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The Rot in Maharashtra

Attack on Comrade Govind Pansare

Maya Pandit (mayapandit@gmail.com) is with the EFL University, Hyderabad. 

Govind Pansare fought against the right wing agenda to appropriate the syncretic political and cultural traditions of Maharashtra. This seemed to have earned him the ire of divisive forces and political opponents. 

The author wishes to acknowledge the inputs of Uday Narkar and Sharad Navare for this article. 

Comrade Govind Pansare, along with his wife Uma Pansare, was shot at close range at 9.30 in the morning on 16 February 2015, in front of his house when he was returning from his morning walk. A bullet went through the soft tissues of his neck, another through his armpit, past the lungs and a third injured his knee. His wife also sustained severe injuries in her skull. According to doctors, his condition is still critical after multiple surgeries though his wife has been released.  This attack, the second major one in the series of attacks on dissenting voices from the secular, rationalist, left, democratic movement, has once again shaken the foundations of our polity itself.

Repeated Attacks on Activists

Narendra Dabholkar was shot dead in a similar way in Pune in the early hours of morning, while he was going for his morning walk. The police have had no clue of the murder so far, leave alone nabbing the culprits. The state of utter lawlessness and anarchy that prevails in Maharashtra has come to the fore once again. The attack shows that violence against secular and democratic people who fight for justice of workers, minorities, women and other marginalised groups have risen under the present dispensation. It appears that the conscience keepers of the public are being silenced so that a reign of terror can be unleashed to drown their voices once for all and crush any challenge to the authoritarian regimes.

Narendra Dabholkar had invited the ire of the saffron forces because of his vigilant and active struggle to get the Maharashtra Eradication of Black Magic and Evil and Aghori Practices Bill, 2005 passed in the Maharashtra assembly. Similarly, Comrade Pansare has been at the forefront of the left democratic and secular movement in western Maharashtra for a long time now. The attacks on both Dabolkar and Pansare have been symptomatic of a disease that has all of us and the very polity, in its grip.  

Do Activists Pose a Political Threat?

Do these attacks signify that the left democratic forces pose a political threat to the ruling powers? It was the Congress government headed by Prithviraj Chavan in Maharashtra when Narendra Dabholkar was killed, and now it is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in Maharashtra led by Devendra Phadanvis. But neither Narendra Dabholkar nor Comrade Pansare could be considered as a direct political threat to the ruling powers. They are politically not strong enough to pose a direct challenge to them as the election results have proved.

Then why are these well planned attacks taking place and by whom? Is it because of the strong stand Pansare had taken on the economic policy issues of liberalisation, privatisation, or is it because of the challenge he posed to communalism, religious fundamentalism and irrational politics of hatred whipped by the right wing politics? His work might provide some answers.

Political Life of Pansare

Comrade Pansare has been the former general secretary of the Communist Party of India (CPI). He has been the strategist of the party and as a veteran communist, has been involved with diverse forms of agitational politics. He has helped organise many workers in the trade union movements, written innumerable booklets to educate workers about their rights to work, decent wages food and civic amenities, and to bring out the disastrous impact of the new economic policies on the marginalised sections in the society. Most recently, he has also been one of the chief architects and leaders of the anti-toll agitation in Kolhapur. Along with veteran leaders like N D Patil and others, he has been instrumental in getting the toll collection stalled. The agitation is symptomatic of his struggle against the anti-people privatisation policies of the government.  

Both Narendra Dabholkar and Comrade Pansare were crusaders against the right wing politics. Narendra Dabholkar through his rationalist association “Andhasradha Nirmulan Samiti”, had been wedging a war against superstitious practices and exploitation of people under the guise of religion by priests, fundamentalist politics and other communal forces, including the Jat Panchayats.  As an ardent follower of Mahatma Phule,  Shahu Maharaj and Ambedkar, Pansare’s work was aimed at educating people, making them aware of injustice and oppression and enthusing  them with a confidence that they can change the world around them through resistance and agitational politics. He was the true heir of the legacy of the radical reformist tradition in Maharashtra consistently raising his voice against social oppression of the marginalised, regulation and control of media and culture, as well as oppressive dictates of the fanatic leaders.  That seems to have been perceived as a threat.

Pansare’s “Who was Shivaji?”

His small booklet on Shivaji called “Shiavaji Kon Hota?” (Who was Shivaji?), sold more than 2 lakh copies in both Marathi and its English translation. The book debunked several myths carefully built up by cultural nationalists right from the 19th  century in the public consciousness, endorsed later by activists in the saffron brigade. This small but very powerful book reached literally thousands of people and earned him ire of several right wing forces such as the Bajrang Dal, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) etc.  The book came at a time when both Bhagat Singh and Shivaji were being appropriated by the fundamentalist right wing forces as part of their “rewrite history wrongly” campaign.

