(This open letter is her response to Chinmaya Mahanand’s earlier letter to her)
Dear friend Chinmay,
I apologize for the delayed response. As you know I was very weak and unwell after the 16-day long hunger strike and under medication. Still, I don’t feel completely well in terms of my health I attempt to write this considering the significance of our ongoing debate. At the outset itself, I would want to make one thing clear. My intention behind writing this has nothing to do with providing prompt and complete responses to all the questions you raised earlier. Nor do I, in my good senses, aspire to wrap up the larger debate by giving a comprehensive response here. Rather, my sole motive is to inquire into the possibility of a more meaningful and real discussion among the left and Ambedkarite activists and movements. I am searching for a truthful and honest space of debate between the two forces as the country in which we live, its constitution and the democratic structure are under attack from a fascist, Sanghi government. And I believe there is a need for all of us, the poor, the workers, the oppressed, the progressive intellectual class and the entire peace-loving people to resist this attack together.
Let me cite an experience I had and the questions it posed to me. During the rally we had organized to commemorate the Parinirvan Day of Dr. Ambedkar in JNU, I was shouting the slogans of “Jai Jai Jai Jai Bheem, Birsa-Phule-Ambedkar” followed by the one with “Marx-Lenin-Bhagat Singh”. Suddenly I realized that with the latter slogan a number of students fell silent. This made me think throughout that night and many questions popped in my mind. Is it true that the leaders of some Dalit-Ambedkarite organizations would not even want to engage with the legacy of Marx, Lenin and Bhagat Singh? Didn’t Ambedkar talk against capitalism and for the working classes? Or did Bhagat Singh, who represents the most inspiring strain of Marxism in India, not talk about the issue of caste discrimination by calling the Dalit community as the sleeping lion and urge them to rise and fight? You said that you respect Marx, Lenin and Mao. But when you talked about the ‘caste-class enemies’ I felt that you have mentioned the category of class without identifying what it entails. The non-Dalit, non-OBC toiling masses are not ‘caste-class enemies’ of the Dalit movement. Moreover without the liberation of the Dalits and women the liberation of these labourers is not possible. Without the annihilation of caste, one cannot even imagine the possibility of a revolution in India.
In the grounded struggles at the grassroots, the issues of caste and class do not dwell in separate realms. There class is not merely an economic category and caste is not a social one alone. I can clearly understand this simply by looking at the experience of my party, the CPIML. In my birthplace, in Bhojpur, the ML movement sprouted among the landless agricultural labourers, the majority of whom belonged to the Dalit, Maha-Dalit communities or other backward castes. The first fight was to be fought for the dignity and respect of Dalit women, against the casteist-patriarchal rituals like ‘doli-pratha’, which ensured that the Dalit brides were raped by the landlords on the first night of their marriage. Recently, in the Cobrapost interview of the leaders of the RanvirSena revealed that they considered the ML movement to have denied them of their feudal caste ‘honor’. Then the gang rapes and genocide that happened at Bathani Tola were in fact the retaliatory ‘honor killings’ from their side in order to ‘punish’ the poor (which included Dalits, other backward castes and Muslims) for their crime of ‘dishonoring’ the feudal social structure.
Bela Bhatia in an article written in the EPW (‘Justice Not Vengeance: The Bathani Tola Massacre and the Ranbeer Sena in Bihar’, special article, EPW, September 21, 2013 Vol XlVIII No. 38) discusses in detail the ML movement in the region. While reading it one can get a sense of the circumstances that produced comrades like Ram Naresh Ram and Jagdish Master, the transformations the ML movement brought about there and the reasons for which the Dalit and the poor stand by the party even today. Bela describes an anecdote in which a labourer named Dipa Mushar demanded for her salary for one whole year and to punish this ‘audacity’ the landlords abducted her. Bela went on to say that the feudal lords had forgotten that the ‘times have changed’ and describes how the ML party rescues her from captivity by blocking the main road. The Dalit workers could not sit on a bed, the Dalit brides had to get down their palanquins at the village of the feudal lords and walk the rest of the way, Dalit women getting raped by the landlords were as common as it was horrid, and the rapist sons of the landlords were extolled by their fathers as the ‘bulls we reared’. The list of caste atrocities committed over the landless agricultural labourers Bela Bhatia mentions as examples in her piece is followed by the path-breaking story of how the ML movement challenged this brutal feudal order in Bhojpur. It is clear from the above discussion that fighting for labour and land and building up an organization towards that end is not merely an ‘economic’ matter but a battle for social power and dignity and honor against the feudal forces. Likewise, fighting against the ‘dolipratha’ or ‘ghatiya (bed) pratha’ was an integral part of the class struggle.
