The Renaming Movement was now slipping into oblivion. Hundreds of barely literate men and women had shed their blood for it.
During Babasaheb’s lifetime, the Dalit movement had seen such episodes as the Mahad Chavdar Tank satyagraha, the fight for entry into the Kalaram Temple, and other such momentous events. Of the ones he had left behind for the Dalits to fight, the most important one was the struggle to rename Marathwada University after Babasaheb Ambedkar.
The demand to change the name of the university was first made in 1974. In 1978, when Sharad Pawar’s Progressive Democratic Front government was in power, he brought resolutions in both houses of the legislature to effect the change in names.
The resolutions were passed by both houses and the news was announced on the radio. Marathwada began to burn. The whole of society seemed to be divided between those who supported the change and those who opposed it. The name was finally officially changed in 1994. The struggle lasted for nearly twenty years. These two decades gave my life a certain shape, as they did the lives of many Dalit youths who were involved in the struggle. My future personal and social confrontations were all shaped in some way by my participation in the Renaming Movement.
Before having the resolution passed, the Progressive Demoratic Front government should have made some attempt to understand the background to the struggle. The Janata Party government was at the Centre. At that time, the students of Milind College were under the aegis of the Marathwada University. Whenever there was a meeting of the university board, fifty to sixty students would march for the change of name. They would make speeches in front of the board. At one of these morchas, a speech went: “When a university can be named after Patrice Lumumba, why cannot a university in Marathwada be named after Dr Ambedkar?” What do we learn from this? At the beginning, there was no real strong opposition to the change in name. Then the Dalit Panthers had a meeting in Mumbai. At this meeting, it was decided that the protests should be accelerated. At that time, I was studying in Beed. The Panthers had a strong network among the students. Thus a decision made in Mumbai was not limited to Mumbai. There were no mobile phones as there are today, but the students made up for this with their enthusiasm and commitment. Thus injustice anywhere echoed up and down the state. For the Dalits, this was the first or second generation that had reached college. The Emergency, Jayaprakash Narayan’s call for Total Revolution, Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodaan (The Gift of Land) Movement, the rise of the Naxalites...all this was in the air. I too was active in the Panthers Movement. No sensitive and thinking youth could possibly be neutral in this charged environment.
And so, almost without my willing it, I became a supporter of the Renaming Movement.
The issue had divided the socialist leadership. The old freedom fighter Govindbhai Shro and the editor of the daily newspaper Marathwada, Anantrao Bhalerao were against the change, while leaders like SM Joshi were for it. It was not as if the socialists who were against the change of name were an evil bunch. They had some sympathy for the Dalit cause but were not in favour of the Dalits aggressively demanding their rights. As human beings, they were on the side of the Dalits but they did not think organisations like the Dalit Panthers were helping the cause. This was the confusion in the thinking of the socialists. They were not very comfortable with the idea of the Dalits taking things into their own hands, working up the courage to fight their own battles and challenging the status quo.
There was another stream in the anti-Renaming faction. After India gained Independence, there were still some princely states that had remained untouched by the new dispensation. Marathwada had been part of the Nizam’s territory and so a different battle had to be fought here to gain independence.
One argument that was also put forward was that Dr Ambedkar had never fought for the independence of Marathwada, and had always been on the side of the Nizam and thus his name could not be used for the Marathwada University. But this held no water.
In truth, Babasaheb had always been opposed to the idea of an independent Hyderabad. There were also a number of Brahmins who had benefited from the Nizam’s support. Why are none of them seen as traitors to the cause of Independence? But those who opposed the change of name had put together a number of weak arguments like this one. It was also in the interests of the state government to keep this issue burning. With all these concerns around, the problem of caste could be ignored. The casteists therefore had their way. The Dalits who celebrated the birthdays of their leaders, refused to do Maharki, wore fine clothes and walked about in style were identified and killed. The upper-caste students were also infused with this enthusiasm. Their groups presented the Vice-Chancellor with a memorandum asking him not to change the name of the University.
In truth, up to this point in time twelve universities had had their names changed. The Kurukshetra University had had its name changed to BN Chakravarty University. Kurukshetra is held to be the ground on which the war of the Mahabharata was fought; the change in the name did not offend anyone’s religious sensibilities. But here, changing the name to the author of the Indian Constitution seemed to create problems for Marathwada’s feudal mentality. The Dalit Panthers decided to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Mahad Chavdar Tank agitation.
