'The Congress should have accepted our demands.'
'Gone are the days when it could decide how many crumbs to throw at us.'
'Now, we make the demands.'
Jyoti Punwani reports.
Anil Jadhav, the candidate chosen by Prakash Ambedkar to fight the Lok Sabha election from Pune on a Bahujan Vanchit Aghadi ticket, was in the Bharatiya Janata Party till last year.
Campaigning for him are two Ambedkarite activists, Sachin Mali and Aakash Sable.
To fully grasp the irony of the situation, one only needs to consider the background of the two activists.
Mali was a leading face of the radical Kabir Kala Manch till 2017. Arrested on charges of being a Maoist in April 2013, he was released on bail granted by the Supreme Court in January 2017.
Two months later, along with wife and singer Sheetal Sathe, Mali broke away from the KKM to form a separate troupe called Nayavan.
Aakash Sable was on the coordination committee set up to organise the Elgaar Parishad on December 31, 2017 in Pune.
The Parishad, which drew record crowds, was held on the eve of the Bhima Koregaon Shaurya Divas on January 1, 2018, observed every year by Dalits to mark the victory of the British over the Peshwas in 1818.
Speakers at the Elgaar Parishad, ranging from Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani to former JNU student leader Umar Khalid to tribal activist Soni Sori from Chhattisgarh, took a vow not to vote for the BJP and gave fiery speeches asking for an end to the 'New Peshwai', their description of the BJP regime.
Soon after, the Maharashtra government blamed the speeches at the Parishad for the violence that broke out at Bhima Koregaon the next day. It filed FIRs against Mewani, Khalid, as well as three KKM members for giving 'provocative' speeches and performances, and arrested 10 left wing intellectuals for their involvement in the Elgaar Parishad. They are still in jail.
Now, Mali and Sable are campaigning for a man who was till last year with the BJP. Rediff.com caught up with them while they were preparing for his rally scheduled to be held on Sunday evening.
"Anil Jadhav wasn't an ideologue; he was carried away by the Modi wave," says Sable. He left the BJP after the Bhima Koregaon violence against Dalits last year, adds Mali.
That means he stayed with the BJP for almost four years of its reign.
"But now he's making strong speeches against Modi," smiles Sable.
Both activists similarly defended their leader Prakash Ambedkar's decision not to join the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party alliance.
Not only was the Congress a feudal outfit which believed in the rule of a few families, says Mali, but in most of the atrocities against Dalits in Maharashtra, he alleged the accused were found to be linked to either the Congress or the NCP.
"No Dalit wanted an alliance with these parties," he adds. "What about Rahul Gandhi being described as a 'janeu-dhari Hindu'? Isn't that insulting to Dalits?"
"All progressives go on about the danger to secularism and the need to ally with the Congress," says Mali angrily. "But are we supposed to overlook its casteist practices? Only Ambedkar challenged (Hindutva activist and accused in the Bhima Koregaon violence) Sambhaji Bhide; no one from the Congress-NCP did. They have in fact nursed Bhide."
As for its commitment to secularism, Mali points out that the Congress had not changed its Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg candidate who had publicly supported Vaibhav Raut, a Hindutva activist arrested from Nalla Sopara, a township near Mumbai, last year for allegedly assembling explosives in his house.
"Why didn't the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) ban the Sanatan Sanstha when the file recommending a ban was sent to the home ministry?" he asks.
But with all its faults, wasn't Prakash Ambedkar ready to forge an alliance with the same party?
"Yes, on his terms," says Sable, pointing out that it was only after the Elgaar Parishad raised a voice against the current regime that the Congress started criticising Modi strongly.
"It is we who laid the foundation for an alternative to the Modi regime," says Sable. "The Congress should have accepted our demands. The party is in a sorry state, unable to find candidates. Gone are the days when it could decide how many crumbs to throw at us. Now, we make the demands."
Both activists defend Prakash Ambedkar's alliance with Asaduddin Owaisi.
"A Muslim party existing in such a hostile atmosphere is itself a revolutionary phenomenon," gushes Mali. "Those people who dislike his language remind me of those Shaniwarwada Brahmins who were enraged by the raw language of Namdeo Dhasal and other Dalit writers when the Dalit Panthers first made their appearance."
According to Sable, the real reason the Congress refused to meet Ambedkar's demands was because it could not bear to see a Dalit-Muslim leadership emerge. "Our youth too, no longer want to work with the Congress," he says.
'You must ally with the Congress or fascism will be here.' This was the exhortation made to Prakash Ambedkar by Maharashtra's progressives including Nikhil Wagle, Ulka Mahajan and Bharat Patankar, says Mali. In response, he has written a seven-page letter to them.
The letter begins with the assertion that the oldest and most dreadful form of fascism is the caste system. 'Brahminical fascism has dictated that certain castes enjoy power and other castes remain dependent on them,' says his letter.
'Why didn't you write to Rahul Gandhi, Sharad Pawar and Ashok Chavan to ally with Prakash Ambedkar who is trying to socialize democracy by giving tickets to neglected small castes? Why didn't you write to the Congress-BJP to give tickets to candidates from other than the usual 169 families who share power among themselves?' Mali writes.
This election, says Sable, is not only about sending representatives from Dalits and other neglected castes to Parliament, but also to spread awareness about an alternate politics, completely different from both the BJP and the Congress.