A Blue Sky with a Red Sun: Remembering Comrade R.B. More

The 11th of May is an important day for us. It is the death anniversary of Comrade R.B. More who was one of the the most unusual, most amazing, courageous members of the Communist Party of India, when it was a united party and, later on, he also joined the Communist Party of India (Marxist). But what made him exceptional was that he himself and his work were links between the Dalit movement in the Konkan, in Maharashtra – links between Phule, Shahu Ji Maharaj, Dr Ambedkar – and the left movement in Maharashtra. This is a very important point. And that’s why the publication of this book by LeftWord – Memoirs of a Dalit Communist: The Many Worlds of R.B. More, which comprises of a very important introduction and also a fragmented autobiography by Comrade More which ends just before the first Mahad Satyagraha, and then a very detailed biography of Comrade More by his son, also a comrade, Comrade Satyendra More – is extremely important at a time when the coming together of the Dalit movements and the left movement in our country has become perhaps one of the most important things that we have to strive for.

At a time when we see that ‘Manuvadi’ forces are controlling the Central government and many state governments and they are pursuing their agenda of actually eviscerating the Constitution of India, and supplanting it with the Manusmriti, when the worst kind of attacks on the livelihood issues, the rights of Dalits, and even their right to life are taking place, and when an ideological battle is being waged against them – because if we see what is being done in the name of the Bhima Koregaon case, it is actually an attempt to rob (and cheat) Dalits of their own history of courage and valour, which is a very despicable thing that the BJP government is doing – it is extremely necessary for the left movement and the movement for Dalit emancipation and social reform to come together and fight as much in cooperation with each other as possible.

[And that is why] we have seen during this period several events of great importance. One was what we call the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula. Rohith Vemula was not an ordinary Dalit student. He was a brilliant student who was highly political. And with all his criticisms of the left he also dreamt of a blue sky with a red sun. And as he said, sometimes the sky would be bigger and the sun would be smaller, sometimes the sky would be smaller and the sun would be larger. But this is what was necessary to take the fight for emancipation in our country forward.

Also, this is a time in which something which is very symbolic has occurred. That is the arrest of Anand Teltumbde on the 14th of April, that is Babasaheb Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, which is celebrated all over the country. On that very day, a person who happens to be his grand son-in-law – Anand Teltumbde – but who, more importantly, is a scholar who has tried to resolve the different ways in which class problems and caste problems have been studied, and the different ways in which the class struggle and caste struggle have been taken forward in our country. He is a great scholar of trying to bring these two streams together. He feels this is absolutely essential and he is critical of both those who stress only on the caste aspect and those who stress only on the class aspect. So he has also been arrested on Babasaheb’s Jayanti on very trumped up charges. And it is all [also] part of the obsession of the BJP government with this completely false conspiracy theory around Bhima Koregaon. Actually, we all know that Bhima Koregaon commemorates a victory in which the Mahar soldiers played a very, very big part; and so it is part of Mahar pride. Dr Ambedkar himself had gone to Bhima Koregaon and had spoken about the courage and valour of the Mahar community. This whole conspiracy that has been launched by the BJP government, as I said, is to deprive the Dalit community of their own history of valour and bravery.

At this juncture, when the greatest attack since Independence on Dalit rights is being waged, it is very important to learn from the life and the writings of Comrade R.B. More.

As I said, he was born in 1903 in the Konkan region of Maharashtra. The place of his birth was extremely important because this was the area where many, many Mahars who had been in the British Army, after their retirement, settled [down] – around this area of Dasgaon and Mahad in the Konkan. And because of their having had some access to education, because of the fact that they were pensioners – received a pension because they had fought in the Army – they had a certain status in that area. Many of them also became part of the social reform movement. Some of them were associated with Mahatma Phule; others also met and were associated with Shahu Ji Maharaj. In fact, More’s grandfather and Babasaheb Ambedkar’s father were also people who lived in the same area and who took up with others the question of Mahars again being given recruitment in the British Army which had actually been stopped, probably on the intervention of Brahminical forces. So it was in this atmosphere that Comrade More was born.

