Bharat Patankar and his temple-entry movement  

Bharat Patankar is an author and president of the Shramik Mukti Dal. He secured the right of the Untouchables to enter Vitthal temples of Maharashtra by putting an end to the interference of Brahmins in religious practices and worship. When power companies built windmills in the villages, he made sure that farmers got compensation not only for the land but also for the air. Given below are excerpts from a chat Forward Press had with him  

Successful, influential Bahujan movements of the kind that have sprung up in Maharashtra and the southern states are rarely witnessed in the states of northern India. On 25 January 2017, our meeting with Bharat Patankar proved to be an opportunity to be acquainted with one of these Bahujan movements. We met him at his home in Kasegaon village, in Satara district, Maharashtra. We had travelled there from Phulewada, the ‘karmbhoomi’ (plane of action) of Mahatma Jotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule. Kasegaon was about 200 km from Phulewada. This district, Satara, where Kasegaon falls, also has links with Jotirao Phule. The ancestors of Phule lived in Katgun village of Khatav Taluka in this district. We had come to Kasegaon to meet both Patankar and his wife Gail Omvedt, who not only saw the Bahujan movement in India through a new lens but also prolifically wrote about what they saw. Given below are the excerpts from our discussion with Patankar:


Bharat Patankar: No political rights without a cultural base

During our tour, we found that Dev puja (worship of God) is of great significance here. At the same time, Buddhism is also prominent. What do you think?

See, you will find kul daivat (clan deity) and gram daivat (village deity) in all the cultures (beliefs) of Maharashtra. They are our ancestors, not God. Our dev (deities) are not like their Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh, who rest in heavenly abode. The plot of heavenly gods is a creation of the recent past. In the last few years, some makers of TV shows have manipulated the real stories of the deities by linking them to heaven and hell.

There is a major difference between these deities and gods of Brahmins. The deities/gods of Brahmins live outside. People only seek blessings from the brahmanical gods. Kul devta, on the other hand, are ever present in the lives of the people, that is, people seek their advice on when to marry, what business to take up, which property to buy or when to begin cultivation.

There is a legend behind each and every kul daivat and gram daivat. It won’t be wrong to say that these legends are also the product of the brahmanical mindset; they have nothing to do with the reality. There is nothing in it. Take the example of Vitthal Dev Pooja itself. A big event is held every year in Maharashtra. No one knows when and how it started. One will go to the event, greet and come back. People throng to this place in large numbers, many covering two to three hundred kilometres on foot to reach there. It is called vari (journey). There are some people who do not go on foot. They stand in queue and even enter the temple. But, lakhs of people who come on foot will only get to see the kalash (urn) put on the temple, and that is all. They still believe they have seen Vithoba and now they can go back. The puja is performed inside the temple by the pujaris (priests). We have nothing to do with it. That has now changed. We launched a movement, Vitthal Rukmai Mukti, for this.

Bharat Patankar

Please give some more details about this movement.

Damodar Dharmanand Kosambi (31 July 1907 – 29 June 1966) has explored this subject a lot. Apart from him, a thinker and author from Pune, late Ramchandra Chintaman Dhere[1] (1930 – 1 July 2016), also talked at length about it. Although Dhere was a Brahmin, he underlined how the brahmanical state has distorted everything. With convincing evidence, he has explained in a very lucid manner how the gods were replaced, how the legends behind them were manipulated, how their attributes changed and how the evidence was tweaked. Non-Brahmins speak (about the traditions shaped by them) even without any evidence. Kosambi, however, showed that 10 thousand years ago in the Stone Age era, the area lying on the banks of Krishna and Godavari rivers in Maharashtra, there was a huge, dense forest. Black soil is found there, which used to be swampy in those days. At that time it was not possible to prepare the land for cultivation. Iron was not invented yet. Until then, the evolution of an agrarian culture was not possible. People used to go to dry areas, mountains along with their sheep, goats and a number of big cattle. Kosambi followed the route taken by Warkari[2] people and collected concrete evidence on the way and, writing about it, proved that these people moved to dry areas due to heavy rains as the hooves of the cattle would rot in the swamp during rainy days. Pandharpur region witnesses less rainfall. In comparison to other parts of Maharashtra, Shirdi is also a low-rainfall area. People used to stay there too. The routes used by the Warkari people are now found here in Maharashtra. There is a village called Warkari, near Pandharpur. Not much construction has taken place in this area yet. There is still a large ground, where they met and dispersed in all directions. Due to the rain, the dry areas used to turn lush green and sheep and other large animals could survive there without any difficulty. They stayed there until April. They would move to dry areas in Ashadh (June). By Kartik (mid October-November), this area would become dry and water would become scarce, following which they would come back roaming along with their cattle. This happened every year. Vitthal was the hero of this legend of Pandharpur journey. He was known as Veer, meaning “a brave man”, who helped some boys in a moment of crisis. They used to erect a stone in his honour. “Vithoba” is the modified version of “Veer”. The Brahmins installed the same Vithoba as an incarnation of Vishnu and others. In the meantime, some Brahmins known as Budwe and Utpat made changes to their legends. Since they were already in charge of the temples, they succeded in presenting Vitthal as Vishnu’s incarnation. Chokhamela[3] was a Warakari saint at the temple and belonged to the mahar community, although most people from this community have now converted to Buddhism.

