Newton: a ‘New dalit hero’ or a new stereotype of dalit?

Which language should I Speak?
Chewing trotters in the badlands my grandpa,
the permanent resident of my body,
the household of tradition heaped on his back,
Wait in this evening’s glow and stand still hollers at me,
“You whore-son, talk like we do.
Talk, I tell you!”
Picking through the Vedas his top-knot well-oiled with ghee,
my Brahmin teacher tells me,
“you idiot, use the language correctly!”.
Now I ask you which language should I speak?

– Arun Kamble

Recent Hindi film and India’s official entry to the Oscars, Newton has created a lot of discussion and debate. Many have commented on the movie, Rana Ayub said that the film Newton holds mirror to our understanding and functioning of the democracy.

Harish Wankhede’s review in The Wire and Nolina Minj’s review in Round table India are important and interesting, and the ones that I would like to engage with.

Harish Wankhede, in his The Wire article says that ‘Bollywood is now ready to present a nuanced dalit identity in its films, overcoming its earlier stereotypes’. According to Wankhede, Newton represents casteless and duty bound a new dalit hero with unrestricted human aspirations. While Nolina Minj’s article draws our attention towards the stereotypical portrayal of adivasi’s in the movies. She further argues that Newton doesn’t break any Bollywood stereotypes about adivasi depiction.

Taking forward the idea of the new dalit hero in bollywood from Wankhede’s piece I would like to explore the ‘casteless’ and duty boundedness /legalness of Newton, a new dalit hero as a new stereotype of dalits. Castelessness of the Newton, as Wankhede rightly points out, that the dalit middle class has emerged due to affirmative action policies, political development and modernization process. The first generation of educated dalits emerged in the 70s decade. This generation inherited the glorious struggle of Ambedkar’s movement and aptly understood both the exploitation by landed and upper caste in the villages and institutional apathy in the urban spaces.

Till 1970-80 the dalit middle class was very much linked with the dalits in rural areas. That educated generation of dalits took upon itself the responsibility to emancipate rural masses from the clutches of caste-class exploitation. This dalit youth that was urban, college educated expressed its dissent vocally and radically in different forms. Radical expression of Dalit panthers lies in their particular social location and condition. Dalit panthers group initially started as literary movement, and emerged as political expression. The Panthers were a product of the failed promise of the Indian state to emancipate the dalit masses from the shackles of caste-class exploitation. Dalit panthers was a particular case of Maharashtra. Several such political, literary, cultural formations emerged in various parts of the country around this time.

Arun Kamble’s poem from that period captures the same spirit.

Those generations chose to talk in the language of the rural masses, but Newton’s language is legal language, a language of new educated dalit middle class. I will come back to this point later. Caste exists and functions through various ways in the urban life, but the ‘unknowingness’ of the urban helps to pretend the absence of caste in the cities. It is also true that in the movie, Newton’s dalitness appears through symbolically and subtle way. Newton is an urban second generation educated dalit man and who does not have links with rural area (this was also pointed by Malko in a dialog). The name Newton signifies a scientific, rational and modern ‘duty bound’ citizen. Newton’s effort to move away from caste identity also reflects casteless aspirations of the dalit middle class. Newton’s castelessness also lies in his ‘complete’ urbaneness as well as his effort not to see his various experiences as caste experience. Newton sometime ignores, sometimes reads different things in his caste experience but he does not make an effort to assert and contest caste experience. For example, the fact that his election duty is allotted in Dandakaranya, in a risky area is because he is a ‘reserve’ candidate. But he does not perceive the situation that way.

Democratic polity opened up the possibility for the dalits to be a part of modern institutions. But social, political and economic condition of our society does not allow dalits who are part of these institutions to claim and to assert their authority. Hence there is always resistance to dalits who are holding positions of power and exercising it. Stiff use of rule of the law allows dalits to exercise the power and authority. The rule of law or legality is an important and central aspect of the movie. In the movie we can see that Newton is holding the constitution/the rule of law very firmly, in fact with almost an irrational stubbornness. But there is also another important aspect to it also.

Historically Dalit movement never shied away to critique the rule of law or constitution when it threatened their interests. Newton probably represents a generation which is born after the liberalization, privatization, and globalization (LPG) era. In the post LPG period, the state is very rapidly withdrawing itself from welfare programs. Newton also represents this fear of losing state which provided some possibility of a better life for the dalits. This fear of losing possibility of a better life is much stronger among urban middle class dalit. The constitution is not the end, but it is medium to achieve equality, liberty and freedom and hence better society. But the irrationality and the stubbornness with which Newton tries to hold the rule of law, signifies that rule of law become end in itself. Newton internalizes the rule in such a way that he becomes a legalised person.

Nolina Minj’s article ends with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie’s quote about danger of single story. ‘The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. . . The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.’

Newton’s story is also singular story. Legalized citizen is a new stereotype of dalit middle class which hold both Ambedkar’s image of constitution maker and constitution itself very close to heart. Newton can’t (and he does not want to) refuse risky duty or he is very prompt regarding his work and rule of law. Newton is reading his responsibility as constitutional duty, but we can read caste in such self imposition of ‘good’ law-bound citizen. Newton’s human aspirations are not unrestricted but limited and governed by the rule of law. We would like to argue here that this is not a dignified portrayal of the dalit in the movie, but the newest addition to the pervious stereotypical portrayal of the dalit image.


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