A conversation with Bhanwar Meghwanshi, Dalit activist from Rajasthan
Bhanwar Meghwanshi is an incisive and forthright contemporary voice of the progressive Dalit movement in Rajasthan. He has untiringly participated in campaigns and movements across the country, creating awareness on communalism, casteism, gender violence, globalisation, displacement and so on. Born on February 25, 1975 in Siridiyas village in Bhilwara district into a Dalit weaver family, Meghwanshi, at the age of 13, was indoctrinated by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), with whom he spent five active years. He was made the head teacher (mukhya shikshak) of the Sangh’s village ‘shakha’ (camp), and later on, its district office head. He was part of the first ‘kar seva’ that set out to demolish the Babri Masjid, but was arrested before reaching Ayodhya and spent 10 days in Agra jail. Thereafter, a certain incident completely shattered his faith in the RSS, making him realise their extreme, anti-Dalit stance. He severed his ties, openly taking a stance against them.
After leaving the RSS, Meghwanshi worked full-time on communal harmony, brotherhood and peace, which he continues to do, till date. He was vociferous in his writings against the Gujarat carnage of 2002, and took part in the documentation and report writing with members of the Concerned Citizens’ Tribunal formed for the Gujarat victims. He also published the magazine Diamond India between 2002 and 2012, which lent voice to struggles against communalism and casteism. He broke many stereotypes and myths regarding minority communities, uncovering truths. In an candid interview with Vidya Bhushan Rawat, Meghwanshi speaks about the state of the Dalit movement today.
Vidya Bhushan Rawat: What is the biggest challenge before the Dalit movement at the moment?
Bhanwar Meghwanshi: There are many; both external and within. It is really worrisome the way communal forces have coopted the movement. Today, a large section of Dalit leadership is getting trapped by Sangh Parivar with their lips sealed due to lure of power. Dalit representatives no longer speak about Dalits. Bureaucracy and those occupying seats of power are busy repressing Dalit voices. And the Sangh agenda is that to either take them together but if they don’t join hand then trap them false cases.
Hence we are witnessing the repression of Dalits more vigorously. The Dalit movement is also losing some of its innate fervor. It appears befuddled, and many a time, seems to lack clarity about whom it is standing with. It is unable to discern between friends and foes. Dalals who have sprung within the community have distorted the fundamental spirit of the movement. Most of the Dalit leaders are in the twilight of their careers. The challenges are new but their methods are old. The new generation Dalits want something different, but a direction seems to elude them.
And then, there are internal conflicts. The caste ‘layers’ amongst Dalits themselves threaten to be tainted with the same brush of casteism. Many Dalit castes are so busy buttressing their own identities; they have completely turned away from the work of annihilating caste. The firming up of caste identities within Dalits is the biggest hurdle in the fight against casteism, and our weakest point. Such a situation is ripe ground for the Sangh, to further its disruptive work, even as they constantly attempt to turn small differences between Dalits into permanent enmities.
VB: What would you speak on the close ranking of Ambedkar and Left forces post-Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder was short-lived, and the distance, in fact, widened in the recent JNU elections.
Meghwanshi: Yes, the two forces did converge and there was hope that the ‘Jai Bhim’-‘Laal Salam’ jugalbandhi would resonate further, stronger. That was the need for the hour. It was heartening that the country’s Left had started accepting questions of caste, and appeared standing by the Ambedkarite movement. But the confrontation between the Left Unity and Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students’ Association (BAPSA) in the recent JNU elections appears to signal the end of the unity seen in the aftermath of Rohith Vemula. This was also cited as a cause for concern by many, but I would like to see this whole sequence a bit differently.
We need to understand that India’s Left and Ambedkar groups were never natural allies, they’ve always remained two distinctive streams. Yes, they did converge on the streets over Rohith, but that does not mean a convergence of ideologies. In my opinion, it was a spontaneous solidarity, over a particular issue, which had to end sooner or later. If another issue comes along, they will meet yet again, part yet again.
