The battle against caste isn't just some ideology, it's our existence

 

Gaurav Somwanshi

gaurav somwanshiI have spent most of my twenty four years in Aurangabad. I studied in a convent school where my friends were a mixed group from all castes and communities.Though we never felt it back then, and it's only in retrospect that I am saying this, but we were all growing up differently. We were walking on increasingly divergent roads, shaped by our locations of caste, class, and religion more than anything else.

Almost all of us, who spoke Marathi, had read Shivaji Sawant's Mrityunjay and Veena Gavankar's Ekhota Carver before we turned 15. But it was at home that I got to read something which others didn't or couldn't, and that was to shape me differently from my savarna friends in the time to come. Here, I mean the writings of Babasaheb Ambedkar and some significant works of Dalit literature.

Babasaheb, however, was introduced to me long before I had read his works; we had a salutation of "Jai Bhim", his portrait adorned our living room, and April 14 was the day of the biggest celebration in our community. But outside of this familiar world, an unsettling surprise awaited me. It came when I discussed Babasaheb Ambedkar's works with my savarna school friends and got to know that none of them had even seen his books, let alone read them. They had also not read or even heard of Narendra Jadhav's Aamcha baap ani amhi or Bhalchandra Mungekar's Mi asa ghadalo, my favourite books back then.

~

Anyone visiting a bookstore would notice how the books are kept and arranged. A neat division of genres and subjects. All books that make their way in such bookshops have their own designated places to fit into. But growing up in a Dalit middle class family in the city of Aurangabad, I also noticed that bookshops themselves are not neutral; certain kinds of books can be found in some and not in others, a division that was again underlined by caste, as we will see. And it was a stark division.

 In our city we had just one big English bookstore, Quadrangle, and a couple of Marathi bookstores that were large and famous enough for everybody to know. The English bookstore seemed to have "everything"- from Carl Sagan to Sidney Sheldon, and Amartya Sen to Douglas Adams. But they did not have a single book by Ambedkar or any Dalit or anti-caste literature, even though much of it is and has been available in English too. The publishers were also the usual ones- Penguin, Vintage, Oxford, Rupa etc.

ashok gaikwad 2But there were also these dozen or so bookshops, peppered throughout the city, where my father and uncle had been taking me since I was a child. A couple of these were not the usual brick and mortar bookstores but mobile book stalls that could be easily moved from one place to the other on a handcart. Then there were, what I like to call, "book festivals"- 14th April, 6th December, Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Din, when the streets of Aurangabad, especially the Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University road, would be lined with book stalls, and you could see the road paved with thousands of books. The books I found here could not be found elsewhere. I knew a few of the book stall owners personally as they were from my community and in fact some of my own relatives even ran these small publishing houses.

shankarrao hatole 2I blamed this dichotomy for being the main reason for my friends' ignorance of Babasaheb Ambedkar and Dalit literature. Consequently, I always felt that unless and until Quadrangle also started stocking these books, my friends, and others like them, might never read Babasaheb or Dalit and anti-caste literature. Once when I did urge the staff at the big bookstore to keep some books on Babasaheb, I was told that they did have one book on him and it turned out to be Arun Shourie's 'Worshipping False Gods', and in fact two copies at that!

When I visited a couple of large and famous Marathi bookstores in the heart of the city, I was simply told "not available" or, the more revealing, "not sold here".

sudhakar devkar 2The diverging roads continued to diverge further. During my management course at IIM Lucknow I made some remarkable friends, and many of them came from the best institutes in the country. Again, among those of us who loved to read, there were some "obviously-already-read" books- Ramachandra Guha, George Orwell, Albert Camus, Chomsky, Nabokov, Christopher Hitchens etc. And yet again, Babasaheb Ambedkar remained largely unread, and even worse: largely misunderstood. And the blame I had placed on the savarna bookstores and publishers kept on increasing in my head.

shubham devkar 2But some questions naturally popped up: Why such dichotomy in the different kinds of bookstores and publishers I encountered? Is it simply Adam Smith's 'invisible hand'? Or, maybe, it was Manu's echoing chants that were causing this? Can the Dalit struggle survive or prosper further if it's not offered a 'helping' hand by the powerful elite? Will it be a revolution in itself if I were to see Babasaheb's books in my city's Quadrangle store? Will that be a "victory" in some sense? Why don't the Dalit publishers go and seek out these places? Surely they must try or want it?