At a very early age, without even being conscious of the fact that he was engaged in the struggle for social reform, he actually, by his intelligence and his refusal to bow down took the first steps towards a career as a militant and as a reformer, and then later on as a revolutionary. Even as a young boy he had to face caste discrimination when he stood first in the entrance exam to the English school in Mahad. And when he went there, even though he had stood first and had been awarded a scholarship, he was not allowed to attend the school because the landlord of the school premises had said that if a Mahar boy entered the place then the school would be closed. Against this he was encouraged to write a postcard to a newspaper and it was published. It created a great stir and in fact the school authorities had to call him back and give him admission. So he started very early in life as someone who fought for his rights and this continued for the rest of his life.

After that he had many ups and downs. He could never really complete his education because of discrimination, because of poverty and other reasons. But he also had a tremendous exposure both to the cultural life of various different communities in the area in which he grew up and also to the life of the working class in Bombay – it was Bombay at that time – which he visited for the first time as a young boy, a young teenager. He was living in working-class areas where Mahars lived in large numbers, and he was able to experience the culture of the working class of different communities and also experience the exploitation and the conditions of livelihood, the conditions of their work. And he also himself started working at a very young age, in the docks and in other places to earn a living; and he also went to Pune – he was able to work there.

It was soon after this that he first met Babasaheb for the first time when members of his community in Bombay invited Babasaheb to felicitate him on his educational achievements. More was able to see him from very close quarters and in fact he even had some conversation with Babasaheb’s brother Balaramdada, and a link of sorts was established between More and Babasaheb, which was, of course, to become very strong much later. After this, More came back to his village, to his area, and he used to spend a lot of time in Mahad. In Mahad, there was a severe water problem because the main water supply the Dalits could not access. And so even when he was a school boy, he had actually started a tea-shop in the main market where Mahars could gather and which would also be able to provide drinking water. This soon became [a restaurant] where Mahars coming to Mahad used to often spend the night. He used to spend most of his time in [this place], and Mahars and people of other Dalit communities, and other peasant communities from villages around used to come there. He used to write applications for them, find out about their problems. It was there that in 1923, he and some other people who used to frequent that hotel thought of having a convention of untouchables in the area. They decided to invite Babasaheb to be the chairman of that convention. This was in 1923. More went back to Bombay [in 1924]; met Babasaheb; convinced him to attend the convention; Babasaheb was reluctant but More was very persistent; and, finally, in [March 1927] the first convention was held – two years later the convention was held – and Babasaheb attended it.

At that time a very big change had taken place. There was a gentleman called [C.K.] Bole who was a member of the Legislative Council of Bombay. He had got passed a resolution that nobody could prevent anyone, because of his caste (or her caste), from accessing public spaces and public amenities. Now of course this was not really implemented but the resolution was passed. And it was decided that in Mahad there would be a satyagraha for the untouchable community, and all the sub-castes of this community, to access the water of the Chavdar Lake. Babasaheb was to lead the satyagraha. This was the famous Mahad Satyagraha which took place first in [March ’27] and then again in December ’27, and More was one of the main organizers. He travelled in the area, he met the different caste panchayats and he was able to mobilize people for this first public action of Babasaheb Ambedkar against untouchability, which has been a great change maker in the social-political history of our country.

