As the latest chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement unfolds in the context of the pandemic and what can probably be heralded as the most powerful phase of social media, communities all over the world watch and ponder over internalised and overt social stratification.
They watch America and they listen to the humdrum of social discourse in their own countries. In India, we look at structural divisions through a different but innately similar lens–-caste. Aditya Panikker, a business development manager by profession, created a film highlighting one specific tribal community that has its roots embedded in African heritage.
The African-Indian communities in India trace their origin back to times when people, mostly indentured labourers from different countries across the African subcontinent, were forcefully made to immigrate to India by the imperialists.
When I asked Aditya what motivated him to create this film, he pointed towards the ongoing Black Lives Movement around the world and said that the way everyone around him “was coming out with support,” be it on social media platforms or privately, filled him with inspiration. He continued, “In India where there is racism, it is important to talk about casteism too.” He wants to highlight the fact that such communities in India face ‘triple barrier’ because of caste discrimination.
The Siddis of Karnataka not only have a history entrenched in slavery but have almost no mention in the country’s collective memory. In a HIMAL article titled ‘Blackness in Brown Spaces’, Sinthujan Varatharajah writes about India’s relationship with black communities such as the Siddis, and how they “are viewed as ‘foreign.’” Also, how they are displaced from our narratives, writings, and consciousness. Even when they are mentioned, it is almost always problematic: they are exoticised and fetishised by an upper-middle-class and upper-caste audience keen to ‘explore’ the surface of ‘racial difference’ on the subcontinent.’
Aditya’s film intricately showcases the people from the Siddi community in their homes, with their children and their families. He mentions Malik Ambar who came to India in the era of the Mughals and championed guerrilla warfare and the tactics of war. He not only founded the city of Aurangabad but also dreamt of being a Sultan. Aditya succinctly describes his film by calling the caste system “the pet project of the privileged” and draws parallels between racism and casteism. He clips together pieces of video footage showcasing the lifestyle the Siddis lead in their respective states of Karnataka and Gujarat while intermixing it with documentation from the government clearly giving institutional and as a result, spatial recognition to the Siddis as a tribal community.
His film poignantly highlights the hypocrisy of the Indian elite. At the same time, it draws inspiration from revolution ignited in the West. Where do we stand in matters of justice as an immensely diverse country? How do we inculcate inclusion in our academic syllabi? In the caption to his Instagram film, Aditya states, “I started educating myself about the caste system only three years ago. I was literally forced to read Dalit literature by my English professor.”
You can view the entire film here.
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