Contesting Marginalisations | Ambedkarism & Social Justice – An Introduction
The following is an extract from the Introduction of the book “Contesting Marginalisations | Ambedkarism & Social Justice” which is available on PeoplesBookShop.com
Conversations are an important part of our lives through which we can also preserve the oral history of our time. While those who are authors, historians, social scientists by profession, do get opportunities to express their expertise at various platforms not only speaking at forums or seminars but also writing scholarly papers too, there are hundreds of others, who might not have a ‘valid’ ‘professional’ qualification yet have wide experience of social movements that we study.
The year 1990 was tumultuous for several reasons. The first one was the Mandal phenomena and the second was the counter-strategy of the Sangh Parivar. I came to Delhi during this phase only and my understanding to the whole movement started after I saw the calumny and sinister propaganda by the media against Mandal Commission Report. In the 1980s when Punjab was burning, we had one man who wrote passionately against the state terrorism was Arun Shourie, who also advocated against the capital punishment. Some of us who were growing as young adults in those years saw Shourie as one of the few persons defending our right to freedom of expression and choices. But by the 1990s Shourie’s frustration with Mandal became a turning point of his embracing hardcore Sangh Parivar agenda. It was revealing to me but by that time I had also come to realise the media’s Brahmanical propaganda and how it became highly an upper caste media to protect their interests. The one man who sharpened my understanding of Indian media’s brahmanical character was V T Rajshekar, Editor of Dalit Voice which during that period really became the voice of alternative Dalit-Bahujan media. He was blunt and did not lack the vocabulary to counter the lies of information by the so called mainstream media.
The first generation Mandal Commission Report in 1990 had more support from the Dalits and Ambedkarites than the OBCs themselves but it had shown the way. Ambedkarites and OBC political leaders, social activists were joining hand for a common cause. There was more interest in Ambedkarite literature. Actually, 1990 was the year of centenary celebrations of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and the government of India has formed a big committee. Babasaheb’s literature became hugely popular as for the first time in Hindi heartland the original volumes were being translated in Hindi and spreading like wildfire. A large number of Ambedkarite were already bringing journals and magazines. The quest for digging history of injustice became part of all those who were looking for a new world beyond the confines of caste hierarchies and discrimination based on the identity of your birth. Ambedkar, Phule and Periyar became the most powerful combination of articulating the narratives of the Bahujan movement.
This was the period when I was struggling for a modest living in Delhi and came in touch with great Ambedkarites like Mr. Bhagawan Das and N G Uke apart from many others. Mr V T Rajshekhar was already speaking to people through Dalit Voice and has a huge following in states like Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. There were many others who were strengthening Ambedkarism through their own simple efforts. I would visit Bhagwan Das ji at his Munirka residence and also of Mr Uke. We would speak on the phone regularly. During 1990s, I used Sony Handycam to record many conversations and interviews whenever I went on a ‘mission’ as I found that useful to record than taking note which would not give me a correct picture. I felt this video Handycam very useful tool for my work purpose and writing an assignment.
Bhagwan Das ji was also well known through his enormous work of bringing out the Ambedkar volume. Whenever I went to him, I would just want to listen to him numerous anecdotes and stories about Dr Ambedkar. Some of them were so interesting and important that I felt that they should have come in the book form but I was not a publisher so one day I felt that it is time we need to record conversations with all those people who are working for the cause of human rights, secularism and Ambedkarism.
By 2004, I had been able to convert many of my field visits and clippings into small 30-40 minutes documentaries. Those were the years when digital cameras were not available and once you do a video, it was difficult to digitalise it unless you go to a studio for the same. Due to lack of resources, I kept all these video tapes with me as I did not have the idea of what to do about them. It was difficult to even see your own tapes unless you have the mechanism at home but when youtube provided the option to upload them after editing, I decided that I will have it. Friends suggested that I must go for a professional Sony Cam which most of the channels use these days, as that would make my film quality better and probably I would be able to screen them at various places. I went by this advice and felt that time has come to record conversations with people also and use it at a certain point of time whenever necessary.
