On May 29, 1972, a group of young men in Bombay established the Dalit Panther, a social and cultural organisation. Until it was disbanded five years later, the organisation blazed a trail, organising protests against the atrocities committed on Dalits, and fighting pitched street battles against the state. Its combative approach inspired Dalits to demand the rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution.

Among the Dalit Panther’s founders was JV Pawar, whose recent book, Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History, narrates the story of the Dalit movement that he and others spearheaded. Pawar is now 75 years old and is advisor and spokesperson of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh, an outfit headed by Prakash Ambedkar, the grandson of BR Ambedkar.

Pawar has dedicated his entire life to the Dalit movement. It provided him a perch to track the changing nature of both Dalit assertion and the Indian state’s tactics to tackle it. In an interview with Scroll.in, Pawar deciphered what the arrest of human rights activists in June and August implies for society in India at large and Dalits in particular. Do Dalits need a new movement to address the problems and aspirations that are different those they encountered in the 1970s? Excerpts:

Five human right activists were arrested in June and another five in August. Their arrests have been linked to the Elgaar Parishad, which was held on December 31, 2017. The police hold the Parishad responsible for the violence in Bhima Koregaon village on January 1, and claim it was part of a Maoist strategy to overthrow the Narendra Modi government. What implications does this accusation have for Dalits and their politics?
The 10 who have been arrested are not known to me personally. I am only acquainted with Anand Teltumbde, who was raided but not arrested. He is a Maharashtrian and writes for the Economic and Political Weekly. But if you were to identify [the ideological orientation of] the 10 through [their association with] Teltumbde, you cannot but conclude that their aim could not have been the destruction of the country.

Why do you say that?
Teltumbde is an Ambedkarite. The raid on him was part of the action the state took against the other 10. This can only mean that they too subscribe to Teltumbde’s line. Teltumbde works for the social reconstruction of India, not its destruction.

Why do you think the police have linked all of them to a Maoist conspiracy against the Indian state?
All of them, regardless of whether they were arrested or merely raided, believe in the Constitution. This means they believe in democracy and value equality. Those opposing them are not democratic. They do not subscribe to democracy’s essence – which is equality. No Hindu can be democratic and no democratic man considers himself a Hindu.

Why do you say that?
I say it because Hinduism is based on the inequality [of the caste system]. On the other hand, the Constitution is based on the principle of equality. The current government considers itself as a Hindu government. The people who run this government belong to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Since its establishment in 1925, its goal has been to establish a Hindu Raj. So the human rights activists are paying a price for being democratic.

Will the crackdown on them have an impact Dalit politics?
They have not come from or belong to Dalit politics as, for instance, I do.

Sure, but the crackdown on them is linked to the Bhima Koregaon violence. It consequently does become an attack on Dalit politics, doesn’t it?
Listen brother, I was there on the stage on December 31 when the Elgaar Parishad was held. I did not hear the [compere announce the] names of any of these 10 people. Even Teltumbde was not there. I know him. I would have identified him. What I am trying to say is that there is absolutely no link between the Elgaar Parishad and the violence on January 1.

The police are saying just the opposite.
On the night of December 31, I stayed at a friend’s place in Pune. Early morning on January 1, I started for Bhima Koregaon. I am now 75 years old. I was thirsty. Not a single hotel was open. I had run out of water. I could not get water to quench my thirst. It was all pre-planned – it was ensured that those going to Bhima Koregaon should not get food to eat or water to drink.

Are you suggesting that it was the state government that had planned the shutdown?
The government knew there would be a shutdown on January 1. The gram panchayats had passed resolutions to keep business establishments closed. This they did to create difficulties for visitors to Bhima Koregaon. No amenities were provided. In the melee caused by stone throwing, I saw someone with a bottle of water. I requested him to give me a gulp.

I say it was pre-planned for another reason – there were helicopters flying over the road to Bhima Koregaon. Why were the helicopters flying? Who were the people inside the choppers? Were they ministers? These questions have not been asked, nor any inquiry done.

So if it was all planned, what do you think was the motive behind arresting human rights activists five months later, in June, and then another five in August?
What is the history of Bhima Koregaon? Five-hundred Dalit soldiers defeated an army of 25,000 caste Hindus. Lakhs visit Bhima Koregaon. The caste Hindus want to avenge that defeat – the defeat of their ancestors.

There is also the angle of Sanatan Sanstha, whose members have been apprehended for storing arms and bombs. Its members are also alleged to have been involved in the murder of intellectuals. The Sanatan Sanstha members who have been arrested are all caste Hindus. Their possession of bombs and arms suggests the danger they pose to the nation. It is to divert the nation’s attention from them that the theory of Maoists hatching a conspiracy to recruit Dalits for overthrowing the Modi government was hatched.

What message does the arrest of human rights activists convey to society at large and Dalits in particular?
Since the arrested human rights activists believe in the Constitution, the message being conveyed is that they [the Bharatiya Janata Party government] do not recognise the Constitution and, yes, will take revenge for the defeat of Bhima Koregaon.

Isn’t it also like telling people that anyone who supports Dalits will meet the same fate as the 10 human rights activists?
I believe that anyone who has faith in the Constitution and democracy, regardless of which caste or religion he belongs to, is also a Dalit supporter. By arresting the 10 activists, the government is saying that anyone who supports Dalits will be jailed, that their Constitutional rights will be curtailed.

