‘No one can kill the dream for democracy’
[In 2011, Sudhir Dhawale was arrested under several sections of Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and then spent nearly four years in jail. He was acquitted of all the charges filed against him in court. Over the four years that he spent in jail, he was denied nearly every basic human right. This was entirely unconstitutional and the law enforcement officials need to be made answerable for it. On the 23rd of May 2015, he spoke at the ‘Convention against Silencing Democracy & Criminalizing Dissent’ organized by the Committee for the Defence and Release of Dr. GN Saibaba in Delhi. Anjani Kumar spoke to him on the 24th of May on various issues and the interview is produced below.]
Question 1: You were charged under UAPA and other draconian/extraordinary laws and faced trial. You were in jail for a long time. And in court, the charges against you were proven to be fabrications. Why exactly were you arrested?
Answer 1: The primary reason was my involvement in struggles in society. Especially after Khairlanji, the government in Maharashtra was quite tense. Under the guidance of the Congress government in Maharashtra, many schemes were being undertaken. One such scheme was the Mahatma Gandhi Tanta Mukti Abhiyan. Under this scheme committees were formed in village after village. To an extent these committees resembled khap panchayats. According to this, all issues specific to a village needed to be settled within the village itself, and people had to agree to not approach the police or the courts. As is the case, those who were dominant in the village or belonged to the higher caste were decisive in the decisions of the committee. This was a means to maintain and enforce their dominance over the oppressed sections in the village. After Khairlanji, together some of us went from village to village and campaigned against this Tanta Mukti Abhiyan. This campaign aimed at exposing the nexus between the government and the influential elements in the villages, especially the Maratha people, in their efforts to subdue the dalits in the village so they could continue their relentless brutalities against them. The second reason was because of my ideological orientation. I was bringing out a magazine called ‘Vidrohi’ and was running a publication named Navjagran. We were publishing writings on society, literature, culture and politics. We published books on caste oppression, the Naxalbari uprising and Operation Green Hunt. I wrote the book ‘Operation Green Hunt is for whom and why’ and published it. These kinds of activities were repeatedly putting the government in the dock. At this time, atrocities against dalits were increasing but the Ambedkarite parties weren’t doing anything. On the other side, we were bringing a new form of resistance to the fore. It was these activities that they deemed ‘anti-national’ and I was arrested on such severe charges. On the 2nd of January 2011, I was arrested and released from jail on the 16th of May 2014.
Question 2: In Maharashtra, the grounds for a dalit assertion has been strong. From Jotiba Phule to Dr. Ambedkar and then later Dalit Panther Movement, there has been an unbroken history of struggle. These movements have raised the issues of land, culture, religion and caste boldly and repeatedly. Dalit literature emerged as a consequence. But there were many ups and downs too. Especially, the Dalit Panther movement, which fell prey to fractures and split up. With the coming of the 90s, the movement faltered and weakened. But by the next decade it grew strong once again and appeared centre stage. How do you see this whole period of dalit assertion?
Answer 2: The ground on which Baba Saheb emerged and the movement that was built had a land and class perspective. Baba Saheb gave more importance to the ideological issues faced by the movement. Especially, the history of caste in India, who are the shudras, what is Hindu religion and the dalit engagement with these issues. The perspective from which he was writing was being undertaken for the first time in India. He saw the dalit as the farmer and the worker. The political party he founded was named Independent Labour Party. Baba Saheb was trying to understand the conditions of the dalit communities and was trying to organize them on class lines. He made people aware of the need for a struggle. And he organized people on issues like untouchability and social discrimination that were linked with religious intolerance. The burning of the Manusmriti, Mahad Satyagraha, temple-entry satyagraha and such struggles built the spirit of assertion amongst the dalits in the villages and the cities. On this very ground, after the demise of Baba Saheb, under the leadership of Dada Saheb Gaikwad a satyagraha was launched against land acquisition in 1964. Here it is important to state that there is a point of divergence visible between the Communist movement and the movement built by Ambedkar. This is possibly because the Communists emphasized the economic factors while the Ambedkarites stressed on changing the mindset in society. The treatment of the Ambedkarites by the Communist leadership also strained their relationship with the dalits. This only helped sustain the division between the two movements. But this was not the primary reason. This division did not mean that the dalit leadership had joined hands with the Congress. This did not happen till the 70s. Furthermore, the dalit movement continued on its path of struggle and the fight did not end in any compromise. When Naxalbari happened, the Dalit Panthers learned from it and emerged as a movement in their own right.
