Prof. P. Kesava Kumar
Bojja Tharakam (1939-2016), a Dalit leader of high eminence, passed away on 17th September 2016. He was a well-known Dalit leader with multiple facets to his personality. He left his mark on most of the democratic struggles of Telugu society in post independence India. He was a people’s leader, civil rights activist, advocate, organizer, writer, poet and ideologue of democratic struggles. His activism did not remain confined to either of the dominant streams of his times – Marxism inspired revolutionary struggles or Dalit movement. He traversed both with unparalleled ease and sense of purpose. He has been critical of Marxism for its caste blindness but he did not undermine either of the struggles. Instead, he brought credence to both.
He was born in a village in Konaseema of coastal Andhra in an Ambedkarite family in 1939. His father, Bojja Appala Swamy, was a first generation dalit leader in independent India and was responsible for establishing Ambedkar-led Scheduled Castes Federation in 1942 and had been elected as a Member of Legislative Assembly in the 1950s.
Educate, Agitate and Organize
Tharakam was an active student leader and completed his graduation in Law. He started practicing law from late 1960s to late 1970s in Nizamabad and engaged in a wide range of struggles by organizing Rythu Coolie Sangham and Ambedkar Yuvajana Sangham. He was arrested during emergency and imprisoned for his public activism on various issues of the people. Later he shifted to Hyderabad and started practising in the High Court and was appointed as Public Prosecutor of the Administrative Tribunal. Later, in protest against the Karamchedu massacre, he resigned from this post and continued as senior advocate by taking up the cases of the people.
He was the founder vice-president of Andhra Pradesh Civil Liberties Committee (APCLC) and a member of Revolutionary Writers Association (Virasam). Though he was active in Marxist leaning organizations, he never deviated from the core of Ambedkarism. After the Karamchedu massacre, Telugu society had witnessed the strong assertion of Dalits and formed an autonomous Dalit organization by ideologically differentiating itself from Marxist politics. In the formation of Dalita Mahasabha in 1985, along with another prominent dalit leader Kathi Padma Rao, he was the founder president of that organization. He took up the Karamchedu case. The Dalita Maha Sabha (1985-1991) made a creative intervention in Telugu society and consequently changed the political discourse. He then became the state convener for Chunduru Struggle Committee (1991).The political mobilization of Dalits resulted in the formation of Bahujan Samaj Party in A.P. and he was the founder secretary from 1990-1994. He came out of the BSP as a protest against the party for its alliance with BJP in Uttar Pradesh. He started reviving Republican Party of India in A.P and came out of it after Ramdas Athawale’s siding with BJP.
His life was spent in writing fact-finding reports, organizing press meets, public meetings and fighting for justice in the courts. He believed in the philosophy of questioning the social system and state machinery rather than petitioning to them. It is clear that Tharakam had established credibility with his commitment to a wide range of issues of the people and a threshold for democratic struggles. He reached the people through his writings on various issues. In Telugu society, public life was marked by ideological confrontation between left and dalit politics. Many intellectuals and writers came out of the fold of left politics with the emergence of dalit politics from late eighties. But Tharakam was an exception to this trend. He had never deviated from the philosophy and practice of Ambedkarism and viewed every struggle from the Ambedkarite lens. His struggles and writings are a testimony to this. His criticism against revolutionary left is constructive and anticipated support for dalit issues. His work Kulam-Vargam (Caste- Class, 1996) ideologically clarifies his position on both caste and class. Apart from his literary writings Nadiputtina Gonthuka (The Voice That Gave Birth to the River,1983), Nalage Godavari (The Godavari is Like Me, 2000) and Panchatantram (2012), his special tracts Nela-Nagali-Mudeddulu (Land, Plough and Three Oxen, 2008), Dalitulu-Rajyam (Dalits and the State, 2008), Constitution and the Coup D’ Etat (2000) provides specific theoretical approach to key issues. In other words, we may find distinct approach of Tharakam in understanding society and polity.
Dalit Labourer as Third Bull
Tharakam’s Nela-Nagali-Mudeddulu (Land, Plough and Three Oxen) is about relations in the feudal system and exploitation of labour. It explains the master and slave relationsship. Here the third bull symbolically represents the Paleru (bonded labourer)/Jeetagadu (wage labourer). This is a story set in Indian agrarian society and deals with how the labourer is reduced to a beast. In the feudal set up, the labourer does not have any rights or freedom other than working for the landlord. The landlord has control over the land. Power and status has an invariable relationship with land. The landlord, social system and state machinery collectively operate to maintain the status quo in social relations. It depicts a condition of economic drudgery and mental slavery which is rooted in the world view of feudal Brahminical system. When the labourer realizes that he is a human and that awareness leads to struggle. It is an impossibility as imagination is etched in the feudal world view. The political economy of agrarian society is depicted in an impressive manner in the form of a story in this book. This is a new genre in literature informed by specificities of political economy.