In one of his poems, while addressing Vitthal, he wrote, “O Vitthal! Since my neck is adorned with the necklace of yours, these Budwe [Brahmins] people are killing me. They do not know that you gifted me this necklace. So you tell them that I am dear to you.”

  • With the movement to reclaim Vithoba, Bharat Patankar gave a new dimension to the cultural struggles in Maharashtra
  • Brahmins described Vithoba as an incarnation of Vishnu
  • D. D. Kosambi and Ramchandra Chintaman Dhere had trashed the beliefs of Hindu religion

There are many such quotes. It is noteworthy that there were saints belonging to every caste at that time. Male and female saints were treated equally. For example, mali, kumhar, mahar, darzi, kunbi; Kunbi and Maratha – both are same. Every oppressed community in Maharashtra was stratified under the caste system by the Brahmins – such are these people. Those who were deprived of the right to seek and share knowledge used to simply sit in anubhavmandap (temple-like set-up where people gathered and shared their experiences) and discuss. Basavanna[4] launched an anti-caste movement in the 12th century against the rules set by Brahmins. He has written that Vitthal is one and unique. He has no other form. He is not Vishnu. He explained why he is not Vishnu by underscoring his distinctive attributes. Such anti-caste ethos is very much reflected in each of his poems. This movement continued, and a few years into the post-independence era Pandurang Sadashiv Sane Guruji (24 December 1899-11 June 1950), who was a socialist, started a hunger strike against entry restrictions on “untouchables” in the temple. All the Warkari saints were involved in that strike. He rejected any connection drawn between Budwe and Vitthal. He said Vitthal belonged to them and that the Budwe and other such people intended to enslave them. How could have those, who intended to enslave us, worship our devta or symbol? As a result, Brahmins had to open the temple gates to all the castes and the Maharashtra government had to enact a law that would abolish the customs and norms of the Brahmins. Later, the Brahmins moved court. The matter came up in the Supreme Court. It remained in the High Court for 45 years because the government never provided a competent lawyer to fight the case. When the High Court upheld the law framed by government saying that it was appropriate, we launched a fresh movement to assert that the Budwes had no connection with the temple and they must be removed. Eventually, a lot of people gathered around Pandharpur and organized a mass movement to step up the pressure. We forced them to appoint an efficient lawyer.

What was the blueprint of this movement? Were there sit-ins and demonstrations?

Indeed, we used to organize demonstrations. At the same time, we led morchas to the temple. For some time, we also tried to pre-empt Budwes. Wherever the Warkari people gathered, we used to sit there and protest, which is called “Thiyya Andolan” here. Thousands of people would participate in this sit-in and not move until they got a positive response. Thereafter, the Budwes were removed. It bore positive results. At present, the priest and those appointed to clean the temple or idols are selected through an interview; people from all castes and even women can be appointed. But then, they started selecting only Brahmins for performing the puja. The auspicious place was reserved for them as others were not aware of what it was all about. So, last year, we stepped inside and stalled this practice, too. We questioned, challenged them to show us where it was mentioned that others couldn’t perform puja and how this practice was relevant. Just like the Brahmins, others were also employees. What was so unique about it? One just needed some training for it. What was so special about washing the idol? What extraordinary knowledge was required for it? We also replaced the iconographic features of Vitthal and asserted that his idol has a 6-foot blanket draped over the shoulder and holds a stick in hand, resembling a shepherd and a farmer. But there is a law for draping him in silk. There will be some Brahmins in the secretariat there. Changing this remains an issue. The temple, however, managed to secure a large parcel of land as property, owing to which the income of the temple increased by at least 15 times. All the people who were stopped from getting close to the idols can now go up straight to them. Also, arrangements have been made to enable lakhs of people to visit the temple within three-four hours.