The Dalit Panther movement was lead by the youth who came to the cities from villages to study. We need to understand the role of Baba Saheb in creating the ground on which this movement emerged. He had asked people to leave the villages, as the village was the center for the caste system. An entire generation came to the cities to start a new life. We can see this in cities like Pune, Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Nagpur. Everyday brutalities against the dalits had caused immense pain for this community and deeply affected them. The youth who were studying started expressing this pain and suffering through poems, stories and novels. This was one form of their resistance. They wanted to register their suffering. But this form of resistance has a limit. How long would they keep writing. They were inspired to see beyond this form. Many of those youths decided to walk the path of building a movement. In this manner, these young people founded the Dalit Panthers on the 9th of July 1972. Those who lead this were primarily poets and writers. This organized struggle lasted for about two years. Their form of struggle was active confrontation. Wherever atrocities against dalits would take place, these youths would turn up in vehicles and trucks in large numbers at the spot and immediately enter into open confrontation. They used to move with sticks and chains. They used to move up till the villages. In this manner they used to build pressure on the oppressors. Because of this, resistance committees were beginning to be formed in villages and colonies. This affected all of Maharashtra and the country as a whole. This challenged fascist parties like the Shiv Sena for the first time. This movement spread like wildfire all over Maharashtra. It provided an alternative form of resistance available to the oppressed. This affected the entire state and the country. Dalit Sangharsh Samitis’ were formed in Karnataka. Another such organization was formed in Gujarat. To crush this movement, the government used two means, repression and conciliation. By 1975, the conciliation part was complete. A section of the leadership even supported the Emergency. Namdeo Dhasal in his poem Priyadarshini and Raja Dale argued that a woman is the most oppressed in Indian society and so they must not contest her position and on this basis they gave their support to Indira Gandhi. Both of them were amongst the founding members of the Dalit Panthers. The others mostly remained silent throughout this period. After all this, the spirit of struggle and the impulse for creative expression in Dalit literature broke down. It was now merely limited to writing. Those who were in the Dalit Panthers slowly moved towards colleges, universities and institutions and enrolled themselves and also pushed the second generation to join these institutions. In this manner, this method of conciliation was swiftly completed. The petit bourgeois middle class ideology moved away from the path of revolutionary struggle and went on to blunt the path of resistance. In this manner, the Dalit Panther movement lost its steam. A lot of people believe that the movement died out due to ideological differences. It is possible that this could be one reason but it was never the primary reason.
Today, we are witnessing a time like the conditions that existed in 1972. There is a surge in atrocities against dalits. The condition today resembles the manner in which Republican Party of India (RPI) compromised with the prevailing structure at that time. In places as wide as Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, and Maharashtra, the brutalities against dalits are of a truly terrifying nature. The dalit communities are agitated and stirred into action. But the Ambedkarite Parties are doing nothing to address this. They are busy pandering to those in power. They are neck deep in the system of parliamentary politics and elections. The few dalit assertions that have taken place are due to spontaneous actions of the people. In this condition it is important to organize those who are ready to fight and take up the struggle. But it is also true that today we are not in a position to build a movement like that built by the Dalit Panthers. The conditions have changed significantly. The nature and structure of state power has also changed considerably. What we were fighting for in Maharashtra was to unite and organize the Communists and dalits in a new manner. We were trying to bring them together on one platform. Especially after Khairlanji, we tried to build a united front called Republican Panthers.
