The Real Lokamanya

May 31, 2022 at 9:15 PMMay (Activism, Letter, Media, Musings, Soliloquy)

“To combat a deadly disease, drastic remedies are required,” said Dr. Ambedkar when some around him wondered if the decision to go to Mahad and drink the water from the Chowdar lake was an “impatient” one. Following the act of Babasahaeb and his comrades of concern, the upper-caste people of Mahad had not just beaten up the Dalits of the village but also performed a ritual to ‘purify’ the Chowdar lake, which according to them had been polluted by the untouchables. Mere education, creation of awareness and exposing the truth of scriptures wouldn’t be sufficient to battle untouchability, opined Ambedkar and decided to launch another Satyagraha at Mahad.

This decision was welcomed and supported by the non-Brahmin leaders Dinkarrao Javalkar and Keshavrao Jede. But the two leaders had a condition for Dr. Ambedkar. They wanted no Brahmin to participate in the proposed conference at Mahad or in the whole of the second phase of Mahad satyagraha. The bitter memory of what had happened in Mahad earlier was probably what prompted Javalkar and Jede to make such a request, and it was not unjustified. Babasaheb strictly said no to the condition put forth by Javalkar and Jede saying “the view that all Brahmins were the enemies of Untouchables was erroneous,” and explained that what he hated was the men who were possessed with the spirit of Brahminism. He added that “a non-Brahmin filled with such ideas of highness and lowness was a repellent” to him as a “Brahmin free from this spirit and sense of these privileges and unjust power” was welcome to him.

The stand taken by Ambedkar, so different from the position of Javalkar and Jede, reflects the worldview of his. In addition, it is possible, it is a glimpse also of his own experiences- shaped by some true allies of anti-caste struggle coming from the Brahmin community. One among them, a close associate of Ambedkar and his fight against Untouchability was Shridhar Balwant Tilak alias Shridharpanth!

Shridharpanth who founded the Pune branch of Samata Samaaj Sangh, an organization started by Ambedkar, and also served as its Vice-President, was the son of Balgangadhar Tilak. “It is a miracle that an Ambedkarite was born in an extremely brahminical set-up,” says Shatrughn Jadhav, author of a book on Shridharpanth and his close association with Ambedkar.

Though it shouldn’t be expected of the children that they always follow the footpath of the parent, the overpowering influence the family environment has on individuals, especially during their formative years, is undeniable. An Ambedkaraite coming out from the Tilak family appears like a miracle, not just because of the influence parental figures have on children, but also because the battle of ideology, and the social-political and legal fights that were happening between the two camps, the conservative Brahmin nationalists, whose idea of a nation was based on a castist idea of a society, and the non-Brahmin warriors of social justice, who envisioned political independence through the lens of social justice.

The intensity of the battle between these two streams can be better understood by having a closer look at the saarvajanik ganeshotsav (collective celebration of Ganesha festival) in Pune.

At the end of the 19th century Sardar Krishanji Kashinath alias Nanasaheb Khajgiwale witnessed the public celebration of Ganesha festival in Gwalior and replicated the same in Pune the next year. Though there was only three public celebrations of Ganesha that year in Pune, the idea captured the imagination of Balagangadhar Tilak who in his Kesari editorial wrote great words of appreciation about the new culture. As a result of this and the calculated and concentrated effort of Tilak around 150 public celebration of Ganesh were held in Pune the next year.

Sarvajanik Ganeshotsav popularized by Tilak has been hailed as a master stroke since it played a role in mobilizing people against the colonial rule. But along with creating a political awareness against the colonial regime, these public celebrations were also used as political tools or weapons against the majority of Indians. This needs a bit of an elaboration. Those days with the blessings of Balagangadhar Tilak a music troupe named Sanmitra Mela, who sang during the Ganesha festival. The songs of the Sanmitra Mel would ridicule and belittle the political opponents of Tilak, namely Gopalkrishna Gokhale, Firoze Shah Mehta, Rajaram Shastri Bhagawat and the song package of Sanmitra Mela also had songs that were anti Dalits and spat venom on girls going to school, and upholding the views of Tilak against girl education. These songs were harming beyond the public celebrations, when children listening to these songs would go to school and repeat them before girls and Dalits. Many of the girls and Dalits finding it humiliating, in addition to other humiliations caused by caste discriminations, opted out of school! This condescending and dehumanizing music culture continued for many years with the blessings of Tilak.

Some years later, as a response to the Sanmitra Mela, under the guidance and leadership of Jede and Javalkar a new music troupe came into existence. The new troupe was called Chatrapati Mela. The songs churned out by the Chatrapati Mela sang the glory of Shivaji, Shahu Maharaj and mainly Phule. The songs also took on themselves to spread the values lived and upheld by these icons and leaders. Also, the songs of Chatrapati Mela critiqued the vision and action of the Tilakites. Javalkar collected these songs and published them as a book under the title Chatrapati Padya Sangrah.

The fight between these two forces got so intense that from mere battle of bands, it got physical when to combat Tilakites formed a vigilante group to tame the Chatrapati Mela. In response to this move by the Tilakites, another group of vigilantes was formed by Jede and Javalkar.