You talked about replacing the covering and iconographic features, has it been successful?

No, we managed to do away with iconographic features but the puja is mired in legal compulsions.

No, but how is the symbol dressed up now?

Yes, presently the main worship of Vithoba is performed according to the Purush Sukta in the Rig Veda. It is described in the Purush Sukta that Brahma created a giant human spread over the entire universe. The Brahmin came out of his mouth and so on! These saints were against it. The legend of Vitthal also goes against it because it is mentioned that Vitthal used to eat with Namdev Shampi (a tailor). Budwes told him that he had become impure by doing so and therefore must be purified. Once purified, Vitthal again ate food with Namdev asking how many times they would purify him. Vitthal told them that concept of purity was futile and meaningless. There are many such legends. We have brought out all such evidence, so that only the authentic reference of Vitthal is put forward. Why is the perspective of other people being mixed with this? Budwes have already been replaced here but their wicked intentions should be checked. Hence, we are now committed to it.

What do you have to say about the developments in the country and the world in the name of globalization?

See, there are several problems and issues. They have their own contexts. Among them, there is the obvious threat of capitalism; political manipulations have also reared their heads. It must be understood that the entire plot revolves around capital. PPP [Public-Private Partnership] is also a similar capitalistic ploy. The government says that the return on investment of capital, ie the surplus, is very low and the capital requirement is quite high. Take the Bombay Plan for example. This plan was prepared before independence but its execution is taking place today. Even Indira Gandhi had taken several initiatives to end monopoly on private capital and resources for production. Nationalization of banks and mines was one of them.

Left organisations such as CPI, CPM and CPI (ML) also vouch for distribution of land and implementation of land reforms. The point is that if all the means of production are owned by the State, then they do not percolate to the masses. If they did, then what happened in Russia would not have taken place. As far as the right means of production is concerned, I would say that their means of production is itself flawed. When D.D. Kosambi and Meghnad Saha (scientist) were at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Kosambi wrote three to four articles in his book Exasperating Essays. These articles say that the ongoing process-oriented development will only gain more prominence. So what kind of society are you going to build, a society suffocating with pollution? What will you do after all the natural resources have been exhausted? This question will arise. This is just the beginning, there are more to follow. Marx and Phule had already underscored this in the 19th century. According to Marx, the resources gifted by nature cannot be replenished once exhausted, and if they are, they only appear in polluted/poisonous/dirty forms. If we are exploiting natural resources, we will have to return them in the same form by reprocessing them. A contradiction is also evident in Marx’s views. In Volume 1 of Das Kapital, Marx says that socialism will be attained when the means of production comes under the control of the labour class. However, in the same book, he has also contradicted this idea by saying that even this system will not eliminate exploitation. Socialism doesn’t mean “ownership of capital by the State” since our workers are still selling their labour. So, how can we say that socialism has been established? Can we conclude that socialism has been realized by identifying it with nationalism, which is petty bourgeois in nature? What do these terms “privatization”, “liberalization” and the more contemporary “globalization” mean? Is privatization something new? Who are you befooling? You are misleading others and yourself? Capitalism is only capitalism. Wasn’t privatization already part of capitalism? There was absolute privatization. In other words, can you explain capitalism in which privatization appears to be a new phenomenon? In fact, it is the foundation of capitalism. Capital was always globalized. This is not something new. We should rather say that globalization has been established. Why would the capitalist oppose it then? Why would he sympathize with the people working for him? All the petty bourgeois and nationalists join hands with the capitalist. And what should we say about the struggle? These union people will wear black bands, raise “Murdabad-Murdabad [down-down]” slogan and that’s it. Hence, the question arises whether we want globalization and if we don’t want it, what else do we want. Yes, we want globalization, but the globalization of justice, scientific research and also knowledge. So, how can you say that globalization is a bad thing? We would say, whether private or public, capital remains capital. A lot of people have been misled by the communists on this issue.

Yes, the communist party has been repeatedly saying that globalization is unjustifiable whereas Marx’s theory itself acknowledges globalization since it goes beyond its relationship with production.

