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How this Satyashodhak Marxist sought to trigger 'broader' Ambekarite alternative

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat*

The passing away of Vilas Sonawane is a huge loss to the Dalit-OBC-Pasmanda movement. He was one of the very few who were extremely articulate and well read on various issues. His own experience of working with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) gave him enough understanding of what ails our socio-political movements as well as the Phulewadi-Ambedkarite organisations.
He was a bridge in his later years between various progressive and revolutionary ideologies. Listening to him was a great treat. There are very few who can explain the issue of class, caste and occupation in simple words as he did. In fact, Vilas had enormous knowledge, but it remained underused even when he was active till a few years ago.
Many a time our public activities cause harm to our intellectual work. I have this complain with another important person whom I worked with, Prof D Prempati, a man of extraordinary knowledge, yet because of busy mass contact programmes, he had little time to leave behind the work which would have become important for the coming generations. This happens with most of the friends who are active at the ‘grassroots’ level, as in their public relations they ignore the important work of writing down and interpreting things.
Vilas emerged from students' movement. He was founding secretary of the Students Federation of India (SFI), Maharashtra. He was the first Communist student secretary of the Siddharth College Mumbai Students' Union from 1973-75. He was expelled from the CPI-M in 1978 and got associated with Sharad Patil, who established Satyashodhak Communist Party in the same year.
Actually, Vilas always spoke about the caste bias in CPI-M, and that compelled him to work for the rights of the OBCs in Maharashtra in particular where political leaderships of different parties were not giving space to them. But Vilas never compromised his Marxism. Despite having big differences with the leaders of his party and others in the Left movement, he never ever dissociated from Marxism.
It was a powerful idea of bringing together Phule-Ambedkar-Marx-Buddha enunciated by Sharad Patil that actually brought Vilas into debate with him on the importance of caste, ignored by Marxists in India. Sharad Patel was working on the issue for long and understood it well that if India has to have a strong fight against the Brahmanical system, it needs a combination of powerful ideologies which provide alternative, and it cannot be an ideology imported from anywhere else. There have been powerful movements in India, he believed, and that is why he was consistently saying that Phule-Ambedkar-Marx-Buddha were needed.
The name Satyashodhak Communist party represented the influence of Jyotiba Phule on Sharad Patil. In various conversations that I had with Vilas, whenever we got the opportunity to meet, he would give example, quoting both Phule and Baba Saheb Ambedkar about the Shudra jaatis or Shramik castes.
Vilas’s knowledge came with his enormous mass contact and participation in various movements in Maharashtra and outside. He would debate with ideologues like Sharad Patil, and it resulted in knowledge which may or may not be documented. He was not merely an ideologue or a philosopher but an initiator and a participant in some pathbreaking movements.
Vilas became more active in the post-Mandal era as the country saw resurgence of the Dalit-OBC unity initiatives everywhere. He knew it well that Muslims too have caste structure and encouraged Muslim OBCs to speak up which resulted in establishment of the Muslim Marathi Sahitya Parishad in 1990. Two years later, he began the Muslim OBC movement.
By late nineties he realised that it was important to start dialogue with all secular-socialist-Bahujan forces, which he began in 1999. He would say that there is a need to bring together all secular progressive forces. Even when many had aversion with Gandhians, he had no such issue with them and felt that there are good people everywhere and they need to have a dialogue.
When the UPA-I in 2004 started rigorous land acquisition process and a new ‘concept’ of Special Economic Zone came into being, threatening the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people, particularly Dalits and Adivasis as well as other sections of the peasantry, Vilas joined hands with Justice PB Sawant and Justice BG Kolse Patil to fight against the unjust law and acquisition.
They formed Mahamumbai Shetkari Sangharsh Samiti to fight against the whole process of the land acquisition. His organisation Yuva Bharat formed in 2001 played a very vital role in the mobilisation of masses against the land acquisition process. The Samiti not only started mobilisation of people against the whole process but also decided to challenge it through the process of law.
The movement against SEZs in the region brought him in ideological conflict with the mainstream Left and the so-called social movements campaigning against big dams. He blamed these forces for using their media connections to hijack movements and give wrong information.
