On 11 July 1997—on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the nation’s ‘independence’—a statue of Dr B.R. Ambedkar is desecrated with footwear in Mumbai’s Ramabai Nagar. Dalits stage a protest; and the police officer in charge, Manohar Kadam, asks the men of State Reserve Police to open fire. Ten unarmed protesters are killed and many injured. Horrified at this injustice, Vilas Ghogre, a Dalit poet-singer kills himself. This provided the trigger for documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan to begin asking questions and seeking answers with his camera. After 14 years, after an inquiry commission, after various factions of the Ambedkar-founded Republican Party of India making improbable compromises with Congress, Nationalist Congress Party, Shiv Sena and BJP, after the unwavering voice of the Dalit Panther ideologue Bhai Sangare is silenced, after many rallies, after Modi, after Khairlanji, after witnessing one atrocity being piled upon another, Anand Patwardhan decided to complete his film in 2011, calling it Jai Bhim Comrade.
There’s a moment in the three-hour-plus film that signposts both the tension and the potential inherent in the title—that of twinning the concerns of the Ambedkarite movement (Jai Bhim) and those of the Left (Comrade). What is eventually played out is the apparent impossibility of such reconciliation. Two Marxist-Leninist, non-Dalit intellectuals, Gurbir and Varavara Rao, sitting on a sofa in the comfort of a distinctly middle-class home, casually point out that the bandana Vilas Ghogre tied on his head when he committed suicide was not exactly blue—associated with the Republican Party and Ambedkarite movements. It is callously suggested that the scarf even seemed a shade purple, and they laugh it off. With quiet arrogance, it is implied that Vilas Ghogre was not necessarily making a statement about his Dalit identity when he hung himself over the Ramabai Nagar killings. Immediately, Patwardhan cuts to a scene where we have a Dalit gaayan party on stage in a basti owning up ‘Shahir’ Vilas Ghogre as one of their own, a man who tied a blue scarf and became ‘Shaheed’, a martyr.
Vilas was a shahir—a bard, who performed revolutionary songs with his ektara, one-stringed instrument. (He was a figure like Gaddar, his counterpart from Andhra Pradesh, who makes an appearance in the film and recounts joyously his memorable encounters with Vilas; how Vilas wished to feed him in a ‘good hotel’, but did not have enough money for anything more than vada-pao; how like Mira, Tuka and scores of other radical sants Vilas reached out to the masses with just an ektara.) Walking the chawls of Bombay, Vilas was initially drawn to the Dalit movement in the heydays of the Dalit Panther (founded in 1972). Then in the 1980s, with the Dalit Panther losing its fangs and the RPI splitting into umpteen factions, Vilas veered to the Left. For many years he was part of the Avahan Natya Manch, a cultural troupe reflecting ML concerns. We get to know through interviews in the film with his former Avahan colleagues that Vilas was disappointed that he could not provide well for his family. Clearly, struggling to make ends meet, he would occasionally perform at some RPI event or in the house of Dalit MP to earn some money. This would be in defiance of the code of conduct of the Avahan troupe that forbid hobnobbing with those who participated in ‘decadent parliamentary politics’. For antiparty activities—such as hoping to build a loft in his small dwelling for his son to have some privacy after marriage, dreaming small dreamable dreams—he was expelled from the party and Avahan. He drifted; became an alcoholic. It was at such a low point in his life that the Ramabai Nagar firing happened.
The indiscriminate manner in which Dalits were shot dead—mostly onlookers, including an auto-driver who had was there to see what the commotion was all about—and the realisation that there was no hope for justice seems to have left Vilas further depressed. With a blue, not red, bandana on his head, he hung himself in his modest home in the chawl. The writing was the on wall, in chalk: ‘Down with the police action. I salute the martyred sons of Bhim. Hail Ambedkarite unity. Shahir [poet] Vilas Ghogre.’ And yet they ask, wasn’t his scarf a shade purple?