When they all collected near the tank and they started to take the water they were attacked by the upper castes. They were beaten up and they had to leave the place. And then the upper castes ‘purified’ the tank, and Babasaheb decided that tactically it was better to withdraw for the time because they actually accomplished what they had come there to do – they had drunk the water of the tank. And [later that year], it was decided that they would undertake the satyagraha again with more preparation, and actually More founded that group of militant young Dalits which was the … they were the volunteers who were going to protect Dalit rights. They gave a great welcome to Babasaheb when he came, and once again they assembled to approach the tank. But this time a much more important incident occurred and that was, when the upper castes once again prevented them, the Manusmriti was burnt by Babasaheb Ambedkar and all the Dalits who had gathered there. The Manusmriti as a symbol of Dalit oppression, and also a symbol of how religious texts were completely replete with the worst kind of discrimination, the worst kind of hatred, the worst kind of inequality … justification of inequality – that Manusmriti, which Dr Ambedkar referred to again and again in his writings as something that was hateful and should be destroyed – that was burnt for the first time publicly, in 1927, at Mahad, with Comrade More at Dr Ambedkar’s side.

Now, after this, while More continued to be a great follower of Dr Ambedkar, he started also, while he was living in Bombay, getting exposed to the organized working-class movements there. He was very much involved in the struggles of the textile workers; he used to sit with them, discuss with them, talk about the union activities. He started meeting many people who were part of the communist movement. He met all the great names: Shamrao Parulekar, B.T. Ranadive, S.V. Deshpande, Comrade Jambhekar – all these people. And he was able to discuss their ideas also with them. As his son has written, in 1930, he actually read the Communist Manifesto. He felt that this actually was the path for the liberation of society and also for the liberation of the Dalit community. He came to believe that without this sort of a socialist revolution occurring in our country, untouchability also could not be destroyed. From then onwards it became his life work to bring both these struggles together – the struggle against class oppression and the struggle against caste oppression. Because, as he said, who are the Dalits! The Dalits are the poorest of the poor, the most exploited of the exploited, and they form the largest section of the working class.

It is very interesting that at this point he went to Babasaheb and said that he was going to join the Communist Party. And Babasaheb was not angry. Though he had his own differences with the Communists, which he expressed very freely, he was not at all angry with More. In fact he just told More: Well, I hope you will be treated with respect and I hope you will get the respect that you deserve over there.

After that Comrade More became a very, very ardent activist of the Communist Party. But he never, never severed his links with Dr Ambedkar or with the Dalit movement. He was a part of all the strikes and all the working-class struggles that took place. He endured great privation, terrible poverty – very often he was thrown out of whichever miserable room in which he was staying with his family, and he had to spend days and nights on the pavement. There are instances, when he was in jail and his wife and small children were actually under the over-bridge – the railway over-bridge of Elphinstone Road. They were spotted there by other comrades who helped them. So he led a life of great privation and great poverty but that never deterred him from his complete and total involvement in the struggle.

And what was also very important was he also remained very, very involved with the cultural movement. He was always taking part in promoting working-class culture, working-class singing groups, theatre groups. He was very close to the great, legendary poet, Amar Shaikh. So his life as a communist had many, many aspects to it and that is why it is worth emulating and worth studying. Because he was unusual in the fact that he tried to first of all bring the class and caste struggles together; he tried to be a link between the Ambedkarite struggle and the communist struggle; and also, he understood the importance of the cultural movement – the cultural part of working-class life – how important that was not only to be reinterpreted and used to give new messages to the working class, but also to make others understand the richness of working-class life. …

These were the motivating forces of his life, throughout his life. And in fact when Dr Ambedkar died, it was Comrade More who organized one of the big condolence meetings to which leading communists also came and spoke alongside Ambedkarites, sharing the same dais. And much later, when Comrade More himself died, his condolence meeting was also addressed by all the major Ambedkarite leaders and the leaders of the Communist Party, and the CPI(M) of the time. This was the way in which his life and his death always were occasions to try and bring these two very important aspects of our struggle for emancipation in this country together.

