Vibhuti Narain Rai: A friend of the Dalitbahujan

We were witness to the first ever ‘Dalit-Left Dialogue’. Such an event was never held again. Vibhuti deserves the credit for organizing this dialogue. Kanwal Bharti shares his impressions of well-known litterateur Vibhuti Narain Rai

It was 6 February 2010. I was visiting the World Book Fair at Pragati Maidan, New Delhi, along with my historian friend Omprakash Gupta. At the stall of Mahatma Gandhi Antarrashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya (MGAHV), we met the university’s vice-chancellor, Vibhuti Narain Rai. We began chatting. I introduced Gupta to him. After some small talk, Vibhuti asked me where I was staying. I said, “Nowhere. I will catch the night train back home”. He said, “You will stay with me tonight, and tomorrow, we will go to Wardha.” I told him that I had not come prepared for a night stay and that, moreover, had my friend with me. But Gupta made things easier. “Kanwal, you go. Don’t worry about me,” he said. What could I have done? I agreed. We resumed our round of the fair. I bought some books and around 6 pm, after taking leave of Gupta, I left with Vibhuti. Although I had been to Wardha to deliver lectures at the university earlier, too, this was an absolutely unplanned visit.

His car pulled up before a palatial house. We climbed a staircase and entered the drawing room, dominated by a huge bar. Ravindra Kalia, the writer of Ghalib Chhooti Sharab; his author wife Mamata Kalia; Vandana Rag, the writer of short stories; and Vikas Rai were present. There were one or two others, too, but I don’t remember their names. The drawing room had a lift to reach the upper floors. The bar was stocked with ample supplies of gin, rum, whisky and beer. The host was very affable and courteous. Except the host, everyone knew me. The host, too, may have heard of or read about me. Vibhuti and I sat in a corner, nursing our glasses of whisky. Others were holding drinks of their choice. Mamta Kalia and Vandana Rag were sipping gin. Others had rum and whisky. Salty snacks, pakoras and kebabs were being served. Vandana sat down near us. She wanted to talk with Vibhuti. This was my second meeting with her. Earlier, we had met at the GB Pant Social Science Institute, (GBPSSI) Jhusi, Allahabad. After drinks, we came downstairs for dinner, which had already been laid out on a large table. Vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes were served. After dinner, I drove to the India International Centre (IIC) where Vibhuti was staying. I also stayed there. For one night, I joined the ranks of the upper class!

The flight for Nagpur was at 9 am. My ticket had been emailed from Wardha. We were ready at 7 in the morning. Vibhuti’s wife was also with him. I was meeting her for the first time. She was a very decent, gentle woman. Suddenly, a problem cropped up. Vibhuti had misplaced the printouts of our tickets. All the bags were reopened but the tickets were still missing. We were running out of time. At the time, you could not show an image of your ticket on your mobile or laptop to enter the airport. Now, the only way out was to get the tickets printed from a computer at the IIC. That was done. I was amazed to see Mrs Rai’s dexterity in handling computers. Ultimately, we managed to reach the airport on time. Once we were seated in the aircraft, Vibhuti began talking to me. Until we landed in Nagpur, he kept telling me about the campaign against him in the university. He said the Dalit and OBC students were holding sit-ins and demonstrations against him and that Vimla Thorat, wife of the University Grants Commission (UGC) chairperson Sukhadeo Thorat, was instigating them. A matter pertaining to Anil Chamadia had also become a headache for him. Now I realized why I was being taken to Wardha. Vibhuti wanted me to counsel the students to stop opposing him. 

From the Nagpur airport, we left for Wardha in a university car. On the way, Vibhuti kept brainwashing me. No sooner had the students known about my arrival than they reached the guest house to meet me. They introduced a new Vibhuti Rai to me. They gave me a copy of their 20-page memorandum, along with documentary evidence. After hearing them out, I decided I would never visit this university again. And I didn’t. 

Today, it is difficult for me to say how right or wrong the students’ protest was. Some arguments put forward by the students were logical. But in the context of the rules, the vice-chancellor was also not wrong on some points. I talked to Vibhuti about the students’ memorandum but to no avail. I was an outsider and whose side I was on would be of little consequence. But my sympathies were with the students and that forced me to distance myself from Vibhuti. 

