Dalit poet Neerav Patel who wrote in English and Gujarati died recently

His was an outspoken voice against caste though his political leanings were not always unambiguous

The bilingual Dalit poet Neerav Patel, who wrote in Gujarati and English, died on 15 May in Ahmedabad. The news of his death was not buried under the more important headlines of a desperately fought general election in India; it did not make any headlines. In fact, it is at just such a juncture in the political life of Gujarat and India that we should feel the loss of a poet like Patel.

For him, the premiere of the film Bhavni Bhavai (directed by Ketan Mehta, the film about untouchability combined sharp social commentary with the comic) was as much a subject for poetry as about atrocities against Dalits. He found it as important to post, on his social media page, the list of candidates contesting from Ahmedabad West (a reserved seat) and their political affiliations as an article on caste discrimination. As he wrote in a poem: they say/ the wall-writing is vulgar/and provocative: “Dalit-Muslim bhai bhai" –/ the brotherhood/ of the depressed and the persecuted,/ the class-collaborators/ the unholy alliance/ and let loose the word:/teach them a lesson.

Born Soma Hira Chamar in 1950 in Bhuvaladi village near Ahmedabad, Patel migrated to the city for higher education. Living with a relative in a challi (a large tenement building providing cheap housing) in Rakhial, he began studying at St Xavier’s College. Like many Dalit poets of his generation, it was in the challis of industrial Ahmedabad that his political and literary education began. From the activists of the Majoor Mahajan Sangh, he learnt Gandhian thought, and with the activists of the leftist labour unions, he encountered Marxist thought. It was in Rakhial that he came in contact with the Dalit Panthers. Conscious of his caste and the burden of his name, Soma Hira Chamar changed his name to Neerav Patel. This discomfort with his name and with caste names that discriminate and denigrate is evident in his poetry.

As he writes in an essay, literary Gujarati was as much a learnt, academic language for him as English—so different was the urban, literary language of the city from the cadences of the north Gujarat dialect of his village. As scholar Deeptha Achar says, Patel was probably the first Dalit poet to choose to write in English. His first two collections of poetry, Burning From Both The Ends (1980) and What Did I Do To Be So Black And Blue (1987), were in English. His work came to the notice of an international audience initially through Barbara R. Joshi’s book Untouchable!: Voices Of The Dalit Liberation Movement (1986). His early English poems appeared in Ahmedabad supplements of major newspapers like The Times Of India and The Indian Express. Though he wrote primarily in Gujarati after the 1980s, he was already known widely as a Dalit poet through his English writing. His poetry has been translated into several Indian languages, English and German.

Patel was widely read, knowledgeable, and a committed Dalit poet. Atlas, Sisyphus, Kamala Das, Paul Robeson and Pablo Neruda play amongst his poems as subjects and references alongside B.R. Ambedkar, the Buddha, Santu Rangili, Golana, Jetalpur, Mahyo and Manu.

But his contribution to Dalit literature in Gujarat goes beyond poetry. He was a prolific editor and activist. In 1978, along with Dalpat Chauhan, Praveen Gadhvi and Yogesh Dave, he began publishing the literary magazine Aakrosh, which announced the arrival of a conscious Dalit poetry on the Gujarati literary scene. He subsequently worked with the Swaman Foundation for Dalit literature, conducting workshops for poets and publishing literary magazines like Sarvanam and Swaman. His editorship was exemplary. Sarvanam contained Dalit literary works but also scholarly essays, criticism and interviews.

Patel’s resistance to caste oppression, religion and religious bigotry was not limited to his poetry. He was against empty religious rituals. After his death, his family carried the legacy forward. His wife, daughter and daughter-in-law all went to the crematorium in defiance of strictures against such a practice. His family also did not collect his ashes from the crematorium to carry out the ritual of asthi visarjan (immersion of ashes in the Ganga).

Towards the end of his life, Patel leaned politically towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); giving in, it seems, to the political co-option of Dalits by the Sangh Parivar in Gujarat (and elsewhere). In some ways, this move is reminiscent of Namdeo Dhasal’s closeness to the Shiv Sena and Dhasal’s support of the Emergency (1975-77). However, Patel’s views were not always clear. In his poetry, he was always stridently against Hindutva. Perhaps this ambivalence is what makes the poet human.

In the very first poem of his collection Bahishkrut Phulo(Outcast/e Flowers), writing about his caste name he says: “who was that satan sculptor/ that carved my name upon my forehead so indelibly? (…) I am scared/ will my name not die even with my funeral pyre?" Patel’s words and his name will indeed not die—though not in the sense he meant it.

The author is a bilingual poet and translator, writing in English and Gujarati. She recently completed a PhD on Gujarati Dalit poetry from the National University of Singapore and King’s College London.


Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features

Pragya Thakur, Malegaon blast accused out on bail on health ground, is at the centre of the present turmoil around Nathuram Godse. The story begins with her filing nomination papers for Bhopal Loksabha constituency. The criticism came up that how can an accused of act of terror be a candidate of elections. Narendra Modi; jumped into the controversy stating that calling her a terrorist is the insult to the five thousand year old glorious civilization and that no Hindu has ever indulged in an act of terror. As per him and his party the earlier coining of the term Hindu terror, Saffron terror, in the wake of series of blasts which took place between 2006-2008; was to defame Hindus.

The next link in the whole controversy comes with big film star, now turned politician, Kamal Haasan stating that Nathuram Godse was the first terrorist of Independent India. When he was attacked for stating this, slippers were thrown at him in a public meeting. He further confirmed that every religion has its own terrorists. Pragya Thakur, the new recruit of BJP, went out to pour her heart stating that Nathuram Godse was a nationalist, is a nationalist and will remain a nationalist Her statement threw the BJP in tizzy and she was asked to apologize. She was not the only one coming forward to uphold Godse and express their real and deeper ideological stand. Anantkumar Hegde, the current Union Minister, who has been asking for change in Constitution, stated that there is no need to be apologetic about Godse any longer. While another Karnataka BJP leader Nalin Kumar Kateel also came in Godse’s defense. To cap it all BJP Madhya Pradesh media in charge Anil Saumitra said that Mahatma Gandhi was father of Pakistan. Saumtira has been suspended while others have been asked to apologize and notices have issued against them by BJP.

Narerndra Modi surpassed hypocrisy when he said that while Thakur has apologized, he will never be able to forgive her! While some reprimand has been administered against her, she continues to be BJP candidate for Bhopal constituency. Is BJP really serious about taking action against those upholding Godse? It is not the first time Godse is being upheld. Many a times in the past, those belonging to BJP-RSS-Hindu nationalists have expressed their praise for Godse. One recalls the RSS Sarsanghchalak Rajendra Singh, alias Rajju Bhaiyya, stating that Godse’s intentions were right, he believed n Akhand Bharat (expanded India incorporating Afghanistan Myanmar, Srilanka etc.) Then we have Sakshi Maharaj, the present BJP MP, who has been given ticket to fight the election again, who had also called Godse as Nationalist. Despite such ideas he is part of BJP. During last few years glorification of Godse, temple for him in Meerut, demand for land for his memorial and busts are gaining strength in the country.

When he is called a nationalist, in a way what is hidden from the word is its essential prefix, Hindu to the word nationalist. Godse was a Hindu nationalist for sure. It is only from Hindu nationalists, RSS and its affiliates that Godse is upheld and praised. BJP is in a dilemma. They do hold on to Hindu nationalism, they have deeper sympathy for what Godes did; still they cannot support it openly. The dilemma is that BJP does pursue the path of Hindu nationalism, in contrast to Indian nationalism as propounded in our constitution. Why can it not openly support Godse and his assassinating Gandhi? One recalls that after the murder of Gandhi sweets were distributed in RSS shakhas. One recalls that RSS chief even at that time expressed his sorrow and stopped RSS work and declared thirteen days mourning. One recalls that RSS was banned by Sardar Patel for spreading hatred in the society. Still the point remains that that all those upholding Godse cannot yet openly say so. That is not yet ‘politically correct’ for BJP. This is what the BJP line is. Support Godse’s nationalism internally but do not say so openly. The reason is Gandhi cannot be criticized and bypassed in the country. His contribution in making of modern India, his central mission of cultivating fraternity, cutting across the lines religion, region and language are too profound to be ignored. The path delineated by him, the one of non violence has captured the imagination not only of the country but of the whole World. His campaign against untouchablity had deeper impact. His contribution in this direction was in the line of what Ambedkar wanted His acting as ‘one man army’ in the sectarian violence has been a landmark in the story of India and the World!

So BJP, while pursuing Hindu nationalism has to make the show of respecting Mahatma. Very conveniently it has made him symbol of ‘Swatchta Abhiyan’ (cleanliness campaign), bypassing Gandhi’s central mission of Hindu Muslim unity and his path of Indian nationalism. What we are witnessing on one hand is the contradictions of BJP on the electoral arena and its long term goals. In electoral arena, to make a success it is BJP’s compulsion to uphold Gandhi, while all its major leaders and workers are trained in the values of Hindu nationalism, in its shakhas and training camps. In its training module Savarkar, the progenitor of HIndutva Hindu nationalism, has a pride of place, while Gandhi is presented as appeaser of Muslims and the one who was responsible for partition of the country. Godse was ardent follower of Savarkar. Savarkar was also a murder accused along with Godse but escaped the punishment in the absence of any corroborative evidence.

Savarkar-Godse duo is looked up among most of the followers of Hindutva ideology. That’s what explains the spontaneous outbursts of the likes of Sakshi maharaj, Anantkrishna Hegde and Pragya Thakur. BJP is compelled to make the show of speaking against them, bowing to electoral and global compulsions, while letting them thrive in the party in various capacities!  

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / OPED