People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 46

November 13, 2005

Interrogating Caste: Safdar Hashmi Samaroh


Sudhanva Deshpande


FOR nearly a week, from October 24 to 29, the capital witnessed a cultural initiative around the dalit question. Titled ‘Safdar Hashmi Samaroh’, this was organised by four organisations, Jana Natya Manch, Act One, Jan Sanskriti, and Janwadi Lekhak Sangh. While the first two of these are theatre groups, the third works with Malayalis based in Delhi, and the fourth is a writers’ organisation. While all these organisations have interacted with each other in the past, this was the first time that the four came together to organise a joint programme.


The Safdar Hashmi Samaroh had several components – an essay and poetry competition for undergraduate-level students; a festival of seven street plays by colleges in Delhi University; two-day cultural programmes in two working class areas of Delhi, including performances by Jana Natya Manch and Act One, and a kavi sammelan (poetry recital) of dalit poetry; and a two-day seminar around the theme ‘The Dalit Issue: Present Scenario’ along with an exhibition of photographs by dalit photographers. The exhibition, put together by leading artist Savi Sawarkar, included about a dozen photographs of the recent Dohana attack.


The seminar had presentations by leading intellectuals and scholars. Professors Tulsiram and G P Deshpande presented the keynote addresses. Professor Tulsiram called for a dialogue between the dalit movement and the Left movement. While preferring not to take sides and sticking to the ‘middle path’, he urged the Left movement to understand the aspirations of dalits, as well as their sense of anger. In this connection, he felt that the Left movement has to face some genuine questions posed by the dalit movement. Two of these questions were: in its preoccupation with class, why has the left movement ignored caste, and does this mean that the historic oppression of the dalits is never going to be theorised by the Left? He also criticised those dalit leaders who claim to speak in dalit interest, but refuse to take up class issues.


Professor G P Deshpande, in his address, made a similar plea for the dalit and Left movements to move closer to each other. He felt that nothing was going to come out of a blame game, and by going on about sins of omission and commission of the past, on both sides. The dialogue, to be fruitful, will have to presuppose that both sides can come halfway and understand each other. Quoting extensively from Phule, he argued for a historical approach to the question. In particular, he argued that the long term interests of the dalits are not going to be served by simply one caste or another going up in the caste hierarchy, but rather by the total annihilation of the caste system itself, and this is the historic task that both Phule and Dr. Ambedkar have outlined in their work. Kanwal Bharti, in his intervention, pointed out that leaders who claim to be the ‘true’ representatives of dalits are today organising brahman conventions, and that this kind of opportunism is not going to get dalits anywhere.


The major intervention of the day was by Professor S K Thorat. He said that while no one would seriously dispute that class and caste are both to be taken up simultaneously, we do not have an idea of how this can be done. Speaking passionately, he urged the Left to read and make a deep study of Dr Ambedkar in this connection, since, he felt, Ambedkar is the one thinker who provides us with insights on how this can be done. It is unfortunate that Dr Ambedkar is misunderstood on two crucial counts, he said. One, that he was merely a leader of dalits, and two, that he was anti-communist. Far from being a leader only of dalits, Dr Ambedkar put his formidable intellectual capabilities to thinking about virtually all the major questions that India faced, be it the question of the constitutional structure of the country, or the rights of the minorities, or the question of democracy, or that of planning, and so on.


On Dr Ambedkar’s views in relation to communists, Professor Thorat pointed out that while it is true that Ambedkar often had differences with communists (and they with him), it is also equally true that Dr Ambedkar was a votary of democratic socialism. Professor Thorat pointed out that there are many dalits who claim to be followers of Dr Ambedkar, but do him a great disservice by totally ignoring this aspect of his thought. Indeed, Dr Ambedkar was far from blind to the class aspects of the exploitation of dalits, and it should be remembered that he was one of the earliest thinkers to advocate planning.


