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‘Ambedkar was a desert plant in full bloom’

He showed to the world, especially to the promoters and the practitioners of casteism in India, what an Untouchable could achieve if he is given the opportunity. He became a living proof of the good sense in granting reservations to the historically disadvantaged in Indian society

On 9 April 2017, the Jotiba Phule Pustakalaya Samiti (Jotiba Phule Library Committee), Deohra, in Haryana, organized a cultural programme to commemorate Mahatma Jotiba Phule and Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar. About 500 people, including women and children, attended the event held at the library premises in the village. Ramphal, a local teacher, is the secretary of the committee and young men and women, and even a Brahmin man, are its members. Among the speakers were senior journalist Anil Chamadia, sociologist Dr Anil Kumar and Anil Varghese, English editor, Forward Press. Given below is the speech that Anil Varghese read out at the event:

Dear Friends,

I represent Forward Press. Thank you for inviting Forward Press to participate in this function to commemorate Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar. The idea of Forward Press occurred to Ivan Kostka, who as a young journalist in the 1970s covered the Dalit Panther movement in Maharashtra. Together with his plastic surgeon wife, they invested themselves and their financial resources into giving birth to this media platform for the Bahujans, to give a voice to the silenced majority. FP was born in Delhi as a “first fully bilingual” (English-Hindi) print magazine in May 2009 to Ivan and Dr Silvia Kostka, who to this day, despite challenges from the brahmanical forces, their own advancing age, health issues and financial struggles, have continued to pour into this baby hoping it will come of age.

Anil Varghese addresses the audience

A lot has happened in the past eight years as you would expect from a journalism that seeks to expose ingrained casteist biases in culture, society and journalism itself. Pramod Ranjan, the managing editor, and Ivan Kostka have redrawn boundaries in Hindi literature by starting a discourse on Bahujan Literature and the magazine has exposed the racism and casteism that has over the years turned Mahishasur, a Bahujan king, into a rakshas. In fact, Pramod Ranjan, my managing editor, who has had his ear to the ground as a journalist in the Hindi belt for most of the past two decades was due to speak here today. Unfortunately, he couldn’t make it due to his busy schedule. It’s going to be very difficult to fill his shoes but I’ll try.

Forward Press remained a print magazine for 7 years before, in June last year, heeding the winds of change sweeping the media and metamorphosing into an intellectually buzzing website and books. Forward Press has strived to represent the socially and economically marginalized majority of the country, to give them a platform to voice their concerns and nurture journalists and commentators from among them.

Today, we are discussing the legacy of Mahatma Phule and Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar. Forward Press probably wouldn’t have been there – and I wouldn’t have been standing here – if we had no Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Bhimrao Ambedkar. Phule and Ambedkar have been the guiding lights of FP. In fact, the very issue of FP (May 2009) had their pictures at the top of the cover and an article inside on their legacy to India.

A play in progress at the cultural programme

Today, when we think of revolutions, what come to mind are nations and large populations up in arms. But Phule’s revolution started in his home. He taught his wife and his aunt to read and write. Then he and his wife started a school for girls. Then a home for pregnant Brahmin widows. He launched the Satyasodhak Samaj.  Then the Phule couple wrote. Yet, it was Savitribai who wrote first. She wrote Kavyaphule, freed from centuries-old, hardened chains of patriarchy. Her husband only had to teach her to read and write to break those chains. On her way to her school to teach the girls, men would pelt stones and throw dung at Savitribai. These men also pressured Jotirao’s father into asking his revolutionary educationist son and daughter to leave the house. Thrown out of their own home, it was a Muslim man, Usman Sheikh, that invited this backward-caste couple to stay in his house.  Jotirao sent his sister Fatima Sheikh along with Savitribai to a Christian missionary school to be trained as teachers. These two then became colleagues at the Phules’ school for girls in Pune.

Such a revolution does not need a Delhi or a Mumbai. It can begin right here in Kaithal. No demonstrations, no dharnas, no spellbinding speeches, no cameras, no media. This library that you’ve set up here could itself spark a revolution. I’m sure several Phule-like revolutions are underway in many of your homes and your villages, which we will get to know of only a few decades later. Forward Press also could not afford to forget the home and family – the site of these quiet revolutions. While we often talked of the big picture, we also had a column almost every month for seven years that dealt with family issues.

When Phule wielded the pen, he was quietly ruthless on Manuvad, which the upper castes cited as a licence for inhuman treatment of the Bahujans. He questioned myths, including the Mahishasur myth, reinterpreted them and nailed the lies in them that sought to show Bahujans in a bad light.