Question 3: In the history of Dalit and Revolutionary Communist movement, the suicide of Vilas Ghogre has been a painful and contentious issue. In Anand Patwardan’s film, ‘Jai Bhim Comrade’, this issue is dealt with in the narrative as a contradiction between the ideological position and organizational practice and the problems that arose in the Ambedkarite movement. You worked with Vilas Ghogre and were trying to organize the movement in a new way. How do you see that incident?
Answer 3: I worked with him in Ahwaan Natya Manch. And I was with him till the very end. How we look at his suicide is crucial in understanding the issue. Mayakovsky committed suicide. Here, Gorakh Pandey committed suicide. Vilas Ghogre committed suicide. We cannot look at all these incidents in the same way. We look at their suicide as a form of protest. They embraced death while fighting for the people. After the incident in Ramabai Nagar on the 11th of July when 10 dalits were massacred, Vilas had distinctly written against this atrocity on the door of his house and appealed for Ambedkarite unity through the slogan of Ambedkarwadi Ekjuta Zindabad! He committed suicide on the 15th of July. It is true that the movement against this massacre could not be built, as it should have been. Some spontaneous protests did take place. At a later point, there was a massive call for Maharashtra bandh and protests took place all over the country but no organized struggle could be built for which there was an immediate need at that time. Small movements took place. Poets, literary writers, singers and their sensitivity towards the struggle that was being built were visible in their works. These possibilities remain open. The manner of struggle is entirely dependent on the particular choices available in a society yet the events and condition of society are decisive in the form of struggle undertaken by the people. Gorakh Pandey’s decision to commit suicide was starkly personal but was also deeply linked to a society steeped in a movement, resistance, organization and ideology. Thus, in this regard we look at Vilas’ suicide as martyrdom.
Here, it is important to underline that the revolutionary movement in the cities has not been in the form in which it has existed in the villages and forest regions. Especially in Maharashtra, the form of revolutionary struggle in the cities not being organized and coordinated was a cause of deep concern for people like Vilas Ghogre and others like him. And this used to cause further anxiety to others. We cannot deny the conditions before us. If we were in an organized struggle then the poets and singers would not have arrived at this conclusion. Then our form and nature of struggle would have been entirely different.
Question 4: In the Ambedkarite movement, the development of parties following the line of parliamentary politics by giving the instance of Dr. Ambedkar going to the Parliament are now a challenge for the dalit movement. Many represent his decision to work with the Congress as his role in nation building. How do you look at Dr. Ambedkar’s decision to go to the Parliament?
Answer 4: There is a problem with this assertion that Baba Saheb was working in alliance with Congress. In keeping with the times, he followed the principle and took the path that he considered feasible for the dalits and the common masses. He did not agree to follow just one path. He was correctly assessing the Congress. To say that he did not understand the Congress and the principle on which it was based would be wrong. He correctly understood its class character and its Brahmanical character. His writings at the time, the debates he brought to the Parliament are clear evidence of this. In fact, the way he understood the Constitution is also quite clear. It was he who wrote that the Congress is a burning house and to enter it would mean burning yourself. To see the political condition of the time is important. At that time there was no strong dalit movement or organization. His relationship with the Communist movement remained tense. In that condition he decided to work within the given structure. In this way whatever he could achieve he tried to secure. It would be wrong to say that he built an alliance with the Congress to fulfill any other objective. But those who came after Baba Saheb had neither an understanding of the structure of caste nor were they working with any particular principled vision for the people. And so they quickly degenerated and moved towards the politics of compromise. They were not following the legacy of Baba Saheb but were instead busy fulfilling their own interests.
Question 5: In Maharashtra, the dalit movement brought a qualitative difference in the language, form and aesthetics of Marathi literature. This critical intervention appears in the literature but the changes do not appear in the same manner in society and politics. Why is that?