Reliance withdrawing from Raigarh SEZ in 2009 was a success of the big battle of the Maharashtra farmers, rejecting the ‘reformist’ and ‘NGO model’ which wanted to focus on ‘rehabilitation’ and not on broader issues of the farmers. Vilas was called father of the successful fight against the Dow Chemicals near Pune with the help of Warakaris in the year 2008.
Vilas realised it was better to move away from ‘ideological rigidities’ and being ‘camp followers’, as he wanted to make effective political intervention with greater impact on masses. Right from the formation of the Yuva Bharat, his efforts to reach out to other ideological spaces of Gandhians, Ambedkarites, Marxists, Phuleites, Socialists, Lohiaites and JPite was a pragmatic way to find a common ground against communal capitalist forces.
He was certain that all the talk of unity will not be possible without discussing the issue of representation at the decision-making bodies level. He was extremely close to Sharad Patil, whose Phule-Ambedkar-Marx-Buddha combination alternative was liked by many, but as Vilas said in a wide-ranging conversation with me, for 25 long years Sharad Patil did not agree with him, but ultimately agreed that the question of representation was important and critical.
Listening to him was a treat but he was definitely not made for the ‘online’ age as he would speak with great ease and would not like to be ‘disturbed’. Even when he was neither an academic nor a teacher, he had enormous knowledge which came from his vast studies and his relationship with communities and people.
For youngsters like us, sitting with him was listening to a live encyclopedia. His anecdotes and stories can bring Bahujan communities together which he espoused for. His analysis of relations of peasants with Dalit communities is extraordinary and should be taught to every student of social justice.
Even about the Mahad satyagraha, he has a very interesting analysis, which has not been revealed. Mahad was the movement that is termed as the success story of Ambedkar, but he explained to me why Mahad succeeded beautifully in a conversation with me:
“There were two Satyagrahas in Mahad. One for water rights and the other was the burning of Manusmriti. It is also a fact that Manusmiriti was burnt by Sahshrabhuddhe, a Chitpawan Brahmin friend of Baba Saheb. He gave a 40 minutes speech. Baba Saheb was standing nearby. People normally term the victory of Baba Saheb as that of Mahars but that is not true. In Ratnagiri and Raigarh there were only 4% Mahars at that point of time, who did not have voting rights.
"The 1937 elections were not an ideal franchise, as voting rights were given to only those who were property holders, and Mahars did not have the property or even house. Most of their houses were there on Khotland, i.e., that of Zamindars. Not a single Mahar had the voting right.
"But in the elections that year, the Independent Labour Party (ILP) from Ratnagiri, which includes today's Sindhudurg and Ratnagiri, won 16 seats out of 18. In Raigarh district they won 14 out of 16 and three MLCs were appointed by the governor. How could it be possible? Not without the support of other castes. It means that water rights campaign of Baba Saheb attracted other farming communities too to his fold.”
Vilas said that while Baba Saheb formed Scheduled Castes Federation for protecting the interests of the untouchables, it is the ILP which gave him wider representation and his acceptance as leaders of all castes, and not merely that of untouchables or depressed classes. He was categorical that both Baba Saheb and Jyotiba Phule had Brahmins friend but they were enlightened and committed to the cause. He however felt that some Brahmins dining with Dalits or Shudras or sitting with them does not end caste system.
On the issue of the Dalit-OBC conflict, he said, normally the peasantry and the artisan communities have close working relations and therefore farming is not merely a business of one caste but involvement of many others in different forms.He said that both he and Sharad Patil had left CPI-M but at that time they we were ideologically not strong as they thought that if we put Phule and Ambedkar with Marx, all the issues will get resolved. He told me:
"Though I had no issue with linking them, I put a question to Sharad Patil about the leadership issue which he did not respond in 1977. My question was simple. There were just about 1,000 members of the party that time, of which 600 odd members belonged to the Adivasi communities. But when the question of state executive or district executive came, it was a different scenario.
