August 12, 2011 6:58 pm
Bollywood film is deemed untouchable
By James Fontanella-Khan in Mumbai and Akanksha Awal in New Delhi
The painful legacy of India's caste system has collided with Bollywood
after a new movie highlighted long-running discrimination against the
country's Dalits, or untouchables.
Aarakshan, which means reservation or quota, has been banned in three
Indian states. Protests ahead of its release on Friday sparked fears
of social unrest and highlighted the enduring divisiveness of
Hinduism's millennia-old hierarchy system.
Starring Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, the Hindi-language film
focuses on the quota system established at the time of independence,
which set aside a proportion of university places and public sector
jobs for the country's most underprivileged castes and tribes.
The caste-based affirmative action policies were aimed at redressing
inequalities generated by Hinduism's caste system, which divides
society based on traditional occupations.
Critics say that Aarakshan depicts upper castes in a bad light for the
way they mistreated Dalits, while at the same time ignoring how the
quota system helped lift many people out of poverty.
"While the overall theme of the film is not objectionable, it is
loaded with anti-Dalit and anti-[quota] dialogues," P.L. Punia,
chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled
Tribes, said. "Aarakshan has failed. It is likely to create communal
The film, released just days before India celebrates the 64th
anniversary of independence, was banned in Uttar Pradesh, Andhra
Pradesh and Punjab. Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state with
180m people, is ruled by Kumari Mayawati, the country's most powerful
lower-caste politician. In Mumbai, police were deployed to guard
cinemas and protect Mr Bachchan and the movie's other Bollywood stars
amid fears of attacks by extremists.
Mr Bachchan wrote on his blog that the decision to ban the film
infringed India's freedom of expression laws: "I am saddened that
India's destiny, the dispenser of which rules the minds of all people,
has no effect on those minds that sit in the most august houses of our
Prakash Jha, Aarakshan's director, said it aimed to explore the
problems of the quota system, which many believe has failed to create
a more egalitarian society.
According to Sunalini Kumar, an associate lecturer at Delhi
University, the quotas' impact on social mobility has been limited
since their introduction more than 60 years ago. "A recent survey of
professional occupations by caste in Mumbai shows that around 98 per
cent of the sweepers, municipal workers, sewage workers . . . are
Dalits," Mr Kumar said. "Around 97 per cent of journalists and media
professionals in the country belong to upper castes."
Amaresh Dubey, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru university in New
Delhi, counters that quotas remain the best way to address India's
social divisions: "The ethnicity and caste-based discrimination has
been widely researched. . . Affirmative action or positive
discrimination has to be the way to go."
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