Yes, I have even written a book on it in Marathi.

Great! If it were in Hindi or English, it could have been more enlightening for people of Hindi region like us who are not well versed in Marathi.

We will do something about it.

  • Globalization has opened up new avenues
  • We demand globalization of knowledge and science
  • Capital is capital, be it private or State-owned
  • Cultural base essential to build politics

Only one book by Gail Omvedt is available in Hindi?

Yes, only one book by Gail has been translated into Hindi, which is on Dalits. There is a book on Buddhism in Marathi. There are lots of other books, all on Buddhism.

What you are pointing out is the modern criticism of the Left. You may say the nature of Left is gradually changing. Some people in India and even in the UK are raising concerns. Even the old-school leftists have started embracing Ambedkar’s principles and approaches while putting Marx aside. It is a positive development. You will find that this is being opposed by Leftists who are Brahmins!

No, no! Buddha and Marx have said three or four things that are similar. First of all, both of them said that the philosophy is not merely for the purpose of explanation but for global transformation. Secondly, they have said that the labour class is exploited. There are two groups of people – the exploiters and the exploited. When this segregation ends, people will be liberated. Thirdly, as long as private property exists, this will not end. Babasaheb had echoed the same thing. This is all that is relevant today too. Everything else [in Marxism] was specific …

You mentioned that the globalization of technology is taking place. Forward Press published an article too on how new technology is shaping and empowering people, particularly those engaged in the ‘dirty work’ of manual scavenging, sewer-cleaning and the sweeping of streets. What is your opinion on this? Has technology brought about any change in the lives of the Untouchables? Has it empowered them?

In 1978, I had written an article in the Frontier suggesting that automation will not lead to unemployment. The question of rise in unemployment depends on how automation is used. Otherwise, it implies that labour should only be manual, making it hard and tiresome for the workers. Is that so? That is not right and nothing of that sort happened either. Since the introduction of automation, offices have been equipped with computers. Therefore, it is wrong to anticipate a rise in unemployment as a result of globalization. We now have STD booths everywhere in this area. Our children who would have been doing some other work while living in the slums are now earning by running them. Today, many people in our village are skilled in operating computers. This technology, though resulting from the freedom of scientists to invent, advanced by capitalism and globalization, provides us an opportunity to use it against them. Isn’t it?

Indeed, we are already using the social media.

Social media is, of course, there. But more importantly, the production process has been helpful in rebuilding society, making it more prosperous and exploitation-free. The rebuilding of society is not being sufficiently appreciated. We launched a big movement and outdid Reliance. It had planned to build a 3000 MW coal-based power plant by the sea in Raigad district. The land of 22 villages was to be acquired and all their residents were going to be displaced. We suggested that this 3000 MW be generated through renewable means based on currently available technology. Almost three thousand people, including women working in various areas, took out demonstrations.

Here, we perform “ghat sthapna” during Dussehra. It is performed the on 10th day after a child is born. It is the last day before Bali’s rule begins, the day on which bad omens disappear.

The women, with “ghat” placed on their head, were leading the movement. We were marching towards Bombay Vidhan Bhawan. On the way we reached the civic centre in Raigad. There we halted, where seminars were held. We also participated in the movement. During all this, we presented them (Reliance) our proposal and asked if there was anything wrong about it or whether there was any difference in the investment. Some people had worked on it for about a month and a half. Also, we enquired if there was any difference in the generation capacity of both types of plants, if there was any scientific or technical basis of any concern. We challenged them to prove it and offered to withdraw our movement if proved wrong. As a result, they were on the backfoot and returned all the land papers to the farmers. The farmers became the owners of land and the record of the entire land was clear. You will hardly find examples where we used their technique, derived from capitalism itself, in our favour.

They got their land back?

Yes, the project was cancelled. They still went to court against the movement. I don’t know why. In the court, we presented all the documents we had prepared during the agitation. The High Court asked them if all that we had written was true. Consequently, the case was dismissed.

Do we have any alternatives to brahmanical festivals and rituals?

No such alternative has been actualized. We have nukkad natak (street plays) but do we have other choices when it comes to festivals invented by Brahmins. No, we don’t. We have Bali Raja dam here; every year we celebrate Bali Raja Utsav at the dam site itself and try to revive the memory of Bali. The dam is half-completed; it is under construction. Though this celebration has started gaining momentum only recently, it is also categorized as part of the culture that seeks alternatives to brahmanical festivals. The other one is celebrated during the nine days from “ghat sthapna” to the day of the return of Bali … It is celebrated on the Bali Pratipada of Diwali.

