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Then They Came For Comrade Pansare...

Shruti Tambe (shruti.tambe@gmail.com) teaches sociology at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune. 

Comrade Pansare’s real legacy was his ability to forge alliances with like-minded people cutting across traditional political boundaries. His mission was to take the unfinished enlightenment project in Maharashtra as far as possible. 

Pansare – Away From the Limelight

He was strong and stout. His face was a sculpted one with marks of long sun burnt years of hard work. Rallies, delegations, parliamentary ways of negotiations and protest, dharnas and campaigns, agitations and long drawn struggles were his staple diet. His clothes were always light coloured bush-shirts with dark simple trousers. No fads and fancies about food, hours of work and place to rest as he was ever ready to mobilise. In a society that is not bothered about discrimination, hierarchies and inequalities, he stood firmly for equality at all levels. In the middle class world of aspirational life style coupled with growing inequality he certainly was an odd man out wedded to the improvement of people who are most neglected. For the “national” media houses and the elite he was a figure not worth pondering upon. No wonder then that the news of his death hardly caused ripples on electronic “national” news channels.

Comrade Govindrao Pansare, 82,  was a very articulate orator. His life was an example of everyday commitment with the toiling masses. In the Communist Party of India (CPI) office at Bindu Chowk, Kolhapur while I interviewed him or was involved in discussions with him, he was talking simultaneously to representatives of women domestic workers, aanganwadi workers, retired soldiers, women's organisations, various trade unions and so on. He was very well-informed and equally concerned about the issues of all the representatives. Everybody could notice that he was humane in his responses to all.

Progressive Publication

Pansare wrote some 800 pages of critical thoughts in eloquent Marathi – most of them published in the form of pamphlets and books. While some of his books explained Marx's thoughts, ideology and related themes, others explicated on the Mandal Commission, need for secularism, Article 370, globalisation and the plight of farmers. What is most noteworthy however, is his 80 page booklet titled, “Who was Shivaji?”. A record 140,000 copies of this booklet were sold in Maharashtra while the name of Shivaji was chanted in ritualistic manner by those believing in feudalism, casteism and parochialism.

This booklet was a new take on Maharashtra's iconic figure. He argued that Shivaji was a king of the masses committed to the well being of ordinary subjects. Contextualising Shivaji in the socio-political milieu of feudal system, he explained the importance of his decisions and foresight. Comrade Pansare hailed Shivaji as one who respected women of all religious communities -- even women who fought against him. He gave details of a number of Muslims who were his close aides including the chief of his navy – countering the view that he was against Muslims. He also wrote an important book on Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj's progressive legacy. Obviously these books reappropriated Shivaji and Shahu Maharaj from the right wing and the contemporary political parties capitalising on them for vandalism and muscle power.

Strategic Alliances

Pansare relentlessly travelled through Maharashtra. It is a well known fact that he was a veteran communist leader. What is unknown is his capacity to build alliances across party lines and establish dialogue with emergent youth leadership across ideological lines. The mission was clear -- to take ahead the unfinished enlightenment project in Maharashtra as far as possible. A close connect with young peopleand working class women helped him mobilise support instantly on any given issue.

As a lawyer he fought cases of innumerable exploited and oppressed individuals and groups. He was an institution builder. Equally conversant with anybody and everybody, Pansare could strike a chord with all and sundry. His leadership at literary, cultural, intellectual and political levels was unchallenged. He organised lecture series, ran a publishing house -- The Peoples' Book House and the Lok Vangmay Griha in Mumbai publishing high quality books winning many awards in the Marathi publishing world. Many recent publications including coffee table book on Ambedkar and translation of Navayana publication were some examples of his new approach. He initiated Annabhau Sathe Sahitya Sammelan in Maharshtra for the past five years bringing left oriented, Dalit and working class authors and poets together on a cultural platform.

Govind Pansare's public lectures were always a treat to the audience. He could connect with the seasoned and the novice, the learned and the amateur in the same way.  He was always sharp, systematic and rational in the exposition of the theme. One wonders if this was the bone of contention for his assassins.

Cutting Across Party Lines

For more than five decades he was a member of the CPI. The way he connected with thousands of like minded left oriented literati, academicians, students and members of various organisations was unparalleled. Never dismissing any campaign by others or laughing at youngsters, he could command response to his call for any progressive cause in Maharashtra. Going beyond orthodox Marxism, Pansare combined the struggle against class exploitation with caste oppression in many creative ways. This made him a true heir to the legacy of Phule, Shahu and Ambedkar which is rhetorically chanted by all political parties these days.

Recently when the WhatsApp and Facebook controversy over fake images insulting idols including Shivaji Maharaj caused burning of properties of Muslims in Kolhapur, comrade Pansare initiated a drive to collect money to rehabilitate the affected Muslims of Kolhapur. He contributed Rs 1,00,000 and later the funds collected were distributed to 103 affected Muslim families, said activists in Kolhapur.

Pansare aimed rightly at the market oriented policies combined with feudal values and mind set and the deadly revival of casteist sentiments in his campaigns. With equal emphasis he focused on all these facets as the symptoms of the contemporary disease. Anti-toll campaigns, anti-Special Economic Zone campaigns, anti-Muslim propaganda, complex weave of caste, class and gender based subordination were articulated in his speeches.

His Lasting Legacy

When he turned 75 years, he initiated a project to commemorate the contribution of communist workers and leaders in various parts of Maharashtra and published more than 75 such books in their honour.

Maharashtra claims to have a tradition of rationalism and open debate. Mahatma Phule, Justice Ranade, Tilak, Agarkar represent such debates in British period. In the 1970s open debates with Shankaracharya on Chaturvarnya and caste were also conducted by progressive activists. Pansare tried to take this tradition ahead by going beyond mainstream liberal agenda. Narendra Dabholkar's assassination 18 months ago and the assassination of comrade Pansare this week signals serious threats to this liberal tradition in Maharashtra's public sphere. Comrade Pansare had recently said, “It is wrong to say that Maharashtra is a progressive state”. No one thought that it would come true so soon.

Of course going by Pansare's writings and speeches, one has to be optimistic about the youth leadership in Maharashtra and the possibilities of broader alliances between various organisations with progressive leanings. That would be the true spirit of remembering him. 

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