Given that Dr B.R. Ambedkar was the man who headed the Constitution drafting committee, Dalits tend to invest a lot of faith in the state and its mechanisms; since it is society that inflicts cruelties on them, they look to the state, which is in principle egalitarian and promises equality and protection, with hope. And when that very state—controlled by those elements of society who have a pathological hatred for Dalits; that very apparatus that ensured that Ambedkar could never win a parliamentary election in India—turns their oppressor, Dalits feel doubly betrayed.
In a film where Ambedkar is a constant presence—beginning as a statue; looming in photographs in hovels where he dwarfs the family albums and jostles with images of Shiva or Ganehsa; as a man who instils self-respect among ordinary, working class Dalits; when a municipal sanitation worker in the Deonar dumping ground introduces his caste as ‘Jai-Bhim-wala’; in a song where a shahir imagines Ramabai celebrating the letter announcing the return of her Barrister-Husband; in a Bhima lullaby that puts a child to sleep but awakes consciousness; as the now-indispensable photograph in every political party’s poster, rubbing shoulders with A.B. Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Narendra Modi, Jogendra Kawade, Ramdas Athavale, Sharad Pawar, Sonia Gandhi—we cannot but pause and recall his own association with the Left, both as party and as a realm of ideas. As a Fabian socialist he had early on adopted the slogan ‘Educate, Organise, Agitate’. He founded the Independent Labour Party only to find that the self-anointed Left was not ready to tackle the caste question. At the height of a mill workers strike in Bombay in 1938, he gave a speech, later entitled “Capitalism, Labour and Brahminism”, where he said:
It is notorious that there are many avocations from which a Depressed Class worker is shut out by reason of the fact that he is an untouchable. A notorious case in point is that of the cotton industry. I do not know what happens in other parts of India. But I know that in the Bombay Presidency, the Depressed Classes are shut out from the weaving department in the cotton mills both in Bombay and in Ahmedabad. They can only work in the spinning department. The spinning department is the lowest paid department. The reason why they are excluded from the weaving department is because they are untouchables and because on that account the caste Hindu worker objects to work with them although he does not mind working with the Musalmans.
Ambedkar was calling the Indian Communist Party’s bluff on working class solidarity; they did not find it objectionable that the ‘untouchables’ were kept out of the weaving department since the work involved the use of saliva on the threads, which other castes considered ‘polluting’. Ambedkar founded his first political party, Independent Labour Party, in 1936—the same year he composed his stirring but undelivered speech, “Annihilation of Caste”, where he wanted to ‘dynamite’ the vedas and scriptures that justified caste and untouchability. He realised that for the untouchables to have political and electoral clout, his party must speak not just for the Depressed Classes but the ‘labouring masses’. In “Annihilation of Caste”, Ambedkar argues that ‘The Caste System is not merely division of labour. It is a division of labourers.’
By 1942, Ambdkar was forced to wind up ILP and seek solace in a more self-limiting formation, the Scheduled Castes Federation. Even in Ambedkar’s own time, his Dalit colleagues such as R.B. More who played a key role in the 1927 Mahad satyagraha, preferred to align with the Communist Party, hoping for a broader and more purposive/transformative politics. Yet, it cannot be forgotten that S.A. Dange, one of the founders of the Communist Party of India, worked against Ambedkar’s candidature from Bombay City North constituency in the 1952 parliamentary election. Dange’s grouse was that Ambedkar was for ‘separatist’ politics, and that he favoured not just separate electorates for the Scheduled Castes but also for the Muslims; and that he suggested Kashmir could be divided. The Communist Party put out a pamphlet accusing Ambedkar of being antinational and allegedly asked its cadre to cast blank votes for the reserved-seat candidate in the dual-member constituency.  According to Dhananjay Keer, Ambedkar’s biographer, ‘more than 50,000 votes which were to be cast for the reserved seat, were purposely wasted.’ In fact, after his defeat to the Congress candidate Narayan Sadoba Kajrolkar (Ambedkar’s former personal assistant), Ambedkar blamed the machinations of Dange for his defeat. Dange too lost in the 1952 election, but his larger purpose seems to have been to ensure the defeat of Ambedkar.