But to conclude, on the other hand, that the JNU elections represent an ideological tussle may also be hasty. The Left has a chance to self-reflect. BAPSA and Left Unity have to arrive at a consensus. Merely election based rivalry cannot become the dividing line between friendship and enmity.
VB: The Left has committed many mistakes. Not only in non-acceptance of caste, but also in their class character. Their leadership has never really been in the hands of the poor. When we forge a political movement, every campaign, including that of Ambedkarites and Dalits, needs to be healthily analysed, because if none of us had faults, brahmanism could never be so strong?
Meghwanshi: I agree that this is not the time only to criticise the Left. But who will provide an answer to the fact that the Left, till date, has swept questions of caste under the carpet? Why are there no Dalits or Adivasis who have been able to come forward in their leadership? You (the Left) will talk of class, but not caste; this cannot be. You will cry hoarse about poverty but not look at caste in the face, this cannot be. The Left in India needs to fight brahmanism as honestly and responsibly as they talk against capitalism and imperialism.
At the same time, the Dalit-Bahujan movement needs to take a peek into itself; a healthy introspection, that is best for its rights. The Ambedkarite movement has to free itself from its casteist character, and at the same time, save itself from brahmanism.
VB: There is much talk of the Dalit-Bahujan unity but the only common point of the alliance amongst its constituents is anti-brahminism. Don’t you think a need for some positive programme to bring the Dalits and Bahujan together? As Babasaheb said, graded inequalities exist, and it would also be a mistake to think that within the Bahujan polarisation, all forces are equal? How can there be any unity unless there is a talk of equality?
Meghwanshi: The forces within the Dalit Bahujan are certainly not uniform. The ‘unity’ we see is a show on stage. The forces appear to come together in public only to condemn brahminism. But in reality, what expectation can we have of this alliance, when the ‘backward’ sections amongst the Bahujan stream of thought are the biggest practitioners of casteism today? They are steeped in hypocrisy, rituals and religious humbug. It would be naïve to expect those very sections who are vanguards of brahminism today, to fight against it. Take a look at the cases of Dalit atrocities. In many places, the main accused in 90% of cases is from OBCs. How do we align with those who are perpetrating violence on us every day? This is a grave situation, and our deluded leaders are far removed from both scientific and ground realities, when they insist on singing the tune of ‘Dalit-backward’ unity, and of ‘indigenous communities’ (moolniwasi) unity.
Dalit-Bahujan unity is a mere figment of our imagination. Today, some of the so-called Bahujan organisations are often led by brahman leaders. As long as the backwards stand at the forefront of casteism and continue perpetrating atrocities on Dalits, they will remain as much our opponents, just as the so-called upper castes.
VB: The media highlighted Rohith Vemula’s murder quite a bit. Many felt perhaps, it has now become more sensitive to Dalit questions. But it almost completely bypassed Delta Meghwal’s case. So many cruel incidents take place in villages, and the media just forgets. Neither Dalit nor communist organsation now approach the people of Bhagana, who are still fighting for the last four years. The media’s nowhere to be seen. Why is this so?
Meghwanshi: I don’t agree the mainstream media gave any special attention to Rohith Vemula’s death. It is only when social media started making it a big issue that the print and electronic media, true to its casteist character, started negative reporting. They created myths around Rohith’s caste, made him out to be a beef-eating seditious. Every effort was made to cast a slur on him. In Delta Meghwal’s case too, the media’s response was negative. First, they tried character assassination, and then the whole issue was simply buried quietly. In Rohith’s case, the accused were the government representatives, but in Delta’s they were of the business class; those who actually run the show of media houses and TV channels. When people from their own clan turned out to be the accused, the media naturally started wagging its tail. Dalit atrocities are not sexy stories. The rape of Dalit women do not awaken the sensitivity of the casteist media. Whether Bhagana or Dangawaas, Delta or Una, only the social media is taking it forward. The fact is that media is more worried about its advertisers than giving news about our memorandums.
