“The Earth does not rest on Sheshanaga’s forehead. It is safe in the hands of Dalits, farmers and workers. (Annabhau Sathe)
As we celebrate the centenary of the birth of Tukaram (Annabhau Sathe), we not only see the relevance of his writings then, but still today. Here is a man belonging to the Maanag (Matang) community, an untouchable, who abandoned his education because he was humiliated because of his caste from the 4e standard, yet self-taught to create a body of work that spans, novels, articles, film scripts, Powada (Marathi folk song) at a prolific pace. Annabhau’s deep and comprehensive legacy, which deepened between the years of 1942 and 1966. It has 32 novels, 22 story collections, 10 folk plays, 10 ballads, 2 plays, 1 story of travel and 2 urban literatures. It’s not just quantitatively huge, it’s very deep in ideology and commitment to social issues. And the depth of its message is such that it is translated into most Indian languages and has also reached the world as it is translated into many foreign languages like German, Russian and Slovak. Czech and French. Most of his work sort of comes from the works he has undergone and observed up close in his lifetime.
The extreme poverty of his family forced them to migrate to Mumbai, walking on foot for six months. Not only in their village he saw the exploitation on the ground of caste and class, while traveling also he got entangled and landed as forced labor, from which he escaped with difficulty. The experiences in Mumbai are a little different, the exploitation continues but the livelihood comes from the multiple opportunities available, washing dishes in hotels, as a performer in Tamasha (a form of folk entertainment) and as a worker in textile factories. All this while living in the atrocious conditions of the slum of Ghatkopar, a suburb of Mumbai. His observations and experiences appear in his literature rather than his literature being the mirror of the life he lived and lived. His literature and his brilliant oratory aim to lend a hand to the agitations and struggles of which he is a part.
The early part of his life was the period of India’s slavery to the British and when he became a member of the Communist Syndicate he raised his voice against labor exploitation. It is part of the resistance against the exploitation of workers. The scripts of his films, the novels brought his fame to Russia, where he was invited twice and could see how the revolution transformed this country from abject poverty and a drift towards a better condition for the masses laborious. Although later things got worse!
As he was not a parlor writer, the pangs of his own more enormous and humiliating social position are expressed in his work, which is prolific in every respect. His statement that the Earth does not rest on the head of a many-threaded serpent but on the labor of Dalits and workers speaks to his ideological foundations. While his biography is a fascinating read, much to learn and even debate in today’s changing context, what sticks in the mind after reading his life trajectory is the story of a man totally committed to social change for a better society. A man raised in caste riddled, a man who suffered caste oppression which included residing in Mangwada (area where the untouchables live), outside the village, outside society but also determined to raise his voice against the ignominies of the caste system through his performances and his writings. A man raised in widespread poverty, but presenting his characters with respect, dignity and equality. Even in the midst of the dominant patriarchal society, her female characters present themselves with the dignity of equal beings.
His “Lal bavta” (red flag) troupe had performed in various places to elevate the number of workers to oppose intense exploitation by capitalists and add strength to strengthen the progressive movement for workers’ economic rights . It is also reminiscent of one of the later similar contributions of Safdar Hashmi, who was killed while performing in a Delhi slum. To add to the workers’ struggle, he addressed the issue of caste injustices and followed the path of Jotirao Phule and Ambedkar.
There can always be a debate about the politics of the leftist parties and those who have focused on the caste system, the rights of the Dalits. It is unfortunate that these additional questions have been presented as opposite and contrasting paths. If we see the path taken by Joti Rao Phule, we see that in his book, Shetkaryache Asud, Phule sees the same person as a practitioner and the same person is placed on the lower ladder of the caste system, to be exploited in the two meanings: caste and class. In the case of Babasaheb Ambedkar, he not only leads the Chavdar Talav and Kalaram Mandir agitation, but also continues to form the Independent Labor Party.