The then chief minister, Vasantdada Patil, attended the celebration. The Panthers presented him with a list of ten demands, the change of name being one of them. The Chief Minister agreed in principle. Up to that point, the change in name had been on paper. But the PDF government then took over. This was Sharad Pawar’s purogami (Progressive) government. It was their moral duty to propose the name change. They did make the proposal and the next day riots erupted in the villages. The homes of Dalits were burned. If a morcha supporting the Renaming went out on one day, a morcha against it would follow on the next day. This led to a chain of morchas, one after the other. The Shiv Sena was against the Renaming. Everyone, students, teachers, lawyers, doctors, right down to the villagers, were taking sides.
It was put about that the riots that broke out after the announcement of the change in name had come about spontaneously but this was a lie.
The Mahars were the target of systematic arson. In most villages, the Mahars and the Mangs live side by side, but the homes of the Mahars would be burned and the same people who tried to burn those homes would also wet down the houses of the Mangs to protect them from burning. If these were spontaneous riots, how did they know exactly which houses were the Mahars’ and which were not? Actually, the upper castes did not want the rebellious Mahars around but they were fine with the Mangki-performing, field-minding, cow-carcass-dragging, bowing-and-scraping Mangs. These riots caused many Neo- Buddhists to leave their homes and live in exile. Rejecting this divisiveness, many Mang youths threw themselves into the Renaming Movement.
Pochiram Kamble was one of the most active Mangs in the movement and he was murdered with no remorse. He was from Tembhurni village, Nanded. He had a good life, two children, 4 acres of land and two buffaloes that had been given to him by the bank. He was always in the forefront of the celebrations of Ambedkar Jayanti, despite being a Mang. None of this pleased the upper castes of the village. The Dalits of this village were in good shape. They had built pakka houses for themselves. When the change of name was announced, the upper castes got the opportunity they were looking for to squeeze the Dalits. At around 7.00 am a thousand or a thousand five hundred people got together and attacked the Dalits. They did not just set the houses alight, they made sure they were destroyed with fire bombs. The Dalits began to run helter-skelter.
Then a mob, a hundred or a hundred-and-fifty strong, began to chase Pochiram Kamble. He ran and ran until at last they caught him at the edge of the village. They stabbed him in the stomach. They told the half-dead Pochiram that if he stopped saying “Jai Bhim” they would let him go.
Pochiram refused. They tied his hands and feet together.
They gathered firewood and they burned him alive. This was not enough to sate the demon of casteism in them. They came back to the village and performed pooja in the temple. In an act of ironic celebration, they distributed prasad in the village. This mayhem lasted twelve hours. However, not one newspaper printed an account of the murder of Pochiram. When the news was printed, lies were used to defame him; he was a rapist, they said, he was a thug, he was a criminal. The cement houses of the Dalits had been destroyed but the newspapers reported that four huts had been burned. The newspapers were, at this time, anti- Dalit. Pochiram had a son, Chander, a twenty-year-old. He was missing. He had watched his father’s murder happen. His faith in the rule of law had been destroyed. Later, Chander would murder someone to avenge the death of his father.
In the village of Sugav, Nanded district, Janardhan Mevade was cut into pieces. It was reported that he was a thief and that was why the village had decided to use axes to cut him into pieces.
It did not occur to any of the reporters to ask why he had not been handed over to the police if he were a thief. The newspapers were complicit in the sin of labelling a Dalit worker a thief and thus supporting the upper castes in their vigilante justice.
A hundred and eighty villages in Marathwada witnessed such violence. The riots raged for ten days. At eighteen places, there was police firing. More than a thousand Dalit homes were set on fire. At that time, I was studying in second year BA. As the news came in, I would grow restive; my mind would fill with anger. Then there would be meetings and morchas. I would come forward to make representations to the government. My mother would worry for me as I was upsetting many people in the village. The Patil was already my enemy, but even my caste members were spiteful in their opposition to me.
Excerpted with permission from Strike A Blow To Change The World, Eknath Awad, translated by Jerry Pinto, Speaking Tiger.