In the words of Babasaheb Ambedkar “..From the 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life full of internal contradictions. We will be politically equal but in social and economic spheres we will be ridden with inequality. In politics, we will adopt the ‘one vote for one person’ and ‘one vote, one value’ principles. But, while through our economy, we will be rejecting the same principle of one vote, one value. How long will we live this life of internal contradictions?” (Ambedkar, excerpted from the speech given at the Constituent Assembly on the occasion of the passing of the constitution)
In the decade 1970-80, the oppressed castes did not even receive the political rights as mentioned by Ambedkar above owing to the internal contradictions of our system. Yet, the same contradictions gave birth to the CPIML there. In 1967, when Comrade Ram Naresh Ram stood for the state assembly elections from CPIM, he and his comrades were brutally beaten up for this ‘crime’. Afterwards, Com. Ram Naresh Ram decided to organize the ML party in the region and worked hard towards its strengthening. Years later, when Com. Rameshwar Prasad from the CPIML was elected from Ara in the Lok Sabha election in 1989, to curb this ‘audacity’ and ‘teach a lesson’ to those who voted for him, 22 people were murdered by the feudal goons. Again in 1995 when Comrades Ram Naresh Ram and Rameshwar Prasad got elected from Sahar and Sandesh respectively to take revenge for the lost ‘feudal honor’ they conducted the Bathani Tola massacre. One thing is clear from these incidents: the multi-pronged movement of the CPIML, at the political, economic and social levels, disturb the feudal forces like a thorn in their seats. In this movement, the questions regarding the caste and class cannot be mechanically severed from each other as in a human body the bones, the flesh and the internal organs cannot be understood in their singularity or in mutual contradiction. Its only when they work in tandem, the ‘body’ assumes life.
Let’s consider another example. For the past few years, in Bihar and Punjab, the Dalit agricultural labourers with the leadership of CPIML are waging a struggle for residential land. As we know, some social-democratic left groups and some theorists of ‘identity politics’ treat this issue of residential land as a purely economic matter. In fact it has some other dimensions as well. For instance in Bihar even today, when a Dalit gains ‘patta’ or legal ownership in paper over a land, she cannot occupy it in person. The ML mobilizes people, plants the red flag there and makes sure she enters and lives in the land. In certain instances, the feudal lords try and evict these Dalit families from their lands by destroying whatever little stuff they have and burning their houses down, at times with them. ML fights such atrocities and in one such confrontation in Siwan the MLA of the party Com. Satyadev Ram and another Com. Amarjeet Kushwaha was jailed when he tried to reclaim the land for a Dalit family and the culprits roam free. When the agricultural labourers do not own any land for housing they are forced to live on the land of the landlord. This in turn take away from them their ‘freedom as laborers to choose a different employer if need be’ and makes them ‘bonded laborers’ who are bound to the landlord and his land because, their own dwelling is in that land. The women workers bear the brunt of this even more. As they don’t have their own land they are forced to go to defecate in the land of the landlord in which they live. This makes them vulnerable to an added fear of sexual harassment and rape from the landlord. Precisely because of this, in the struggles for residential land, both in Punjab and Bihar women take part in huge numbers.
It is important to add here that the other communist parties in India have not understood the question of caste and class in this manner. A reason for this is that these parties did not bring those groups standing at the farthest margins of our society like the agricultural labourers to the centre stage of their activity by making them the political priority in their respective party lines. Whether in Tamil Nadu or in Bihar, in Bengal or in Kerala, these parties primarily depended upon other classes and political parties of other classes and did not heed to the assertions of the agricultural labouring class. Whereas the CPIML upheld the political assertions of this class and made this class as the axis of Indian revolution. Hence, Com. Vinod Mishra proclaimed “if anyone mocks our party by calling it the party of Dalits, for us it is an honor. We are the party of the worst oppressed in the society and this should be the mark of any communist party”. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89sJGHEnEss.)