But the answers to these worrying questions were not to be found by theorizing in my head. I could seek them only by talking to Dalit publishers/bookstore owners of Aurangabad. And so I did.

~

आम्हां घरी धन शब्दांचीच रत्नें | शब्दांचीच शस्त्रें यत्न करुं ||
शब्द चि आमुच्या जीवांचे जीवन | शब्दें वांटूं धन जनलोकां ||
तुका म्हणे पाहा शब्द चि हा देव | शब्द चि गौरव पूजा करुं ||

We possess the wealth of words,
With weapons of words we will fight;
Words are the breath of our life,
We will distribute the wealth of words among the people
Tukaram says that the words themselves are gods, our pride,
only those we choose to worship.

 ~ Sant Tukaram1

My first destination was Kaushalya Prakashan, one of the biggest names in Dalit publishing in Marathi. Its founder Dr Ashok Gaikwad also runs an ENT clinic simultaneously with his publishing work. He works in the clinic for six hours daily and devotes the rest of his time to publishing. On many occasions one will find him travelling with a Tempo full of books to Nagpur, Dadar, Pune etc., whenever the "book festivals" take place.

dr. ashok gaikwad

Dr Ashok Gaikwad, founder of Kaushalya Prakashan, at his clinic.

Kaushalya was founded in 1995, and since then it has published over 300 titles, including Babasaheb's 'Annihilation of Caste', 'Castes in India', and the works of a host of other Dalit scholars and researchers. Dr Ashok Gaikwad had been my father's classmate in medical college, and they both had marched shoulder to shoulder in the Naamantar struggle2 that lasted for over 16 years and saw an anti-Dalit pogrom.

I would often land up at his bookstore to buy books and would always be given discounts, but this time I came to him with something else to ask for.

I visited Mr Gaikwad during his clinic hours, and sitting in the waiting room while he was busy with a patient, I could see that the waiting room functioned as a godown of sorts as well. The corners of the room were stacked with books, and I could easily spot a dozen copies of Gail Omvedt's 'Building The Ambedkar Revolution' among them. Although I would have loved to indefinitely wait in such a room staring at the stack of books, I was called in just as the patient left. Mr Gaikwad, with a stethoscope and pen in hand, welcomed me warmly, as always.

"Jai Bhim, Sir"

"Jai Bhim, Gaurav. How are you?"

The clinic seemed to be a perfect setting for this conversation because like a patient I presented my doubts, confusions, and concerns to him, and like a doctor he offered and shared with me his experiences and thoughts.

"Forget these Aurangabad bookstores you are talking about, I even went to the bookstores in 'Appa Balwant Chowk' of Pune in my initial years when I was as naïve as you. I offered them 40% margin, as is the standard rate there, and also assured them of regular demand. But along with awkward stares and annoyed looks, I got the response "we don't have any shelf space left". Some were more direct, "we don't keep such books". And what was I selling to them? Books by Babasaheb, books on the cultural tradition of Dalits, research by Dalit scholars on our history and tradition. But these books were untouchable for them."

shahir aniruddha bankar

Shahir Aniruddha Bankar's performance at 'Bhimotsav'.