Pansare demonstrated with historical evidence and a fluent ease of expression that Shivaji was a king of the people who worked tirelessly for his poor “rayat”, farmers and that he was not a protector of Brahmans and cows but of farmers, women, shudratishudras and even Muslims. He demonstrated how Shivaji’s policies helped agriculture, farming and even tree plantation. Pansare literally wrenched Shivaji out of the tight clutch of the saffron brigade just as Bhagat Singh was wrenched free from them by Shiv Varma and others through their writing.  This had caused a festering wound among the activists of the right wing which has seen the saffron groups erupting now and then with venomous outbursts against Comrade Pansare.

Fight Against Right Wing Forces

He had successfully organised an agitation against a yajna being conducted in Kolhapur where hundreds of kilos of grain and ghee was going to be burnt off. After Dabholkar’s heinous assassination, he had organised a “Vivek Jagruti” programme through which aimed at waking up people’s rationality. When his fans and workers decided to celebrate his 75th birthday, he firmly rejected their plan of offering him a monetary gift and asked people to write small booklets instead, biographies of 150 activists all over Maharashtra and these books indeed were published.

He also decided to deliver hundred lectures each in colleges on the work of Mahatma Phule, Shahu Maharaj and Ambedkar. He also went on to establish the Shramik Pratishthan, an academy of varied cultural programmes such as film shows, lecture series, publication projects through which he has been constantly wedging a battle against the Hindutva forces.  He has been organising the Comrade Annabhau Sathe Sahitya Sammelanas for the last six years (the most recent one was in Sawantwadi in the Konkan region of Maharashtra) and trying to bring people together in order to make them rethink our literary and cultural traditions of resistance and revolt against the ideologies of caste, class, patriarchy and religion.

Sensitive to the issue of right to expression and its blatant suffocation by the fundamentalist forces, he went on to expostulate on the cultural politics of silencing dissenting voices with examples such as Murugan in Taminadu. Recently he has been more and more active even at the age of 80 and taken up the issues of  suppression of dissent through organising a network of rallies, conventions, theatre  workshops, through which people and especially youngsters have been coming together to think, argue and take up a position against the right wing forces. He has always made an appeal to thought, intelligence and rationality as against the Hindutva attempts to incite venomous hatred and whip up communal frenzy against the marginalised in the society.  He has been the man behind whom common people have rallied whenever there has been a spate of communal violence not only in and around Kolhapur but in Maharashtra and the country. And it is this work of his that has been attracting the ire of a lot of people flushed with right wing ideologies and monetary power. He had been receiving several threats to his life recently.

Threats To His Life

The most recent example of this hatred was when an Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activist in a seminar in Shivaji University got so incensed that he threatened him with foul language. Comrade Pansare had spoken about the Mahatma’s assassination by Nathuram Godse and publically questioned the propriety of erecting statues and temples for Nathuram Godse, the assassin of the Father of the Nation. The ABVP activist claimed that Nathuram was a true patriot, that he would challenge Comrade Pansare in court for speaking against a true patriot. Pansare very calmly asked him to go ahead with his plan, so that he could make his statement in the court of law and that would have a wider appeal. That his public avowal of resistance to the communal Hindutva forces fetched him several threats is a sign of the increasing intolerance we have in our society. 

Why have we reached a stage where the spirit of debate and discussion is being throttled? It is true that like all the other places, Maharashtra has also had its share of divisive forces. It is not for nothing that Maharashtra has been the birth place of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). What is disturbing, however, is that the disease of intolerance has seeped so deep into the blood that the dissenter does not have a right to speak and not even a right to live now.  

Verbal attacks and occasional physical attacks on secular and democratic people engaging in criticising the hegemonic power structures have always been taking place in our society. But that was a fringe element. What is frightening is that this fringe is now becoming the centre. That is the tradition that is being systematically nurtured and cultivated as the most dominant form of regulation and control of dissent by the right-wing political forces.  

Rise of The Lumpen Element

The pressures of a global market always work better when they join forces with the dominant ideologies of religion, class, caste and patriarchy in order to discipline and punish dissent. The ganesh festival and durga pujas now would be impossible to imagine without the corporate support. It is not surprising then that people such as Comrade Pansare are sought to be eliminated because they are raising their voices against these very exploitative ideologies and practices of the market driven economic policies and divisive communal politics. This cannot happen without political support and protection of the right wing organisations. Increasing pauperisation and poverty have also made it easy to wield power both through the lumpen element and the so-called intellectuals of the right. The lumpen element is increasingly available in the market for sale to the merchants of communal politics.

If they kill people like Dabholkar, attack people like Comrade Pansare, will they be able to stem the flow of dissent? Time will provide the answer. But dissent does not die easily. The rot is spreading and the sooner we stem it the better otherwise the constitution will be a hollow rhetoric, dissent will be dead and this does not augur well for the country and the polity.   

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