About 200 people attended the event

Phule was a Shudra but he belonged to a well-connected Shudra family. This Mali family grew flowers, fruits and vegetables in their village and sold the produce in Pune. They had a name in the village and in the town. Phule could have stuck to his family trade and sailed through life. But having attended a Christian missionary high school that admitted students irrespective of their caste and religion and treated them equally, the unjustness of the casteism outside the walls of his school stared him in the face. That begs this question: Are those among us who are relatively privileged ever so unsettled by the injustice facing brothers and sisters of our own caste, another caste or even another religion and moved to fight for them? When it comes to injustice, do our concerns go beyond our immediate family, caste or religion?

Phule’s did, and he had in mind everyone who was a victim of casteist oppression when he talked of “Stree, Shudra, and Atishudra”. Unfortunately, today’s political leaders who talk about social justice can’t seem to think beyond their own caste or their gender – which is usually male.

Ambedkar was born a few months after Phule died. They were both from what is today’s Maharashtra. Ambedkar considered Phule his guru. Before Ambedkar burnt Manusmriti (1927), he had destroyed its assumptions with his own accomplishments. A lawyer, an economist and philosopher with two PhDs, the maker of India’s Constitution, law minister, statesman, an intellectual, journalist, politician, social reformer – he is perhaps among the most multifaceted personalities we will ever hear of. He did all of this in his 65-year life.

Forward Press Books presented copies of its titles to the organizers

He showed to the world, especially to the promoters and the practitioners of casteism in India, what an Untouchable could achieve if he is given the opportunity. He became a living proof of the good sense in granting reservations to the historically disadvantaged in Indian society. He knew from experience what opportunities could do for a person who comes from a community that has been denied these opportunities for centuries if not thousands of years. These opportunities are like a short spell of rain in the driest of the deserts causing the seeds lying dormant for years to sprout and bloom. Ambedkar was a desert plant in full bloom. This injustice, this stifling of immense potential, which he saw and broke out of, is perhaps what made him such a tireless fighter for reservations, for a separate electorate, for women’s rights.

Just when our nation was born, we had someone, who himself was from a deprived community, competent enough to write the Constitution, someone to legally secure the rights of the weakest and the historically disadvantaged, including women. The Untouchables, the social outcasts, merely didn’t have a token representative in the Constitution drafting committee. They had one of their own chairing the committee – someone who was looking at Indian society from the bottom of the caste hierarchy. For this, we should consider ourselves fortunate. Ambedkar’s struggles brought relief to the Dalits and the Adivasis (SCs and STs). But, following his death, as the governments got into the nation-building mode, they strayed from Phule and Ambedkar’s vision and for decades forgot the other backward castes (OBCs), who made up almost half the country’s population. They have been getting the governments’ attention of late.

The rains have returned in the form of a light drizzle after centuries, and the long dormant seeds are sprouting, ever so slowly. But attempts continue to stop them from sprouting. Reservation on paper does not really mean reservation in real life. There are massive backlogs. Then there are attempts to turn the frustration among the ill-served Bahujans into hatred against members of another religion.

To add insult to injury, there has recently been an attempt to co-opt Ambedkar himself into a person who would have fitted right into the RSS today, criticizing alleged Islamic aggression and supporting ghar wapsi!

Two years ago, the RSS organs, Organiser and Panchjanya, brought out special issues on Ambedkar, in which they sought to distort facts and Hinduize him. Forward Press Books is working on a book on Ambedkar, in which we will explore the various facets of Ambedkar and show who he really was – without the brahmanical Hindutva garb that is being forced on him. Look out for this book in the next couple of months.

During these times of double-speak and vigilantism, we would do well to remember Ambedkar’s call to “educate, agitate and organize” and one Usman Sheikh, who invited Jotirao and Savitribai into his house when their own neighbours turned against them. Their crime was that they tried to educate the weakest in society – the girls of the backward castes.


Jai Joti! Jai Savitribai! Jai Bhim!

Forward Press also publishes books on Bahujan issues. Forward Press Books sheds light on the widespread problems as well as the finer aspects of Bahujan (Dalit, OBC, Adivasi, Nomadic, Pasmanda) society, literature, culture and politics. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +919968527911, Email: info@forwardmagazine.in

About The Author

Anil Varghese

Anil Varghese is Editor-in-Chief, Forward Press

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