When I asked more about the demand, he replied that in our Dalit community, irrespective of income, the demand for Dalit literature is always great. To explain this point he offered an example that I was already familiar with but had never noticed. He explained how among Dalits, a person may be running a small shop, or might be an auto-rickshaw driver, or one may be a nurse, but in a conversation they can easily talk of Ambedkarite struggles, Gandhi, Nehru, Marx, current politics, capitalism, and a lot more. The programme of a Shahir is less about entertainment and more about prabodhan, awakening. Shahir Aniruddha Bankar performed at a 3-day 'Bhimotsav' organised in Aurangabad for Babasaheb's birth anniversary this year, and he gave an enlightening experience to an audience of around five thousand people- songs interspersed with history lessons, and the main thrust was on urging young girls to take up preparation for civil services.

This reality, this diversity that he mentioned was something I observe daily around me. And to contrast this, I also observe how even the supposedly "progressive" mainstream Marathi newspapers will try to paint a picture that the Dalits are a dull lot of people with no intellect (The Indian Express group's Loksatta, famous for its "progressive" stand, republished an old article by Narahar Kurundkar3 which implied that Dalits are intellectually a sterile lot, along with many other rubbish and awful things. This was republished on 14th April, 2013 too, of all days.)

To illustrate how vibrant the debates and discussions in Dalit spaces can be, Dr Gaikwad shared another telling anecdote with me. He told me that sometimes Dalit authors whom he published are reluctant to include their phone numbers in their books, and just give their email ids, because they know that they will be bombarded with people's calls to discuss issues directly with the author. This is something I remembered even from my own family. When my uncle Prof B.C. Somwanshi published an article on the alarming rise in caste atrocities in the Marathi Dalit newspaper Samrat, he was busy for a few days answering phone calls of people who wanted to discuss his article with him.

All of the above is made possible because it is only in such spaces that true democracy and egalitarianism thrives. Whether you're a man or woman, young or old, rich or poor, your voice will never be stifled. For example, it is only in such spaces that you can clearly declare that you're a complete Marxist and disagree with Ambedkar, and still be the chief guest at Dalit conferences. Given these realities around me the question of Dalit demand for literature seemed a bit silly, especially when Mr Gaikwad also shared the following experience:

"There are two big newspaper stands in Aurangabad, and in my initial years I went to both of them requesting them to keep and sell copies of 'Prabuddha Bharat' many years ago. One of them flatly rejected saying that there's no demand at all and he won't keep them, while the other one agreed, and is selling copies of many of our books at an ever increasing rate even today."

shankarrao hatole

Shankarrao Hatole, founder of Anand Publications.

The points he made were further emboldened when I reached my next stop: Anand Prakashan. It was founded by Mr. Shankarrao Hatole and Mrs Devayani Hatole, and they have been in publishing since 1979 and till date have published over 1200 titles. Mr. Hatole was employed as a librarian, while Mrs. Hatole was employed as a teacher in the municipal school, and together they started a book stall outside their house in 1974 along with working on their daily jobs. It began on a small handcart with a stock of around 50 books, mostly books by Dalit scholars and researchers. In their initial years, the couple also frequently traveled to distant cities and villages carrying heavy sacks of books on their backs.

I went to the bookstore where Mr. Hatole is available all day and where he frequently has to order chai for people like me who often come more with the intention to talk to him than to just buy books. When I asked him about his motivation for entering publishing, he replied:

"It was necessary to enter into publishing because I met many brilliant Dalit scholars, researchers, and writers who would not be published by the established savarna publishing houses, and their ideas would vanish without notice. Your own uncle's book on the economic thoughts of Babasaheb is an important contribution, and he must find a publisher somewhere if our struggle is to continue. Also, it is most crucial to sustain Babasaheb's thoughts and works. If his books don't reach our next generation like you, how will they ever know him and what he's done for them? With this purpose alone I started this publishing house."

When I asked about the demand among Dalits, his answer too was a resoundingly clear and emphatic 'Yes'. But that wasn't just it. He called up two of his friends who were publishers in other cities, spoke to them and said, "a friend is sitting next to me. Just answer in one or two lines about the reach and demand for Dalit literature today". And in a matter of five minutes Mr Hatole's answer was echoed by the other two publishers as well.

