Aarakshan: touching the Untouchable

Posted on septembre 12, 2011

2


Aarakshan, controversy around the movie

One of the movies I’m eager to see  is Aarakshan, which was released exactly a month ago (August 12th) in South Asia.  Aarakshan (Reservation, quotas or scheduled places) is an Indian movie about the policy of caste-based reservations in government jobs and educational institutions (see Wikipedia).
Even before its release, the movie has raised passions in India. The NCSC (The National Commission for Scheduled Castes) considered certain dialogues in Aarakshan to be insulting towards the untouchables, a caste considered to be inferior.

Morever, one of the actor (Saif Ali Khan) was criticized for playing an individual of a lower caste because he belongs to a royal family! Seriously? How long ago was monarchy abolished? What determines the caste of a person?

Untouchable

Castes are hierarchical hereditary divisions established among the Hindus. The lowest class of all is untouchable caste, also called the outcasts, dalits (crushed, broken to pieces) or harijans (child of God as Ghandhi put it). Untouchables are individuals whose occupations were considered to be impure, which is the reason higher castes avoid physical contacts with them. Dalits have long been known for being leather workers, street sweepers, cobblers or agricultural workers. The most inferior among this inferior caste are the scavengers, a work consisting in digging village graves, disposing of dead animals, and cleaning human excreta. Nothing too glamorous.

Today, dalits still face discrimination in villages:

  • Prohibited from marrying or just eating with other caste members
  • Discriminatory seating arrangements and separate utensils in restaurants
  • Prohibited from wearing sandals or holding umbrellas in front of dominant caste members
  • Segregation (separate seating area) of Dalit children in schools
  • Sub-standard wages

Sounds like apartheid!

Saif Ali Khan wearing the Sherwani, a royal garment

Saif Ali Khan wearing the Sherwani, a royal garment

With modern times though, many groups and associations have argued in favor of equal chances for dalits. Schools now have to admit a predetermined percentage of dalits students (based on the reservation system). Thus, admission is more based on caste than school performance (See this BBC report). The same applies to the hiring process in the government. Is this positive discrimination fair towards other castes? Aarakshanis trying to answer this question.

Aarakshan worldwide

This movie has drawn my attention to a phenomenon that I didn’t think existed in India; positive affirmation. I had always thought that positive discrimination was reserved to Western societies dealing with slave descendants or the growing number of immigrants of other races. I was very far from thinking that positive affirmation also applied to individuals of the same race. How sad!

Are you in favor or against positive discrimination? Would you watch Aarakshan? I would…