You said that in a communist party the ‘agency’ of activists like me is the agency of Manu because the leadership of the party is full of upper caste people who are ultimately the class-caste enemies of the Dalits and the cadres who fall victims to the violence, murder and genocide and do the legwork for the party are Dalit-Bahujans. This understanding does not seem right to me, friend. Let me try and explain why. First of all, we need to think why those who born in the upper castes and classes come to the communist party. Frederic Engels was a capitalist as we all know. Yet, today he is not known as a capitalist enemy of the working class but as a companion and co-thinker or Karl Marx who thought and worked towards the liberation of the working classes. Since the ML is not even in power in any states, being the leader of the party amounts to living a difficult life, full of dangers of attack or even death. Why did these leaders decide not to join any party in power and enjoy the fruits of power and to join the ML instead? Didn’t Babasaheb say ‘I was born in the Hindu religion indeed, but do not want to die in it’? Likewise, when a person born to the upper castes decide against living and dying as a part and representative of the brahmanical and casteist order, they come and join the progressive and revolutionary movements and give their lives to it. And I consider such people to be worthy of respect.
You claimed that only the Dalits and people from Backward Castes sacrifice their lives and become martyrs. I want to utter some names to you here. In Tinsukia, Assam, comrades Anil Baruah and Gangaram Kohl sacrificed their lives. In Jharkhand, Com. Prameshwar Munda and the then MLA of the CPIML Com. Mahendra Singh were murdered. In Begusarai, Bihar, recently three comrades were murdered brutally namely Mahesh Ram, Ram Pravesh Ram and Garo Paswan and in Purnia Com. Brijesh Mohan Thakur was murdered when he went there for party work. In the decade of 1990, when comrades Chandrashekhar and Shyam Narayan were murdered in Siwan, Com. Mani Singh was killed in Rohtas. In Jehanabad, Com. Shah Chand was jailed for 13 years under fake charges of TADA for fighting for poor farmers and was killed while still in the jail. In the same case, comrades Tribhuvan Sharma, Laxman Sahu, Jagadish Yadav, Arvind Choudhury and 6 more comrades are still languishing in the jail. (http://cpiml.org/liberation/december-2014/comrade-shah-chand-epitome-of-human-warmth-and-communist-commitment?cat=152).
After suffering from severe violence in jail, Com. Nagbhushan Patnaik never recovered fully. After being shot at by the police, Com. Vinod Mishra, the former General Secretary of the ML had to live with the repercussions of it for the rest of his life. The first General Secretary of the CPIML Com. Charu Majumdar was tortured and killed in police custody. Comrade Johar who was the second General Secretary of our party was killed in a village named Bahuara in Bhojpur, near my own village. During the period comrades Sheela and Lahiri became martyrs and later in the 2000s comrades Manju Devi and Jharo Devi were killed by the Ranvir Sena. I still remember the founder of the party in Bhojpur and the Polit Bureau member comrade Ram Naresh Ram used to prefer to live in the Mushar village even when he was an MLA and used to be very happy and satisfied with whatever food available there whether rats or दोहना. This list will be very long; it has endless number of names. I believe that all of them should be remembered for what they did with their lives irrespective of the class or caste they were born into. They all united with the oppressed – the Dalit, the poor, the women – and learnt from them and lived and died with them. In them I see the ‘new human being’ of whose birth Comrade Charu Majumdar proclaimed about. And these comrades and their legacy motivate the agency of a number of young activists including me.
