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The subversive power of culture

By Aritra Bhattacharya

A chronicle of the Republican Panther, a cultural organisation committed to anti-caste struggle in Maharashtra, dogged by a state that brands dissenting dalits Maoists and dissenting Muslims terrorists

Dalit Panther

Thirty-five years is a long time for memories to fade – but not if the connection between the past and the present is organic. That is perhaps what explains the intensity in Sharad Gaikwad’s eyes as he narrates how he was propelled into cultural activism.

Sharad was nine then, and Maharashtra’s Marathwada region was burning over the renaming of its university as Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University.

“There were no mobile phones or Internet then, so news of atrocities on lower castes by those who were against the renaming would reach us two or three days later,” says Sharad. He recalls the case of Pochiram Kamble, an up-sarpanch of a village, and a Matang who was part of the anti-caste movement there. On July 27, 1977, when the decision to rename the university was taken, lower-caste bastis across the region lit diyas in their houses. On seeing this, the upper castes in the area reacted violently, burning down villages. Attacking Pochiram, they cut off his hands and legs and burnt him alive. Pochiram’s son, Chandra Kamble, vowed revenge against the zamindar who had killed his father—he killed the latter in the open, and surrendered before the police.

“Chandra did not know anything about class struggle. But he had said ‘we need to create fear in the minds of the upper castes’. I learnt all this owing to my attachment to a local club,” says Sharad.

Born of the current in society

The incident—which enjoys legendary status among those fighting casteism in Maharashtra—ignited in Sharad a desire to work towards the eradication of caste. Born and brought up in Bombay, he began attending various programmes. In 2004, he came in direct contact with Sudhir Dhawale, who was active in the Vidrohi movement.

“I felt Sudhir was someone who was working along all of Babasaheb’s teachings,” says Sharad. The two met often and three years later they, along with some others, formed the Republican Panther Jati Antachi Chalwal (henceforth, Republican Panther or RP).

Republican Panther works within a broad-based emancipatory political framework, taking the nexus of caste and class as one of its primary issues. Their reference points are around Marx, Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh. “We ask ourselves: what would Marx, Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh say about the current situation, and base our programmes on their teachings,” says Shyam Sonar, another member of Republican Panther.

A large part of the group’s activities is centred around cultural performances.

“Politics has to emerge from the people, and singing and performing is a way to rouse the people—it is like khad (fertiliser) for the movement,” says Shyam.

“Our group was born out of the ferment in society,” says Sharad. Republican Panther was born in July 2007, two years after the country was shaken up by the Khairlanji massacre. The killing of dalits in Bombay’s Ramabai Nagar in 1997 was also not far behind.

“Sudhir had been trying to bring together grassroots activists and leaders after the Khairlanji incident. He wanted to form an organisation that would take up cases of caste atrocities and look at their connections with the class structure and the corporatised state,” says Sharad, a Class-IV employee of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation.

Some 30-35 organisations across 15-16 districts of the state joined in the discussions; a manifesto for the proposed organisation was prepared, circulated, debated, and on July 11, 2007, the formation of RP was announced.

Immediately, however, the group ran into problems. “The feudalist Ambedkarite parties as well as upper-caste communist parties resented us. They did everything possible to thwart our efforts,” says Sharad.

Mahaparinirvan Diwas (December 6), when dalits from across the state converge at Dadar’s Chaityabhoomi, was slated to be the group’s first cultural outing. “Since we were a new group, we asked many groups there to allow us some time on the stage to declare the formation of RP before the public. But they refused; some even asked us for money. We bargained with one group and they agreed to let us go onstage for Rs 20,000; we were to pay half the amount before the programme, and half after. But when we went to give them the advance after having taken money on credit from several people, they refused us, saying they would not have the time to allow us onstage,” recalls Sharad.

“We saw this as a spiteful act of mainstream Ambedkarite groups caught up in mainstream political wrangling. The forces of the state and political parties were working through them to deny us a chance,” says Shyam.

The group, however, turned the incident into an opportunity. They went around the ground singing, and captured the middle area for over one-and-a-half hours; they sang and performed a couple of small plays.

