Movies like Fandry can teach us so much and enrich our awareness from the poignant lived experiences of people who are the target of at least the rhetoric of affirmative policy.
FANDRY (meaning pig) is a Marathi movie released in 2013. Its plot, showcasing how India’s caste hierarchy works in rural areas, is poignantly appealing, particularly in the context of the historic 3:2 majority judgment of the Supreme Court in the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) reservation case.
The Supreme Court unanimously upheld the economic basis as the sole one for affirmative policy. The exclusion of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, which constitute around 25 per cent of India’s population as per Census 2011, from the EWS quota, was upheld by the majority judgment.
This movie analysis is aimed at facilitating a close experience of the lives of persons from an ostracised social group in reconceiving the idea of affirmative policy.
Daily experiences of ostracised people from Fandry‘s lens
In our professional and personal lives, we are face to face with certain questions on a daily basis. To whom do we talk? Who do we consider approachable? Who wants to help us genuinely? Who humiliates us privately and publicly? Who treats us with dignity and respect? Who derides us? Whose words fill our mind with indignation? Who are our children’s friends? How did our parents’ social network help us access certain resources or positions? How does our identity enable or constrain us from accessing the desired contacts and, subsequently, public resources or even private resources? The answers to these basic questions are shaped by our social identities and resulting social network. To substantiate this significant point, I invite your attention to the recent findings of French sociologist Mathieu Ferry that “point to the strong role of caste and religion in shaping one’s destination, particularly when accessing top occupational positions in the private sector. These results question the meritocratic and casteless claims of the Indian ‘new middle class’ in post-liberalisation India, and they call for more encompassing policies reducing origin-based inequality.”
Social groups carry overarching beliefs that draw from the idea that they can practice mischief publicly, discriminate against ‘similarly situated’ persons with a sense of impunity, and draw sadistic pleasure from the suffering of others.
Through its various numbing plots about the lives of social groups in India’s rural landscape, Fandry gives us a glimpse into the lives of social groups in India’s rural landscape, in particular drawing out attention to how the internalisation of social identity by everyone in a small geography plays out.
As per the established equations of caste hierarchy, some social groups believe that it is fair to assign the perceived impure act of pig-catching to members of an ostracised social group. The same caste hierarchy dictates that social groups placed higher up treat females from their group as objects of possession and worthy of patriarchal protection. But females of other social groups are treated as objects of sexist bullying, derision and dehumanisation. These higher up social groups believe that certain work burdens like catching pigs and carrying portable lighting devices during local festivals are meant for traditionally ostracised social groups.
This social system perceives practising open defecation on the village periphery as acceptable. However, pigs feeding on human excreta and the ostracised social group are perceived as impure. In short, social groups carry the overarching beliefs that draw from the idea that they can practise mischief publicly, discriminate against ‘similarly situated’ (that is, people carrying similar social identity but varying in age and gender) persons with a sense of impunity, and draw sadistic pleasure from the suffering of others.
It is important to point out that the discriminatory social group is also not at the top of India’s caste hierarchy. But perhaps it does not matter, as long as there is someone below the social group with which they can do the same as is being done to them by those at the top. It is important to see this nuance in the difference in the caste hierarchy, and its implications due to adopted common beliefs across the Indian rural landscape.
While social groups practising discrimination are partly motivated by their core beliefs, the practice continues because of the multiple vulnerabilities of ostracised groups. Among the major sources of vulnerabilities are livelihood dependency, perhaps voicelessness due to population minorities and lack of reflective thinking.
In every village, some social groups are expected to do menial work and experience culturally sanctioned inhuman treatment. In his book The Annihilation of Caste, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar precisely describes, explains and draws from India’s rigid and ingrained social structure, particularly in its rural areas. How far have we progressed in dismantling the caste burden for everyone is a matter to reflect on, particularly for the people in power, with a duty towards the Constitution and its implied framers — we, the people of India.
What is the objective of positive discrimination policies?
I have described the observed realities of Fandry and perhaps everyday relatable experiences of people located on the caste hierarchy, particularly its perceived second social group onwards, and the beliefs that generate discriminatory behaviours towards the ‘other’. Justice S.R. Bhat, in his strongly worded dissenting opinion in the EWS judgment, writes that “[T]he exclusionary clause operates in an utterly arbitrary manner. Firstly, it ‘others’ those subjected to socially questionable, and outlawed practices – though they are amongst the poorest sections of society.” Then Chief Justice of India U.U. Lalit had concurred with his views. These views perhaps resonate with the beliefs of social groups shaping interactions in the movie.
Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer was cautious while allowing ‘peripheral inequality’ in exclusionary policy in a Supreme Court judgment in 1985. But what if EWS exclusion exceeds ‘peripheral inequality’, given the current state of income distribution?
I will reflect on how caste-based affirmative policy, a version of positive discrimination, fits into the Constitution’s conceived ideas of positive discrimination. While social groups practising discrimination are partly motivated by their core beliefs, the practice continues because of the multiple vulnerabilities of ostracised groups. Among the major sources of vulnerabilities are livelihood dependency, perhaps voicelessness due to population minorities and lack of reflective thinking. I will describe each of these sources of vulnerabilities.
The ostracised group is engaged in informal work with no assured source of income, and its members borrow money from other social groups, which generates power to potentially humiliate the ostracised group publicly. The ostracised group are a minority in the village, so their voice is weak against perpetrators of discrimination and pervasive caste-based discrimination.
The last source of vulnerability, that is, the lack of reflective thinking, is an antithesis of the internalisation of social norms as a way of living, particularly when the occupation-based caste system has existed and is well-entrenched on the Indian soil for several centuries. This takes me almost 150 years back to the speech of former U.S. President, lawyer and statesman Abraham Lincoln, on his father’s occupation as a cobbler, often quoted in the media:
“Abraham Lincoln … stood up for his first presidential address. When he was about to begin, one of the aristocrats got up and said: ‘Mr. President, you should not forget that your father used to make shoes for my family.’ The whole senate laughed, thinking that they had made a fool of Abraham Lincoln. Yet Lincoln, with his unusual humility, looked at the man and retorted, ‘Sir, I know that my father used to make shoes for your family and many others here … He was an unmatched cobbler who put the heart into his work. I want to ask you, have you got any complaints? If you have any complaints I can make another pair of shoes because I too am a good cobbler. But I know that nobody has ever complained about my father’s shoes and so I am proud of my father and my lineage!’ The whole senate was speechless.”
This text is worthy of reproducing here because it shows how Lincoln handled tendencies to humiliate even the President based on his family’s occupation. It is important to note that professional positions might change, but social identity does not.
While economic criterion as a sole basis might be a reasonable argument emerging from the interpretation of constitutional provisions, excluding the bottom social strata from its ambit needs reconceiving the roots of affirmative policy and its expected working mechanism.
I find parallels between those tendencies surfacing from an American aristocrat and what unfolds daily in Indian social life. Fandry‘s ostracised group lacked reflective thinking and an arsenal to respond the way Lincoln did in his context. In the absence of supportive self-belief, the movie’s protagonist adopts internalised practices of dominant social groups, like attempting to look fairer and straighten his nose. All these descriptions now build the case to show how a social-identity-based positive discrimination policy is expected to work.
What were the positive discrimination policies based on social identities expected to do? For various reasons, they were expected to facilitate formal education and employment opportunities for historically marginalised groups in their reduced versions. In short, the policy aimed to facilitate the education of marginalised social groups to develop reflexive thinking and occupation to reduce livelihood vulnerability, mainly through public resources. How successful we have been in achieving these objectives is a matter of critical research.
I think every citizen, particularly those holding constitutional power and duty towards upholding constitutional morality, needs to reconceive ideas of affirmative policies. Doing justice is a philosophical task that necessarily means going beyond the observed world into the realm of much deeper abstractions that potentially exist in people’s minds, and that we can authoritatively assert to exist and manifest in observed behaviour. Hence, there are higher expectations from highly educated citizens potentially capable of becoming aware of prejudices. Movies like Fandry can teach us so much and enrich our awareness from the poignant lived experiences of people who are the target of at least the rhetoric of affirmative policy in the largest democracy of the world.
The lived experiences described by Fandry show the realities of caste-based discrimination in rural India. The description appeals to us to reconceive our ideas of affirmative policy. While economic criterion as a sole basis might be a reasonable argument emerging from the interpretation of constitutional provisions, excluding the bottom social strata from its ambit needs reconceiving the roots of affirmative policy and its expected working mechanisms. This re-conception is all the more relevant because in the words of the majority judgment, the ideal to be achieved is the creation of “an egalitarian, casteless and classless society”.