I also see another group of people and compare them with our martyr-comrades; those who were born to Dalit communities yet follow the brahmanical politics. The killers of our comrades were protected by the ‘leaders of social justice’ in Bihar like Lalu Yadav and Nitish Kumar. The murderer of comrades Chandu and Shyam Narayan Yadav, Shahabuddin was incorporated into the National Executive of the RJD led by Lalu Prasad Yadav. The Cobrapost sting revealed how the murderers of numerous Dalits, the BJP-supported groups roam free in the days of ‘good governance’. The spectrum of candidates who contested the last assembly elections from the Tarari constituency in Bihar reveals significant facts about these parties and their histories of identity politics. Tarari had been the land of struggles of comrades Rama Naresh Ram, Jagdish Master and Rameshwar Yadav; the Bathani Tola massacre took place here. The Lok Janashakti Party of Ram Vilas Paswan whose political claims are based on the ‘Dalit Identity’politics’ had sported Geeta Pandey as its candidate there who happens to be the wife of Sunil Pandey a leader of the Ranvir Sena. Sunil Pandey himself has been the MLA of Tarari from the JD(U). The candidate of the ‘Great-Alliance’ for secularism and social justice Akhilesh Prasad Singh had contested in Tarari before on a Congress ticket. He gave a speech at the time of Brahmeshwar’s death praising him to be a rare leader who would be born only once in 100-200 years. (http://www.telegraphindia.com/1120603/jsp/bihar/story_15563629.jsp)
Another party of the backward groups the Samajwadi Party had Brahmeshwar’s son Indubhushan himself as their candidate. In brief, except for the CPIML every other party had a candidate in Tarari who is related to the RanvirSena. And the poor, Dalit and backward people worked hard and made ML’s candidate comrade Sudama Prasad win after realizing the real identities of those playing the opportunistic games of identity there. They resolutely proclaimed that the real representative of the justice, dignity and respect of the oppressed is the ML there. A line from Faiz comes to me here:
‘ऐसेनादाँभीनथेजाँसेगुज़रनेवाले’…( They’re not so naive, who risk their very lives. )
I have to ask – Vilas Paswan, Udit Raj and Jitan Ram Manjhi betrayed the Dalits who were murdered in all the genocides including the Bathani Tola one by going along with the BJP? Didn’t Ramdas Athawale mocked at the legacy of Babasaheb when he went with the Shiv Sena and the BJP? When the BSP organizes the Brahmin Mahasabha and sends their Brahmin leaders there, does it not violate the ideal of caste annihilation by negotiating with the Brahmin power? I have never come across a communist party that sends its representatives to an atrociously casteist gathering like the Brahmin Mahasabha. I could respect the identity politics of Dalit or other oppressed groups, with debates. But, I fail to understand why a dalit identity party should give any attention, let alone respect to the Brahmin identity. Why shouldn’t the identity of the oppressor also be politically criticised? I want to ask why is it that you or your organization never engages in a critique of these parties and their leaders who shake hands with the brahministic, manuvadi, and exploitative forces. Don’t you see Manu’s agency in the agencies of these leaders? And I wonder how do you manage to see the agents of Manu in the activists of CPIML and AISA instead! CPIML believes in caste annihilation and for the party respect for the oppressed castes and their rights are not just an integral part to class struggle, but the axis of it. Alas, you do not see the ML as a struggling force, rather call it an enemy to such an extent that you are ready to use abusive terms for it!
I want to share another instance with you here from which you can see what the Ambedkarite movement in Bihar that understands the land question there thinks of ML’s politics. Right after the murder of Brahmeshwar Mukhia, the head of the Ranvir Sena, Kanwal Bharti, a well known Dalit writer wrote an article in the light of a news paper report that claimed to have accessed some intelligence information that allegedly accused the CPIML in Bihar having reached some sort of a negotiation with the Ranvir Sena. Upon hearing the responses from the Ambedkarite thinkers from Bihar he changed his position and clarified in another article and I quote- “I receive 3-4 calls every day from Bihar in praise of the article but with dissent on the point regarding ML. They all say in Bihar it’s only the ML that fight for the Dalits, workers and poor. I feel delighted to tell you that these phones came from many of my Dalit friends. Some of them are Class-1 officers and Ambedkarites. They all say that in Bihar the self-proclaimed Dalit political leaders are only brokers in politics. The real fight is fought by the ML. I do not disagree with it a bit. Not even a single Dalit-Bahujan leader uttered a word against Brahmeshwar Mukhia…They are all silent because they do not have the passion in them to sacrifice themselves [for the cause of social justice] against feudalism like Chandrasekhar…” (Kanwal Bharti, ‘the Murder of Brahmeshwar: Some Questions’, Janmat, July, 2012.)
Now lets look into the struggles that happened around the Mandal Commission report, OBC reservations and for social justice. AISA’s commitment towards social justice is evident from the workings of the first AISA-led JNUSU itself. The Deprivation-points system that had been discontinued for the ten years from 1983-93, was reinstated in 1994 after the AISA-led JNUSU fought for it. This drastically changed the demographic nature of the campus by enabling students from diverse backgrounds to enter and study here. AISA led the month-long hunger strike in JNU against the hunger strike by the anti-reservation Youth For Equality and in 2007 AISA won the JNUSU defeating the YFE. In 2008 the OBC reservation in the admission policy was scuttled by the administration by interpreting the ‘cut-off’ in a distorted manner and the OBC seats were re-directed to the unreserved category. The same trick was tried at many universities. AISA-led JNUSU determinedly resisted this move by uncovering the ‘trick’ behind it.
