[Babytai Kamble passed away on April 21, 2012. She will continue to inspire us, keeping us connected to the joys and pain of the community, urging us to step beyond individual concerns, anchoring us firmly to Ambedkarism as we move ahead with the struggle for equality and freedom. In our sorrow today we hold on to the strength of her words- Round Table India ]
Baby Kamble was a veteran of the Dalit movement in Maharashtra. Inspired by the radical leadership of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, she had been involved with the struggle from a very young age. She had established a government approved residential school for socially backward students in Nimbure, a small village near Phaltan. She had been honoured with awards for her literary and social work. Collections of her poetry have also been published.
We present here a few excerpts from an interview published as part of the English version of her autobiography 'The Prisons We Broke', translated by Maya Pandit.
In your autobiography, there are very few references to your personal life. Can you tell us a little more about yourself?
Well, I wrote about what my community experienced. The suffering of my people became my own suffering. Their experiences became mine. So I really find it very difficult to think of myself outside of my community. Let me tell you, there were so many women around us. They were determined to get their children educated because their Baba [Ambedkar] had told them to do so. So our women enrolled their children in schools. Now, they were ordinary agricultural labourers. Where could they get the money for paying fees to the English school? In those days, there were no concessions for the backward castes; schools did not receive any grants from the government. But our women used to find ways of overcoming this hurdle.
One woman had to pay ninety rupees as admission fee for her two sons in secondary school. Where was she to get this money? It was the rainy season. There was no work even in the fields. So there was no money! She couldn't talk about this to her husband. He was a construction worker. He would have put an end to their sons' education and turned them into labourers working for a contractor. Her relatives too were poor, there was no way she could borrow any money from them. Then she got a brainwave. They had saved some jowar for the rainy season in a big cane container. When her husband left for work, she called her sons, took out all the jowar with their help and quietly sold it to a merchant. The money was adequate for paying the fees. When her husband came to know of this, he, of course, thrashed her. Besides, they had to starve throughout the rainy season. But she did not allow her sons' education to suffer. They passed their matriculation examination and later on even went to college.
Were women different from men in this respect? And why did they believe in Baba so much?
It was only because of women that education became possible for us. Generally men would say, 'Why put our son into school? As if he is going to become a teacher or a clerk! It's better if he starts working as a labourer like me. At least he will earn a little money! You will ruin us with this madness! Sending children to school indeed!'
But women paid no heed to such talk. Dr Ambedkar had said, "You believed in god. You gave away generations to him. Now give me a chance. Give me this generation! Make sacrifices for 20 years. Enroll your children in schools. Go hungry if you must! But educate your children. After twenty years, you yourselves will come and tell me what is better— god or education?"
These words of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar touched the hearts of our women. All the highly educated men that you see today are from that generation. They are all placed in high positions. But their children have not done so well! May be it's because of the new affluence. They are engrossed in that.
What was the contribution of women to the Dalit political movement then? How did women participate in it?
Well, more than half of the people in the movement were women.
And how did the men respond to this? What was their reaction?
Let me tell you. It so happened that on most occasions, activists who came for public meeting in the chawdi were from Mumbai. The entire community gathered to listen to them. These activists used to publicly say, 'Look, it is women who are in charge of homes. And therefore it is they who have contributed to the superstitious god culture'. They are always leaders in such things. It is always women who become possessed by spirits. They have played a big role in making superstitions so powerful. It is the woman who is the real doer. So if women can bring darkness, they can also bring light into our lives.' And men agreed with this. "This man, Ambedkar,' they said, 'has come from beyond the seven seas. He is so well educated. He understands things better than any of us. There is a point in what he says.' So then women began to attend meetings even at far off places. They would carry bhakris to last them for four or five days.
And who looked after their homes?
Older women, of course. Their mothers and mothers-in-law took education extremely seriously. And they participated in all the programmes as well. They would just leave their children and homes behind and participate in various programmes, such as morchas, forcible entry into temples, hotels and such other places. They got a lot of encouragement from their men folk as well. And both their young and old family members staunchly stood by them. Baba sent telegrams and asked people to do something. Immediately preparations got underway. My brother was in boarding. He was in the ninth standard and I was in the sixth standard. I must have been eleven or twelve years of age then. Because of my brothers, I always got chance to participate in there programmes.
What was the experience like?
That was a great struggle. There was constant confrontation with the upper castes. They would say, "These Mahars are rising above themselves. We won't allow them to enter the village.' Everything was out of bounds for us. We couldn't even go the flour mill. They tried to make life difficult for us. It was slightly different in my own house, though. My father used to manage things somehow. My mother was not allowed to go out of the house. It was he and my brother, both of them activists, who used to get provisions and other household stuff.
What about school?
