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‘Memoirs of a Dalit Communist: The Many Worlds of R.B. More’ review: The revolutionary is dead, long live the revolutionary

Ramchandra Babaji More is not a big name in India’s progressive circles. A Dalit organiser who was close to B.R. Ambedkar, he didn’t get his due in the history of Dalit politics. A pioneering mobiliser for the Communist Party in Maharashtra, he didn’t get his due in the history of the Indian Left either. Needless to say, he also doesn’t figure prominently in the savarna-dominated pantheon of India’s freedom fighters and social reformers.

Plugging a gap

This volume, which combines More’s unfinished autobiography with his son Satyendra’s biography of his father, is a much needed corrective. It plugs a gap in the histories of both Dalit politics and Indian communism. Translated from Marathi by Wandana Sonalkar, it has a scholarly introduction by historian Anupama Rao that contextualises More’s life and work against the backdrop of Dalit movements and trade unionism in early 20th century Maharashtra.

More’s relative obscurity, in itself, is a potent signifier — of a revolutionary whose courage and dedication dwarfed that of the organisations he served. Born in a Mahar family in 1903 in Ladawali, a village in Maharashtra’s Raigad district, More’s political activism began early. At the age of 11, when denied admission to Mahad high school despite winning a scholarship, he pens a letter to a local newspaper, demanding that the school’s grant be stopped. His letter shames, and scares, the school into giving him admission, striking a blow against untouchability that reverberated throughout the Konkan. Subsequently, More, still a school boy, helps set up a tea stall in Mahad that becomes a meeting point for ‘Untouchables’ to gather and discuss social issues. Since he knew English, he also becomes a letter-writer for ‘Untouchables’ and poor savarnas.

In Phule’s steps

More’s political work in the Mahad region, building on the foundation laid by Jyotirao Phule and others, laid the groundwork for the historic Mahad Satyagraha in 1927. In 1930, just as the independent Dalit movement was gathering steam, More informs Ambedkar of his decision to officially join the Communist Party. Ambedkar’s response is priceless. This is how Satyendra describes the exchange: “Seeing More’s courage and honesty, he [Ambedkar] said, ‘I am overwhelmed by your sincerity and dedication.... I wonder whether the Communist Party in India, which belongs to Brahmins, will appreciate your dedication and honesty?’”

As an organic intellectual, More sought to bridge the divide between class struggle and identity politics. In 1953, he prepared a note on ’Untouchability and the Caste Question’ and sent it to the party leadership. The note (included in this volume) is a clear-eyed analysis of the class-caste conundrum that resonates six decades after it was written. More states what should have been obvious to the Party — that caste consciousness is the biggest hindrance to class consciousness — and calls for prioritising the fight against caste.

“The caste system is a hideous form of hypocrisy of which a revolutionary party like the Communist Party must take cognisance and its hideousness must be thoroughly and unhesitatingly exposed,” reads the note.

The Left’s record in independent India suggests, however, that the Party leadership didn’t quite embrace ‘the More line’.

How did More fare on the other side of the divide — in Dalit politics? While he did manage to attract a host of Dalit activists into the Communist fold, he wasn’t as successful in dissolving the distrust between Communists and the independent Dalit movement. Not only has this distrust persisted to the present day, it has developed into a festering fault line even amongst Dalit groups.

More’s personal life was unbelievably hard. His family paid a terrible price for his utter dedication to party work. His sense of dignity prevented him from taking even the normal share of monetary help from the party. In the end, one is left wondering, as Ambedkar did: will the Left and the Dalit movements warm up to his life’s work? Perhaps the time has finally come.

Memoirs of a Dalit Communist: The Many Worlds of R.B. More; Edited by Anupama Rao, Translated by Wandana Sonalkar, LeftWord Books, ₹450.

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