VB: You have been associated with many movements like the MKSS, Right to Food, PUCL etc. Do Dalits have any place in these movements?
Meghwanshi: There has never been space for Dalits in anything that’s ‘mainstream’, nor is it there at present. Everywhere, Dalits are simply showpieces. There is no difference in the character of social movements. Nowhere is independent Dalit leadership accepted. Everyone loves the backward Dalit, but no one likes the outspoken, assertive Dalit. Civil society should also become democratic, inclusive, and stop using Dalits as labels.
VB: What is the state of Ambedkarite/Dalit movements in Rajasthan?
Meghwanshi: Rajasthan has traditionally been a feudal state. We have never had a social/political/cultural stream of protest. So much so that even during the bhakti movement, no one like Kabir or Raidas was born here. A shroud of subservience has always dominated. Mental subservience has been rampant for ages. During the Dalit liberation struggles too, Rajasthan’s participation has been negligible. During the Poona pact, the so-called leaders of Dalits of the state were distributing pamphlets against Babasaheb. Here, rather than Kabir-Phule-Ambedkar followers, Gandhi’s ‘harijans’ and weak Dalit leaders subservient to parties have been prevalent. After independence, the reins of the Dalit movement went into the hands of the Dalit followers of Hedgewar-Golwalkar, and fans of Gandhi-Nehru. Then, the socialist type political Dalit movement was born, which raised slogans of social justice, but whose leaders were from the same exploiting castes.
Consequent to the 1992 Kumher, Bharatpur Dalit massacre, a Dalit movement outside of politics started to emerge, which later became the victim of NGOisation. Project-based Dalit movements have also worsened the situation. Today, the Dalit movement in Rajasthan is under the threat of fragmentation. From individual based, routine struggles, sprung small groups. Some have opened their own family/caste based ‘shops’ in the name of Dalits, while as we talk, Rajasthan ranks the highest in Dalit atrocities, untouchability and discrimination. But it is heartening to note, after the Dangawaas episode, the Dalit youth have spontaneously come together in protest, and met with some success too. The dalit youth movement have the declared our silent dalit leadership as ‘the weeds of the Poona pact’ and also sidelined caste-based groups.
Those social organisations who have been running shops for years have also had to face many uncomfortable questions. From Dangaawas to Delta, the emergence of an independent, self-reliant Ambedkarite movement can be considered as a happy sign.
VB: Do you think Dalit groups should work separately? What is the alternative when the Left doesn’t support? Shouldn’t the Dalit- Bahujan-Minorities take new initiatives to fundamentally strengthen ourselves?
Meghwanshi: There is no need for Dalits to work in complete isolation. The need is to work with independence and self-confidence. The need is to take one’s own decisions. No matter whether there is support from the Left or other progressive streams or not, Dalit groups should be able to stand on their own. Dalit, Adivasis, Nomadic and Minority communities need to close rank, and we have to forget about taking along the BCs for now. If we can do this, we can indeed emerge as a strong political force.
VB: Do we need politics of identity or of ideology? Although it could also be said that identity contains ideology; this is contentious…the Sangh has been cleverest in using identity. How do people understand the person in front is ‘mine’? Or that he could be from the same caste, but also a dalal of the community selling its interest to the exploiters.
Meghwanshi: I feel the days of identity in Dalit struggle are over. The Sangh’s people have played the politics of identity to the hilt, and benefitted most from it. They know how to play the identity card better than us. We need to focus on ideology. If we are talking of bringing long term change, then it is important we establish the ideology of humanity and equality that Buddha, Phule, Shahu, Kabir, Raidas and Ambedkar have left us with.
