Sunday, 21 November 2010

An Untouchable's Life in Politics

An Untouchable's Life in Politics

In Pursuit of Ambedkar
A rare dalit memoir centred around Ambedkar
Published : January 2010
(Book Excerpt)

Introduction: In Pursuit of Bhagwan Das
S OMETIME IN THE MID-1990'S, I picked up a volume of Ambedkar's speeches from a pavement bookshop in Hyderabad. It was compiled and edited by Bhagwan Das and published by Bheem Patrika, Jalandhar. That was the first time I encountered the work of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. From then on, I wondered about Bhagwan Das and Bheem Patrika.
After a major struggle, in 1999, I managed to order all the available volumes of Ambedkar's writings as published by the Maharashtra state government's education department in the Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches series from Blumoon Books, a dalit bookstore in New Delhi. For good measure, Blumoon added a few selections of essays by Bhagwan Das to make up for the missing government volumes.

After Navayana was founded in 2003, I dug up a little more about Bhagwan Das and his work, and spoke to him on the phone. But it was only after I moved to New Delhi in 2007 that I met him for the first time. He was 80. Through the interactions that followed with him, I realised that well before the Maharashtra government began, in 1979, to publish Ambedkar's writings and speeches, Das had edited, compiled and produced a four-volume Thus Spoke Ambedkar series between 1963 and 1980. It was perhaps the first, professional effort to publish Ambedkar's writings in one place. Crucially, I found out that Das had had direct access to Ambedkar.

Having first met him in Shimla in 1943 at the age of sixteen as a member of the Scheduled Castes Federation, Das worked as a research assistant with Ambedkar in 1955-56 at the latter's residence at Alipur Road, Delhi. Yet the editorial committee that the Maharashtra government put together to oversee its Ambedkar volumes excluded Das and Lahori Ram Balley of Bheem Patrika-men who pioneered the publication of Ambedkar's writings and speeches. As Das, with typical understatement, recalls in his memoir, "Fifteen years after Babasaheb's death, the Maharashtra government decided to edit and publish his writings and speeches and formed a committee for the same under the chairmanship of Vasant Moon. Membership to the committee was limited to Maharashtra's politicians and intellectuals."

An unassuming, self-effacing man, Das does not make much of his association with Ambedkar. Yet, we see that he takes pride in recounting occasional disagreements with the stalwart. Das recalls both in his memoir and in the film that now accompanies this book, that his formal education amounted to nothing more than matriculation when he worked for Ambedkar, who had a clutch of degrees and two doctorates from Columbia University. (It was only in the mid-1970s that Das acquired degrees in Political Science and Law.) Yet, what draws Ambedkar to Das is his command over the English language, and his hunger for books and research.

I met Das several times in 2007 and 2008 with the intention of reissuing a value-added, annotated edition of the four volumes of Thus Spoke Ambedkar (the first of which is being published at the same time as this memoir). He was, however, in no position to write fresh introductions to the volumes. His memory was failing him, and he could recall only about seven or eight defining moments in his life. At the behest of a friend, I decided it was as important to bring out Bhagwan Das' story as it was to reissue his wide-ranging selection of Ambedkar's speeches. On reading his slim memoir, Baba ke Charanon Mein, published in Hindi in 2004, I decided to shoot a series of piece-to-camera interviews-merely as an exercise in keeping a record. Das, however, had just recovered from a serious illness and was suffering bouts of dementia. Yet, for me, it was important that his story-whatever he remembered of it-be rendered to the larger public. A mere reading of his memoir would not suffice; people would have to see and hear Bhagwan Das speak his impeccable English in his clipped accent. They had to fall in love with him and be charmed by him like I was, like the friends I took to meet him were. Hence the DVD that accompanies this book.

As we shot the interviews, Das expressed his desire to travel to Shimla, Nagpur and Ambedkar's Alipur Road residence where he had worked. Though we could not travel to Nagpur, our effort soon grew into a modest documentary feature on Das and his dedicated pursuit of Ambedkar's ideals. Navayana hardly had the funds for such a venture. Given Das' precarious health and fading memory, I could not risk writing a proposal and waiting for funding, but friends pitched in with contributions. After seeing the footage, amateur though it was, the editor of the film, Shikha Sen, refused to charge us. She too was charmed by the man, though piqued by the fact that he would sometimes forget the name of his wife (Rama Devi) or the year of their marriage (1957). But despite his failing memory, he would be alert to the details of his various interactions with Ambedkar. Clearly, here was a man to whom nothing mattered more than his association with Ambedkar. All said, we pieced together a viewable, hour-long film. The biggest compliment we received was that Das liked it.

