The Delhi-based publisher Leftword recently published Memoirs of a Dalit Communist: The Many Worlds of RB More. The book raises questions that are particularly relevant for the events overtaking us today as minorities and so-called “Leftists” are branded enemies of the nation. The complex multicultural histories of the subcontinent are sought to be erased, and there is concerted effort to censor the imagination of alternatives to the authoritarian status quo.
We have also of course seen a remarkable awakening of political protest across the country, with many commentators suggesting links between the present and earlier moments of mass action and popular activism such as during Khilafat, or the National Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi. The success of such efforts is predicated on building solidarities across diverse identities and interests, and the enormous difficulties this presents in practical terms. Memoirs of a Dalit Communist is a significant addition to this ongoing conversation.
Ramachandra Babaji More was an important Dalit trade unionist and labour organiser, whose anti-caste and labor activism in the city of Bombay in the first half of the twentieth century was intimately tied to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s own activism.
A founding member of Ambedkar’s second newspaper, Bahishkrit Bharat, More was also involved with Janata, and an editor of the Left-identified newspaper, Aavhan, and, later, the CPI(M) publication, Jivan Marg.
More’s Marathi autobiography cum biography, which is entitled Dalit va Communist Calvalicha sashakt duva: Comrade RB More, (Comrade RB More: A Powerful Link between the Dalit and the Communist Movement) was first published by his son Satyendra More in 2003. That text is a combination of RB More’s autobiography, which he was encouraged to write just before he passed away in 1972, Satyendra More’s biography of his father, plus the inclusion of rare material (letters, book covers, photographs) compiled by Satyendra More and by RB More’s grandson, Subodh More.
The text contains rich descriptions of the everyday life of the labouring poor, and a painstaking account of events that this remarkable young man lived through. (The autobiography ends in 1924 when More is hardly 21, and as he is trying to convince Ambedkar to undertake what would become the Mahad satyagrahas of 1927.) The text repeatedly stages a set of conversations between Ambedkar and Marx, and between the identities of caste and class as these played out in Bombay’s working-class neighbourhoods.
I encountered the Marathi text while I was working on my book, The Caste Question: Dalits and the Politics of Modern India, and became convinced that this was a significant historical document, which ought to be translated. This produced longstanding collaborations with my friend, the skilled translator Wandana Sonalkar; her late husband, the poet Tulsi Parab, who introduced me to the literary and cultural worlds of Bombay; filmmaker friends who documented historical memory (and the spaces associated with them) through film and video; and finally, a group of students in my Bombay/Mumbai seminar at Barnard College and Columbia University who embarked on a spatial mapping project which drew on More’s rich evocation of the sociopolitical world of rural and urban Dalits at the turn of the twentieth century.
However, the translation project, which stretched across some years, is most indebted to the indefatigable energy and deep generosity of RB More’s grandson, Subodh More, and the numerous men and women who maintain private collections and archives about Ambedkar and Dalit history without material support and little recognition. (I would be remiss if I did not mention the Moon family, especially Arati Moon, Anil Sawadkar, Ramesh Shinde, the photographic collection of Vijay Surwade, and the help of Prakash Vishwasrao and Lokvangmay Prakashan.) . Subodh and I spent months visiting people and places, tracking documents, and engaging in discussion about the complex transformations of caste, that shaped Dalit life in 20th century Bombay.
As we put the English translation together, Wandana and I made some decisions about how to structure the non-Marathi reader’s entry into RB More’s life. Context matters. And the resurgence of interest in left history, subaltern lives, and spirited engagement between Ambedkarites and Marxists marks the current moment much as it did in RB More’s time. We maintain a critical distance from claiming RB More for either “side.” Instead, we present questions of commitment, political sacrifice and self-fashioning as difficult issues that recur across the text without easy answers.
Bombay is of course the city where Ambedkar came to engage with, amend, and to revise Marxist theory to understand how Dalit laborers could experience the freedoms of urban life and modern infrastructure as well as spatial segregation and new forms of caste exploitation.
RB More’s own life reflects the powerful ways in which the social experience of caste, class, and Bombay city combined to produce the historical conditions of possibility for a specifically urban Dalit modernity to take shape in early twentieth century Bombay. His memoir presents a Bombay that was built and sustained in no small part by Dalit labor, and as a city is marked by memories of Dalit lifeworlds of pleasure, performance, activism and intellection. The experience of the city allowed RB Moré to imagine social justice through a joint commitment to caste annihilation and the emancipation of labour.