All our leaders used to accompany us to school. Babasaheb's words- Education is your right, you must go to school – were stamped on our hearts. So there was no question of our not going to school. But once we were in school, we were given a different treatment. We were made to sit in a corner on one side. Ours was a girls' school. It was actually a Brahmin school since all the teachers and a majority of the students were Brahmins. The teachers used to be awfully worried about our polluting them and harassed us a lot as if we were there enemies. They treated us like lepers, really. They wouldn't even look at us. Our classmates were all upper caste girls and they too used to be afraid of us, constantly worried about our touching and polluting them. They used to scorn us as if we were some kind of despicable creatures. We had no friends among the Brahmin girls. When we went for excursions, they used to offer us food from their lunch boxes but they would never accept anything from us. This must have been around 1945.
When did you get married? There are hardly any references to your personal life in the autobiography.
I was just 13 when I got married and I was considered too old! I had passed my fourth standard. My husband's name was Kondiba Kamble and he was a student in my brother's school and stayed in the same hostel. My husband's family saw me and gave their approval. His family was actually related to our family... Now Babasaheb had told people that marriages should be performed according to the gandharva ritual that was quite different from the traditional way of marriage. He told us that there was no need to invite a Brahmin priest. The bride and the groom did not have to tie the bashinga and the mundawali. In fact, Babasaheb said, 'Don't waste four days on the wedding. Save time and money as well. Just one sari for the bride and one pair of new clothes for the groom are good enough. Don't invite the Brahmin priest to perform the marriage rites. Let somebody from among your own people do it. And let the marriage be performed at your own chawdi.' Mine was one of the first marriages to be performed in the new manner. After the deeksha ceremony, marriages began to be performed according to the Buddhist way.Till then we followed the practice of gandharva vivaha that Babasaheb laid down for us. Anyway, for my marriage, my brother wrote the mangalashtakas that were in praise of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar's work. [...]
Poverty was common to my husband's house and mine. Getting a job was next to impossible. Who would give work to a person who had been educated only up to the fourth or the seventh standard? It was difficult to survive.
Now Dr. Ambedkar used to say, 'Don't get into jobs. Try to start some small business which you can successfully run in your locality. Don't start with the business of milk. Who will buy that from you? Your people don't drink milk, and the upper castes won't buy milk from you. Start with something which you can manage to sell in your own community.'
Then I had an idea. Both my husband and I were jobless. So, I thought, why not begin with something like grapes? There were plenty of farms around and the rate at the time was five rupees per kilogram. But you could get one kilogram of loose grapes for eight annas. Poor people who could not afford to buy grapes in bunches, would buy these. So we decided to sell loose grapes. I used to go to the farms and buy basketful of loose grapes. My capital of eight annas would fetch me one rupee or sometimes even more in a day. That was more than one hundred percent of profit. I saved all of it. Gradually, my savings swelled and reached the huge sum of forty eight rupees. Then we added vegetables to our merchandise. Gradually, along with vegetables, we added provisions like oil, salt, and such other stuff to our list. This also fetched us a tidy profit. So we decided to expand our business. I told my brother and husband to stock our house with grocery items. In those days, we did not stay in a separate house but with my husband's family. We used to sell these things from my mother's house as it was right in front of the chawdi. We did not spend any of the money that we earned on food or household expenses. My in-laws helped me a lot. They allowed us to stay in their house and shared whatever meager food they had. In the next three months we bought provisions worth three hundred and fifty rupees. The quantity was so large that the house literally overflowed with the stuff. There were many Mahar households in Mangalwar Peth. They all became our customers.
Our business picked up very well. Then we decided to live independently, but in the same house. That meant a great deal of additional work for me, like cooking and fetching water. I used to get up at three o' clock in the morning and fetch water from the public tap in Mangalwar Peth. By this time I had two children. There was a canal near our house. I used to wash all our clothes there. Next I would do the cooking! I used to finish everything by nine in the morning and then go to the shop. Till then my husband would sit at the counter. Thereafter, I attended to the customers and he went off to the market to buy provisions.
Did you have any problem in getting provisions?
We never had any problems in buying anything. They wouldn't admit us inside the shop bur they did supply us with whatever we wanted. We sort of flourished. I gave birth to ten children of whom three died during childhood. I never went to a hospital. All my babies were born at home. My mother and my mother-in-low would come and help me.
Where there any other women activists at that time who worked along with you? Women who addressed public meetings, organized people?
Not really, women started participating much later, when they became educated. There were very few that worked along with me. We used to address meetings, give speeches. My grandmother was from Mumbai. She had worked with the workers' unions. Then gradually more women began to participate. I must tell you about the women in the Mahila Mandal that Raja Malojiraje Nimbalkar and his wife Lakshmibai had started in Phaltan. The Raja had taken the initiative and told the Rani that at least one woman from every Mahar household in Mangalwar Peth was to be made a member of the Mahila Mandal. Since my father never allowed my mother to go, I became a member. There were quite a few militant women from our community who became members. They would not hesitate to fight for their rights. They demanded chairs to sit and participated in the deliberations.
Please read the next part of the excerpts from the interview here.