State, Constitution, and Dalit Movement
Dalitulu-Rajyam (Dalits and the State, 2008) depicts the evolution of the Indian state and marginalization of dalits. This book is continued in the above said genre and explains how dalits were kept out of politics and the purview of the state. In this book, he explains the origin and nature of the state and its sustenance in protecting the interests of the ruling class/caste by maintaining the status quo of dalits. The state is structured in such a way that it controls the anger and aspirations of dalits against the ruling class/caste and state. Though the welfare state in modern times came up with egalitarian principles to uphold the dignity of the oppressed, the caste structure and its value system does not allow the state to be a welfare state based on these principles. He stretched this logic in Constitution and the Coup D’ Etat, which was written in the context of Hindutva’s design to review the Indian constitution. Though the state is based on the constitution drafted by Ambedkar it was escaping from its role of equalizer, modernizer and liberator of the masses of the country, it was checked by the struggles of the country. The conservative Hindutva ruling classes felt the struggles of the oppressed are a threat to the hegemony. To control the masses and to continue their hegemony, they thought of changing the constitution to suit their interests. By foreseeing this evil intention of Hindutva forces, Tharakam argued that ‘we have to protect this constitution because it promises justice, liberty, equality and fraternity. We have to save the constitution because it guarantees the celebrated fundamental freedoms. We have to guard the constitution because it assures a welfare state.’ Tharakam maintains that if the oppressed people won’t fight against injustice, the state will remain undemocratic and will be monopolized by ruling class/caste.
Literature as a Medium
Tharakam was a voracious reader and evaluated literature from a dalit perspective. He took literature as an organized activity in making people conscious. In the seventies, he identified with the Revolutionary Writers Association (Virasam) and in the eighties he had organized All India Dalit Writers conference with the participation of around a thousand writers. In the nineties, under his editorship, Nalupu initiated the alternative cultural discourse. Tharakam’s Nadi Puuttina Gonthuka is a poetry book written in the context of Emergency. We can see a tone of angry young man raising his voice against the authoritarian state. Through his poetry he questioned the hypocrisy of Gandhian politics. ‘Oh! Mahatma, have you ever lived with dalits and had a real feel of suffering of dalits?’ from Naalage Godari, his later collection of poetry. To portray the larger and complex social reality, he chose the literary form of the novel. Tharakam’s novel Panchatantram illustrates the problem of dalits in the background of caste and class relations in a Coastal Andhra village. Viswanath is a landlord of a village and Suranna works as his Paleru (labourer). The sexual relationship between Suranna and Lakshmi, daughter of Viswanath, leads to the killing of Suranna. Suranna’s father too was killed for making an attempt to complain against the landlord. The story ends with the struggles of resistance of young Suranna who was born illicitly to Lakshmi and Suranna.
This novel depicts the cruel face of caste in India in ordinary situations. Land, power, and status are with the landlord. Rules of social system, and state machinery is subordinated under the upper caste landlord. Dalits have no freedom in situations of everyday life. Any resistance to the authority of the landlord was crushed ruthlessly and the institutions of state were used in their favour. This authority was later carried by Dattu, grandson of Viswanath. This casteist young man killed those who contested him (Ganganna, a dalit boy for contesting against him in school elections, and Gowri, a dalit girl raped and killed by him). In both cases, the son of landlord escaped from the cases and on other attempts to implicate Suranna, rebellious young dalit man (illegitimate son of Gowri) who is the force behind Dalit victims. Suranna’s struggle has no strength against the manipulation of the police, courts and doctors by the landlord but Suranna stands as a moral force in this novel. The novel ends with the killing of the landlord Viswanath in the dark by Sathemma, another victim of Viswanath. The novel not only depicts the discrimination and helplessness of dalits but also the resistance of dalits against the landlord in every occasion. In a nutshell, the novel narrates the feudal power and how the structures of village and of state succumb to the power of caste and class. Tharakam believes that this situation has to be changed for a democratic society. The change was made possible only through the struggles of the oppressed in various forms.
Caste or Class
Kulam-Vargam is a text by Tharakam that engages with the questions of significance of caste and class in transforming Indian Society. This political text has been written in a form of a story to reach the ordinary readers. This has its historical significance where the ideological differences widened within democratic struggles. This makes clear the differences between movements of radical left and dalits in understanding Indian social reality. It sets the programme for both the camps in the reconstruction of Indian society. In India, caste is the foundation on which society is organized. Caste alone determines the economic, social, political and cultural status of the people. He posed a question – how can caste and class be abolished simultaneously? Both caste and class struggles are constituents of the revolution. The abolition of caste is as revolutionary as classlessness. Caste struggle is a mental-material revolution, while the focus of a class struggle tends to be limited to materialistic considerations. In both Srikakulam and Telangana armed struggles, the communist party did not address the caste issue. The upper caste leadership of the communist party failed to take up the issue of caste against the interests of their own castes. He believes that so long as the leadership remains in the hands of upper castes, no attempt will be made to bring about fundamental changes. Tharakam believes that annihilation of caste and class is an immediate political necessity. It is the responsibility of both Dalit and Marxist struggles, otherwise both will not sustain themselves. In the process of struggle, dialogue between these groups is inevitable. It needs conviction and energy to overcome immediate hurdles. Tharakam had both conviction and energy in the dream of realizing social revolution.