Answer 5: The dalit literary movement and the Dalit Panthers emerged from Ambedkarite politics. Under the leadership of Ambedkar an entire people and their movement came together and this resulted in the birth of an entire generation of revolutionaries. This revolutionary generation was disillusioned by the politics of Congress and the RPI, they built a struggle against dalit atrocities and came forward learning from Ambedkar. It is because of this that we witness the spirit to fight in the literature produced at the time. But in the days that followed, the politics of co-option, conciliation and compromise did affect the literature that was being produced. Middle class life severed the ties between the people’s struggle, their suffering and their spirit of resistance and the literature produced by these writers. Other concerns started becoming primary for them. This is a dangerous type of alienation. Literature, culture and politics emerge from the same ideological impulse. They influence each other. When the link between them is broken, it reflects the deviation in the path undertaken by a person and will appear in that form. If radical politics is cut off from the literature and culture of the people, problems will rapidly appear in it. When united, these forms can come together to bring about and hasten revolutionary transformation. This was the problem that appeared in the dalit movement. Dalit literature substantially challenged the so-called dominance of Marathi literature. This established the dalit people in the literature. This is an irreversible outcome achieved. But this could not be achieved in politics and in society.
Question 6: The dalit literary movement gave birth to many new subjects, forms and genres of writing. Why did dalit literature, which embraced poetry and its language by dislodging its elitism and placing it on the rough terrain to people’s experience, turn mainly into autobiographical literature?
Answer 6: The literature of the struggling industrious masses is normally never recognized as a genre of its own. Song and its performance are the primary elements in it. In this genre, prose writing came late. The world over, stories and novels took shape only with modernity. This is true for our country as well. Generally the form of cultural and literary expression amongst the people here has been oral in nature. Reading and writing was available to the vast masses of this country at a very late stage. The impulse and effort towards educating themselves within the dalit communities was the principal reason for the chance of developing literary works. When this started to happen, it became possible for many to be aware of the need to register their life experiences, struggles and express it. It is true that the educated amongst the dalit communities were writing and narrating experiences that were different from the ones already written at the time. At first, the focus was on bringing forth narratives of the life of the dalit community, identity, its suffering and its struggles. But eventually, it found itself being limited to this.
We need to understand one more thing. The consciousness of self-respect that the Ambedkarite movement achieved strengthened the idea of personhood. The reason why the writer was expressing his personhood needs to be seen in a world where this representation was denied, kept out of view, repressed and their very existence was negated. And so, he would emphasize this ‘personhood’ in his writing. There can be some deviations in this. But in a country with so many castes, forms of repression, scale of suffering, range of experiences, and the consciousness to fight for their freedom, the differences brought forth cannot be seen as deviations. This is the genre chosen by dalit literature. Till now we haven’t seen negative trends within this. In some cases, the expression of life experiences, some moments therein and its interpretation have been problematic but on the whole, they have been positive and valuable. But as the complexities within this gradually nurtured community grows, the complexities in forms of expression also become visible in its literature. Some people have deliberately taken up the easy path of writing autobiographies but if they limit themselves to this and don’t write anything further then it decisively demonstrates the role of that writer in this society. And today, this challenge is faced by the entire literary world.
Question 7: The rise of fascism emerging under the leadership of BJP and the RSS is a direct challenge to the aspiration for a new democratic society. Fascist forces have made every effort to take control over dalit and adivasis all over the country. There have been attempts to make Dr. Ambedkar one of the faces of Hindutva. How do you see this challenge?