And what about “Ghat Sthapna”?

There is a different time for “ghat sthapna”, a month before Diwali. As Phule has written, Raja Bali comes back and meets people. It is also linked to our farming practices, castes and relations, etc. The installation of the goddesses in Navratri here is not something we had before in Maharashtra.

When did it start?

It started almost 20 years ago, not earlier than that.

Yes, it was not prevalent anywhere. We tried to trace its history in several places and came to the conclusion that it started only 15-20 years ago – at the earliest, 30 years ago, in a few places.

Yes, it started at a small town called Tasgaon, which was earlier a tehsil. We experimented a lot there and in Mumbai. Nowadays, more number of people visit the place of ghat sthapna than the place where the devi is installed.

A seat of Mhasoba in Phulewada, Maharashtra

The dates for celebrating Dussehra and the ‘ghat sthapna’ are different, right?

Yes, Dussehra is celebrated after nine days of the ghat sthapna.

Could you please elaborate a bit more on this? Is this festival celebrated after Dussehra, that is Vijayadashmi?

We do not celebrate Vijayadashmi. Dussehra and the return of Bali are celebrated on the same day. The ghat sthapna doesn’t take place in other states.

You would have read the book Lokayat by the historian Devi Prasad Chattopadhyaya

Yes, I have read it. It is a very old book.

According to Chattopadhyaya, Durga Puja is a set of occult practices related to agriculture that have no direct connection with the contemporary Hindu religion.

True. This has nothing to do with it. It belonged to the farming community only, not the Brahmins. This is not a movement associated either with art or literature … Presently, there are 180 Buddhist caves located in the hills between Karad and our village.

In which district?

Here in Satara, there are 180 Buddhist caves similar to those in Ajanta and Ellora. These caves date back to 300 BC, when Buddha’s statue did not even exist, only the stupa (mound) was in use. Today, not only Buddhists, Mahars and Untouchables but also others visit that place every year on Buddha Purnima. We take all the people along and come back after the celebrations.

Buddha’s statue in the cave of Karla, Lonavla

Is the archaeological department involved in its preservation?

It has recently been taken over by the archaeological department for preservation, though it was not willing to. We are currently having a dispute over this issue. We don’t want a tourist spot here. We are trying to prevent that from happening.

But why? If a tourist spot is developed, more people will visit this place. It will be beneficial.

If the tourist spot is developed, it will lose its value as a Buddhist place. Therefore, we will see to it that no tourist spot is developed here. It is a centre of meditation, if it is developed as a tourist destination, tourists will come and litter all over. They will consume liquor and throw bottles here and there. This is a site of meditation and it will remain so. Therefore, we will not allow tourists to pollute this place. See what is going on in Ajanta and Ellora. Such visitors not only go for a visit but also pollute the surroundings there. Hence, only those who want to learn and meditate should visit this place.

Were people not aware of these caves 10-12 years ago?

We, the local people knew about it but the archaeological department had ignored it.

The archeological department was aware of it?

Yes, they knew about it.

The archeological department has overlooked several such places. Recently, we were in Karla (the Buddhist caves in Lonavala, between Mumbai and Pune). There are caves, huge statues and even a meditation point inside. Right outside the caves, a devi temple has been built. If today this these caves near your village are not handed over to the archaeological department, another idol of a goddess will be placed there in the near future and people will begin claiming that it is thousands of years old.

This idol has not been placed by anyone. It is Ekvira and has been there from ancient Buddhist times. However, we don’t know much about her.

Carvings in the Karla cave (Photo: FP on the Road 2017)

Yes, who was she?