He worked for the struggles of the people his entire life. He was simultaneously involved in the revolutionary left struggles and dalit struggles. He was consistent and firm in his conviction of the political ideology of liberation of the oppressed. The organizational structures were never a constraints for him. He valued every effort and struggle of the people, whatever may be the form or political affiliation. He was in the forefront of all the democratic struggles of Telugu society. His politics had a large canvas. He was directly and indirectly part of all the people’s struggles for a period of five decades. This includes both class and caste struggles- land struggles, Beedi workers struggles, political prisoners, fake encounters, struggles against Special Economic Zones, struggles against SC/ST atrocities, specific struggles against Padirikuppam, Karamchedu, Chunduru, Nirukonda, Timmasamudram, Laximpeta massacres. He expressed his political position through his speeches and write ups. It bears a distinctive dalit point of view. Tharakam was not confined to the political struggles and extended himself to the literary and cultural domains. He believed that politics has to be based on strong social and cultural foundations. He wrote poetry, novels, poetic prose and essays. For him, literary writing is a political necessity. To express himself and to reach people, he invented a new political genre that fused social/political theory and literature. The liberation of the oppressed is the underlying theme of all his writings. His politics and writings were set against the ruling caste-ruling class and state. Tharakam is an organic intellectual in the Gramscian sense. He has organized the oppressed social groups (dalits) keeping them in the forefront, and felt the need for having alliances with other groups against the dominant ruling caste/class hegemony and state.
In establishing the hegemony of the ordinary people, Tharakam believed in the ideology of Ambedkar as a political ideology to bring about a just social order. All his speeches and writings reflect the essence of Ambedkarite thought. He helped ordinary public understand Ambedkar in simple terms. He has translated some of the volumes of Ambedkar’s writings and formed the ‘Ambedkar Memorial Trust’. Rather than reproducing Ambedkar, he has creatively interpreted Ambedkar to suit the contemporary situations. He negotiated with Marxists from his Ambedkarite position. He made his position clear that without understanding caste, it is difficult to have a successful revolution. Both Marxist movements and Dalit movements have to work simultaneously for annihilation of caste and class. Tharakam’s contribution is that he opens up the category of dalit as a broad political category that contains the spirit of rebellion against domination. We can see a conscious effort on his part from the time of Dalita Mahasabha until his last breath.
The life of Tharakam was devoted to democratic struggles having connections to diverse ideological positions and organizations. He participated in all the democratic struggles of our society. It is difficult to fill the gap left by Tharakam, especially to regain such a rich cultural past of democratic struggles and the way he mediated contesting ideological positions in the liberation of the oppressed. The strength of Tharakam lies in moving beyond the dichotomy of Marxism and Ambedkarism. He had created a larger ideological framework for dalit liberation through his relentless engagement in public struggles which have economic as well as cultural dimensions. Dalit politics in Telugu society entered into a new phase in which assertion of exclusive identity becomes a means for self-recognition, and it is important to celebrate the historically and culturally marginalized identity to achieve self-affirmation. Unfortunately dalit politics during this phase had avoided economic and cultural issues. It had not only narrowed the scope of politics but also failed to carry out multi-dimensional struggles. The dalit mobilization had become self-congratulatory without focusing on suffering. Due to lack of strong political foundations, this dalit identity has not only become authoritarian but also loses on liberatory content of dalit struggles of previous decades. The direction of dalit movement has changed. There is no voice of protest and the new dalit leadership has become subordinate to the power of ruling castes. This kind of situation undermines dalit politics. It becomes a suicidal situation for dalit politics. One thing is clear that the generation of Tharakam had never bowed down to these ruling communities/classes and wagd a relentless fight against the undemocratic system. He never compromised with the ruling system and lived with honesty. When the political struggles of dalits were at a low phase, he channelized his energies to literature. He never took retirement from public life and waged consistent struggle against oppressive Brahminical society and undemocratic state. Tharakam has opened up the space for dalit politics by widening the dalit identity. His struggle was for dignity, political power, rights, and his fight was against the subordination to the centres of power.
Dr. P. Kesava Kumar is a writer and professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Delhi. He received Ph.D. degree from University of Hyderabad. He authored ‘Political Philosophy of Ambedkar: An Inquiry into the Theoretical Foundations of the Dalit movement’, ‘Jiddu Krishnamurti: A Critical study of Tradition and Revolution and Dalita Vudhyamam: Velugu Needalu (Compilation of essays on Dalit Movement in Telugu).
He regularly writes on issues relating to literary and cultural politics of dalits. He maintains a blog untouchablespring.blogspot.com~