Vibhuti Narain Rai

But I was rather worried about how these developments had dented the image of Vibhuti. The “Chinal” episode was definitely painful as it clearly pointed at a male chauvinistic mindset. So, it couldn’t be condoned. But the appointments made by Vibhuti, his decision to suspend some employees and the action he took against certain teachers couldn’t be used to make a case that he was casteist or anti-Dalit. I am saying this despite knowing that some of my friends won’t agree with me. While I was in government service, I, too, took action against many Dalit students and they held demonstrations and sit-ins against me. But that doesn’t make me anti-Dalit. In 1983, on the recommendation of the then social welfare minister of Uttar Pradesh, the director, social welfare, terminated my services. In 1987, I won the case against my sacking and on the orders of the high court I was reinstated with full salary. But I don’t brand the minister and the director as anti-Dalit. Incidentally both of them were Dalits! We Dalits and OBCs often attribute administrative action against us to casteism. These actions can be right or wrong with respect to the rules. We move the courts against them and the courts scrutinize them on the basis of the rules. Most of the time, the administration loses the case. So, I never assessed Vibhuti on the basis of the actions he took as an administrator. 

Others may brand him anti-Dalit but I don’t. I believe his role as a writer and a police officer was nothing short of revolutionary. Read his book Shahr Mein Curfew and the one on the Hashimpura incident and tell me which other police officer has written something of this kind. I was not introduced to him through his writings. We just happened to meet at an event. I don’t even remember what function it was. But I do have vivid memories of the times spent with him. 

I want to share one such memory, which shows his amazing revolutionary consciousness. At the time, he was an Inspector General in UP Police. One day, I received a call from him. He wanted to know my opinion about the Left. When I asked him the reason, he said that my writings on Dalits often talked about the Left. I said that I did want to bring the Dalits and the Left together but the attitude of the Left disappointed me. He asked me, “If any attempt is made in bringing the groups together, would I cooperate?” I replied, “Yes, I would. This is something which we should do.” About a month later, he called me again. “Kanwal ji, the date has been decided. It will be 2 November 2002. You have to come to Allahabad but this plan should remain private.” I agreed but asked him for details. “We want to hold an across-the-table talk between the Dalit and the Leftist intellectuals. I have invited Prakash Karat, D. Raja and some others,” he said. “And you have to decide which Dalit intellectuals are to be invited.” I said I would do that. I contacted Inspector General S.R. Darapuri and Deputy Inspector General Brijendra Singh. Both were supporters of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s state socialism. After obtaining their consent, I invited Ashok Bharti of NACDOR (National Confederation of Dalit Organizations), Rajni Tilak and Professor D. Prempati of Delhi University. Although Diwali was round the corner, we travelled to Allahabad to attend the “Dalit-Left” dialogue. At the time, Brijendra Singh was DIG in the PAC (Provincial Armed Constabulary). I travelled with him from Lucknow. We stayed at the police guesthouse. Darapuri was also staying there.

The next day we all assembled at the GBPSSI auditorium, Jhusi, and were witness to the first ever “Dalit-Left Dialogue”. Such an event was never held again. Vibhuti deserves the credit for organizing this dialogue. The Dalits put forward their grouses against the Leftists. Prof Prempati’s presentation on the Dalit stand was the best. Ashok Bharti questioned the brahmanical approach of the Left leaders towards the Dalit movement. Darapuri gave thoughtful suggestions on building a joint front of the Dalits and the Leftists. The Left was represented by Prakash Karat and D. Raja, the general secretaries of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM) and the Communist Party of India (CPI), respectively. Replying to the questions raised by the Dalits, Subhashini Ali admitted that the Left had failed to comprehend the issues of the Dalits. After the dialogue, Vibhuti and Lalbahadur Verma dwelt on how the dialogue can form the basis of a joint programme. The next day, that is on 3 November, a seminar was held in the Nirala Auditorium of the Allahabad University, where it was announced that a joint programme would be drawn up. Ashok Bharti, Verma, Vibhuti, Anshu Malviya, Meena Radhaskrishnan and I spoke at the seminar. It was decided that a joint programme would be prepared and we all would work on it. But that day never came. 