In post-Independence India, we have hardly any record of the several men and women who played key roles in dalit movements across the country, especially those who donned the roles of the intellectuals and chroniclers of the movement. For instance, Bheem Patrika, the monthly journal founded by LR Balley, celebrated fifty years of existence in 2008. Balley has produced scores of books on the dalit movement and Ambedkar. People like Das and Balley rarely find mention in post-Independence histories of India. They are neither fĂȘted nor remembered. To see Das recount the story of his English, and how he gently underscores the fact that in 1943 when he met Ambedkar in Shimla they spoke to each other in English, reveals to us the unwavering faith many in the dalit movement had in the power of modern education, and especially in the English language. Ambedkar's slogan 'educate, agitate, organise' had clearly inspired Bhagwan Das and many like him.

As a Buddhist, Das was one of the founding members of the World Conference of Religions for Peace, first held in Kyoto in 1969. They subsequently met every four years in various parts of the world.

In August 1983, supported by a coalition of dalit organisations, Bhagwan Das gave a testimony on untouchability before the United Nations Subcommission on Human Rights in Geneva, much against the wishes of the official Indian delegation to the conference. He played a pivotal role in the 1998 International Dalit Convention held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a precursor to the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa.

Despite his many achievements, Bhagwan Das has led a lonely life. His lament is that few in the dalit movement have shown interest in the kind of work he has done. Given that the resource pool of educated dalits with an aptitude for research is rather meagre, especially of dalits who have a felicity with the English language, the chronicling of dalit history has seriously suffered. As someone born in a sweeper community, an 'untouchable among untouchables,' as Das says, he is not very popular among sections of the valmiki community that have been Hinduised under the influence of Gandhi, the Arya Samaj and other Hindu organisations. Das has consistently argued that the notion of 'valmiki' is a fiction (as you shall see in the book and in the film). He musters evidence to convincingly argue that the so-called valmikis were 'lalbegis'.

Bhagwan Das' flat in Munirka, Delhi, has been a mandatory stopover for almost every social historian and anthropologist who has ever worked on the dalit/anticaste movement, from Eleanor Zelliot, Mark Juergensmeyer, Owen Lynch, Marc Gallanter, RK Kshirsagar and Sukhadeo Thorat down to younger scholars like Vijay Prashad, Nicolas Jaoul and Maren Bellwinke-Schempp. He has been a storehouse of insight and information, generous with his time and knowledge for anybody willing to stop by and ask.

Navayana is proud to present the results of its pursuit of Bhagwan Das.
Excerpt: In Pursuit of Ambedkar
I WAS BORN INTO AN UNTOUCHABLE FAMILY in Jutogh Cantonment, in Shimla, the modern-day capital of the state of Himachal Pradesh, on 23 April 1927. My father, whom we called Abba, belonged to a well-off family-my grandfather was a contractor
who supplied cooks, cleaners, waiters, etc to the British Army. His work enabled him to own property in Jutogh, in Dera Bassi (near Ambala) and in Lucknow. Though I never saw him, I heard much about him. His name was Tota and he had four sons: the eldest was Dafi, followed by Shankar, then my Abba and Taaru.

My father's name was Ramditta/ Ramdutta-in government records, we find both names in English, Urdu and Hindi. Of the four brothers, my father and Shankar had Hinduised names, and both showed an inclination for Hindu ways, probably as a result of the religion's increasing influence at the time. Untouchables were otherwise usually required to have names that disclosed their 'low' caste and untouchable status. Our neighbours, for instance, had names like Meeria, Fakiria, Rachna, Jagga, Sadhu, Tilaku, Gainda-names that reflected the ethos of the period. Hindus then were less scared of their enemies than of the touch or even the shadow of an untouchable, which, they believed, would make them 'impure'. Therefore, everything from names to clothing was dictated by caste Hindus to make it easy to recognise untouchables and set them apart.

Though my grandfather tried to give all his sons an education, only Shankar and my father showed an aptitude for studies. The family lived in the cantonment in Lucknow, but there was tremendous discrimination against untouchables in Uttar Pradesh, then known as United Provinces. The only way to get by was to learn a few English phrases. Since my eldest uncle lived with an English family, he spoke the language well, but was the only one in the family who could. My father tried learning English and Urdu from books but had a better grasp of Urdu.