"There were not even 75 brahmins in the entire state who were the members of the party, but ironically, in the state’s highest body, there were 24 brahmins out of 27 in the state committee, and the rest got adjusted in various district committees. How can you do this? Those who build the party get no representation at the top level of the leadership while Brahmins were there just to ‘lead’ the party. This will not work. Sharad Patil accepted this position after 25 years at the fag end of his life, but it did not matter much, as nothing could be done at that point of time."
In the post-1990s phase, Vilas got active in bringing different groups together and formation of the Muslim OBC organisation in Maharashtra. He said, on the OBC question, in more than 200 talukas of Maharastra both Muslim and Hindu OBCs have fought for their rights together. He wrote about this in a journal, which reached to Sharad Pawar, who called Vilas and wanted to know from him about this. After this, Sharad Pawar picked up OBCs from different places for his party. His main point was: Leave your religion aside and fight for your rights.
Vilas felt that Bahujan masses were leaderless and the only way to bring Dalits and OBCs together was to raise their socio- economic issues. Unfortunately, Marxists forgot to speak about social issues, while those claiming to be Buddhists spoke about the social and cultural ideas of Buddha but not his economic model. Buddha’s economic model is extremely important; he was able to suggest things which Marx did in the 19th century, nearly 2,500 years later.
Vilas said that those who use the system often misquote and misuse facts and hide the things which are detrimental to their interest. He gave the example of Shivaji and said, most of us only speak about Shivaji in relation with the Mughals and then convert it into a Hindu-Muslim issue. But none speaks about the land reforms initiated by Shivaji and the battles Shivaji fought against his own relatives and the Vatandars who turned against him because of his land reform initiatives.
Vilas also felt that, had Baba Saheb taken a reasonable stand at the famous roundtable conference against Gandhi, we would have had a social revolution at that time. To him, Ambedkar of ILP is more acceptable, as this made him leader of all. To those who say that Ambedkar did not write much about land issues or worked for the peasantry, Vilas gave the powerful example from his own experience in the fight against Reliance SEZs in Raigarh.
He said, In the Konkan region the farmers went on strike for seven years from 1929 to 1936. It was about the tax to be given to the Zamindars. They were demanding it should be not left to their whims and fancies. Finally the farmers won. The three castes of which benefitted were not untouchables. Most of them were savarna castes. Baba Saheb won the battle for them. The anti-Zamindari movement made Baba Saheb extremely popular among all. Even today, Konkan’s caste Hindu farmers have Baba Saheb’s photographs in their homes for the battle that he fought for them.
It is also important to notice that Ambedkar presented an anti-Khoti ( Zamindari) bill in the Bombay Legislative Council in 1936, and it was the same bill which became the basis for passage of the Zamindari Abolition Act in 1948 by Indian Parliament. So, all the Kurmis, Yadavs, Jats, Gujjars and other peasant communities got farming land -- they actually owe it to Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar.
I have had several opportunities to share stage with Vilas and discuss these issues. It was always enlightening to speaking with him. The amount of knowledge that he had needed someone to record and decipher. Both of us were honoured by the Ambedkarite Buddhist Organisation in Ayodhya on the Ambedkar Jayanti several years back. He participated in many events organised by me in Delhi. He would share his ideas with the youngsters and was always hopeful of a better future. It was not an easy task to sit with him for a formal conversation.
When I, along with my friend Vivek Sakpal from Mumbai, went to Pune and invited him to come to Mumbai for a conversation. He came. It is difficult to ask a person of his calibre whom we look up to, to get fixated to a particular format. I would have loved to record a much bigger conversation with him but unfortunately he had to return to Pune. We had already recorded over three hours plus. Some of my friends suggested that I edit the interview and make a smaller version, but I thought there was nothing which could be edited.
One hopes his family members and friends will bring together his writings and thoughts in larger interests of the victims of hierarchical system as well as the imported imperialist capitalist order. A big salute to Vilas Sonawane, a Satyashodhak Marxist, for his remarkable contribution to strengthen the Bahujan debate as well as social movements by articulating issues of land, resources, farmers and identity in such an extraordinarily simple way.
---
*Human rights defender. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/vbrawat, twitter: @freetohumanity

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