Looking beyond the metropolis

While the Dalit Panther movement was an obvious reference point for RP, they wanted to ensure that their movement did not remain limited to intellectuals. Working among the grassroots and taking up people’s issues within a radical framework was the key.

“After December 2007, we decided to take up cases of caste atrocities within 200 km of Mumbai,” says Shyam.

For instance, when Rohidas Tupe was brutally killed in Aurangabad over his affair with an upper-caste girl, RP carried out a sustained campaign. Sudhir Dhawale produced a small book priced at  Rs 5 to publicise the case across the state. On RP’s initiative, a front was created in Aurangabad, which was to play an instrumental role in taking out a maha morcha.

“But when Sudhir reached there, people from the front backed out. Local NGOs too backtracked since they did not want to disturb their ‘setting’ with politicians before the impending assembly elections. Eventually, we had to cancel the rally,” says Sharad.

They started focusing on campaigns in the city’s bastis and colleges with considerable numbers of lower-caste students.

In the midst of all this, Mumbai exploded with the terrorist attacks of 26/11. RP organised a workshop to analyse and critique the attacks, and out of that was born the song ‘Headline-Bomb Squad’. RP also campaigned against Salwa Judum, Operation Greenhunt and other forms of state-sponsored terrorism. “We performed in brick kilns and bus stands. For us, one thing was clear: The state was hell-bent on branding all dissenting Muslims terrorists, and dissenting dalits  Maoists,” says Shyam. Not surprisingly, most radical groups engaged in cultural resistance in the state have been done in by the state, which has accused them of being Maoists and clamped down on them.

RP made a renewed attempt to branch out into different parts of the state in 2009, when they organised the Samata Prabodhan Yatra. It’s earlier name was Khairlanji Sangharsh Yatra, but we chose a ‘soft’ name to escape the ire of the state,” says Sharad. The objectives of the yatra were manifold: to expose the real issues behind caste atrocities; to lay open the partisan nature of the state and its use of the media to spread falsehoods; to critique mainstream Ambedkarite and leftist parties and their narrow-mindedness.

Despite the soft name, local police stalked them throughout the yatra.

“As soon as we realised that cops were following us, we deviated from the original itinerary. We started deciding where the yatra would go on a daily basis; since we ourselves did not know where we would go next, the police too did not have a clue. So, they would reach the venue of our programmes after we’d left,” recalls Shyam.

On the odd occasion when the police did manage to cross them, questions were asked: did they have Maoist funding? Were they a front organisation for the Maoist party? (these are familiar tropes the state uses for clamping down on dissenters, experience tells us).

“The songs that we sang during the yatra helped people identify the core issues easily. Local artists commented on our sharp language, and many joined us during performances,” says Shyam.

During the yatra, RP activists noticed the possibility of forming cultural squads in many districts—as many as 15-20 groups could be formed across the state; these groups would not just ‘perform’, but help erect a movement.

When the yatra returned to Mumbai after touring many districts, responsibilities were delegated: specific persons were assigned the responsibility of mentoring cultural squads in the districts, and teaching them how best to use the traditional repertoire of the region to create political consciousness among the people.

“I was given the responsibility of Jalgaon, where we saw a distinct possibility of two groups being formed. Since most of us had day jobs, it was decided that Sudhir—the only full-timer in the movement—would accompany us wherever possible. At this point, I thought of leaving my day job to focus on Panther activities,” says Shyam.

RP now seemed poised to spread its wings beyond its bastion in Mumbai.

A matter of time

Sudhir Dhawale had gone to Wardha to attend the Yuvak Ambedkari Sahitya Sammelan and investigate atrocities on adivasis there in December 2009, shortly after returning from the yatra. The state, which perhaps had an inkling of the RP’s attempts to branch out and spread its ‘dangerous’ ideology, arrested Sudhir from Wardha station, slapped multiple charges on him and put him behind bars.