VB: Your autobiography is a fine document which urges us to understand the construct of ‘our own’. I feel every ideology has its own interpretation of nationalism, which is finally used only by the dominant people within each group through which we want to control our own communities, for which we create certain principles, and where the villain is always ‘the other’ – the other caste, community or country. The villain keeps changing according to the need, but most of the times, we are the villain ourselves?
Meghwanshi: Its too early and prematurely written, as so much yet remains to be done. But these stories also need to be told. No publisher was willing to publish it. It is the new media which has reached it to the people. I have raised questions about ‘us’, or ‘our people’ and about myself too, in the Hindu Taliban. You’re right in saying we change our villains according to the need of the moment. The politics of control or domination converts into doctrines even the wrong decisions taken by us, to cover up our own weaknesses and ambitions. Dalit leadership and organisations need to respect our critiques as there should be someone who can question the villain within. Since the very idea of nation is linked to the misuse of power and authority, every group in every era will have a different delineation of nationalism, which will be used as per each one’s convenience.
At the end, the entire debate on nation, nationality and nationalism is bogus.
VB: How do you view the new wave of Dalit writings?
Meghwanshi: It is heartening that so many Dalit writings are coming up. They are still laden with the feeling of victimhood and anguish. But the literature of resistance is flourishing too. It is coming out in different languages. Yet, they are not able to make a mark on the so-called mainstream literature. We need to make Dalit literature the literature of humanity. It should not be made out to be literature of, for and by Dalits. Everyone should feel the urge to read it, and to read it with fervour. We need to make our literature of resistance more popular, cast its net wider. The Dalit writers of the Hindi belt need to improvise. Read Anand Nilakantan’s Puranic based fiction Asura and Ajaya, and you will feel like you’re sitting inside a bahujan organisation’s cadre camp and listening. Nilakantan has planted a slap on brahminism through characters such as Raavana, Duryodhana and Karna. This is just an example. Dalit literature is, in fact, literature of equality. Its voice need to be transformed into mainstream.
VB: Have we not become too ‘intellectual’ because landlessness, labour problems, manual scavenging, child labour, privatisation etc. are slowly disappearing from our list of issues? Shouldn’t all this be on the agenda of Ambedkarites?
Meghwanshi: We can be thinkers if we are of use to society. Instead of thinkers, we’ve become neurotic. We’re perpetually worried always crying. On the other hand, our intellectuals have become so vain, they live in their own world. If we cannot keep the interests of what is happening in reality today in focus, what sort of intellectuals are we? Even today, thousands of our co-brothers and sisters are forced into begging, lakhs are cleaning shit. So many children are still sifting through garbage, so many spend their lives living on the streets. We have to think – what has all this privatisation and globalisation given us? If these people’s agendas have disappeared from our thinking and campaigns, then we are indeed living in some other world. We have to bring them into the Ambedkarite struggle, only then we can call ourselves a people’s movement.
VB: For those who regard Babasaheb rightly, casteism and capitalism are both the biggest enemies. Today, Dalit youth are standing up. But a movement is also a reaction. Gujarat, Hyderabad, etc. have proved that Dalits wont keep quiet now. But the current of Ambedkarism has to keep flowing continually to build an enlightened India as envisaged by Baba Saheb. What do you feel is important for this?
Meghwanshi: Reaction is important, just as speaking out instantaneously is. I wholeheartedly support the reactions that rose in Una and Hyderabad. It is a sign that Dalit youth have zero tolerance. But we also need to understand the conspiracy behind this. Are they trying to get us lost into a maze of atrocities, trapping us so we spend all our energy in fighting these incidents, and they live on happily?
Both Casteism and capitalism are our enemies. If we fight against one and support the other; our struggle becomes feeble. The bazaar and brahminism are closely linked, to support one is to lend breath to the other. We don’t need just economic growth. We have to build an enlightened and strong India which is not merely possible with economic empowerment. We need an independent, progressive and scientific awakening which will free India of slaves of Manu and capital. For this, we have to focus on participating in cultural and economic fora. For now, all our efforts are focused on political and social equality but we seem to be unsuccessful in the direction of fighting the Vedic sanctioned slavery and economic inequality. We need to put our focus on these two issues importantly.