Watching JBC and ruminating over the fate of Vilas Ghogre offers us this moment to reflect on Ambedkar’s troubled relationship with the Left and the Left’s casual approach to him as someone who colluded with the state. At a time Ambedkar was unsure of making it to the Constituent Assembly, he published a tract called States and Minorities: What are Their Rights and How to Secure them in the Constitution of Free India. I have written elsewhere about how Ambedkar was at his radical Left-leaning best here, advocating a recipe of state socialism, nationalization of key industries, agriculture, insurance etc—an aspect of Ambedkar that is largely ignored today when Dalit thinkers like Chandra Bhan Prasad and forums like DICCI claim him selectively as an advocate of capitalism and free market.
The clumsiness with which the communist movement, which hardly has a base in today’s Mumbai, dealt with Vilas Ghogre has an echo in how the communists had dealt with Ambedkar; and how they continue to deal with caste. Anand Patwardhan’s film bears witness to the decline of both communism and radical Dalit politics in Maharashtra. Patwardhan, throughout the film, juxtaposes images and scenes with only the occasional editorialising. The viewers, depending on their vantage point, are asked to draw their conclusions. So watching the film twice—the first time in Jawaharlal Nerhu University with a participatory crowd that sighed and clapped and laughed and applauded; and the second time at a screening organised by Navayana at the India Habitat Centre where the anaemic audience was muted and dull—I drew my own conclusions.
At Navayana, when I published Dalit Panther founder Namdeo Dhasal’s poetry in 2007, impeccably translated by Dilip Chitre, I of course knew of his dalliance with the Shiv Sena and that he wrote a column for the Sena mouthpiece Saamana. I also knew about Namdeo having shared the dais with the chief of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, K.S. Sudarshan, in 2006. Both Dilip and I, back then, refused to reckon with the magnitude of the issue in this interview to Shyama Haldar of Tehelka. And I used to console myself saying, well, the same people who make such a fuss about Namdeo easily forget that Rahul Dravid spoke on an RSS/Panchjanya platform on the occasion of Golwalkar centenary in 2007 in Nagpur, that too when he was captain of the Indian cricket team. When Dravid retired recently, and there was an avalanche of articles appraising him, none seemed to remember that he was on stage in a tracksuit along with chaddi-clad Sanghis ostensibly holding forth on the benefits of surya-namaskara.
But nothing—nothing—had prepared me for the sight of Dhasal seated on a platform and looking calmly at the venom-spewing Bal Thackeray saying that human rights activists who defend the rights of ‘the circumcised lot’ should be shot down ‘with a sten gun’, and that we could deal later with the consequences of inquiry commissions, courts and cases. Namdeo’s wife Mallika, a poet herself, is Muslim; and is the daughter of communist balladeer Amar Sheikh. Worse, as the credits for the film roll, we see Ambedkar’s statue being desecrated by Narendra Modi with a garland. Strangely, this was/is not protested with the vehemence it demands—though in a democracy we cannot stop Modi from doing so. That made me also think of the pitiable and helpless state to which a person-as-statue can be reduced—become such an easy target of affection and ridicule at the same time. By the time of the 2009 parliamentary election, even Ramabai Nagar residents seemed to forget if the Congress or BJP–Shiv Sena combine was in power in 1997; justice eludes the 1997 victims but JBC shows how a brand new statue is installed and inaugurated by chief minister Ashok Chavan, legitimized by RPI-Jogendra Kawade’s sanctioning presence. Parallel to this, the BJP–Sena forces boldly enter what Patwardhan’s captions announce was the once-‘secular’ fort of Ramabai Nagar. Who better to turn to than Dhasal (2006) to frame this relationship with Babasaheb’s statue?
You detested idolatry.
You didn’t allow your followers to hero-worship you.
I’ve committed this crime after you were gone.
I couldn’t do without writing
The poetry of your achievement.
Babasaheb, I bow my head before you.
I’m ready to suffer for a lifetime
Any punishment you award me.
In archaic poetry, one has come across many
Who turned cursed humans back into their original form.
By suffering the punishment given by you
My life shall become pristine again.