Following his arrest, there were rallies in almost all places the Samata Prabodhan Yatra had traveled to; from January to April 2010, news relating to Sudhir’s arrest featured in the local papers everyday; editorials were written and rallies decrying the clampdown on freedom of expression were staged in many districts of Maharashtra.

“Sudhir was the only full-timer; we are all part-timers,” rues Sharad. “His arrest was a big setback; it set us in slow motion,” he adds.

When RP activists traveled to the districts to invigorate the links established during the yatra and kickstart the process of formation of cultural squads, they realised they were in for a tough time. The cops had visited all the areas that the yatra went to and told people there not to have anything to do with ‘those people’ since their credentials were doubtful—in other words, police had issued veiled threats that RP was a Maoist front, and association with it would not augur well for locals.

The fact that the rest of the RP activists were part-timers also posed a problem, as being away from their place of work in Mumbai for long was not possible. As a result, the attempt to form RP squads in the districts was almost given up.

Instead, the group focused their campaign in and around Mumbai, and worked on bringing out issues of the Vidrohi magazine, as and when possible.

Sudhir’s arrest, however, set RP back in another major way: it brought about a split in the ranks. While Sharad Gaikwad and Shyam Sonar are the most important figures in the faction that is considered the legatee of Sudhir and his work, the other faction is led by Shyam Gaikwad, and brings out a periodical called Republican Bharat in Marathi.

“Shyam Gaikwad is a seasoned politician, and we’d included him in the original Panther lineup given his stature as a politician; it was meant to safeguard the organisation from the wrath of the state,” says Sharad.

People who keenly watch the cultural resistance scene say that for groups engaged in such activity, the political connect goes a long way in ensuring their safety. Connections with a recognised politician or party mean that the state is doubly wary of touching the groups, unless their activities are perceived as too much of a threat.

“We were on strong ground ideologically; that gave us the strength to carry on even after Sudhir was arrested,” says Sharad.

“Even though Sudhir was our most important pillar, we had never been individual-centric, and that proved to be our strength,” recalls Shyam Sonar.

Battling the demons within

Even though annihilation of caste is part of RP’s core agenda, the organisation itself has suffered from casteist issues on occasion. For instance, after Sudhir was arrested, one member had to be thrown out since he was trying to create differences in the organisation along caste lines.

He tried to blackmail an OBC member in the group by saying that his OBC roots were responsible for him being treated differently in the organisation. He also tried to create differences between two key figures in the group, raised objections to the group maintaining any contact with Sudhir since he was behind bars, and accused some members of swindling money. When matters came to a head, he was expelled from the organisation.

Today, RP focuses on campaigns in and around Mumbai. The issues it has taken up of late are nuclear energy, the privatisation of primary education, and clampdowns on the freedom of expression.

The organisation runs on contributions from members, who pitch in with 2% of their respective salaries—this money is used for bringing out issues of Vidrohi magazine when possible; paying off an earlier loan taken for the publication of literature; and sustaining the campaign for the release of Sudhir Dhawale.

While the group awaits Sudhir’s release on bail— confident that he will be acquitted of all charges leveled against him—children of members of the group seem to be ready to carry the torch.

Sharad’s son, a student of class 7, for instance, is present at all RP programmes. There are others too. Does it make sense, I wonder, to bring children into such activity? Then, something that Sharad said in reply to ‘why cultural resistance’ comes back to me: “Fascist tendencies have become a part of popular culture—think of events like the Ganeshotsav in Maharashtra, or any other festival for that matter. Right-wing pro-market ideologies have penetrated everything we see around us. Our role is to use that very thing—culture. We seek to draw from traditional forms that are part of the toiling masses’ daily lives, and use that form along with radical content to lay bare fascist tendencies.”

If children are thought fit to be absorbing—in fact, goaded into participating—in events in the popular cultural calendar, which one may argue is ideologically loaded, cannot they be introduced to radical cultural resistance early on as well?

(Aritra Bhattacharya is a researcher presently based in Maharashtra. This is the last part of his series on the repression of cultural activism in Maharashtra, researched as part of the Infochange Media Fellowships 2012.)

Infochange News & Features, September 2013