If one is to observe this battle of titans closely, it does seem like a miracle that an Ambedkarite emerged from the house of Tilak!

Shridharpanth, unlike his father Balagangadhar Tilak, held views against untouchability, girl child marriage, shaving the heads of widows, and also worked towards their abolition. This shows how his views and understanding came very close to that of Babasaheb, who in his writings had shown how these very elements – girl child marriage, enforced widowhood, degradation of widows- were at the heart of caste system’s formation. Hence fighting against these matters were essential to the politics of Ambedkar and preaching superficially against untouchability alone wasn’t sufficient to annihilate caste. Shridharpanth shared this dream, and also worked with Ambedkar on the same lines.

Even before coming into contact with Ambedkar, Shridharpanth held progressive opinion and anti-caste views. He would argue with his father saying political freedom and social justice are both important, while his father largely believed that the matters of social justice were a mark of ‘loss of nationality’ and it ‘denationalized’ persons. This deviation of Shridharpanth from the path of his father caused a lot of discomfort among the colleagues and followers of Balagangadhar Tilak.

The discomfort of Tilakites reached its peak because of three reasons. One, the political views of Shridharpanth became sharp after him coming to contact with Ambedkar. After the Dalit students’ conclave in Pune, the young Tilak not just took Ambedkar to Gaikwad-waada of Tilak, this and him starting the Pune branch of Samataa Samaaj Sangh made this friendship and camaraderie very clear and loud. To make it worse, outside the Gaikwad-wada he put a board that read ‘chaturvarnya vidhwamsak samiti’. These became the second reason.  To top it all, Shridharpanth organized an inter-caste dining at Gaikwad-wada and invited nearly 200 people from the Untouchable communities, which included many singers and instrumentalists from the Chatrapati Mela. The main guest of this inter-caste dining was none other than Babasaheb Ambedkar. This became an unbearable matter for the Tilakites, majorly those from the Kesari-Marhatta Trust. They sweated quite a bit to stop this inter-caste dining from happening. When all their efforts failed they broke the electric wire and cut the power connection from Gaikwad-wada when the guests were about to arrive. Though this created a small commotion, Shridharpanth handled it calmly. He requested the members and allies of Samaaj Samtaa Sangh to bring in lanterns and lamps from their homes, which they did, and finally the inter-caste dining happened with hundreds of lamps and lanterns providing the necessary illumination.

What followed this was tragic!

The members of the Keasri-Marhatta Trust who were against the property being handed over to Shridharpanth, sketched conspiracy against him and his brother Rambhavu who too was a progressive minded person, and began torturing them psychologically by making a legal move with regard to the ownership of Kesari and Marhatta newspapers and the Trust. The brothers faced a lot of humiliation, ridiculing and harassment from the Trustees who were being supported even by the extended family of Tilak, after Shridharpanth organized the inter-caste dining at Gaikwad-wada. They began speaking lowly of him in public, tarnishing his image and thus creating a public opinion against him. Some relatives of Shridharpanth, the well-meaning ones, unable to see the targetting of brothers, requested them to reconcile with the Tilakites and give up their ideological beliefs. But both the brothers refused to do so. 

Probably striking a balance between a tender heart and a sharp mind became difficult for Shridharpanth. Unable to bear the torture of the conservatives, he jumped under a running train and killed himself on the 25th of May in the year 1928. He was just 32 then.

Just before killing himself by suicide, Shridharpanth wrote three letters. One to the the then Collector of Pune, one to the newspapers and one to his friend B.R. Ambedkar. In his letter to Babasaheb he wishes best to the anti-caste struggle, expresses his solidarity with the movement and Samaaj Samtaa Sangh, and in a moving line says he is going ahead in time to let the Almight know about the grievances of his Dalit brothers and sisters.

The day this letter reached him home, Ambedkar was in Jalgao where he first got the news of Shridharpanth’s untimely death. Ambedkar in his obituary to Shridharpanth wrote about how he kept wishing that the news was a false one. But since the news came from the Pune members of the Samaaj Samta Sangh, of which Shridharpanth was the vice-president, the chances of it being a lie was less and Ambedkar had to believe the news and this, he says in his obituary, made his heart heavy with pain. He also speaks about how he immediately saw that it could not be a natural death and was restless to know what had caused the death. On reaching home Babasaheb went to pick up the newspaper to read the details of Shridharpanth’s death and along with newspaper he also found a letter written to him by Shridharpanth. It is said that Ambekar wept on reading the letter by Shridharpanth. In the same obituary Ambedkar holds the conservatives of Pune and the Tilakites responsible for the death of Shridharpanth and also calls his untimely death a great loss not just to Maharashtra but to the whole of India.

Later in the obituary, recollecting how Balagangadhar Tilak spoke dismissively about his paper Mookanaayak, and also about the Dalits, Ambedkar declares that a man like Tilak is not worthy of the title Lokamanya. He says that the ‘loka’ (world) of the so called Lokamanya was casteist and non-inclisive. This was not the case with his son Shridharpanth, says Ambedkar, and declares that Shridharpanth is the real Lokamanya.

(Originally written in Kannada for my fortnightly column daarihoka for the webportal ee-dina)

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