Answer 7: Amongst the dalits, those who chose to join the struggle and fight for their dignity came largely due to the Ambedkarite movement. The agenda of these fascist forces is to create a Hindu nation. These two objectives come in conflict. Dr. Ambedkar opposed the entire conception of Hinduism and espoused the destruction of the system of caste in his programme, vision and struggle. The BJP and the RSS want to end this contradiction. To achieve this they decided to celebrate Ambedkar Jayanti all over the country and even brought out an edition of their magazine Organizer dedicated especially to Ambedkar. But the dalits essentially oppose the Hindu varna and jati structure. Today, with the sense of self-respect emerging among the dalits in society, there appears to be no scope for compromise with the degrading varna structure being offered. In every dalit village and community there is Ambedkar and moreover a sense of solidarity. They even have small organisations of their own. Even if they aren’t able to prevail as a political force, their struggle is visible in the villages, towns and cities. These organisations fight against caste atrocities and issues specific to the community. I am not commenting on how successful they have been but they exist all over the country. And, they cannot be part of the fascist project. In fact, that is their primary opponent. The forces that oppress them are the very same fascist forces whose agenda is to preserve and safeguard the discriminatory system of caste. But it is also true that these fascist forces have been trying to eliminate this contradiction by coopting the leaders of the dalit community. For this, they are trying to build platforms for settlements and reconciliation. They are trying to redefine Ambedkar himself by suppressing his principle ideological position. The fascist forces are trying to seize the very aspirations of dalit assertion as their own so as to spread chaos and division amongst people. In Delhi, the Union Ministry of Culture through the Sahitya Akademi organized a big convention where the leading voices of dalit literature and the Dalit Panthers were invited and they even participated in it. The participants included people like Laxman Gaikwad to J V Pawar. J V Pawar works with Prakash Ambedkar in the Bahujan Samaj Sangathan and is one of the founding members of the Dalit Panthers. He went as far as to congratulate Modi for organizing this by claiming that no other prime minister had done so. In this manner he has praised both Modi and the RSS. It is clear from the manner in which the RSS and Modi have worked on Ambedkar that they are trying to bring Ambedkar within their own frame. This is a dangerous situation and it is clear that the leadership from within the dalit communities is participating in it. In this condition, we need to bring back the focus on those fighting for the liberation of the people and inspiring their struggle. This is something that the enemy wants to appropriate as its own by changing its very meaning. Thus, we need to reveal its true nature before the people. This is a big challenge before us. This can be confronted only through the medium of an ideology, an organization and a concerted struggle. This discord visible before us needs to be bridged and tackled. Today, the repression we face needs to be confronted by organizing ourselves. We need to know that in the struggle for freedom the people of this country have never bowed before anyone. People have fought against lies and deceit and laid-bare its hollowness. We can build a massive struggle. The discord needs to be resolved with a minimum consensus, work towards unity and take the struggle to the streets. The fight against fascism is a direct and unambiguous fight. Fascism attacks us by breaking our strength and dissolving our unity, and its onslaught comes with the full force of repression. If we unite and end this discord, strengthen our ideological position, build and nurture the true aspirations of freedom, then our victory is certain. We will move towards a democratic society and build it with firm foundations. No one can kill the dream for democracy.
Question 8: You have spent nearly four years behind bars on a false case manufactured by the government. Basic human rights were denied to you. This is an unlawful act but the police or the government has not expressed any regret over this. How do you see what happened to you?
Answer 8: I have been politically active since my student days. I knew then what I was fighting against and its character. Definitely, it doesn’t have a pro-people character. As a student, then later as a literary person and as a political activist, we have had only one goal in mind, to build people’s struggle, participate in their struggle and create a truly democratic society. It is this aspiration that drives lakhs of people like me to enter the domain of democratic struggle. You can call this a war if you wish. The military and police of this country have taken up arms against its own people and the people have become compelled and are trying to fight back. This is the reality today. You can call it whatever name you want but this is a war. The form may keep changing. Speaking for the people, participating in the people’s struggle is like fighting in a war. The consequences of this war also need to be understood. Those who understand this have no problems going to jail. I don’t believe that I lost four years of my life. This is also a part of our struggle. I am one among the hundreds and thousands of people who fought for our rights and went to jail and I am also part of the hundreds and thousands who have been hounded by fabricated charges and sent to jail. In both cases, people have been dogged by repressive laws and continue to be crushed. My suffering is not separate from these. This is part of people’s suffering. And thus, there is nothing I can underline as exceptional about it.