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

Manmohan Vaidya, Joint General Secretary of RSS, puts in a herculean effort through his article – “The Mahatma and the Sangh” (Indian Express – 12th April 2019) to seek wider social legitimacy for the RSS misusing Mahatma Gandhi’s name. Vaidya tries to make out a case that though there were differences between Sangh and the Mahatma, the Sangh has kept Mahatma’s ideals alive “through its work on rural development, organic farming, cow conservation and protection, social equality and harmony, imparting education in one’s own language and swadeshi economy and lifestyle”. He then attempts to make out a case that the Mahatma recognized Sangh’s work, particularly as members of the untouchable community were also admitted in the Sangh. Finally, he seeks wider legitimacy on the ground that the Mahatma approvingly mentioned the name of the second Sarsanghchalak of RSS – M. S. Golwalkar in his prayer meeting in Delhi in the year 1947.

To make his points, Vaidya extensively quotes from Golwakar’s speech published in his collected works. In one of his speeches Golwalkar claims that the Mahatma took his (Golwalkar’s) name during his prayer meeting in 1947 for which he considers himself fortunate. Golwalkar had last met Gandhiji in 1947, when Delhi was experiencing riots. Golwalkar claimed in his speech, “Even those who were non-violent by tradition had become cruel, rogue and heartless”. Golwalkar’s explanation to Mahatma as to what was happening is interesting. Golwalkar told Mahatma, “This is our misfortune. British used to say when we leave; you people will slit each other’s throat... It is bringing disrepute to us in the whole world.”

Rajmohan Gandhi in his counter (What Gandhi Really Said) gives Matama’s account of the incident, which is quite different. Rajmohan Gandhi reports with references that the Mahatma wanted Golwalkar to give a public appeal that the RSS did not stand for killing of Muslims. Golwalkar did not want to and asked the Mahatma to speak on his behalf. R. Gandhi writes, that the Mahatma believed that the hands of the RSS were steeped in blood.

In his attempt to shake off the image that no one from the Sangh participated in the freedom struggle, Vaidya recalls that K B Hedgewar, the first Sarsanghchalak of RSS participated in the non-cooperation movement in 1921 and civil disobedience movement in 1930 for which he served two prison sentences. RSS was formed in 1925 and so in 1921, Hedgewar could not have participated in the movement as RSS. In order to participate in the civil disobedience movement in 1930, Vaidya omits to inform us that Hedgewar first resigned from the RSS.

Mahatma’s Hinduism vs. Hindutva political ideology

Vaidya is less than honest as he tries to misappropriate Mahatma’s legacy to seek legitimacy for the Sangh. To compare Gandhiji’s inclusive Hinduism with Hindutva which is a communitarian, authoritarian and exclusivist political ideology is to compare chalk and cheese. Gandhiji would never have in any way legitimized the Sangh’s political ideology. The foundation of Sangh’s ideology – Hindutva – is vilification of, what they describe as ‘foreign religions’, mainly, Islam and Christianity. Hindutva ideology is in essence adaptation of racist ideology of the Nazis and giving it a “Hindu” colour by invoking certain selective traditions prevalent in India, particularly from Manusmriti. Golwalkar approves, rather praised the genocide and inhuman massacre of Jews undertaken by Hitler as measure “To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture.” He terms Nazism as “Race pride at its highest”, and wants “Hindusthan to learn and profit by” it. (Golwalkar, 1939, pp. 87-88). In contrast, Mahatma’s Hinduism stands for non-violence as a creed and even transcends nationalism, placing its faith in vasudhaiv kutumbakam (entire world is one family).

Golwalkar in his essay, “We or Our Nationhood Defined” (1939), propounds what is nationalism, defines its enemies and finally, lays out the road map to achieve it – all three extensively quoting western political scientists in support. In doing so, he is charting a path opposed to the one that people of India chose in the course of freedom struggle under the leadership of Indian National Congress. To him, joining hands with Muslims, whom he describes as “old invaders and foes” of Hindus isn’t being national nor it is fighting for freedom. To call the platform where Hindus and Muslims joined hands for freedom as a “national” platform is “outlandish”. What would be achieved through such a platform through non-violence would not be “freedom”. These, according to him, were “wrong notions of democracy”. Golwalkar’s path is that of war “at once with the Moslems on the one hand and Britain on the other.” (1939, p. 56).

Golwalkar’s concept of nationalism was incomplete with merely geographical territory which was widely accepted by the freedom movement. The freedom movement led by Congress had accepted that India was a nation in making and all those who lived within the territory of India shared the common history and culture were Indian nationals even though they followed diverse religions, spoke diverse languages and followed diverse traditions and customs. The freedom movement gave the slogan of ‘unity in diversity’ and the unity rested in common history and common struggle for independence and on mutual respect for each other’s religion, culture, language, customs and traditions. The diversity did pose some challenge but the challenge had to be overcome. For Golwalkar, nationalism has five essential factors fused into one indissoluble whole. The five factors were – geographical territory or country, race, religion, culture and language. (1939, p. 61).