Ekvira was a woman among those who had donated for the making of the caves there. This information has been engraved on the stones inside. Earlier, it was not known to anyone. Kosambi went inside with a torch, discovered these engravings and studied and translated them. They revealed that the woman known as “Koli Devi” belonged to the koli caste (a caste of fishermen). So, who are the people visiting Ekvira? They are people of the same community. When our daughter was young, we were once travelling by bullock cart (along with wife Gail) to the caves. On our way, we met a man travelling on foot. He requested us to give him a ride, to which we agreed. When we asked him where he was coming from, he said that he was from Mumbai and belonged to the koli caste. He was going to visit the Ekvira Devi temple. We further asked him whether there was something else there. He told us that there was a big mountain and he was not aware of anything else at all. When we asked if there is anything inside the mountain, he said, “Yes, there is something inside.” When we enquired whether he knew about the history of the koli caste, the Buddhist caves that existed there in the mountain, that the people of koli caste had helped in erecting the pillars of the cave and therefore, all that is inside the caves belong to them, he said he knew nothing. He was not aware they were also Buddhists. Now the question arises: Why don’t the Akhil Bharatiya Buddha Mahasabha or the political parties chanting the name of Babasaheb Ambedkar go there and do something? Now you may ask: Why didn’t we do anything in Karla? The main reason behind this is that we do not have a mass base there, historically. A deity has been placed not just there but even here. On the upper side, a Devalaya (temple) has also been constructed. But, here we have worked to the extent that no one can deny this is a Buddhist place. This is indeed a Buddhist place.

 

Actually, there were two priests sitting in the Ekvira temple. We told them that we had come from Delhi. They told us that this temple was built in 1750 AD. Then, pretending to be ignorant, we pointed towards the Buddhist caves and asked the priests about them. One of them replied, “We don’t have any idea, it must be something, the other one is Buddha’s idol.” We discovered that an entire market was set up and people were going there to visit Ekvira and not the Buddhist caves. Actually, people have started revering Ekvira as Durga. Perhaps, the visitors coming from outside were the only ones going to the Buddhist side. To see the Buddhist caves, people have to shell out Rs 30 without getting anything substantial in return whereas people offer merely Rs 10 at the temple and in return get to seek blessings too.

Exactly! There was a three-day seminar in Sarnath attended by Buddhists from Korea, some Buddhists from the archaeology department and professors who had converted to Buddhism. Gail and I participated in it. We convened a meeting where we proposed, “People! Since you have gathered here, we assume that you all follow Buddhism, some have not converted to Buddhism but believe that it is superior. You people are paid well. We look forward to organizing a seminar here and running a campaign for creating awareness about the historical relevance of this place: who is Ekvira? What else is there inside? And how did the idol reach there? We need to establish that the Buddhists inhabited this region until 600 BC. This process cannot be driven by a movement; we need to work at the intellectual level. Booklets will have to be written and published. Awareness must be spread among the people. Writings, programmes will have to assert the prominence of this issue. Buddhism is our heritage and we all are Buddhists. We will have to initiate such a tradition.

They are saying, “Go back to Vedas.” We should say, “Go back to Buddhism.”

But they have trapped us and there is no escape route. Although we are making another plan, it is not necessary that other people will join us. Let it be, if they don’t turn up, it doesn’t affect us. However, even Prakash Ambedkar (Dr Ambedkar’s grandson) is not ready for it.

What is Prakash Ambedkar’s opinion?

Action speaks louder than words. For him, elections matter more. We offered to help him even in the elections. We said, “By supporting this movement, you will not lose the elections, rather you will win.”

No, in India, you will continue winning elections only if you have a cultural base, you can’t rule without it. Winning elections and ruling are two different things.

Yes, that’s right. Without cultural base it is impossible. They have not been able to make even basic preparations required for parliamentary politics. It is a long-term preparation. All the major political parties of Maharashtra – the Communist Party of India, CPM, Prakash Ambedkar himself – and we had organized a three-day conference. We proposed to discuss, write and present an alternative agenda on what will be our cultural policy, water policy, etc, if we formed a government. When we started discussing each aspect in detail, no one could bring anything concrete on the table, everybody was clueless. It means that these people believe that capitalists are wrong and corrupt while they are honest socialists and Ambedkarites and that they will be contesting elections with the slogan “Babasaheb Ambedkar Zindabad”, etc. All this makes it amply clear that we don’t have any agenda (plan) for future. But they have it. Modi has an agenda, the agenda of development. The RSS has a cultural agenda. They have schemes for other regions too whereas these people can’t spell out even a single programme. We gathered there twice. We met at the Sane Guruji Centre in Konkan, too, but in vain.

Pramod Ranjan in conversation with sociologist Gail Omvedt

I would suggest that people like you should get united. You people (Forward Press team) are touring the country; you are young and can gather more people. Bring in more people, organize programmes and contribute to the cause of Buddhism. (Laughing) … Now we cannot move around like you. But yes, if you organize programmes, I shall surely participate in it. Only people who agitate for the cause can take this movement further but there is the need to start afresh by exploring alternatives.