Is there a difference in the nature of atrocities committed against Dalits in the 1970s, when the Dalit Panther surfaced, and what we see today?
The atrocities against Dalits have been continuing for the last 3,000-3,500 years. But what began happening in the 1970s was that some newspapers, not all, began reporting these atrocities. No doubt, the atrocities that the newspapers reported constituted just the tip of the iceberg. But it had an impact – democratic people thought it was unacceptable that such atrocities should be committed against Dalits. For instance, in one particular case the eyes of Dalits were gouged out.

Are you referring to the Gavai brothers, whose eyes were gouged out in Dhakli village in Akola district in 1974?
Yes, you are right. I raised the issue of Gavai brothers. I took them to [then Prime Minister] Indira Gandhi. On seeing them, her eyes welled up with tears. I told her, “Look at the atrocities committed under your rule.”

Are the atrocities against Dalits any different now?
Atrocities against Dalits were committed before the 1970s, during the 1970s and continue even today. But the crucial difference was that in the 1970s, regardless of whether there were Congress or non-Congress governments in the states or at the Centre, those in power believed in democracy, accepted it and consequently gave importance to it. By the way, the BJP did not have a government of its own in any of the states then.

We would take out protest marches and present memoranda to the government, which would accept it. They did not give us bullets in return. The governments of the 1970s also filed cases against us. But they did not invoke laws to prevent us from getting bail. We did not languish in jail for six, eight months – yeh nahin ki, aap jail gayein to gayein. [Not that if you go to jail you would be gone for good.]

But the BJP government is non-democratic. It wants to teach a lesson to Dalit activists and those who support them. They want to teach a lesson to them not of the court and law – that lesson we were given earlier.

But in your book you write that you were beaten by police after the riots in Worli, Bombay, in 1974.

Yes, I was beaten. There were young boys around me. In the melee of protests the police would react instinctively, at times violently. But it was not the case that they would impose an IPC [Indian Penal Code] provision because of which I could not get out of jail for seven or eight months. They would arrest you and you would soon get bail.

Take the five activists who were arrested in June. It just seems they are doomed to stay in jail. This government is scary, this government is revengeful.

Is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s idea of power similar to that of Indira Gandhi?
Indira Gandhi was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, who admired Buddhism, applied the principles of Panchsheel, and was a democrat. Indira Gandhi, too, believed in democracy in the initial years of her political career. But when she grew in strength and acquired greater power, she turned against democracy.

By contrast, Modi acquired great strength at the very beginning of his tenure and consequently became undemocratic at the very inception of his government.

But Gandhi imposed Emergency.
At least, she imposed the Emergency. There was a provision in the Constitution for imposing an Emergency. But these people do not talk of imposing an Emergency. Yet they work against people in a far worse way than what happened during Emergency.

Ideologically, Mrs Gandhi was against democracy. Yet she would sit in Parliament, which also used to function. But Parliament does not even function now. Modi goes to Parliament sirf safai dene ke liyen [to justify his actions]. For Modi, democracy means holding elections every five years.

Has the Dalit mindset changed from what it was in the 1970s?
When [the poet Namdeo] Dhasal and I formed the Dalit Panther in 1972, even people in cities would live in jhuggi-jhopris. They were poor and uneducated. Over the last 40-50 years, they educated their children, some of whom even became IAS officers. So those who were in jhuggi-jhopris moved to chawls, those in chawls shifted to flats and some to bungalows. These are the people who do not face the problems of the 1970s.

What kind of problems do they face now?
Yes, their problem is what I call the white-collar problem. He has a government job, but his service record is spoilt so that he does not get a promotion. Earlier, untouchability was visible. Today, untouchability has become invisible. It has not disappeared, mind you. It means the non-Dalit’s mindset has not changed – what he or she used to think of Dalits he or she still does.

Has not this changed the outlook of Dalits towards politics?
The Dalits I have described to you constitute about 5%-10% or so. They do not readily join street-protests or a movement. In the 1970s, when I was the secretary of the Dalit Panther, I would give a call that we have to go to so and so village. There were no mobiles then. Yet thousands would come. People had problems. They were [economically] insecure. Life has now become relatively secure. People do not wish to risk the security they have achieved. It is not that the percentage of Dalits whose lives have become secure is high. It is not. Yet you do not find the kind of street protestors and fighters the 1970s produced.

However, when a problem that is historical in nature surfaces, the Dalit community unites. Bhima Koregaon is an example. Prakash Ambedkar’s Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh gave a call to observe Maharashtra bandh on Jan 3. Whether a Dalit Brahmin…

...Dalit Brahmin?
People who no longer face the daily problems of life, who do not come out on the street to protest, who do not always support those engaged in the Dalit movement.

So when the call was given to observe the Maharashtra bandh on January 3, Brahmin Dalits and ordinary Dalits united to ensure its success. Maybe some of them did not come out on the street, but they supported us in other ways.

If the life of Dalits has changed from the 1970s, what shape should their politics take?
We want all people to come together to save the Constitution. If we do not save the Constitution we will even lose the right to raise our voice [against injustices], you will not able to write and I will not able to speak to you. We will not have democracy.

Saving the Constitution is not just the responsibility of Dalits, although the entire world knows its architect was Dr BR Ambedkar. It is the responsibility of everyone. Democracy in India is dying. Dalits and others must come together to save it.