My first interview in this regard was with Mr Bhagwan Das. I used to visit him whenever I found time and told him that I wish to interview him. He smiled. It was difficult to interview a person who you idolise. Nevertheless, I had so many issues coming in my mind that I thought I must seek an explanation as I felt that being one of the pioneers, his voice is important to be recorded for future generations. I went to his home at Munirka. I had none as an attendant or a camera person because for a conversation you need free hand otherwise it will never be of that quality. I had a friend Sanjay Mishra who was a novice but I had taken him, asking him to be behind the camera for some time whenever I would sit with Bhagwan Das ji asking him questions. He was there but I had to handle the camera most of the time. The interview went for three hours and I know Mr Bhagwan Das ji became quite exhausted that day but we felt happy that we were able to digitalise him and may be generations will know about him and his enormous contribution not only through his work but also watching him on videos and youtube.
The second interview that I recorded with was late N G Uke who was one among those sent abroad for higher or expertise education by Babasaheb Ambedkar. Uke Saheb too had lots of memories related to Babasaheb but my trouble was that I was all alone. I did neither have money to hire someone or some associate so I went alone to his home at Vasant Kunj and took an interview of him. I came in touch with Uke Saheb at a programme in Ambedkar Foundation where he introduced ‘Ambedkar Samaj’, an organisation founded by him, which in his opinion would be an enlightened society of the dreams of Babasaheb Ambedkar. He was one such person who was always rational in expression which I found among very few people.
During the same period, I recorded a conversation with my mentor and guide Dr R M Pal, who was editor PUCL Bulletin and taught me values of human rights and humanism. That was the time when Dr Pal was confined to his wheelchair with a paralytic stroke about a year ago but he fought well and was in in control though confined to wheelchair. He spoke very well on the current crisis in South Asia and about religious fundamentalism. He was an important person of human rights defenders who went to Durban Summit against Racism, Xenophobia and caste discrimination. The importance of this conversation with Dr R M Pal, who was a very close associate of legendary M N Roy is that Pal Saheb actually guided me to write a paper on Ambedkar Roy relationship which makes a fascinating reading and bring out some hitherto unknown facts about them. Dr Pal was one of the leading lights of the civil liberties movement in India who guided me a lot in the context of libertarian values of Ambedkarism and its close association with humanist values espoused by M N Roy. Dr Pal was one of the most vocal speakers that I have seen who would always speak of violation of human rights anywhere. He was the first person to have spoken about caste based discrimination within the mainstream human rights movement particularly at PUCL through his writings.
After the current dispensation took over in Delhi, we know how history is being targeted and distorted. I felt our time has started. We know how dirty the mainstream media which many are now terming as manuwadi media has decided to play role of the whipping boy of the government and dictate its agenda. During Emergency, despite pressure, a large portion of media still had people’s concern in mind. The government media blocked the news of the opposition but today the situation is much more dangerous. With fake news, the biggest threat to civil liberties and human rights is emerging from crony media which is distorting facts and constructing news in their studios and editing desks. It was at that time, I felt that time has come to record conversations of activists, writers and others to put them online in the greater public interest. We did not have a fund to pursue this but felt that if opportunity comes to visit any place, I will not allow it to go unused and hence a camera became my best friend to use my time positively. So, in a real sense, our conversation series started in April 2016 when our friend Vivek Sakpal and Anil Gaikwad encouraged me to continue with it and promised technical support in relations to their editing and uploading on YouTube. So while I was able to do numerous conversations in Nepal, in UK and with numerous others in India, the Maharastra’s historical connections came through Anil Gaikwad and Vivek as both of them worked hard in introducing me to people and getting them ready for interview. And this was absolutely historical with diverse range of people. We had Dalit Panthers founder J V Pawar and Raja Dhale agreeing to it at one end while eminent Ambedkarites like Sadanand Fulzale, Bhadant Nagarjun Surai Sasai, Suhas Sonawane, Vijay Surwade and many others. The conversations with them were extremely important and revealing. While Sadanand Fulzale was witness to huge mass conversion in 1956 led by Babasaheb Ambedkar, Bhadant Nagarjun Surai Sasai, a Buddhist monk from Japan who settled in Nagpur much earlier need no introduction as his contribution to strengthening Ambedkarite Buddhist movement is acknowledged by all. Among all the Ambedkarites world over, two individuals and their work will ultimately make you feel understand what were the weaknesses of it. Mr Vijay Surwade and Mr Suhas Sonawane not only documented things about Babasaheb Ambedkar but have been associates of Mrs Savita Ambedkar, a woman who faced a lot of flak and criticism in the movement being made responsible for the ‘killing’ of Babasaheb. The two interviews exposed various interest groups inside the close circles who wanted to use the opportunity to up their political career. The conversations provide a lot of thoughts for future thinking and honest appraisal of the movement for better mobility and organisations in future.
