A slogan no longer sectarian

‘Jai Bhim’ is inspiring various marginalised communities and not just Dalits to bring about transformative change.

Updated - November 11, 2021 12:27 am IST

Published - November 11, 2021 12:15 am IST

A still from Jai Bhim. Photo: Special Arrangement

A still from Jai Bhim. Photo: Special Arrangement

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar is often seen only as a Dalit icon. And ‘Jai Bhim’, a slogan coined by Babu Hardas, a firebrand Ambedkarite working class leader from Nagpur, is usually considered as a sectarian greeting. However, this salutation, which displays the reverence that the deprived sections have for Ambedkar’s contribution to their emancipation, is emerging as a political slogan. It connects and inspires diverse marginalised communities towards social and political action.

Towards Ambedkar’s vision

Actor Suriya’s film, Jai Bhim , reasserts the validity of this slogan and extends its application to other subaltern groups. Based on a real-life incident, the film demonstrates the everyday crises in the lives of the poor and illiterate Irulars of Tamil Nadu. We see that the police illegally arrest Rajakannu (K. Manikandan) and his relatives on a false complaint of theft. His pregnant wife Senggeni (Lijomol Jose) watches helplessly as the police torture him. She finds a Left activist-lawyer Chandru (Suriya) who fights and wins her case in the Madras High Court (the character is inspired by Justice Chandru who fought the case). Her victory restores the faith of vulnerable communities in the law.


Ambedkar had envisaged that independent India would safeguard the fundamental rights of the marginalised people. He cautioned that democracy would collapse if institutions failed to do so. Ambedkar disagreed with the Marxists for undermining liberal democratic principles and criticised the Socialists for neglecting the political claims of the ‘lower’ castes and the so-called ‘untouchables’. He assumed that India’s modern institutions would be accommodating of the deprived sections and protect their social and political interests.

Till the recent past, the Left leadership kept a subtle distance from Ambedkar’s political ideas. They viewed the socio-cultural symbols of the Dalits as disturbing working-class unity. However, it is within the space of local Left activism, especially in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, that engagement with the Dalit question began. The Left in these States acknowledged the contribution of anti-caste leaders like Jyotiba Phule, Periyar and Ambedkar in building social consciousness among the deprived communities and often tried to build social and class alliances to contest the incidents of social injustices. Suriya’s character represents this social comradery between Left activists and the Ambedkarite political agenda.

On Chandru’s wall, we see a mural of Karl Marx. In other scenes, various symbols of the communists (such as red shawls and flags, a small statue of Lenin) are shown to suggest the hero’s close affiliation with Marxism. However, the film does not address the issue of class and social injustice through populist Left rhetoric such as workers’ strikes and mass mobilisation. It resists anti-establishment preaching. While the film critically demonstrates that state institutions such as the police and the judiciary have failed to safeguard the rights of the Irulars, it avoids populist mainstream solutions to tell the remaining story. In the end, we see the court reprimanding and punishing the conservative social elites and the police for assaulting and exploiting a vulnerable tribal people.


Chandru does not have a ‘saviour complex’. Instead, he emerges as an Ambedkarite hero who struggles to protect the life and dignity of the tribal people by adopting democratic and legal apparatuses. Further, the film presents the victim Sanggeni not as a powerless and wretched spectator but as a dignified claimant of equal rights and justice. It equally focuses on her brave struggle against the powerful establishment and promotes her as a parallel protagonist of the story.

Beyond ghettos

Though Ambedkar’s name is cursorily mentioned in the narrative, it is Chandru’s commitment and Sangenni’s zeal to achieve justice that brings them close to Ambedkar’s vision of social justice. Thus, the title of the film assumes meaning. It inspires diverse marginalised groups to also stake claims in modern institutional mechanisms that have been governed so far by caste elites.


With the expansive rise of the right-wing today, the fairness and legitimacy of state institutions are being compromised. The judiciary and the police are often obliged to follow the dictates of their political masters and serve the interests of the social elites. Also, Left-Socialist organisations, except in select regions, have failed to inspire the poor, vulnerable and depressed classes in achieving political and economic transformation. In such a context, the slogan ‘Jai Bhim’ is moving beyond caste/regional ghettos and mobilising marginalised communities, the youth and intellectuals to bring about transformative change in social and class relationships.

Harish S. Wankhede is an assistant professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi

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