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Not Afraid: Manual Scavenging Docu Maker Unfazed by Death Threats

From the time Divya Bharathi released Kakkoos, her documentary on manual scavengers, she has been facing problems.

Published
India
7 min read
Not Afraid: Manual Scavenging Docu Maker Unfazed by Death Threats
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From the time Divya Bharathi released Kakkoos, her documentary on manual scavengers on 26 February, she has been facing problems.

But after she put out a video about the alleged harassment of sanitary workers by Chitra Selvi, the Dean of Anna University in Dindigul, all hell broke loose. Since then, Divya says she has been getting repeated threat calls from more than a thousand numbers.

However, the activist, who has been part of the CPI(ML) since school days, is unfazed. At her home in Madurai, she says, "It is a well-organised political attack and they know that they are threatening a woman, so they attack more.”

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Her phone keeps ringing and unknown people ask her why she has made a documentary degrading the Pallar community.

Kakkoos, Divya's documentary, features people from different communities, including the Pallars who are from a Scheduled Caste. Selvi also happens to be from the same caste group.

Most of the people who call have not even watched the documentary, they get my number on WhatsApp and they call me. Every half an hour, I get about eight calls.

Bharathi was also arrested by the Tamil Nadu police on 25 July for a 2009 FIR filed against her in Madurai. She was produced in court and later released on the condition that she signs at the police station for a week.

The Anna University Video

On 21 July, Bharathi had uploaded a video in which two sanitary workers make serious allegations against the Dean of Anna University, Selvi.

In the video, they allege that they were harassed by the dean to practice manual scavenging without protective gear. They also allege that Selvi had forced them to do her household chores and to put up with sexual harassment from her husband.

Bharathi says that from the time the video went online, she has faced death threats, abusive calls and sexual harassment over the phone.

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I posted the video on 21 July. After this, a poster which had Puthiya Tamilagam Krishnasamy’s quote saying that my Kakkoos film showed the Pallar community in bad light went viral. The threat calls started from then on. They say that they have been given money to kill me, sexually abuse me, and make these abusive calls

However, despite the continuous abuse, Bharathi has not switched off her phone.

I will keep attending these calls. I will not switch off this phone. If I do that, they will think that I’m scared.

There is a pattern to these calls. The caller first asks if it is Bharathi on the line. After that, they ask her why she made the documentary. An irritated Bharathi shoots back, “Have you watched the documentary?”

Most of them say no, and she asks them to watch the film first and then make accusations about her.

According to Divya, political parties with a Pallar representation and vote base are behind the threats.

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I did not know that the dean was from the Pallar community and that other Pallar parties would start threatening me for my first documentary. Even the Hindutva groups are supporting them in this. Many of the calls I get, Truecaller shows the name as BJP Saravanan or BJP Muralidharan.

She believes that right-wing groups are supporting Puthiya Tamilagam due to her upcoming documentary on beef politics and her repeated criticism of the BJP.

In Kakkoos, I have criticised the central government for Swachh Bharat. I have also criticised them for their policies on manual scavenging. I had also announced that my next documentary would be on beef politics.

Accusations by the Couple in Bharathi’s Video

It has been about 11 days since the couple who appeared in Bharathi's video returned home. The 36-year-old man asks, "I will do any work...from plumbing and construction labour to sanitary work, but how can I let my wife be sexually harassed?"

His wife, who is sitting next to him, is in tears.

“He did not know about all the issues till that video was shot by Divya. We continued to work there, thinking about our children and the loans that we have,” she says.

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The couple had been working for Anna University for the last five years.

All the problems started after this new dean, Chitra Selvi, took over two years ago. She would make us go to her house and work by turn. At times, we were also asked to go and work in her mother’s house in Karur. In the last one year, her husband started harassing me sexually. When there was no one else in the house, he’d ask me to go and get his underwear and towel while he was taking a bath.
Woman in the documentary

Unable to withstand the harassment, she stopped going to the house to work for a week.

“She (the dean) then called me and abused me. She said that if you cannot work in my house, you need not work at the college also,” she says.

After that, 15 sanitation workers who were employed at Anna University gave a petition against the dean to the Collector.

When we came back to the college to work, the dean did not allow us inside and later threatened 10 of the sanitation workers. They signed an apology letter, so they were taken back. After the video came out, they took back three more people. So everyone, except my husband and I, has gone back.

Bharathi had embarked on the project after someone called her to do a video about the dean's alleged atrocities. However, after the video came out, the person was allegedly threatened by the Puthiya Tamilagam party, and he has since gone absconding.

“A complaint was also filed against them at Reddiarchatram police station and a summons was pasted on the door of the house where the couple lives,” says Bharathi.

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The couple claims that the police is further adding to their troubles.

The police keep coming to our house and asking our relatives about us. If we do not go and meet the inspector, they will soon take our family members into custody. We have been living there for the last 15 years. But now, the other sanitary workers who are still working in the university have been asked to fight against us. This is so we can be falsely charged in a case.

The Documentary in Question

Bharathi's film Kakkoos, which has become a tool in the hands of those targeting her, is a searing documentary on the condition of manual scavengers in different parts of Tamil Nadu.

“We have named about seven castes from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes who are working as manual scavengers. Why do these people have a problem with the documentary after five months of its release? We have named other castes also in the film, why is it that only their caste has a problem?” asks Bharathi.

After the documentary was released on 26 February, many of the screenings were cancelled in Tamil Nadu by the police.

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“The first screening of the movie on 4 March was cancelled in Nagercoil. It was alleged that I’m an anti-social element and part of a Naxal group. On 8 March, it was cancelled in Coimbatore, on grounds that it would become a law and order issue. Five screenings of the movie were cancelled in Madurai. But I was shocked to know that one of the screenings was cancelled in Kerala House in Delhi by the Kerala government...this, when the Kerala State Film Awards went to Manhole for Best Film," she says.

Manhole is once again a film which takes up the issue of manual scavenging as its subject.

No Help From Authorities

Bharathi claims that so far, there has been no help from the police.

We have met the Deputy Commissioner of Dindigul five times but no action has been taken. The Collector says that they cannot take action because there are more than a thousand phone numbers. The complaint was forwarded to Cyber Crime. They called on Monday just before the press conference and said that they will try to take action.

Meanwhile, a police complaint has been given against Bharathi by two Puthiya Tamilagam members in Dindigul.

Both the complaints state that the documentary shows the Pallar community in bad light. According to them, their caste people are primarily farmers. They also state that documentary filmmaker Divya Bharathi is anti-national and that she has been part of Naxal groups. This definitely sounds like the BJP’s language.
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Despite the threat calls, Bharathi seems undeterred by the latest controversy.

I will definitely make the next documentary on beef politics. I become a little scared when people follow me in public places but I make sure that I continue to pick up the calls because I don’t want them to think that I’m afraid and have switched off the phone.

Asked about the arrests of activists under the Goondas Act, Bharathi says: “The state government wants to keep the activists away for two or three months so that the protests die. They are helping the central government. If there are two or three more cases on me, they can charge me also with the Goondas Act."

Bharathi is in a hurry to finish the interview as she's preparing to go for the next protest – in support of Valarmathi, an activist who has been arrested in Salem under the Goondas Act.

The News Minute contacted the dean Selvi but she refused to comment on the allegations against her.

(This article has been published in an arrangement with The News Minute.)

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