This dichotomy between caste and class has been a great handicap to the progress of the social movement for equality in India. Today’s communist parties seem to have partly awakened to caste issues in a positive way. What is needed is to overcome the thinking of left-wing parties at odds with Babasaheb in the past. The left must surely go beyond the struggles of worker-farmers alone and try to form a common front where the problems of dalits-adivasis and workers are treated at the same level, where alliances rooted in economic and social issues must be discussed and the rise of authoritarian tendencies in the name of religion must be curbed.
The hierarchy of castes has always taken the guise of religion. The same Religion that gave legitimacy to caste-Varna presents itself today in the form of nationalism. How would Annabhau have viewed today’s political scenario? Today we see that politics, which wants to maintain the status quo, politics, which creates hysteria around nationalism, not only targets religious minorities, but also ensures that the old values of the times of manusmriti be glorified. It is a signal to retain or bring back the caste-gender hierarchy in new forms.
It can surely be said that in today’s environment, the great literary person with all the talents from his lived life and aspiring to see a better society, a society without exploitation, would have stood up to oppose religious nationalism. This nationalism is not the one that Annabhau associated with the period of British slavery. This nationalism is that which opposed the rights of equality. He sidelined the workers’ struggle that opposed the exploitative caste. This nationalism is the one that never supported Babasaheb’s efforts for the eradication of untouchability and his concept of caste annihilation. The same sectarian-religious nationalism sees the communists as an internal threat to the “Hindu nation”.
Annabhau’s literature emerges from the characters he encountered in his life during his long years of wandering, travelling, working as a textile worker and observing with deep empathy his neighborhood, the slums where he spent most of his life. It is because of this that he does not consider class and caste struggles as binary, it is because of this that his female characters are those who have dignity and are considered as men as beings equal.
In the current context, everything Annabahu stands for is opposed by mainstream politics in the name of religion. This policy aims at the hegemony of castes and dominant classes, this policy in a subtle way gradually restores inequality in a subtle way. Glorifying the caste system and supporting monopoly capital is an integral part of this ideology that hides under the guise of religion. The ideology that dominates today puts the time and achievements of the leftist movement and the goal of Babasaheb’s struggle to be eliminated by intelligent formulation, raising emotive questions of temple, beef, nationalism, jihad love and merit. The labor movement has been weekend due to industrialization model automation changes etc.
Divisions between religious communities intensify and issues raised by the oppressed are hidden from view by society and social thinkers. This is when the path indicated by Annabhau is most relevant. A society free from exploitation, meeting the basic needs of food, housing, employment and health is the need of the hour. The communities and social groups for which he fought are going through a very difficult time. Their subsistence levels are declining; their basic basic needs are far from being met. The caste system is manipulated to follow the path of the old values of the hierarchy, i.e. Manuvaad, throughout.
Annabhau undoubtedly rises the highest in literary contributions and calls for social upliftment in the most human way. Call it Marxism; call it Ambedkarism, it wants to embrace all the values and all the principles that can uplift the oppressed in society. This is the message of his life. Fight injustice in the most positive way; synthesize ideologies that can unite the oppressed of society to present themselves as a united movement to counter class-caste-gender exploitation.
His own journey, full of deprivation, shows that he did not see himself as a victim, but as an agent of change. You can ignore the deprivations in your life. When told to move to a bigger house after getting money from his writings and film scripts etc., he said that “Sitting in an armchair, I can imagine the poverty, but I can’t feel the pain of hunger without mine. hunger pangs!” A fourth standard dropout creating a literature on which hundreds of doctoral researches can be committed is a real phenomenon. It is because it learned in the school of life; it is possible because he has converted his own feeling of hunger into a social problem, which must be overcome for the whole of society.
He was awarded Maharashtra’s highest literary honor, but his work is no less than Nobel-deserving. He is in the league of Tagore and Premchand on a literary level. He is the best embodiment of the values held by Marxism, and he is the best expression of what Ambedkar struggled to achieve.
It must surely be required reading for anyone who dreams of a society of equality, freedom and dignity.