After my grandfather's death, my eldest uncle, Dafi, inherited his post; the other brothers sought jobs elsewhere. My father came to Jutogh. He married into a mazhabi Sikh farming family from a village near Dera Bassi. A few years later, however, his wife died. My uncle Dafi then got Abba married to a girl called Khairatan from a poor, semi-Muslim family of Lucknow. My father brought her to Jutogh after their marriage, and they never went back to Lucknow again.

In Jutogh, we lived in government accommodation in the Post Office compound. The campus held a big house for the postmaster and the postmen's quarters; there was also a mess for white soldiers underneath the Post Office, a Royal Indian Army Service Corps store to supply the soldiers' food, a wood depot, a bakery and a Military Engineering Service office for repairing government buildings. The children of the officers and employees of these offices were our friends and schoolmates.

My father was far ahead of his time in having taken out a life insurance policy, which he bought from a Canadian company. He was not only a hard-working man but had none of the bad habits,like gambling or drinking, common among men of his community. He was very fond of music-we had three gramophones and a radio at home. My mother, on the other hand, was brought up in difficult conditions. She had lost her parents in childhood and had worked as a farmer. She adjusted to her new circumstances at my father's house but never changed two things-her name and her religious refusal to eat pork (not that there was any pressure on her to do so). She cooked very well and kept our home in a state of high cleanliness. I had several differences with her but, for the sake of household peace, tolerated many things I never liked. For instance, she followed Hinduism rigidly and was keen on celebrating its festivals, but I maintained my distance from such customs from a very early age. My Early Years
W HEN MY FATHER ENROLLED my elder sister, Hukmi, and I in school, the headmaster did not want to take me in as I was not yet five years old. Since my father used to teach me Urdu, Mathematics, Hindi, etc at home, he asked the
headmaster to give me a test. I was asked to read and count, and I did well enough for him to agree to admit me. In the admission form, there was a column for one's caste. A Muslim teacher who held a low opinion of untouchables wrote khakroob1 in my form. He never touched me and always talked to me in an insulting manner. When my father complained to the headmaster (a very kind and sincere Hindu teacher), he shifted me from Hindi to Urdu classes. And that is how I learnt Urdu.

This was in 1931, and I was only four. At school, all children, Hindu and Muslim, used to play together; even the postmaster's children were our friends. No one practised untouchability as such, but we had to take the teacher's permission to drink water. He would send a caste Hindu or Muslim boy along with us, saying, "Go, get them some water to drink." There were separate utensils for Hindus and Muslims, but we could never drink directly from either. Instead, we would hold out our cupped hands into which water would be poured from a height.

It was clear to us that even if our names were like those of the Hindus, we were neither Hindu nor Muslim.

We were untouchables. In Class VII, I stood second and was chosen for admission to the Sanatan Dharm School; the topper was taken by DAV [the Dayanand Anglo-Vedic School]2. The school had a special period for religious training from which two Muslims, one Christian and I were exempted. Even if interested, untouchable students were not allowed to attend this class as the teacher practised untouchability.

A crucial role in my education was played by the European families living in our neighbourhood. In the cantonment areas, people belonging to the scavenging communities were employed for jobs like babysitting, cooking, etc. Two things provided for the betterment of such communities in these localities: reduced caste exploitation and contact with new ideas. For instance, the Andrews from England - Alexander and Edith Andrews - were like a second family to me, and it was from them that I learnt English, among other things. I used to read the Bible in the nearby church and would also listen to the BBC radio service. This helped me acquire an anglicised accent early in my life.

After completing my matriculation in 1942, I opened a night school for unlettered adults in Shimla. Whatever I earned giving tuition, I would hand over to my father.

During this time, a teacher named Shri Pamiram, from a bhangi (now also called balmiki) caste, was appointed headmaster of the Jutogh Primary School. He used to make it a point to meet educated, low-caste people, few as they were and most of them very young. When he got to know that my father was working as a jamadar [sweeper] in the cantonment and the Station Staff Office and had a few sweepers working under him, he came to meet him. He was surprised as well as glad to find that my father was an educated, propertied man. When he found out that I had not been able to study after Class x since there was no college in Shimla, and that I was running a night school, he advised me to apply to the District Officer for appointment as a teacher in his school. I got the job at a monthly pay of Rs 20, but after a few months, I was asked to leave and undertake formal teacher's training. An experienced teacher was appointed in my place. Exposure to Dalit Activists
S HRI PAMIRAM INTRODUCED ME to Teluram Baidwan3 who was one of Shimla's most highly regarded politicians. Baidwan used to work as a cleaner and caretaker at a beauty parlour run by an Englishwoman. He used to spend most of
his time reading and working for untouchables' rights and justice. Many people from castes such as koli and chamar used to come to him with their problems to seek his guidance. However, the members of the Congress party and other Hindu groups used to call him 'Bad Man' instead of Baidwan.

