On Monday, there will probably be a knock on your door. Police officers are likely to arrive to arrest you. They will carry with them a range of papers, a file overflowing with notes that refer to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Indian Penal Code. There will be plenty of references to the village of Bhima Koregaon near Pune. These papers will make hallucinatory accusations against you and others.
It is hard to keep up with them: you incited violence in Bhima Koregaon on January 1, 2018; you are part of a Maoist conspiracy to destabilise democracy; you attempted to overthrow the government by setting up an “anti-fascist front”; you plotted to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi; you are an activist of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).
The police will be offered tea, because you are polite, and they will wonder how the state thought that such a decent and polite man could be so very dangerous.
A wave of dissent
We know that you are being sent to jail because you – like Gautam Navlakha, Surendra Gadling, Shoma Sen, Mahesh Raut, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Vernon Gonsalves, and Varavara Rao – are part of a tidal wave of dissent against this government and what it has done to Indian democracy.
The government is right: Indian democracy is being seriously threatened; but not by you or by Gautam or by Sudha or by Varvara, since it is under serious threat from the Far-Right inside government and out on the streets. We have moved rapidly from lynching in broad daylight to expulsion of migrant labourers in broad daylight – cruelties of state that seem to go unpunished.
With great pleasure we published your introduction to Babasaheb Ambedkar’s India and Communism, a book that tells us that if the Left does not frontally challenge caste it cannot drive a Left agenda in India. Caste is the barrier to any and all political change. The Far-Right makes modest noises about caste because it knows that it cannot form a sufficient electoral bloc unless it draws some oppressed caste votes; India’s demography resists a purely Brahmanical and dominant caste political project.
But underneath the pieties against caste hierarchy, the Far-Right swims comfortably in the most retrogressive parts of our culture and traditions; it offers immunity for caste hierarchy and continues to assert the inferiority of oppressed castes.
No wonder then that a large number of Dalit organisations decided to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon in 2018. This was a battle in 1818 that pitted the English East India Company against the Peshwa rulers of the Maratha empire. In 1927, Babasaheb Ambedkar had made the point that this was an important event because it showed the Mahars as active participants – in this case in the Company’s ranks as soldiers – against the Brahmanical Peshwas. That is why lakhs of Dalits have come to this site each year as a pilgrimage to celebrate the assertion of the Mahars after centuries of caste oppression. Dalits, the argument went from Ambedkar onwards, must not wait to be given freedom; they must seize freedom.
In 2018, as the annual commemoration took place, some rascals threw rocks at those who had come to celebrate the battle. Rahul Patangale (age 28) was killed. Protests took place to raise awareness of the anti-Dalit violence during this commemoration; another person was killed in these protests; several police officers were injured and over 300 people were detained.
But you, Anand, differed from the tradition put in place since Babasaheb’s visit in 1927. The day after the fracas at Koregaon, you wrote an essay about the mythical way people have been seeing the battle of 1818. Anyone who looks seriously at your persecution at the hands of the government would be puzzled by the gap between those who commemorate the battle and yourself.
The day after the commemoration, which you are accused of instigating, you came out to warn against the way in which the battle was being remembered. The British, you wrote, did recruit large numbers of Dalits – mainly Mahars – into their ranks to fight the Peshwa. But the Mahars who joined the English East India Company’s army did not do so to fight caste oppression; they had also joined the armies of the Peshwas and of the Mughals.
You suggest that when Babasaheb Ambedkar formulated the “pure myth” of the Mahar soldier, it was to push the British to restart recruitment of Dalits into the army. The Dalit organisations that held the commemoration, you write, paint the Hindutva forces as the New Peshwa and the Dalits as those who fought at this battlefield. “The Dalits do need to fight this new Peshwai recreated by the Hindutva marauders,” you wrote. “For that, they better open their eyes to see the reality, rather than an ostrich-like look into the mythical past and imagine their greatness.”
How can it be that you, who was critical of the commemoration and did not have any role in it, could be charged for instigation and then for other deeds for which there is no evidence and only bizarre insinuations?
None of this is surprising. None of the others – Gautam, Sudha – had anything to do with the gathering at Bhima Koregaon. Professionally, you have nothing in common: one of you is a poet, another a lawyer, another a journalist, one more an academic, and you – dear Anand – are a management expert. What unites you is not Bhima Koregaon or your professional backgrounds; what unites you are your principles: the ideals of the freedom struggle, the ideals rooted in the Indian Constitution.
But for you, and for the others, the Indian Constitution is a vision for a country, a manifesto that has to be realised in practice. As Babasaheb Ambedkar, who drafted the Constitution said, in the Indian Republic one person equals one vote, but one person does not equal one person. He meant that both socially (caste and gender) and economically (class). The promise of any freedom struggle cannot be fulfilled without struggle.
When many of the social rights have receded in recent years, with the forces of patriarchy and caste hierarchy rearing their heads, it has become even more important for people like yourselves – Mahesh, Rona, Arun – to call upon us to bring reason and equality out of the pages of the Constitution into reality.
Educate, agitate, and organise
The police officers who come to arrest you will find that your house is full of books. We hope that they see the full set of Babasaheb’s works prominently displayed, and perhaps also the works of Marx and Engels. One of the officers will walk over to the books, pick out one of Ambedkar’s volumes and chance upon a paragraph from his 1942 speech to the All-India Depressed Classes Conference in Nagpur.
“My final words of advice to you,” the officer will read, “are educate, agitate, and organise; have faith in yourself. With justice on our side, I do not see how we can lose our battle. The battle to me is a matter of joy. The battle is in the fullest sense spiritual. There is nothing material or social in it. For ours is a battle not for wealth or power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle of reclamation of human personality.”
Let the officer turn and look at you and feel the burning spark of conscience. In fact, let India watch you being led out of your house – in the midst of the Covid-19 global pandemic – and feel the fires of conscience raging inside our collective body.
Vijay Prashad and Sudhanva Deshpande work at LeftWord Books.