The latter half of the film tracks the new hope on the horizon, Kabir Kala Manch and its troupe of singers/performers, with Sheetal Sathe’s haunting voice still buzzing in one’s head. Visceral lyrics laced with stark music attack everything from hindutva to Lavasa (the Rs 1,40000-crore mega-city project near Pune) to fairness creams. They are the true legatees of Vilas Ghogre—fusing Ambedkarism with radical Left. This heady mixture was perhaps too much to take for a state that was quick to label the spontaneous anti-Khairlanji protests of 2006 as naxal-sponsored. KKM was branded as potentially naxalite-inspired and during the making of JBC, one of the troupe members, Dhavala Dhengle, was arrested. Now, all members of KKM are on the run, and pliant journalists at Indian Express oblige when the state’s Anti Terrorism Squad offers an ‘exclusive’ series of planted stories that say Sheetal Sathe is wanted for Maoist links; how some members of KKM were part of ‘Cell A’ that conducted ‘programmes like street plays in various slums’; and how certain members of ‘Cell B’ worked in colleges. Yet another report talks of how a naxal outfit conducted ‘a 15-day study camp in the city’. All these are recent, April-datelined reports; and one feels that JBC’s regular screenings across Mumbai and India, and the fact that the most audiences feel a spontaneous affinity with what KKM stands for, is leading the police to paint them into a corner. Members of KKM have been forced to go underground.
However, while there was a cry for justice for Binayak Sen—the Free Binayak campaign that rang out from the basement of Alliance Francaise in Delhi to poster campaigns to online petitions to media debates—this does not happen when Dalits are similarly persecuted. Around the same time as Sen, Dalit activist and editor of Vidrohi magazine, Sudhir Dhawale, was arrested on charges of being a naxalite—he was returning home after addressing an Ambedkar-Phule Sahitya Sammelan in Wardha. That was in January 2010. He is still languishing in the Nagpur jail on charges of sedition. The campaign for his release is muted; India’s upper classes reserved their passion for a Sen, not Dhawale. In another but related context, Telugu Dalit-feminist writer and a former ML activist, Gogu Shyamala, says: ‘While the police would think twice before killing a landowner’s son, Dalits working in the party were under constant threat of being slain in fake encounters. Every time an upper-caste comrade was caught by the police, the party held press conferences and bandhs. But when Dalits were arrested… there was silence.’ One can only hope that JBC rouses its audience to seek justice for KKM and demand that we ‘Free Sheetal Sathe’s Voice’.
JBC also sheds light casually on the idiocies and prejudices of the Parashuram-worshipping chitpavan brahmins who are slaves to myth and seek to reclaim the axe, and bloodthirsty marathas who happily make fools of themselves in contrast to Dalit children of Ambedkarite reason with names like Pradnya and Samata, who sing songs against superstition. It also shows us, in passing, how ignorant and arrogant India’s reservation-hating Dalit-hating brahminical classes are as they sip Barista Lavazza coffee; just as it equally lightly tells us how, as one Dalit singer puts it in the course of the film, the best artists, writers, poets and singers come from among Dalits. Patwardhan does all this without a voiceover; without heavy-handed didacticism; without ‘expert’ comments. He even lets us peek into the sometimes silly/arrogant question he poses from behind the camera—like when he asks a Dalit woman clad in beautiful red cotton sari with gold zari, whose husband was hacked by the marathas, a woman who has seen a lot of tragedy, ‘how come you look so composed and do not really seem to be grieving?’; to which she gives a fitting reply, and wipes a tear away with her sari’s end.
 In the 1952 and 1957 parliamentary elections, there were 83 dual-member parliamentary constituencies that elected two persons—one from the Scheduled Caste/Tribe and one from the general population. In 1957, when V.V. Giri, future president, lost to a Scheduled Tribe candidate, it jolted savarna arrogance—Dalit/Adivasis could potentially win both seats. Giri went to court to abolish such constituencies. Though the courts threw out Giri’s appeal, parliament passed the Double Member Constituency (Abolition) Act 1962.
S. Anand is the publisher of Navayana. This piece first appeared on the the official blog of Pratilipi Books