VB: How did you join the RSS? Did they search you out or you went voluntarily?
Meghwanshi: When I was in the 7th standard, my geography teacher rounded us up and started teaching us some games, and then some songs. Then followed some conversation. Then they gave us khakhi shorts and black caps. One day, we were told that we had been chosen by God’s will for the Sangh’s shakha, and that we were lucky to be chosen. Sure, I went on my own out of enticement of play and games. But later, recognising my capabilities, they made me the head teacher, and later, the district office head.
It is only in retrospect I realised that their talk of patriotism, ‘dharmo rakshati rakshataha’, etc., is a foil. In reality, they create fear by pointing towards Muslims, and hatred towards Christians. That is how they mobilise.
VB: I still remember two days before the Babri Masjid demolition, I was with someone in Haryana, and the words he said to me were – “this time, the kar seva will go well.” Did you know then that the Masjid would fall?
Meghwanshi: Of course I knew. It was pre-planned. Bringing down the masjid – that was the real objective of the kar seva.
VB: Even today, the Sangh is going towards Dalit and Adivasi villages, in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh. What attracts people to their programmes? Do Ambedkarism, Bahujan, Socialism, Left, or any other stream not have any programme to do with cultural aspirations, or have we stopped going to the people? It is true that the Sangh doesn’t lack resources, but they also have diligent, faithful workers who come from distant places work and with strong ideological commitment….
Meghwanshi: The Sangh today works on the model of missionaries, in far-flung places. They are found amongst the Valmiki families in cities, and they are found in distant jungles among Adivasis. They establish their ideology through social work. They are visible with the people in good times and bad. They understand people’s wants, and fulfill them, while we just talk, philosophically.
We are just not there (for people) at times of need, while the Sangh’s pracharaks are ever-present.
The Left, Ambedkarites, socialites, bahujanites, and other non-Sangh forces, have truly stopped going amidst people. They’re visible only in political debates or hollow intellectual discussions.
It is not only a matter of money, but commitment. RSS has the resources, it is true, but they also have dedicated cadres. They are willing to go anywhere.
VB: How strong is the current of cultural change in Ambedkarism in MP, Gujarat and Rajasthan?
Meghwanshi: Gujarat has become a hotbed of change. In Rajasthan and MP, it is simmering within. We need responsible leadership with the right initiative to turn it into a wave.
VB: How does one face the Sangh’s propaganda? Sometimes cow, sometimes beef, Bharat Mata, Ganga, Pakistan and Muslim preoccupy them 24 hours. They are mostly questions on which people easily get manipulated, because they think it is a matter of nation and culture. How do Dalits, Adivasis, and backward castes respond to this?
Meghwanshi: We can counter propaganda only with facts and truth. The Sangh is the world’s largest factory for packaging lies in the form of truth. Gaay (cow), Ganga, Gayatri, Gomaata, Bharat Mata, Beef, Nationalism, Patriotism, Vande Mataram are merely their tools. The underlying aim is to oppress the country’s toiling masses. They have made the Sangh and the State complementary to each other. Voting for the BJP has become synonymous with patriotism. Protection of an animal such as cow has become a symbol of culture. We have to reach the truth to people. We have to give a non-communal interpretation to the constructs of ‘country’, ‘society’ and ‘culture’. We need to talk directly with people. I am convinced only Dalits can check this harmful political virus of Hindutva.
VB: You said that the Left never understood casteism and hence, the gap between them and the Dalits will always remain. One has to form an understanding to defeat brahmanism and fascism. In many places Dalits and Muslims have substantial presence in terms of numbers, but in many, there aren’t. We have to make alliances on common ideology. What kind of people would you like to take along in the struggle of Dalits and Adivasis?