In the meanwhile, I was also able to record conversations with Mr V T Rajshekar, Editor, Dalit Voice, at his home in Mangalore. Rajshekar does not open up to anyone and it took a lot to pursue him speak though I personally feel him responsible for my curiosity and joining the Ambedkarite movement. The other important conversation that I was able to record was with doyen of Ambedkarite movement and Editor of Bhim Patrika, Jalandhar, Mr L R Balley. It was so informative and impressive, to say the least that was not known about how he came into movement and how the RPI and Samata Sainik Dal in the past had raised the issue of land reforms at various political forums. Balley had been a bitter critique of the BSP and late Kanshi Ram’s politics, maybe he himself was a veteran who contested against the then Defence Minister Sardar Swaran Singh and made him sweat despite all his money and power. In movements and democracy differences are bound to happen and we must take it to learn lessons from them. There is no need to be hyper about it as persons like Balley with his commitment and conviction to Ambedkarism only bring strength and lots of learning for it to grow further. In Chennai, I was able to converse with Mr K Veermani but sadly his office associates kept the recording and have not been able to send me despite repeated reminder. That interview was brilliant and spoke about the Dravidian movements and the challenges it had but sometimes the politics and insidious mechanism that exists at various ‘institutions’ that the big people remained either ignorant or unaware of them. We had no way to contact them but that is a sad part.
During these conversations, I had a lot of issues. Most of those who knew me had no issue speaking and barring out but there were a few who were very difficult to pursue. One of the person was very upset with mine just informing him that I met a certain person who was speaking very positive of him. This made the person so disturbed that he asked me if I speak about the certain person again then he is not going to give us the interview. That showed the high level of insecurity among people. There was another who claimed to have been a close associate of late Kanshi Ram and felt betrayed after BSP was formed. Now, he was ready to speak everything but only those things which he wanted to speak. I told him in a conversation we do speak and respond to questions. If the intellectuals felt so insecure of ‘being’ misquoted then there is no way you can speak in public life. And this happens when we go through common friends and all are present.
Three conversations that we recorded brought out the details of the Dalit Panthers movement. In Mumbai, our conversations were enriched by great thoughts of Mr J V Pawar and Mr Raja Dhale, both are actively writing in Marathi. Now, Pawar has written about the Ambedkarite movement in English too. It is essential to understand Ambedkarite movement in action to study rise and demise of Dalit Panthers movement. In Gujarat, the one man who took the challenge and led from the front is Valji Bhai Patel, whose conversation gave us detailed ideas of Babasaheb Ambedkar and his linkages with Gujarat.