 

Of course, we are trying.

These people have not been able to carry forward the movement. Maybe we don’t have much to rely on for the moment but if find the right direction, we can move ahead. I believe we should propound a new ideology by combining the theories of the trio of Marx, Phule and Ambedkar that lead us to the path of Buddhism.

There are not just three, but many other people like Periyar, Ramswaroop Verma and Karpuri Thakur.

Yes, there are many people from Mumbai. We should develop a new ideology by using their ideological cohesion. There is a need to start from the grass roots to improve the situation here. For example, a movement was launched here called Sanyukt Maharashtra. At that time, no one would take notice of who the contestant in an election was. The contestant’s affiliation with Sanyukt Maharashtra Samiti was sufficient to fetch him the votes.

Actually, due to rapid expansion of NGOs it all seems very difficult. No one is ready to work at the grass roots. Now intellectuals, prominent social workers and writers do not live in villages. Everyone’s concern has changed and therefore it is hard for anyone to imagine that we can seek rent for air. Their direct concern is that the government should change – BSP should come to power, this or that party should win, whether the Left will ever form government or not.

The fact is that politicians come only to deliver speeches to the masses who have been lured to gather. Presently, I am also the president of Shramik Mukti Dal in Maharashtra but I still go to villages and organize meetings. I go to villages and clean them. Moreover, I receive calls even from unknown numbers at 1 am. People know I will answer their calls and maybe that’s why they do not call without any purpose. I pick up all calls so that I can be of some use to the villagers in their moment of crisis. Unfortunately, those who become leaders feel that there is nothing much to do as it is the responsibility of the party workers to work in villages. They don’t visit villages. They remain in their offices and address big gatherings. Rather, they should work at the grass roots.

But a lot has changed in the last 15 years.

No, the villagers who came to Mumbai to do manual work used to live in the chawls of central Mumbai. Later, when they were forced to leave the place. Now they all live in slums in the outskirts of Mumbai. Among all those unorganized and partially organized labourers, 93 percent are from outside Mumbai. They have settled in adjoining areas beyond Dharavi and Matunga. All these workers go to perform menial chores like laundry and cleaning utensils at the homes of our intellectuals, yes our intellectuals in Mumbai (smiles). They know them merely as Bai, the laundrywoman, and the watchman of their colony.

The biggest worry for people living in the cities is inflation, the increase in prices of onions, rice and tomatoes. They never realize that this inflation may be benefiting someone. For instance, it requires a lot of hard work to grow tomatoes. In Delhi, one buys tomatoes at Rs 2 per kilogram and the moment it increases to Rs 20, there is an outcry.

 (Laughs) No one speaks when the price of clothes rises.

The home of Bharat Patankar and Gail Omvedt (with the green net covering the porch) in Kasegaon, Maharashtra (Photo: FP on the Road 2017)

Tell us about Gail. She left America and married you here. Do you see this as a sacrifice?

This idea of sacrifice is a misconception. There is no question of sacrifice. She is contented with her life. She cherished being part of such a movement where her companion too would participate. Secondly, while she was preparing to pursue her PhD, the dominating trend in the American society was to commodify everything. Although an atmosphere of agitation had prevailed, it had faded by then. Gail believed that people in India were more generous, especially that the people living in the countryside possessed more humanity and were more sensible. One thing I appreciate about her is that she never expressed her inability to stay in a village. Our house is around 80-90 years old. Earlier, there were no stairs to get to the first floor. So we used to use a ladder. Prachi (daughter) was very young at that time. Gail is different, and I was amazed to see how happy she used to be in such conditions. She would go to the fields and lead movements in villages in Nandurbar district inspite of the heavy rains. We would walk together on muddy roads during torrential rains. Gail was not uncomfortable at all. Instead, her lady companions who used to come here would have their fears. I believe she is a lady with a strong determination.

What is her most significant contribution so far?