But if there's such a demand, then why don't the savarna publishers publish our books?

He continued, "Why should they? Aren't you wrong in expecting our liberation to come from them? I'm always surprised when they do publish us. What makes a Dalit publisher a Dalit publisher is not his caste, but the fact that he's in the publishing field to make sure Babasaheb's thoughts and ideas are never lost. That is most crucial. A Dalit publisher is there to ensure that the Dalit voices do get published, irrespective of the market demand. There are also a couple of savarna publishers who do publish some of our work. But notice their method and motive. They will take only the few big established names from the Dalits, and publish them at high prices and the demand among Dalits will ensure that their books are bought and their pockets filled, plus they also get to call themselves 'progressives'. But that is not anti-caste struggle."

What he said is not just the case with books. The Dalit movement finds expression in songs and poetry too. As Babasaheb himself had remarked, that ten speeches are worth one song of a Shahir. Poetry, too, has always been a political tool, as my friend and published poet Vaibhav Chhaya also taught me when he declared in the preface of his poetry anthology that 'माझी कविता हीच माझी राजकीय कृती' ("My poems are by themselves my political act")4. With this reality around me, the accusations of Dalit movement being 'confined' seem to be true in a reverse way, and to these accusers, I say, that the anti-caste movement is all around you. By not being part of it you are isolating and confining yourself; it is not the movement that is confined.

Some would argue, as they often do, that the Dalit movement of this state is 'confined' to the Mahar caste alone. One wishes though that they argued from the marketplaces and the streets instead of just their armchairs.

 ~

We'll set fire to the divisions of caste,
we'll debate philosophical questions in the market place,
we'll have dealings with despised households.
We'll go around in different paths -
Aadu pambe! aadu!'

 ~ Pambatti Cittar5

The bookshop nearest to my house is a stall run by Sudhakar Devkar. It is right at the roadside and impossible to miss for any passer-by.On a regular day the stall stocks around 150 English books and 400 Marathi books. Mr Devkar belongs to the Chambhar caste. Along with his two sons, Daulat, aged 12 and Shubham, aged 21, they run three different bookstalls in Aurangabad.

 Mr Devkar who was able to study only until Class 10 has had the pleasure of working with Kanshi Ram. During his younger years, he used to follow the rallies of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati with a 25 kg sack of books. Today he owns a roadside book stall that is right outside the gates of the Milind Boys Hostel of People's Education Society, and the small book stall sits perfectly under the shade of a banyan tree. He greeted me with a 'Jai Bhim', the same words engraved on a metal pin on his shirt.

sudakar devkar

Sudhakar Devkar, of Dnyansagar bookstore/s.

His purpose is clear: "I want our people to be able to afford important books, and become aware, so that one day our people will be seen in government and politics." He has encouraged his elder son, Shubham, to learn DTP (Desktop publishing) and the details of publishing and they have published books on their own.

shubham devkar

Shubham Sudhakar Devkar, of Dnyansagar bookstore/s.

After his college hours, Shubham spends all day at the bookstall near the Buddhist vihara at the foothills of Aurangabad caves.

His younger brother, Daulat, runs a book stall cum general store cum godown at the other end of the city near their house. Daulat finishes his school and tuition at 4 p.m., and is at the bookshop till 10 in the night. Talk to either Shubham or Daulat for an hour and I'm sure you'll learn something you hadn't known before.

daulat devkar

Daulat Sudhakar Devkar, of Dnyansagar bookstore/s.