Now, people ask: What was actually the Communist Party’s attitude to what Comrade More was trying to do? It was not uniform. On the one hand, we have Comrade B.T. Ranadive, who very early talked about and wrote about the link between the caste and class movement. He in fact supported Dr Ambedkar when he was fighting for special electorates for the Dalits; he supported that movement. And he wrote a very strong article about it and Gandhi’s fast also. But there were differences of approach and as Comrade More himself, in a letter that he wrote to the leadership of the Party, said, wherever the Party took up the question of social reform, the fight against untouchability, actually the Party became very strong in those areas. And he mentions Tripura where the Party was in the lead for Adivasi rights. He talked about the struggles in Maharashtra led by Godavari Parulekar and Comrade Shamrao Parulekar for the Adivasis in those areas of Thane and other parts of Maharashtra. And he also talked about Kerala where the communist movement became the inheritor of the social reform movement in that state and has remained so, which is one of the sources of its great strength. So in his writings, in his appeals to the Party, and in his own life, this is what Comrade More was consistently trying to bring about – the fusion or at least the cooperation between these two very important streams of the movement for emancipation in our country.

I think that what he’s been telling us, what he wrote, is having his own its own effect. For example, in Tamil Nadu today, it is the CPI(M) and the comrades who are working in this very broad-based front called the Tamil Nadu Untouchability Eradication Front, which has now come to be acknowledged by all Dalit groups in Tamil Nadu as being in the forefront of the fight, the struggle for Dalit rights. Similarly, in Kerala also that struggle is continuing with a lot of communist involvement. Andhra Pradesh is another example. In different ways, communists have been part, and an important part, in the fight against untouchability and for Dalit rights. And now, with the formation of the Dalit Shoshan Mukti Manch, the Party by creating this platform in which many Dalit comrades and non-Dalit comrades are actively participating, has opened the way for greater movements and activities with Dalit groups. … [T]his is an open forum for any and all groups that are fighting for Dalit rights to come together and participate in a common struggle. This is a new beginning. It is not without hiccups. The way forward is not without its hiccups. But this is certainly a part of the realization that the battle against untouchability, the battle for social reform, the battle for Dalit rights, women’s rights, minority rights – all these battles have to be part and parcel of the working-class struggle. One cannot exist without the other! One cannot be strong without the other! And so, at this juncture, when on the one hand we are seeing with the coming of the BJP to power at the Centre and many of the states, everyday there is an attack on Dalit rights. We’ve seen the Supreme Court actually eviscerating the Prevention of Atrocities Act … And what a struggle against that! What a battle against that! Finally, the Parliament had to pass legislation to restore the act in its original form. Then we have seen recently one attack after another in the courts against the principal of reservations itself, the concept of reservation itself – this is just one small aspect of the attack on Dalit rights. What we are also seeing is that in the sphere of education more and more measures are being adopted by the Central government which will see to it that Dalit children are actually denied access to education and access to higher education. Scholarships are not being paid, admissions are not being given; so many hurdles are being placed on their path to education. Also, reservation in jobs. Every day, first of all with privatization now being the slogan of almost all governments and with no expansion in the government sector, there is less and less opportunity for Dalits to get government jobs. What is happening is that even the opportunities that are open them, by all kinds of devious means, those opportunities are also being closed to them. And today, with contractualization and with the complete lack of permanent jobs we find that Dalits are being pushed more and more into contract work and completely insecure work, which is definitely going to get worse and worse in the days to come.

So in the face of these huge attacks – and these attacks are taking place every day – the great necessity of the left movement and the movement for social reform, Dalit rights, anti-untouchability coming together is more important than ever before. The need is important and comrade More’s book being published at this time tells us how we can actually bring this about. His life, his work, his writing, his letters to the Communist Party – everything that he did was actually a living example of how this is to be done. Reading this book, understanding what he’s trying to say is going to help us all to go a long way towards achieving what was not just his goal but what has to be the goal of the emancipatory movements in our country.

The above is a lightly edited transcript of a talk by Subhashini Ali for the YouTube channel ‘Comrade’.

Featured image courtesy of Subodh More.