host of other activists presented a memorandum, addressed to the
Punjab Chief Minister, to the local SDM Manpreet Singh demanding a ban
on the film's release.
The threats of pro-reservation activists may scare cinema houses and
multiplex owners into canceling the screening of the film.
But the road to the affirmative action programme has been continually
obstructed with political exploitation of socially and educationally
backward classes on one hand and the upper class' violent opposition
to quota in higher educational institutions.
The 2006 amendment was approved while the Congress was in power to
bring back a predominantly tribal, Dalit and OBC voters who had moved
away since the emergence of powerful regional parties.
Getting past the Censor Board
Jha showed his film to a nine-member panel of Censor Board members who
apparently cleared it without any cuts and given it a U/A certificate.
Censor Board Chairperson Leela Sampon has assured that the film's
release will be deferred. But the National Commission for Scheduled
Castes and Scheduled Tribes has demanded that some scenes which have
the potential to threaten national harmony and peace be censored and
the film released with the cuts.
The Indian censor board, that vets films on sensitive subjects, has in
past cleared controversial cinema that throws light on social issues.
Controversial filmmaker Qaushik's short film 'That Boy' despite having
violent imageries was passed with a U/A certificate. So was his
'Bishh' and National Award winning documentary 'Love in India' that
explored the inherent Indian curiosity with love and sex.
While the film 'Gulabi Aaina' on Indian transsexuals, won critics'
approval across the world at film festivals, it was banned in 2003 for
being "vulgar and offensive". The 2004 documentary Final Solution on
rioting between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat met with a similar fate.
A dialogue here, a scene there; filmmakers who have a run-in with the
censors know how the system works. Aarakshan wasn't a hard-sell for
Though the National Commission for Minorities and National Commission
for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes sought a special screening
to confirm the film did not misinterpret the constitutional provision
for socially backward classes, the censor board examining committee
comprising representatives from the Dalit, OBC, SC and ST community
and agreed to clear it.
Aarakshan, scheduled to be released on August 12, stars Amitabh
Bachchan, Deepika Padukone, Manoj Bajpayee and Prateik Babbar.
Bachchan plays the principal of a private college and Saif Ali Khan
plays a Dalit student romancing Bachchan's daughter (Deepika) in the
film. Set in Bhopal, the film is a documentation of events post the SC
judgment of 2008.
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