Professor Thorat felt that there may be limitations in Dr Ambedkar’s thought, but there is one great insight that he provides, which opens up for us the theoretical door to tackling the vexing question of class and caste. Professor Thorat posed the question: if, as we are often told, caste is a ‘remnant’ of feudalism, how do we explain that historically, caste predates feudalism, and that it not only survives but even thrives in a situation where feudal relations of production have been more or less destroyed? We can only reconcile this apparent contradiction if, following Dr Ambedkar’s great insight, we recognise that caste is an ideology that comes to us and functions through religion, and is sanctified by it. In other words, in order to wage a struggle for the annihilation of caste, it is not enough to fight for a destruction of feudal relations of production, but in fact to put forward a thorough critique of religion itself.


Professor Thorat’s intervention was passionate as much as it was wide-ranging and erudite. It is impossible to cover all the points raised by him in this limited space. The central thrust of his intervention, however, can be summed up as follows: both the dalit movement as well as the Left movement must study Dr Ambedkar thoroughly, for blind allegiance, as much as blind critique, gets us nowhere. The chairperson of the session was Subhashini Ali Sahgal, and in her brief comments she too underlined the need for serious study.


The second day of the seminar was devoted to presentations exploring four aspects of the dalit issue: on education by Subhash Gatade, on literature by Dr Chamanlal, on the media by Anil Chamadiya, and on cinema and TV by Javarimal Parakh. There were three interventions by Ramanika Gupta, Vimal Thorat and Savi Sawarkar. All the speakers as well as the commentators made perceptive and thought provoking presentations. The session was chaired by Professor Gopal Guru, who said that he was very pleased to have been invited, both because of his great regard for Comrade Safdar Hashmi, as well as because the dalit issue was finally coming to occupy the thoughts and energies of so many intellectuals and activists.


Although Professor Gopal Guru’s comments were unfortunately very brief (given the shortage of time), he made two very important points. One, he said while dalits were right in looking towards the Left with hope, it is unreasonable to expect or demand from the Left repentance for real or imagined sins of omission or commission of the past. While it goes without saying that history has to be studied and lessons drawn from it, it will not do to dwell needlessly in the past. The need, today, is to look towards the future. Two, he felt that it is ridiculous of dalits to insist that only those who are born dalit can be their leaders. Who can be the leader of dalits is to be decided on the yardstick of truth. If today, the objective truth is that, for instance, globalisation is leading to increasing immiserisation of the poor, a very large number of who are dalits, then whoever is willing to lead a movement against such globalisation can be the leader of dalits. Professor Gopal Guru said that he was aware that his views are controversial and that they will displease many, but he saw no reason to back away from speaking the truth. And the truth, he said, is that there are too many so-called leaders of dalits who have actually betrayed dalit interests. The seminar was co-hosted by Dastak, a student group based in JNU.


The other important part of the Safdar Hashmi Samaroh was the two-day cultural programme organised in Sonia Vihar in north-east Delhi and Mangolpuri in west Delhi. At both places, on one day Jana Natya Manch presented Shambukvadh, a 90-minute play based on the little-known tale from the Ramayana, where Rama kills the shudra Shambuk for the ‘sin’ of reciting the Vedas. Janam’s play is a radical re-interpretation of this myth from the point of view of the oppressed. On the other day, Act One presented Dalit Gatha, a dramatic presentation of poems of protest, and this was followed by a kavi sammelan of dalit poetry. The kavi sammelan featured leading dalit poets including Surajpal Chauhan, Sudesh Tanwar, Jaiprakash Kardam, Ashwini, Brijpal Bharti, and others. While the spectators enjoyed the poems, the excitement of the poets was articulated by Surajpal Chauhan, who said that it is rarely that he is able to bring his poetry in direct contact with those for whom he actually writes it.


The essay and poetry competition on the theme ‘Jati kyon nahi jati?’ (‘Can we cast away caste?’) evoked a lot of interest among students, and the poems, in particular, were of exceptionally high quality. The three best entries in both the categories were awarded, and the prize consisted of books donated by a number of Hindi and English publishers. The Street Theatre Festival, organised in Delhi University with inputs from the SFI, saw the participation of seven teams. This was remarkable since there was neither any competition nor any prize being offered. The plays were of exceptionally high quality, and the students performed them with incredible gusto and enthusiasm. Jana Natya Manch has organised a half-day workshop with the teams involved, so that there can be interaction between the teams and an exchange of views about the plays.