‘Only a radical Ambedkar can give us mukti’

“I am not an actor, I am an activist,” asserts Nagpur-based Vira Sathidar. The 55-year-old gritty lead actor of the Marathi film 'Court,' India’s official entry to the Oscars, feels he has depicted his own struggle as a Dalit rights activist through the role of Narayan Kamble in the film. He met Omar Rashid in Nagpur on October 14, the 59th anniversary of B.R Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism, to talk about what is ailing the Dalit movement today. Excerpts:

Omar Rashid

What meaning does Ambedkar’s conversion have for you?

It has a personal connect. My parents (who belonged to Ambedkar’s caste, Mahar) got married in June that year. My father didn’t have the money to attend the conversion day, so he mortgaged all the utensils in the house to be able to travel to Nagpur. Babasaheb was the icon who struggled to give human dignity to people enslaved and most deprived. For that, he has a place in our hearts. People today understand the Buddhism he adopted in terms of a religion. But for me, Buddha was not the founder of any religion. He was a scientific philosopher, a guide.

How do you relate to the character of Narayan Kamble?

Until I was cast, I had no idea who the filmmakers were or why they wanted me. I am a street fighter [smiles], not an actor. But in the course of the film, I realised that the on-screen character of Narayan Kamble was being lived out every day in the form of activists like Vira Sathidar. The way he was intimidated and mistreated by the state, I have faced similar torment in my life... When [the] police raided my house twice, they seized many magazines and books, including the Annihilation of Caste by B.R. Ambedkar and the Communist Party of India’s mouthpiece Yugantar.

Has the fame achieved following Court changed that?

The police and intelligence bureau are always after me. They followed me even during the shooting of the film! In May, Gondia police came to our studio in Mumbai looking for a “Naxalvadi actor.” The crew, including the director and producer, were scared. I was in my make-up van. I knew the police had come for me, but to ease the tension I lied to my crew. I tried to assure them that if the police had come to arrest me, they would have done it from Nagpur. The police wanted to intimidate me and disturb work. And the crew was disturbed; we had to cancel two days of shooting. Their (police) political bosses knew that if the film hit the big screen, I would get emboldened and become taller than an ordinary activist. They would not be able to control me. In a way, I am emboldened. Court has given me strength.

How has the government responded on the Oscar nomination?

After the film’s release and despite winning many awards, policemen came to my house and asked me, ‘Why have we been asked to keep a tab on you?’ I told them, ‘It’s obvious, I fight for common people.’ Not a single member of the State or Central government has come to congratulate me. The Chief Minister [Devendra Fadnavis] is from my city but I have not received a single word or intimation of acknowledgment.

You were a product of the Dalit Panthers. Why is the Dalit movement so shaky today?

When Babasaheb began his movement, the generation of my father and grandfather stood by him. Only a handful of Dalits were educated then. They had no access to education, resources or means of livelihood. If an animal died in the village, Dalits would feed on it for survival. Babasaheb educated and ‘politicalised’ such a generation. But today we talk of the ‘ghar wapsi’ of Dalits. And with Dalits visiting temples and installing Ganpati idols at home, we must realise that we have already completed our ‘ghar wapsi.’ Babasaheb sacrificed a lot for his community. It’s unfortunate that Dalits have betrayed him.

Where are the shortcomings?

You need to go back in history. When the Dalit Panthers was formed in 1972, by people like Namdeo Dhasal and J. Pawar, they presented a manifesto that they would dismantle the present system and bring in a new one. It took inspiration from the Black Panthers movement in the U.S. Today, however, we have no such legacy. The Dalit Andolan has erased its history and ideology. If the Dalit movement needs to stand again, the Dalits must understand the historical trajectory of the Naxal movement, which ran parallel to it. How and why a tiny movement spread to over 200 districts. One reason was that they never compromised on their ideology. There was no Ambedkar born in that movement. But Dalits, regrettably, do not have any role models other than Babasaheb.

You say Dalits can learn a lot from the Naxal movement. Without endorsing the violence, of course.

When Babasaheb began his movement, the generation of my father and grandfather stood by him.

Without endorsing the ways of the ideologies, we can learn a lot from it. Both were honest attempts at change and had committed activists who knew their goals — achievable either through guns or elections. The Dalit movement was spread across India. But look at it today. It’s on the verge of annihilation. What are the reasons for it? Personal limitation of its leaders? Problems in its structure? Or its leadership? Or faults in its ideology? The state offered similar baits to cripple both movements. In a very short time, a lot of Dalit leaders jumped on those little crumbs. The Naxals didn’t even bother and footed their movement on the support of poor tribals. So, one movement sustained despite the resistance of the state, its machinery and armed forces. They have no scope to print material, or meet or propagate their ideology. But the Dalits have full scope, are allowed to hold big sammelans, hold press conferences, take our rallies, or shout slogans on the road. Yet, their movement is missing.

Is that why Dalits are being saffronised today?

They don’t have honesty towards themselves or their society or ideology. Dalits don’t have faith in their ideology and doubt if they can achieve their goals through Ambedkar’s movement. They consider it a failure. Ambedkar never compromised with the State. If ever he stepped back, it was due to compulsions or to buy time for another strategy. Ambedkar always stood against radical Hindutva. In history, he emerged as a friend of Muslims. One reason why Dalits are being saffronised is that even today the jati sytem is prevalent among the Dalits. That is a gift of Hinduism. The Buddhism Dalits adopted has been in the form of a religion, not as an ideology. For them, Buddha is not a progressive icon or Ambedkar a ladaku sainik. He is a god. Saffron forces are trying to eliminate those who stood against Hindutva, and it that fails, co-opt them. And today, the process of saffronisation of Dalits is catching pace. The current system does not solve the problems of the masses but only of a few. The saffron forces are capitalising on that discontent among the Dalit youth. Previously, no Congress or Jan Sangh jeep would dare enter my village even during elections. Now, in my village Dalits are organising RSS ‘path sanchalans’ (customary route march). This is a betrayal of Ambedkar.

Is there a way back?

Time will tell. When Dalits will learn that despite coming into the saffron fold, their status has not changed, discontent will grow. They do not have commitment towards anybody, how can they be committed to saffron forces? But we should not rush and blame it on the Dalit youth. The damage was done long back, when Republican Party of India leaders like R.S. Gawai joined hands with the Shiv Sena. Then Dhasal, Ramdas Athawale and Joginder Kawade followed suit. The Dalit movement needs to be aggressive. There is no other way.

But doesn’t the co-opting of Ambedkar pose fresh obstacles for any revival?

Today, Ambedkar is projected as an anti-Muslim, anti-communist, samriddhavadi (prosperous) Ambedkar, a social reformer of Hinduism. A saffron Ambedkar is being erected. It is our responsibility that we project what he actually was, a radical Ambedkar. Only a radical Ambedkar can give us mukti.

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Printable version | Mar 2, 2021 11:56:47 PM |

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