An article by Meena Radhakrishnan was published in The Hindu the following day on this historic dialogue, which said that a joint Dalit-Left programme was the biggest need of the hour. Had that programme been drawn up and executed, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would not have been in power today. Alas, the Left leaders did not use this historic initiative by Vibhuti to ignite a revolution. 

The year probably was 2000. The Jan Sanskriti Manch had organized a programme at the Nirala Auditorium of Allahabad University. I was chatting with Ramji Rai at the gate of the auditorium when Vibhuti appeared from nowhere. He caught hold of my hand and told Ramji Rai. “I am taking him away.” I got into his car. Taking an unfamiliar route, we reached the bungalow of a lawyer. After climbing a staircase, we entered a room where the lawyer and Ravidra Kalia were waiting for him. I realized why we were there. Bottles were opened. Ravindra Kalia took one in his hand and declared that now he couldn’t even remember the liquor brands. “There was a time when there was hardly a brand that I had not tasted,” he said. It seemed he had turned into a teetotaler. Interestingly, he made drinks for us but did not take a drop himself. He did relate some tales of the days when he was an avid drinker. Sometime later, Hans started serializing his memoirs Ghalib Chhooti Sharab. Whenever I read the pieces, I was reminded of that evening, though I had seen him drinking on 6 February 2010. Be that as it may, as far as I remember, literature was not discussed at all at the lawyer’s place.

I remember many sundowner parties with Vibhuti. But there was one which rather moved me. I was in Lucknow on some errand and decided to meet him. I don’t remember where he was posted at the time but he was living in the Vibhuti Block at Gomtinagar. Whenever anyone asked him where he lived in Gomtinagar, he would say with unconcealed pride, “In the block named after me.” I asked him the question and that is the answer I got. At Gomtinagar, I had to cross an unmanned railway crossing to reach the Vibhuti Block. This was probably a shortcut – there would have been a longer route for the vehicles to get there. As I got closer, I saw Vibhuti, wearing a light blue chequered kurta and white pyjamas, standing at the entry point, as if justifying the name of the block. We reached his first-floor home. Barely 10 minutes had elapsed when he said, “Let us go to Brijendra Singh’s place. He is from your community and knows you.” Phrases like “your community” and “my community” no longer disturb me. They are a part of Indian social reality, which no ideology can erase. We walked over to Brijendra Singh’s home. That, too, was probably on the first floor. He was junior to Vibhuti and was posted somewhere as a DIG. It seemed he had been informed that I would be coming. We were seated in his drawing room and began talking. I was astonished at his knowledge of Dalit ideology. He not only knew about me but also about Omprakash Valmiki and one or two other Dalit writers. He was impressed with Dr Ambedkar’s concept of state socialism. Moreover, he shared my love for Sufism. Vibhuti kept the bottle, which he had brought with him, on the table and said, “OK, Brijendra, now get us three glasses and something to snack on.” Brijendra called someone and within minutes two glasses, water and plates of cashew nuts and salted snacks were before us. I think that there was no woman in the house. Maybe he lived there alone or maybe his wife had gone out. It was entirely possible that it was for this reason that Vibhuti had chosen his house for our drinking session. 

Vibhuti saw only two glasses and asked Brijendra, “Where is your glass?” Brijendra said, “I have stopped drinking.” Obviously, Vibhuti knew that Brijendra used to drink. But he did not know that his colleague had become a Sufi. Brijendra Singh told us that he had lost his mother only a couple of months earlier. He said, “Before her death, my mother asked me to promise that I would quit drinking. I thought that I could at least do that much for my mother.” And from that day, he had quit drinking. It was touching to hear this. 

One day I came to know that Vibhuti has been appointed MGAHV vice-chancellor. I congratulated him on the phone. I had come to know of the development a bit late. There was no Facebook at the time and even if it was there, I was not on it. Otherwise, I would have got some hint about his impending appointment.