This then is the real anti-caste movement. It is not about "confining", "owning", or "restricting" ideas. Instead, it has always been about preserving them without loss or distortion. Because it is the very lifeblood for us Dalits and we know what it means to us. Of course the Dalit movement must also reach the entire savarna world and everyone else. Of course Dalit literature and Babasaheb must reach the big bookstores and publishers too. Of course the movement will only be strengthened if the savarnas participate in it in an honest, helpful, and sensible way. Of course! But let us not allow the above aspects, however necessary or not, to distort into becoming the essence of the anti-caste struggle. Because it is not. As Namdeo Dhasal phrased it, त्यांची सनातन दया ,"their sanatan pity"6, is not the aim or even fuel of this struggle. And as Babasaheb remarked, "Lost rights are never regained by begging, and by appeals to the conscience of the usurpers, but by relentless struggle."

The savarnas can afford to turn a blind eye to their privilege and their known & unknown participation in exploitation and oppression. For the savarnas this could even be a fancy subject to sound more progressive, or an exotic ideology that feeds their curiosity, or just another topic to write an essay on or something to build their careers around. But for us Dalits, the battle against caste is not some ideology, it is our existence.

So if my friends aren't reading Babasaheb and other works of Dalit literature, it is not because it is not available to them. The Dalit bookshops are not the ones who are not ready to sell their books to savarnas, it is the savarnas who are not ready to buy these books or stop by at these bookshops and book stalls.

Today the savarna world's doors are closed and its shutters down. And if these shutters open at all, they're only open halfway or so, so that we Dalits must bend our spine to stoop and enter, because sometimes that's the only way the savarna will allow us to come in front of them. But as the title of a chapter I learned in school said, 'मोडेन पण वाकणार नाही', "we'll break but won't bend".

daulat devkar 1

~

Notes

[1]. Tukaram, Bhalchandra Nemade, Sahitya Akademi, Delhi, 1997.

[2]. Namantar Andolan (Name Change Movement) was a Dalit movement to change the name of Marathwada University in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, India to Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University. It achieved a measure of success in 1994 when the compromise name of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University was accepted. The movement was notable for the violence against Dalits. (from wiki).

To read more, go to:

a. 'Overshadowed' by Pradnya Jadhav. Round Table India. http://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7134%3Aovershadowed&catid=119%3Afeature&Itemid=132 (Accessed on 30th October, 2014)

b. 'Penning Rebellion' by Daisy Katta. Round Table Indiahttp://roundtableindia.co.in/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=7578:penning-rebellion&catid=119:feature&Itemid=132 (Accessed on 30th October, 2014)

c. For an account of the attacks on Dalits during the Namantar andolan, visit: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Namantar_Andolan#Attacks (Accessed on 30th October, 2014)

[3]. "दलितांनी कोषातून बाहेर पडावे" by नरहर कुरुंदकर. Loksatta, Pune. The full article can be read here: http://epaper.loksatta.com/105717/loksatta-pune/14-04-2013#page/17/1 (Accessed on 30th October, 2014)

[4]. डीलीट केलेलं सारं आकाश, Vaibhav Chhaya. Navata Publications, Mumbai, 2014. 

[5]. From: The Shared Mirror. http://roundtableindia.co.in/lit-blogs/?p=457 (Accessed on 30th October, 2014). Excerpt taken from above link: "This verse is from a six hundred-line long Siddha poem, by Pambatti Cittar.

The Tamil Siddha poems are a "grand remonstrance against almost everything that was held sacred" in their time. The Siddhas were "implacable opponents of the caste system and the gradations of orthodoxy and respectability it gave rise to". The period of Siddha poetry stretches from 6th century onwards, with the major contribution peaking between 14 and 18th century. Pambatti Cittar's poetry has a characteristic refrain aadupambe! aadu! (dance, snake! dance!), the snake as a metaphor for the soul seeking liberation."

 [6]. त्यांची सनातन दया, 'Golpitha', Namdeo Dhasal. Aniruddha Punaravasu, Mumbai, 1971.

~~~

 

Gaurav Somwanshi, an alumnus of IIM Lucknow, is currently preparing for civil services examinations.

Pictures Courtesy: Vaibhav Nimale.

 

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