Interview with Namdeo Dhasal: The Poet and the Politician -2
Director: Madhusree Dutta; Cinematographer: Avijit Mukul Kishore
Duration: 00:23:27; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 26.606; Saturation: 0.169; Lightness: 0.385; Volume: 0.335; Cuts per Minute: 0.469; Words per Minute: 47.243
Summary: Interview with Namdeo Dhasal (ND). Interviewer Madhusree Dutta (M). Shot by Avijit Mukul Kishore.
Namdeo Dhasal is an eminent poet, a Dalit poet (dalit- a generic name for untouchable communities). Famous for his volatile personality he remains an enigma in the history of Maharashtra. Namdeo's political journey spreads from communism to Dalit Panther (Dalit liberation party) to right wing Shiv Sena, the extremist party which brought regional chauvinism in the politics of Maharashtra. In some way the life of Namdeo Dhasal is also a map of Maharashtra, specially of Mumbai - from vibrant trade union movement to assertion of regional identity of the working class in Sanyukta Maharashtra movement to sectarian politics to destructive 'development' under ruthless globalization and resulted identity politics.
The poet Namdeo, the Dalit Namdeo, the power broker Namdeo, the survivor Namdeo, the rebel Namdeo, the melancholic Namdeo, the cunning Namdeo, the defeated Namdeo, the avant garde Namdeo, the idealist Namdeo, the compromised Namdeo - he has been everywhere, from the fringes to the centre. Quoting Dilip Chitre, " Uprooted from the countryside and replanted in the inner city and the rotten core of Mumbai - a city of the most extreme and dehumanizing forms of exploitation - Namdeo's human roots proved not only tenacious, but also triumphant. He grew up out of a cesspool, drawing nourishment from it, metabolizing its toxic waste and thriving on the immunity he acquired, to become the poet of the underworld, a lumpen messiah, a poor man's bodhisattva". (Namdeo Dhasal, Poet of the Underworld)
The interview was a feeble attempt to get into the phenomena that is Namdeo Dhasal. He was a reluctant interviewee. The session was interrupted by numerous phone calls - most of which are complicated 'business' affairs which needed to be fixed. Still at some points in the middle of the session he became real, approachable and maybe somewhat vulnerable. At the end though when we asked him to recite his famous poem Mumbai, Mumbai, Mazhya Priya Rande (Mumbai, my beloved whore) to the camera he said it was too long for him to read. His lack of engagement with the most celebrated work of his, made him a phenomena in our eyes, yet again.
MD: At a social level, not necessarily at political level, do you think that when a dalit comes from a village it gets easier to settle here?
ND: No, see Mumbai is so big, the population must be around one crore fifty lakhs (150,00,000). When such a huge population works in the city... then the systems are different from that in a village. But the question is, till where? Till that person, dalit or upper caste, goes to work. For eg, what do we have? The biggest industry, in Mumbai was mills, textile industry, after 1980s Datta Samant destroyed it, killed almost 3 lakh people. But basically, in Mumbai...in Calcutta the first cloth mill was started in 1818. In Mumbai the first mill was started by a person named Cowasji Jehangir in 1854. Since then through a period of 50 years, slowly the Mumbai mills were formed. Till `47... after `47 the mill workers became powerful.
The brief timeline of the textile industry in Mumbai:
Year Workers employed
The workers in the mills were mostly Marathi speaking migrants from the ghats and Konkan areas. They have been lured to the burgeoning industrial town through various channels in late 19th century. The efficient left trade union movement organized the textile workers and by the time of independence it grew to be one of the most powerful workers' movements. After the independence it was decided to build a federal system by dividing the states along language clusters. Since Bombay was also a port and a trade city, there was a large number people who came to the city from other parts of the subcontinent and spoke other languages than Marathi. There were public debates around declaring Bombay as an autonomous union territory or make it a part of Gujarat or Maharashtra. Marathi speaking people demanded Bombay to be part of Maharashtra. Since the working class of the textile mills were mostly Marastrian the demand became part of the class struggle. That is Sanyukta (united) Maharashtra movement. (for more detail see events under the title Sanyukta Maharashtra Movement: Talk Show, on this site) After a lot of violence and street fights the govt. agreed to declare Bombay as part of Maharashtra state. Bombay became Maharashtra, got renamed as Mumbai and Marathi became official language, atleast on paper ... but the working class who fought for it got marginalized. The movement for identity assertion which got its strength from the class struggle, in later decades turned into chauvinist politics. While the working class lost all its power as the industry closed down to make space for more profit inducing economy. So now the Marathi working class have their Mumbai but lost their livelihood.
Namdeo squarely blames only one party - Congress for all these developments. His analysis about the nation-state policy and decline of the organized working class is unquestionable. But it is difficult to fathom his inclination towards BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) and Shivsena as an answer to the elitist politics of the Congress.
bhartiya janata party
divide and rule
sanyukta maharashtra movement
united maharashtra movement
Florida apartment, Andheri west, Mumbai
ND: But the destiny of the mills was such that, the untouchables were not allowed to thread the bobbin! Because if a Mahar, Manga,or a Chambar threads the bobbin, then the rest of the upper caste working there, whether he is a Chakarmani from Konkan, Kundbi or Bhandari from konkan, actually Bhandaris are similar to Dalits but they also consider themselves higher than the Dalits. Whatever unions were there during that period, be it people like Dange, did not have any answer to this. At least at the level of the textile mills, they could not unite the workers. That is the destiny.