Meghwanshi: There is a need to make many kinds of alliances to counter brahmanism and fascism. Where we can work with the Left, we should associate with them, unhesitatingly on certain Common Minimum Programmes. Where we have the Bahujan alternative, no harm in going with them too and If we feel comfortable going with any religious minority, we could think of that too. The enemy is widespread, and huge. They need to be fought at different forums and with many groups.
VB: You have said the OBCs are leading in atrocities against Dalits. Isn’t that a simple statement, because if one looks at categories amongst them, the landless (among OBCs) are natural allies of the Dalits.
Meghwanshi: No, it is not a naïve statement. It is the grassroots truth. Analyse the cases lodged under the SC/ST Atrocities Act, and you’ll find my position correct. Even if the landless among the OBCs are close to Dalits in an economic sense, they are afflicted with the same ‘upper-lower’ mentality as brahmanism. The day OBCs will accept Dalit leadership, stop injustice and atrocities on Dalits, only then we can hope for change.
VB: Political struggles can never be fought with negative agenda. Buddha showed his way to change and the ‘dhamma’ spread across the globe. He didn’t take the name of the enemy even once. Babsaheb fought on political ground, he gave us rights, and he too understood at the end that we cannot have political struggle without cultural transformation. Do you feel our fight is incomplete without going towards the Buddha’s path, and only political change is insufficient for an enlightened India?
Meghwanshi: Like every religion, there appears to be a gap between thought and practice in Buddhism too. Some are brahmanising the religion. Communal elements have tried to project Buddha as Vishnu’s tenth avatar. Buddha’s statues are worshipped nearly the same way gods and goddesses are, according to the Vedic tradition. Some neo-Buddhists have brought their caste along into the religion, building ghettos into it. Even marriages are sometimes conceived of between the ‘same caste’ among the Buddhists. We need to avoid this. Another matter of concern is, those sincere workers who would fight for change in society are now neglecting taking on such struggles and have immersed themselves in meditation. Their natural militancy and dreams of social change have been stripped.
We need to understand that merely and technically converting to a religious Buddhist is not going to solve all our problems. Anyway, no religion can free Dalits, because religion itself is bondage. How can bondage give freedom? Dalits need to seek not freedom in religion but freedom from all religion. For now, Buddhism is being seen as a way out of Brahmanism – which is okay as long as it truly accepts Buddha’s scientific consciousness and rationality. It is better for the Dalits to embrace the path of Buddha.
VB : What would you say on the issue of very important elections of Uttar Pradesh.
Meghwanshi: UP elections can bring a new light in these times of darkness if Manuwadi as well as market forces are defeated. It could be termed as a referendum against the loudmouth prime minister who has completed more than half of his tenure. All the political parties are fighting this with all their might and they must make it a direct fight between ideologies. I feel that politics of hatred must get defeated.
VB: You are taking UP elections as a referendum on Narendra Modi government. Both Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party are contesting against each other. How would you call people to vote as people like me feel that saying, ‘People must vote to a party able to defeat BJP’ mean confusing them further? How could people decide who is in a winning position hence it is important to make an ambiguous appeal to them who to vote in the greater interest of the country.
Meghwanshi: There is no difficulty in this. First aim should be to defeat BJP, second should be to vote the party in a position to defeat BJP. Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party are the main rivals though the media is trying to underplay BSP as for them it seems that SP, BJP and Congress are the main force in Uttar Pradesh. Is it a correct understanding of the situation there? In my opinion, despite numerous contradictions and disagreement, I would like to appeal to the people of Uttar Pradesh to vote for Behan Mayawati to bring the government of Bahujan Samaj Party. I am saying this because I feel SP is losing because of its own issues while Congress may not gain much despite Rahul Gandhi’s hard work. We must not allow BJP to win hence BSP is the only alternative at the moment.
The original conversation was in Hindi. The English translation is by Sowmya Sivakumar.
Republished with permission from Manuski