Her three books: Buddhism in India, Cultural Revolt in Colonial Society and Re-inventing Revolution: New Social Movement and the Socialist Tradition in India. There was We Shall Smash this Prison: Indian Women in Struggle, but that was the trend in those days. What makes We Shall Smash this Prison unique is that it is based on her experiences with rural women Dalit and the Democratic Revolution. But the first three were trendsetters. This along with the book on Ambedkar that has been translated the most. These are pathbreaking. It is appreciated the world over. She has highlighted the revolutionary trends in the country and tried to bring forth the underpinnings of our cultural heritage that can help us to proceed further. No one had worked in this direction. Leave the Left aside. After Ambedkar, even Kanshiram has not written anything substantial on caste although he reflected on it to some extent. We have been very critical of Kanshi Ram after he ended his coalition with Mulayam Singh. We were working together in Maharashtra. Kanshi Ram would say till the very end that whatever he learnt about from Phule, whatever his own ideas were, it was all thanks to Gail Omvedt. He has written this in the preface to a booklet titled Cadre Kaum. After Babasaheb Ambedkar, he was the one who did it. He hailed from the Chamar community and became the leader of Bahujans. Jagjivan Ram and others were the leaders of the Dalits but Babasaheb Ambedkar was not. We made him the leader of the Dalits. Kanshi Ram also emerged in the same way, but he was not strong enough at the theoretical level. Had the Left dwelt upon what Gail Omvedt has written as seriously as Kanshi Ram did, the whole movement would have taken an entirely new direction.

Personally, I would prefer my house to be the home of the history of Satyashodhak Samaj Movement, but the values I inherited from my father were those of the Left. My Dadaji (maternal grandfather) was part of the Communist Party in 1930. At that time, no one from the villages, especially from the Bahujan community, was part of the Communist Party. Only the Brahmins would join it.

Bharat Patankar at his home (Photo: FP on the Road 2017)

The Communist Party was formed in 1927, right?

Yes, it was formed in 1927. So this is my background.

Which caste do you belong to?

We are Kunbis, not completely though. The Maratha Kunbis or the Marathas are the actual Kunbis. We were a landless-labourer family. When we came here, we didn’t even have a house. This house of ours belonged to a Brahmin – he had abandoned it. My father and grandparents were agricultural labourers here. The agricultural land that we own today is the result of the Tenancy Act passed in the aftermath of the clashes between the landlords and the tenants. Several houses here have been built after people got land under the Tenancy Act. My mother told me about this; I was a kid then.

Who were there in your family when Gail and you got married?

My father was murdered in 1952 right after the first elections were held. The top leadership of Congress was involved in his murder since he was raising the voice for people’s rights even after Independence. His dead body was not even found. Some people abducted him while he was ploughing his fields. He could not have been murdered easily given his popularity. More than a thousand people came after they heard of the murder. All activists of the parallel government turned up. There is a hill here nearby. My mother used to tell me that people dressed in white appeared like white spots on it.

What was your age at that time?

Two and a half years. When Gail and I got married, my mother and mami (wife of maternal uncle) were there. All of the uncle’s children grew up here, in this house. Later, two of them moved to their own village – they still live there. One of them still lives here. All of us have lived like one family.

Tell us more about your parents.

My father was a member of the executive committee of the armed parallel government. My uncle (maternal) and mother were also part of the armed struggle. When independence was imminent, they surrendered the arms to the government.

[Pramod Ranjan, Managing Editor, Forward Press; sociologist Anil Kumar; and Anil Varghese, editor (English), Forward Press, undertook a journey from Delhi to Kanyakumari over the period 5 January – 15 February 2017. We covered about 12,000 kilometres across nine states and one union territory (Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Daman). The team visited Gail Omvedt and Bharat Patankar at their home in Kasegaon, Maharashtra, on 25 January 2017.

(Translation: Devina Auchoybur, copy-editing: Anil)

 

[1] Marathi writer and thinker Ramchandra Chintaman Dhere was born in 1930 in Pune. His published works include Rise of a Folk God: Vitthal of Pandharpur.

[2] Vari means undertaking a journey. A person who repeatedly goes on a pilgrimage is called Warakari.

[3] Chokhamela (1300-1400) was a renowned saint of Maharashtra. He has written several Abhangas, and is known as India’s first Dalit poet.

[4] Basavanna established Lingayat as a separate religion in protest against the wrong practices prevalent in the Hindu religion in Karnataka.


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, culture, literature and politics. Contact us for a list of FP Books’ titles and to order. Mobile: +917827427311, Email: info@forwardmagazine.in)

The titles from Forward Press Books are also available on Kindle and these e-books cost less than their print versions. Browse and buy:

The Case for Bahujan Literature

Mahishasur: A people’s hero

Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History

Mahishasur: Mithak wa Paramparayen

The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

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