The most fascinating thing that I found in these conversations was the passion of Ambedkarism among them particularly who have migrated to UK. The first generation Ambedkarites from Punjab had kept the memories of Babasaheb with them. His name is so sacred for them that have few parallels in the history, a man who has inspired a whole generation of people and now to the entire oppressed communities. The story of Ambedkarites in UK is the story of how hard work and passion makes you successful if you are given equal opportunities. The conversation with Ms Santosh Das, President, Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations UK, Arun Kumar, General Secretary, FABO, Mr Bishan Das Bains, former Mayor of Wolverhampton are simply the history of their struggle and successes in UK. Ms Santosh Das is not just an eminent Ambedkarite but also a celebrated civil servant in UK who was awarded Medal of British Empire (MBE) while Bishan Das Bains is the first South Asian to have become Mayor of Wolver Hampton in 1983. Mr Arun Kumar has given details of the struggles of Ambedkarite in UK including his own experiences of dealing with caste discrimination which is very important for all those who wish to document rich history of the movement. Last year, I was invited by Federation of Ambedkarite and Buddhist Organisations (FABO) for their International Conference on the commemoration of Dr Ambedkar’s one hundred years at London School of Economics where Prof Amartya Sen was the chief speaker. During the visit to UK, I was able to record a conversation with about ten veteran Ambedkarites at various places in London, Southall, Birmingham, Bedford and Wolverhampton but shockingly in the month of August 2016 while travelling to Uttar Pradesh, my baggage was stolen during the journey and I lost essentially my huge database. This disheartened me a lot but fortunately, that did not deter me pursuing things positively.
During the recording of these conversations, I realised that they need to be responded in textual forms too because when we are conversing, many things misses and many answered are not framed that way so I send a written questionnaire through mail to a number of people. Many of them responded many felt that they have already spoken to me so did not. The written textual replies are remarkable and become reference material for future generations. We have tried to transcribe a number of the conversations here.
In this volume we are also putting several important conversations outside the traditional Ambedkarite circles but who are keen observers of it. These three will be important for people to understand the dynamics of other movement elsewhere which come close to Ambedkarite movement. To understand the self-respect movement of Periyar in Tamilnadu we have a fairly detailed conversation with S Rajadurrai and V Geetha, two eminent scholar on Periyar’s movement there, the importance of African American movement in United States in relations to Dalit movement in India with Prof Kevin Brown, Indiana University and Mr M Chakma from the Chakma Hill Track of Bangladesh on the whole question of indigenous people in that region. The interview also reveals a much ignored issue of the Adivasis during the transfer of power in the region. We feel it will give people a broader understanding of the movements for autonomy and identities elsewhere.
Mr Anand Teltumbde is a well-known scholar of Ambedkarite and left movement in India. The interview with him gives a critical analysis of the situation around us and how can we move ahead. Dr A K Biswas is former Vice Chancellor of Dr Ambedkar University, Muzaffarpur, Bihar, a former civil servant who is a respectable historian now, give in detailed how the upper caste left have ditched Dalits in West Bengal. Conversation with him throws open the issue of Ambedkarite with left. The importance of this volume lies in bringing different shades of conversations so people draw their conclusion from these and strengthen the values and ideas that Dr Ambedkar espoused for. I am extremely happy that we are able to add in this vokum the conversation with Mr Manohar Mauli Biswas, President Bangla Sahitya Sanstha and well known Ambedkarite poet, thinker and author from West Bengal. His enriching experience and ideas about Ambedkarite literature need to be fairly understood.
Another important conversation that we must look at with positivity is that with Mr M C Raj, a prolific writer and founder of Bhushakti Kendra, in Tumkur Karnataka. Raj is brilliant with his words and critical of many things that he sees among the Ambedkarites. He has been candid in his observations of Dr Ambedkar. His vision of Dalit empowerment is contrast to many of the Ambedkarite as Raj’s always found links off to the old cultural value system of what he termed as Adijans, and what he felt Dr Ambedkar ignored the greater issue of the Dalit identity. We had put some very critical questions to him and to his remarkable calibre and forthrightness he responded them with great openness without being hypocritical.
The two conversations from Nepal give diversity of thoughts. Comrade Tilak Parihar, is the first Dalit to have risen to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Nepal and his differences with Prachanda, he brings out a detailed analysis of class-caste combination to fight injustice while Mr Om Prakash Gahath Raj is an Ambedkarite who speak about Ambedkarism from a different perspective.
The conversation with Prof Kevin Brown from Indiana University is on the whole issue of discrimination against African American in the United States and how powerful is the African American movement and its similarities with the Dalit movement in India. Prof Brown is a regular visitor to India and has been interacting with the Ambedkarite scholars and activists in India, brings a refreshingly new approach on the entire issue. His interview provides a new approach to deal with the situation and how America was definitely well placed to address the issue than India as we are still a communitarian society while in the US, now individual matters the most and marriages are not a taboo. When we ask people to break the barriers of castes and identities, it will not be possible where community identities dominate the discourse and structure and hence the crisis in India pervades.