ND: We had tried but nobody responded to our attempts. Except Dange, nobody thought of this problem as serious. There was a naxalite (radical Marxist-Leninist) group who took us seriously. So.. the rural and the city.... Dalit in the city has have developed a consciousness about their right, human right. And now in the city the class structure is breaking down. Earlier there was a class struggle, but now....class mixing is going on. Because the 'haves' class have always been supported by the politics of congress.
ND: And that politics has been challenged by Shivsena and BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party). This challenge first came in the Sanyukta (united) Maharashtra movement. But during Sanyukta Maharashtra... Yashwantrao Chavan, Morarji, Pandit Nehru conspired not to give the power in the hands of the leftist of the movement. It almost came to them but then snatched away. Everybody was part of that - even Jansangh was there in the Sanyukta Maharashtra movement, Babasaheb Ambedlkar's scheduled caste fedaration was there, 2/3 communist parties and Socialist party were there.
ND: The election of 1957 was the first challenge to the Congress govt. But that was countered by the govt. through 'divide and rule' (Sam, Danda, Veda....) The congress people broke it down. And now when Sena, BJP has taken over their rule, when their power has been taken away, like a tiger who has tasted human blood... like that these congress people are addicted to power, haramkhor (serious abuse)... 'now socialism, leftism'... 'now they have these bonds'.... 'now they are secular'...all the communal fights they have started...so your point...what was your point?
MD: Well, I am trying to understand does migration help lower caste?
ND: No, when migration from village to city takes place, it helps the untouchable. (MD: yes, that's what...) but it has not helped as much as it should have. What we had learned was that, when the untouchable is given class consciousness, when he comes to the city, he will be a worker and caste will break down - that did not happen.
Maybe that is what it is. Somebody like Namdeo Dhasal with all his understanding about class politics joins Shivsena in order to cope with the disillusion with the communist party with socialist ideology. According to him the dogmatic communist party never could understand the specifics of Indian social reality of caste, beyond the classical and linear class politics. The progressive political outfits of Dalits eventually fell into sectarian politics and failed to rise to significance. In 1975 Dalit Panther party expelled Namdeo Dhasal for being against the ideology of Ambedkars. Around the same time Indira Gandhi declared National Emergency suspending all democratic rights and arrested communists, socialists and other centreist leaders and political workers. Namdeo Dhasal eulogized Indira Gandhi in his collection of poems Priyadarshini. Later he became a Congress baiter developed a strategic alliance (in his own language) to the upper caste Hindu parties - BJP and Shivsena. Today, for him anything which substantially opposes the Congress is fair in this war.
ND: 'When caste turns into class then caste system will become weak' - this was the opinion of us, communists, I am saying us communist, even today I am a Marxist. Shivsena and all that is strategy. I am not a typical dogmatic Marxist, I am an experimental person. When our parties broke down in this state... we communists now talk about Ambedkar and Phule but when there was need we did nothing. For nearly 30-40 years, at that time if you'll had sided with the untouchable movement, then this tragedy would have been avoidable.
ND: Today, you are making a documentary on Mumbai, just see what bad situation is. From 1854 till the `80s, what power the rural mill workers had on the state politics - that has now finished. How many people are finished! The crafty mill owners - those robber barons, they executed the long strike and fled to Gujarat. Now things are all scattered. Handloom works going on somewhere and cotton making somewhere else. Now it is functioning like American capitalism.
Namdeo Dhasal hopes that the onslaught of globalization will produce another kind of unity of the working class. The unity which will be much more all encompassing as the entire work force now stand with their back to the wall. Maybe!
new economic policy
ND: Now your point, about migration of rural people... now the scene is different. When the ruling party has come into trouble, and had to step down and that is why they are now catching all these communities and classes. Otherwise it was all simple, catch Muslims and Harijans (untouchable, Mahatma Gandhi tried to give them a status of dignity by inventing the term which means 'men of god') and rule. Otherwise they would have never sat with the communists. All these changes have to be taken into account. Now the affairs are like this, firstly, they have killed the organised workers in the city, the biggest power of all the workers in this Mumbai city was the mill workers, they have killed them, killed the mills. Because of globalisation, the situation is... that once there was a belief that heavy industry will flourish in Mumbai or chemical industry or something else - all this has ended.
ND: Now who is Muslim, who is Hindu , who is Dalit or Brahman. If you leave out people working for Maharashtra Govt or municipality, then the entire working class of Mumbai city has been displaced. And neither the ruling party nor the central govt ....because all they are involved in are ideas of economic liberalisation or bringing loans from the world bank. That is why the question that you raised has become secondary. The problems are about the very existence of the worker. But one good thing about this is, now all the working class can come together, the dreams that we saw but which have cost us so much...
ND: The name of the poem is 'Pila Housecha Mrityu" (The Death of Pila House).
I'll just have a drink of water, ok?
Namdeo Dhasal recites from the book 'Tu hi Yatta Kanchi', (What is your Grade?), 1981.
ND: We shall take it from this point... here
MD: Ok ok...
"Mumbai, Mumbai Mazhya Priya Rande"
(Mumbai, my beloved whore)
Recites the poem
Should I continue... cool?
This poem is from the collection of poem titled Khel (Play), 1983. The translation used here is by Abhay Sardesai and Mangesh Kulkarni.
ND: Which one should we take... to end? This... lets start from here... 'congenital diseases... from the Sun till here? Not this one right?...
MD: He is tired... so...
The session comes to an end. We request him to give us one more minute to record the ambience sound. He is little impatient, he looks at the watch. Camera catches him in that moment of silence. After more than a hour of orchestrated performances, articulations, and confessions, the controversial Namdeo strangely looks vulnerable, tiredness makes him appear soft and unguarded.