The Hindu national, as opposed to Indian national, had to belong to one religion, one culture, one language and one race. Those who did not belong Hindu ‘race’, ‘culture’, ‘language’ and religion, were therefore not Hindu nationals. Golwalkar writes, “Our Race-spirit is a child of our Religion and [al]so with us[,] Culture is but a product of our all comprehensive Religion, a part of its body and not distinguishable from it.” (1939, p. 67). Therefore, freedom for Golwalkar and the Hindu nationalists did not mean independence from the British rule and recognition of liberties of individuals. “Freedom” for Golwalkar meant pursuit of perpetuation of Hindu race-spirit, religion, language and culture and enforcement of these factors on all individuals. This would entail a war with Muslims (and by implication, with Christians as well and all those who, according to them do not belong to Hindu race/nation).

It is this war with Muslims and Christians which is continuing through communal violence in Gujarat, Kandhamal, and several other big and small riots, attacks on prayer meetings of Christians, several instances of mob lynching, partisan response of the state to communal violence and lynching. Discrimination of minorities and attack on their cultural symbols, be it demolition of Babri Masjid, changing names of places that represent or remind of Mughal past, demand to disenfranchise the Muslims are all steps in the war.

Religion for Golwalkar is much more than just a relation between the individual and her creator. Religion encompasses, controls and determines every aspect of individual behaviour, actions and thoughts. Religion, culture and race-spirit are all fused into one. An individual simply submits to the race-spirit. Golwalkar writes:  “Guided by this Religion in all walks of life, individual, social, political, the Race evolved a Culture, which despite the degenerating contact with the debased “civilizations” of the Mussalmans and the Europeans, for the last ten centuries, is still the noblest in the world.” (1939, p. 95) The Indian nationals belonging to other religions, whom he calls foreign elements have the only one of the two option – “either to merge themselves in the national race and adopt its culture, or to live at its mercy so long as the national race may allow them to do so and to quit the country at the sweet will of the national race. That is the only sound view on the minorities problem.” (1939, p 104).

To conclude, One of the most revered by the Sangh – Golwalkar who is always referred with suffix “Guruji” (leader, teacher, ideologue and philosopher) lays down members belonging to the Hindu race/nation have to submit/confirm to the race-spirit and non-Hindu foreign elements have to adopt or merge in the national (Hindu) race or live at the sweet will and mercy of national race and expect no rights or privileges. The national race would be at war with the foreign elements and would learn from how Germany under Hitler treated their minorities (Jews during holocaust). Democracy is not a suitable political arrangement as it is western in its origin, but more importantly, recognizes equal rights of all citizens, irrespective of their religion, gender, race, culture, caste, language, or place of birth. It recognizes fundamental rights of all citizens, right to life and that all individuals are born with the fundamental rights which are inalienable. The laws of Hindu race were written by their ancestors, more particularly in Manusmriti and that needed to be enforced by the state.

Gandhiji’s approach

Mahatma’s approach is radically different. His idea of swaraj was incomplete without Hindu-Muslim unity and removal of untouchability. “Swaraj for India must be an impossible dream without an indissoluble union between the Hindus and the Muslims of India... It cannot be based upon mutual fear. I tmust be a partnership between equals...” (Young India: 6 October 1920). Religion itself for Gandhiji was neither fused with culture nor defining race or nationality, nor something that was to be enforced. Swaraj was freedom for everyone, “the smallest among us, to do as he likes without any physical interference with his liberty...” He wrote – “Christians and Jews in India are not foreigner, nor are Parsis. We must go out of our way to be friendly to them and to serve and help them above all, to protect them from harm from ourselves.” (Young India: Nov. 24, 1921).

Gandhiji put the burden on Hindus to disprove through their conduct that they and Muslims are two nations. (Harijan: August 3, 1947). Quite contrary to Golwalkar and Sangh’s ideology, according to Gandhiji, “Hindustan belongs to all those who are born and bred here... Therefore, it belongs to Parsis, Beni-Israels, to Indian Christians, Muslims and other non-Hindus as much as to Hindus. Free India will be no Hindu Raj, it will be Indian Raj based not on the majority of any religious sect or community, but on the representatives of the whole people without distinction of religion... Religion is a personal matter which should have no place in politics.” (Harijan: Sept. 8, 1946).

For Gandhiji, religion was not a source of law but source of morals. Soul of all religion is one, but is encased in a multitude of forms (Young India: Sept. 18, 1924). Hindus and Muslims lived in peace among themselves during the Muslim rule (Young India: Feb. 26, 1925). He regarded Islam to be a religion of peace in the same sense as Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism were (Young India: Jan. 20, 1927).

From the above, it must be clear that the two approaches were completely different as chalk and cheese are. Either Vaidya is dishonest to give an impression that Gandhiji appreciated and respected the Sangh or Gandhiji was a fool hardy to believe in non-violence as a creed and religion as a source of moral behaviour, serving the poorest and most marginalized and at the same time appreciate the Sangh. The former seems to us to be more appropriate conclusion. For Gandhiji, pursuit of truth was pursuit of God and all religions were true.

Vaidya uses Gandhiji and Gandhiji’s popular appeal with the people of India even today to dishonestly seek legitimacy for the Sangh. Does the Sangh feel so insecure? One needs a lot of moral courage to be on righteous path and to carry on the Mahatma’s legacy. Sangh may have patronage of the power that be, it has not inherited the Mahatma’s legacy.


Director, Centre for Study of Society and Secularism

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features