A movement was initiated against the administration on the issue and legally we won the battle at the Supreme Court. This victory became a pivotal point for students from several universities and had a national impact. From 2007 onwards, AISA led JNUSU organized a movement for the sanitation workers and other contract labourers in JNU for their rights. Against manual scavenging and for minimum wages and security measures at work, many battles were fought. Still, you tend to depend upon some Times of India report to malign the ML leader comrade Kavita Krishnan on an issue for which AISA has given the answer more than ten times. You prefer to depend on a TOI report over the article written by comrade Kavita in CPIML’s organ Liberation in 2007. “The mandate for AISA was also a firm rejection of the Youth for Equality’s anti-reservation plank. AISA had through a series of consistent initiatives challenged the Youth for Equality’s slogan of ‘equality’ – a divisive and narrow slogan that essentially denied and defended existing inequalities of caste and class …The election results are a measure of AISA’s success in rallying students around a plank of genuine equality to be achieved by thoroughgoing social transformation, challenging social and economic inequalities… defending reservations against the YFE’s elitist plank of ‘merit’.”
Likewise, from a speech of comrade Vinod Mishra also, you pick a piece randomly and copy-paste it everywhere. In the speech he supports the reservation for the Dalit and backward castes vividly and then goes onto discuss the upper caste ploy in the anti-Mandal agitations where different groups of students were pitted against each other: “some high priests of Brahmanical reaction are desperately trying to cash in” on students’ insecurity about shrinking avenues of education and employment “to take the country back into medieval darkness.” It also states that the “student-youth agitation has taken a negative turn” and “should have spearheaded their movement not against the scheme of 27% reservation for the backwards, but for the recognition of their right to employment.” (Emphasis added)
You argued that the fact that all the leaders from AISA who sat in the recent 16-day long hunger strike hail from Dalit or other backward communities, is proof for the exploitation of these groups happen in the organization. Now, let me make this clear to you if you haven’t noticed it yet. Those who sat in the hunger strike were all leaders of the JNUSU or the current student movement and if all our hunger strikers were from the dalit-backward communities it only means that most of AISA’s leaders who also became the leaders of the JNUSU come from these castes and communities. AISA as an organization and AISA-led JNUSU has participated in numerous hunger strikes: Comrades Sucheta De and Vijay Kumar too have sat on long hunger strikes just like the one in which we all sat including Rama Naga (the Gen. Secretary of the JNUSU), Shweta Raj (AISA JNU-Unit President and Councillor of School of Languages), Anant (former JNUSU VP) and myself (former JNUSU Gen. Secy) along with many other comrades. In 2006, when the JNUSU sat in hunger strike in solidarity with the Narmada Bachao Andolan with Medha Patkar the then JNUSU President Mona Das and AISA leader Awdhesh Tripathi were part of it.
I want to end this on a rather personal note. I am a dalit woman and I have faced oppression as a dalit woman. To break this up for you, as a woman I have faced harassment on the streets, in the bus and I experience the gendered discrimination at various levels that any male activist of BAPSA or AISA does not have to face. Still, we together, stand in solidarity against the violence perpetuated at all women and dalit women in particular. Similarly, Rohit Vemula was no Muslim to have been enraged about the Muzaffarnagar riots and to have raised his voice against communal violence for which he had to give his own life eventually. Did he have the right to fight for the rights of Muslims, even though he wasn’t a Muslim himself? Gail Omvedt, despite being a white-woman of a foreign country decided to work on Ambedkar and should she be allowed to do that? I believe it’s not just our right to voice protest against all kinds of exploitations and discriminations but it’s our responsibility to do so. Trust me; I am not writing this simply as an answer to your questions. Rather I hope everyone who feels the need to synthesis the dreams of Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh would read this; everyone who wants to fight that Hindu Raj about which Ambedkar had warned us; and all those people who find the possibility of a lively and organic dialogue between communist revolutionaries and the Ambedkarites exciting, and see Jai Bhim – Lal Salam as a slogan that we need now. Let me conclude by sharing the Hirawal albums titled ‘Rohit Vemula and Our Movement and ‘For a New India, In the Paths of Ambedkar – Bhagat Singh. https://www.facebook.com/hirawal.pa… https://www.facebook.com/hirawal.patna/videos/1313823008634105/
Jai Bheem. Lal Salaam.
Translated into English by Adra Neelakandan Girija.
Chintu Kumari is a JNU Student, AISA activist and former General Secretary of the JNUSU.