After attending typing classes in Shimla, I would spend an hour or two with Baidwan, helping him write letters. The rest of the time I would spend reading in the public library. My father was also fond of writing and reading, particularly books relating to ayurved and medicine. Copies of the Urdu monthly magazines Mastana Jogi and Hamdard-e- Sehat could be found at our home. We also used to borrow from our friends various newspapers and magazines such as the Madina newspaper published from Bijnaur, Pratap, Milap and Zamindar. I used to enjoy reading political articles in the weekly newspaper Riyasat, edited by Sardar Diwan Sindh Maftoon.

These newspapers used to publish a lot of things about Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Abul Kalam Azad, Subhash Chandra Bose and Mohammed Ali Jinnah but hardly a thing about minority and untouchable communities. We knew these leaders belonged to the upper castes, but, being an untouchable, I used to wonder, 'Who is our leader?' I asked Abba this, and he replied, "Ummeedkar, the one who brings hope," which is how Abba saw Babasaheb Ambedkar.

As far as I remember, Kranti from Lahore was the only Urdu magazine that used to report on Babasaheb's speeches and publish them in Urdu translation. Kranti's editor, Sant Ram, was a progressive thinker and writer. Born into a backward caste family, his knowledge of the Hindu religion and casteism was pragmatic and deep. Kranti was run by progressive Hindu members of the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal, founded in Lahore by the Arya Samajists. It was the only organisation at that time that worked against caste discrimination. In 1943, I also wrote an article in Kranti, "Acchut aur Azaadi" (Untouchability and Freedom). The article attracted a lot of attention, and through it I developed a friendship with Sant Ram.

Sant Ram was also the president of the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal, established in 1924 in Lahore, the capital of the Punjab province. Lahore was then a great centre of political, religious and literary activity and was home to a great many papers and magazines. Most colleges in North India were situated there, and Central ministries worked from Lahore in winter.

In 1936, the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal organised a major conference in the city and invited Dr Ambedkar to give the presidential address. He was, however, asked to send a copy of his speech beforehand. In it, Babasaheb said it would be his last speech as a Hindu. It was evident that he had decided to leave Hinduism.

Being Arya Samajists, all the members and organisers of the Jat- Pat Todak Mandal were against the conversion of untouchables. Babasaheb was asked to delete parts of his speech as a few Hindu leaders were afraid of his views. He, however, refused to change his speech and declined the Mandal's invitation. Sant Ram later got the speech published separately. In English, it is titled "Annihilation of Caste" and in Hindi "Jaatibhed ka Vichchhed". The speech was translated and published in several languages.

The Jat-Pat Todak Mandal did not, ultimately, have much impact. After Partition, Hindus on the Pakistan side of the border either were killed or they migrated to India. Some adopted Islam to save their lives and property and chose to remain in Pakistan. In India, a few of the earlier activists tried to re-establish the Mandal but they could not achieve much success.

Sant Ram went back to his village, Puranibasi, now in the Indian part of Punjab, but he travelled frequently to Chandigarh and Delhi. He also wrote a few books. Babasaheb deeply valued his dedication to the anticaste struggle and his impeccable character. He used to send copies of his new books to Sant Ram and would look forward to his comments.

Another person working for dalits in Shimla was Laxman Singh Salhotra. He was a Punjabi-speaking matriculate who worked in the Shimla Municipality Committee as a head clerk. He had good relations with Congress and Arya Samaj leaders. One of his friends was a head clerk in the Central Public Works Department (CPWD), and through him I got an appointment as a cpwd accounts clerk. I started working under Shri Rangaswami Lingaasan, who was the assistant engineer in the newly opened sanitary division. Rangaswami Lingaasan had worked during the First World War as a sanitary or executive engineer in Rangoon at the time of the Japanese attack. He belonged to an untouchable caste from South India. Basically Tamil-speaking, he had an excellent command of English, perhaps a reason why I was sent to work under him. It was said that he was related to the famous dalit leader from Madras Presidency, Rao Bahadur M.C. Rajah4, and probably also knew Rao Bahadur N. Shivaraj5, another prominent dalit leader from Madras.

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