Many of the conversations mentioned here are available online on our Youtube channel Lokayat and might not have been transcribed at the moment but we will definitely try to put them in the next book. I had sent a list of a questionnaire to many of the friends so that the answers are framed in a better way and no chance of confusion but then it takes a lot of patience to follow them up. I hope we have that so that people are not denied the huge knowledge base which exists on the ground.
I have included one important interview with Mr Anand Patwardhan who has been documenting things on human rights violation in India and does not need my introduction. His documentary ‘Jaibhim Comrade’ was both liked and critiqued by Ambedkarites. It is important to listen to the voices of those who have been the friends of Ambedkarite movement even when may not claim to be. The perspective might differ with others but ultimately it helps the growth of a movement. Diverse opinion gives us room to understand the movement and strengthen it.
I did try a lot to get some information from Pakistan. I got in touch with Dalit Sujag Tahreek in Sind which is spearheading the Dalit identity movement but unfortunately, most of the people that I send my questionnaire were unable to respond despite repeated reminders. I am still pursuing them in hope that we when we bring out the next document of this series, we will definitely have some of them speaking from Pakistan.
I do not wish to write a lengthy introduction as you will find them in these conversations. My aim was to bring these diverse voices to one platform through conversations and put them online too. The hope is that in these times of crisis these refreshingly honest conversations will give people in the movement as well as political parties new ideas to fight against injustice and discrimination. At the time when there is so much happening in India and forces interested in weakening the movement for social justice and human rights are on the rampage, it is time we learn a lot from historical Ambedkarite movement and listen to those voices who worked with Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, dedicated their lives for the cause, tried to understood him in letter and spirit so that we get a better understanding to develop our ideological grounds without which we cannot fight the rabid caste minds which are polluting the socio-political environment of the country at the moment.
This is my first effort and I hope despite various technical difficulties and glitches I am happy that we succeeded in bringing out this volume but it is my promise to bring more volumes of thoughtful discussions with intellectual activists in South Asia so that the voices of reasoning and humanity are united in their common struggle against religious right wings dictating our political discourse and controlling our mindsets. I do regret my inability to interview some of the people, I had tremendous respect. I lost some of the tapes too. One of them was my very dear friend Prof D Prempati along with who, I travelled a large part of the country trying to build up a political movement as well as intervene through intellectual discourse. The other important person I regret not able to record the conversation with late K. Jamnadas who was a great scholar of Ambedkarism and Buddhism. I went to meet him in Chandrapur, spoke to him, took some photographs and recorded some of the conversation but my camera ditched me as we came out, I was in a rush. I had to travel to Bhopal by bus from Chandrapur. Next morning, I found that all my data was lost. It was a loss I never recover but since I am not that professional who is doing it for business interest, we know laxity or lack of know-how of the technical things cost us heavily.
There is a huge information and knowledge waiting to be recorded at various levels. Unfortunately, we remain unconcerned many times but I am happy that with the many people are doing so passionately. Mere technology will not bring the desired results unless we have passion. My video recordings are definitely not of great quality as I did not have the luxury of hiring professional camerapersons or editors yet for me the issue of recording was more important and that made me reach so many of them who are not with us today. I am satisfied that these conversations with some of the most outstanding Ambedkarites, known for the dedication to the cause and many others who might or might not be categorized yet whose contribution for the cause of the marginalized is well known, will provide us enormous food for thought to take the caravan of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar into the right direction. This is the beginning and we hope in the coming years we hope to continue to tradition of recording movement for social change and social justice as well as those of human rights in the greater interest of democracy so that people enjoy their freedom without any fear or favour. We hope these conversations will give us ideas to strengthen anti caste-anti patriarchy movement to make India truly a secular socialist republic as envisaged by Babasaheb Ambedkar and many other leaders of our freedom movement.