In this way, the translation seeks to clear ground and reframe the possible histories of Dalit Marxism. Though Satyendra More’s text recognises his father’s emphasis on the importance of the caste question for Communism, RB More came into a world of political possibility, a time “before” the hegemony of the Communist Party, when idioms of anticaste critique were repurposed for Marxist exploration.
More’s memoir thus tracks the story of a heterodox, utopian Marxism which cohabited with and took inspiration from the Ambedkar movement, and which was quintessentially urban and enabled by Dalits’ complex encounters with colonial urbanity. Memoirs of a Dalit Communist revisits that time of potent possibility.
Those who are colonised must struggle against colonialism, they must agitate, and so the reality is that the real war of the untouchables against the practice of untouchability, the real agitation against untouchability began in Mahad under the leadership of Ambedkar. In this context it is extremely important to mention that, soon after the British government embarked on the establishment of self-government bodies in this country in 1864, a representative from those considered untouchable, Gopal Baba Walangkar, was given membership of the municipal body at Mahad, in 1884. This will give the reader an idea of the central importance that Mahad held in the struggle for liberation of the millions of people who had been considered untouchable in India.
As mentioned above, I had entered the school at Mahad for the second time as a student who was wiser than before. I had by now a general idea of the relations between the people and the government, of the different strata among the people and their problems, of religious, social, economic and political differences. I was sharply aware of the problem of untouchability.
This time I moved around fearlessly in the school and in the market at Mahad. My earlier diffidence had now completely disappeared. I now had the guts to answer any questions that were put to me according to my ability.
After I was admitted to the school in Mahad for the first time, a restaurant had been started in the marketplace to solve the problem I, and my brethren coming from the villages, faced in getting drinking water. That restaurant was still running when I returned. It used to be closed during the rains and open in the hot seasons; but because it was far from the untouchable colony nobody stayed there at night. But now there were more customers visiting the restaurant.
There had been a very large inflow of ex-soldiers in that vicinity. This was due to the disbanding and breaking up of the 111th Mahar regiment after the war was over. These unemployed soldiers were now earning their subsistence through farming or through manual labour. Because of their military occupation and their having travelled widely, they were bold and courageous. Because of my knowledge of Marathi and English, my thoughts on various subjects and my feeling for the interests of the common people, the knowledgeable visitors to the restaurant from villages all over felt great respect for me and gave me all kinds of information.
Some people from villages near Mahad would make it a point to come and sit there every day. From morning till evening the place would be crowded with people and there would always be a discussion going on some topic or other. I used to be in the restaurant every day when I came to Mahad from Ladawali in the morning after breakfast. Then, during the drawing and drill classes when the school gave me time off to avoid my touch, I would again be in the restaurant. The same after school: again I would be in the restaurant. So all in all I spent a lot of my time there.
During this time I could gather information from persons coming from villages from all over, just by sitting there. That restaurant had become a virtual information centre for a circle of about sixty square miles around Mahad. Raigad, Pratapgad and the villages of the valley come within that circle. So I gathered proper information about what kind of relations the people in this circle had with each other, and whether the Mahar folk were on terms of equality with people of other castes, or were subservient towards them.
So I learned that even though the Mahars were in a minority in these villages, they did not bend before the people of the other castes. Because of the custom of untouchability, untouchables and caste Hindus kept a distance from each other. But they did not hate each other.
When they went on a hunt, everyone set out together, armed with spears and axes. At such times they would not differentiate among untouchables and other castes. In these villages there are large numbers of poor peasants from all castes. They cannot earn enough for their subsistence in the village. So they are all forced to head for the city. In every house there is at least one adult male who has joined the army or is working in a mill in the city. Since both untouchables and other castes are in the same life situation they relate to each other as equals.
It is a handful of people from the upper classes with their orthodox thinking who are responsible for the sense of otherness that has grown between the untouchables and the caste Hindu poor in the villages. When I understood this reality my thoughts received a stimulus. Because of that restaurant in Mahad I came to understand the prehistory of the Mahar peoples of that whole area, their characteristics, their good and bad points, their cultural heritage, their love for their motherland.
This organised community is a great force in Maharashtra. It has the capacity to bring about social and political change. This too I realised, and then the work of making this community aware about local issues began. The importance that Mahad has assumed in the movement for the liberation or freedom of the untouchables can be traced back to that restaurant. The first reverberations of the Chavdar lake movement and of Ambedkar’s great deeds began from here.— Excerpted with permission from "Memoirs of a Dalit Communist: The Many Worlds of RB More," RB More and Satyendra More, translated from the Marathi by Wandana Sonalkar, edited by Anupama Rao, Leftword.