Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Mr. Bhagwan Das, our Guide and Mentor
By Arun Kumar

Hearing the news of the passing away of Mr. Bhagwan Das Ji, a wave of shock spread through out the Ambedkarite movement in the UK. He had a special relationship with the UK people. I feel privileged to see and meet Mr. Bhagwan Das. I had read most of his books especially his ‘Thus Spoke Ambedkar’ series. I was greatly impressed and influenced by his writings. I had an opportunity to meet Mr. Bhagwan Das in 1983 for the first time when he visited UK on the invitation of Dr. Ambedkar Mission society, Bedford. This Society had a long association with Mr. Das. Some of the NRIs in Bedford set up an organisation called Bheem Association in 1969. Due changing circumstances and to connect with the mainstream Ambedkarite movement, Mr. Bhagwan Das suggested to change the name. Hence Dr. Ambedkar Mission Society, Bedford came into existence.

Mr. Bhagwan Das was one of the few Ambedkarite scholars involved in highlighting the plight of Dalits at international level. He was one of the founder members of the World Conference on Religion and Peace (WCRP). He attended many sessions of the (WCRP) held in Kenya, Japan, Malaysia, USA and many other countries. Dr. Ambedkar Mission Society, Bedford was a part of most of his ventures in one way or the other. He gave testimony in the 36th Session of the United Nations Commission on Prevention of Discrimination of Minorities held at Geneva in August 1983 on behalf of Dr. Ambedkar Mission Society, Bedford and many other organisations from India and abroad. Before going to Geneva, he stayed with us about one week. At that time he was staying with late Mr. Chanan Chahal. I used to spend every evening with him.

While preparing his testimony, Mr. Das said that it would be nice if a few copies of his testimony are made for distribution to the delegates. It would leave a long lasting impact. At that time there was no facility of modern computers and photocopying. We bought an old type cyclostyle copier. Mr. Dass typed his speech on stencils and we made copies. We all finished this work about 2 O’clock in the morning. Over hundred copies were made which Mr. Das took with him to Geneva.

After this testimony, the Indian Muslim, Sikh and Hindu delegates turned against him and conspired to omit his name from the next session of WCRP to be held in Nairobi, Kenya. Mr. Das asked us to write to the Secretary General of WCRP and explained the situation. A letter was written to the Secretary General, Dr. Homer A. Jack and request was made for inclusion of Mr. Das in the delegation list as he was the only voice of the voiceless people in India. Dr. Jack was a genuine person. He thanked the Ambedkar Mission Society, Bedford for letting him know the conspiracy and assured us that Mr. Das would attend the conference. Das Sahib was invited as an ‘expert on the Asian Affairs’. All Indian delegates kept a distance from him. Indian High Commissioner in Nairobi invited all Indian delegates for dinner but boycotted Mr. Das. Bhagwan Dass ji told me later on that boycott incident went in his favour as delegates from other countries came to know the
truth and Mr. Das became a regular invitee to the future conferences. Since then we were in regular contact with each other.

In 1988, Federation of Ambedkarite & Buddhist Organisations UK had a preliminary meeting to celebrate Ambedkar Birth Centenary in the UK. Mr. Bhagwan Das was also present in this meeting. The meeting was held under his Chairmanship. On his initiative, an organisation ‘International Ambedkar Institute, UK’ was set up to take Ambedkar thought in the premier institutes in the UK and do some research work. Renowned actor and film maker, late Kenneth Griffiths was elected as a Chairman who later on made a documentary film on Baba Sahib Ambedkar. During this visit, Das Sahib came to Bedford where he was interviewed by the BBC Radio, Bedfordshire and Chiltern Radio. I requested the BBC presenter for a copy of his interview. He was kind enough to send me the original recording of his interview.

During the Ambedkar Birth Centenary years, Mr. Das visited UK several times. Most of the time, he stayed with Mr. M.S. Bahal and Mr. C. Gautam as all Centenary Celebration activities were in and around London area. They took him around. He took part in many conferences and seminars. He addressed the gathering at the inaugural function of Ambedkar Birth Centenary at the commonwealth Hall, the Royal Commonwealth Society on 14th April 1990. Again he gave a talk at the Great Hall of Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn on 21st February 1991. As I was a part of the Centenary Celebration Committee, UK, I often met him in every function. During his visits, he always spared some time for us and came to Bedford.

As a President of Dalit Solidarity Programme (DSP), he was invited to give talk in Edinburgh University in Scotland. He gave a presentation by showing a short film narrating the history and present conditions of Dalits. Because of a long distance from Bedford and the paucity of time, he was unable to come to Bedford. Instead late Mr. Chanan Chahal, Mr. Dhanpat Rattu, Mr. Satpal Paul and I went to see him.

Once discussing about globalisation and privatisation, he clarified that our people are more adversely affected than others. He gave an example that our people were employed as sweepers in the municipalities. With this new mantra of privatisation the sweepers were being made redundant. Before this privatisation, they had permanent employment with all benefits of a government employee such as job security, health benefits, holidays, pensions etc. Their children had a scope for education. But now the contractor is a ‘sharma’, ‘verma’ or ‘gupta’ who employ the same people on daily wages with no security of work, no pension, and no health benefit. In this situation, children help their parents to earn their livelihood and drop out from schools. Similarly the people who were engaged in the leather work had also lost out. All benefits are taken by contractors but the work was still done by scheduled castes and tribes. . As contractors are from
higher castes good jobs go to higher castes and our people end up with old menial jobs.

Last time I saw him about three four years ago at his Munirka residence at Delhi. Dr. Gurcharn Singh from Delhi was with me. We spent about two hours with him. He enquired about all friends and the movement in the UK. He was as enthusiastic as he used to be about 20-30 years ago. But I could see his failing health.

With his demise, we have lost our guide and mentor. I will always treasure his memories in my heart. He will always be missed but never forgotten.

I am attaching his testimony given in the UN in 1983. His views and facts are as relevant today as they were 27 years ago.

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