When I went for the first time to the university on his invitation, he received me at the Nagpur airport. One or two other guests of the university had also arrived by the same flight. One of them was well-known Gandhian thinker Sudhir. We drove to Wardha in the same car. On reaching Wardha, I discovered that the entire university was confined to five buildings built on as many mounds. One of the buildings was the V-C’s official residence. Across the road lived the university’s registrar, Rakesh, a professor from Lucknow University on deputation, whom Vibhuti had appointed. Another building served as the residence for the faculty. The three buildings were in close vicinity. Two other buildings were a short distance away. They housed the V-C’s office, library, administrative section and some classrooms. There were two or three guest rooms in the V-C’s residence. Sudhir and I were put up there. The campus was perfect for morning walks and I made the most of it for the two days I was there.

There I came to know that Vibhuti was the first V-C of the university to live on campus. His immediate predecessor Ashok Vajpayee used to run the university from his Delhi residence. That was the reason why the infrastructural problems of the university remained unsolved. There were no hostels, which meant that students from other places could not study there. There was no guest house for the visitors, no houses for faculty members, no auditoria – in short, the university lacked even the basic infrastructure. Then, there were issues with power supply. There is no denying the fact that all these problems could be solved only because of Vibhuti and today. It has an Adivasi Study Centre, a Dalit Literature Study Centre and a Buddha Research Centre. The credit for all this goes to Vibhuti. 

The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) was the first academic institution in the country to develop a course in Dalit Literature. I was also one of the members of the committee entrusted with the task of formulating the content of the course. The committee met on 24-25 September 2003 under the leadership of Vimal Thorat. Six years later, in 2009, Vibhuti constituted a committee of subject specialists for a “Postgraduate Diploma in Dalit Studies” programme of MGAHV. 

The first meeting of the committee was held on 1-2 April 2009. Those present included Vimal Thorat, Mohandas Naimishray and me. The meeting finalized the syllabus for four semesters. First Semester: Dr Ambedkar’s life and movement, Dr Ambedkar’s thinking, Dalit and Adivasi studies, and the ancient and medieval history of Dalits and Adivasis. Second Semester: Modern and contemporary history of the Dalits, modern and contemporary history of the Adivasis, social structure of Dalits and Adivasis. Third Semester: Dalit and Adivasi thinkers, Dalit politics and economics, Dalit religions and culture. Fourth Semester: Adivasi religion, culture and related research. 

During the discussion on the course for the third semester, when we were talking about Dalit thinkers, the names of Jotirao Phule, Narayan Guru, Birsa Munda, Jaipal Singh Munda, Shahu Maharaj and Periyar Ramasamy Naicker were proposed. I told those present at the meeting that Swami Achhutanand was missing. He was the sole 20th-century Dalit thinker of north India. He was also the first Dalit playwright and journalist. Any history of the Dalit Movement in north India will be incomplete without the mention of his role. Vibhuti knew about Swami Achhutanand. But the problem was that his works were not available. I insisted that Swami Achhutanand be included in the third-semester syllabus. As for his works, we can work together to find them. When I introduced some of the writings of Achhutanand – of which no one seemed to have been aware – at the meeting, Vibhuti agreed to include him in the syllabus. But I was given the task of finding his writings. 

I started collecting Swami Achhutanand’s writings. It was a painstaking task. I had preserved some of his writings. They had been with me for 30 years and but for this opportunity, they would have rotted in the files. I had them typed out. I could lay my hands on some of his works courtesy of Guruprasad Madan from Allahabad and K. Nath from Kanpur. When everything was ready, I called Vibhuti. He suggested that I should prepare a compilation of Swami Achhutanand’s writings. This was a great suggestion. That was how I got the opportunity to edit Swami Achhutanand ‘Harihar’ Sanchaiyita. But for Vibhuti, the compilation would never have come out. Vibhuti had the compilation published by the university. The university also sent me Rs 20,000 as honorarium. This was the first compilation of the entire corpus of writings of a Dalit writer published in Hindi by a university. Until then, no institution had published the works of a Dalit writer. The publication introduced the Hindi world to Swami ji, who was unknown till then. It would be ungrateful on my part not to give credit to Vibhuti for this achievement. 

(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)


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)

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The Case for Bahujan Literature

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The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

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