Vira Sathidar has been at it for the last three decades; as an activist of the anti-caste movement in Maharashtra, he has travelled across the state, talking to common people, writing and singing about their lives in their own language. Yet it was only last year, when he played a Dalit protest singer in the internationally acclaimed film Court, that he found recognition in mainstream society though he has been performing for more than 30 years. With Court picking up several awards at international festivals, Sathidar found acclaim, and offers to act in and score music for other films. Since most of these were typical commercial ventures, he hasn’t taken up any film work as yet.

“As a cultural activist, my work focuses on making it apparent how several factors like caste, class and gender come together in the way we think and how they serve to oppress those located below us,” he says. For him and his companions in the movement, caste cannot be reduced to a debate on Brahmins versus Dalits or reservations. Instead, it represents a way of thinking in which every person and group tries to corner the maximum for itself at the cost of those below.

In an interview at his residence in Jai Bhim Nagar in Nagpur, the 57-year-old Sathidar talked about politics, education, culture and the anti-caste movement. Excerpts:

On several occasions after the success of Court, you have expressed a discomfort with the tag “actor”. What lies at the root of this? 

The discomfort arises because I don’t know what I am. Everyone has a specialty but I haven’t had the freedom to explore all my abilities or desires. Instead, I’ve had to do everything out of compulsion. I became a part of the movement at a young age. And whatever I am today — actor, singer, political or cultural activist — is because of the movement.  

You are part of the Republican Panthers Jati Antachi Chalwal, one among the several forces that constitute the anti-caste movement in the state. You are also editor of the bi-monthly Marathi-Hindi magazine Vidrohi. How does your interest in and work as a cultural activist fit into the movement? 

My writing, singing – it all comes from my understanding of politics. So in that sense, although I am a cultural activist, politics lies at the heart of what I create. 

Today there is a need for working among the people and organising them. And so my cultural work has taken a back seat. When there is oppression and caste-based atrocities happening all around us, we cannot just sing about it. We have get on the ground and stop the aggressors. 

Education and politicisation of the masses can only happen through songs and forms people have a relationship with. It is a long process, and there are periods when a certain kind of activity — organisational work, for instance — assumes more importance. Now is that time.  

What were your reasons for joining the movement?

My grandfather was a part of the freedom movement. My father personally participated in Babasaheb Ambedkar&’s historic conversion in 1956. And I grew up seeing the Dalit Panthers from close quarters. So in that sense, the entry into the movement was natural.

I am also deeply disturbed by how we are as a society today. Ambedkar is celebrated as an icon and as the architect of the Indian Constitution. But no one seems to be paying any heed to his dream of social and economic justice and the sections of the Constitution that deal with those ideas. I am a part of this movement because, like Ambedkar, I believe that mere representation in the political arena will not bring an end to caste-based oppression.

Whether it is Ambedkar, Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule, Periyar, Bhagat Singh, the Dalit Panthers or those who were part of the Tebhaga and Telangana movements — all had the same dream.  That of a society free from oppression on the basis of religion, caste, gender and tribe.

I have done several kinds of jobs — grazing cattle, working in a factory and at construction sites, as a rickshaw driver and a journalist. All of these have given me a first-hand understanding of how exploitation works. That is what I seek to bring forth in my songs and writings.

You have been a part of the anti-caste movement since the 1980s. What has changed within the movement and outside it in these decades? 

The 1980s was an inspiring period. There was a wave of literature, of autobiographies and poetry by Dalits. Those works, in their language and forms, offered a jolt to mainstream literature patronised by the state. There was also a lot of Naxalite literature from West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. We in the anti-caste movement were deeply influenced by those two currents then.

Today, society itself has undergone a sea change. Within Dalits today there is a sizable middle class and several of them are considered part of the intelligentsia. They occupy positions of power in politics, education and business. 

Because several Dalits are considered part of the intelligentsia, people claim that caste does not really matter in India. What they forget is these same Dalit faces never speak about or against atrocities on Dalits and Adivasis. They have internalised and speak in the language of the system. It is with the aid of these co-opted elements that the state has been able to project Ambedkar as an apolitical “architect of the Constitution”.

Of course, he wasn’t just that, and it is our responsibility to break this image of him. The new middle class has made our work more difficult but we are determined about making Ambedkar radical again.

In the last three decades, the issues facing the country have also changed. The availability of roti, kapda and makaan isn’t so much a pressing concern today as is its distribution or concentration in the hands of a privileged few.  Development and development-induced displacement have assumed massive importance but that is something the co-opted Ambedkarite political forces have not bothered to talk about. 

What is the biggest challenge facing the movement today? 

Education gives us the knowledge to understand the world. Ambedkar became the radical figure he was because of his education; else he would have been like a Tukaram or a Gadge Maharaj. And yet today, at the policy level, it is access to knowledge that is being denied Dalits, minorities and Adivasis. We, as cultural activists, have to make all of this apparent before the people. We have to present an alternative — good politics in a language that people understand and identify with. I’m thinking of Rahul Sankirtyayan&’s work; of how he could use the form of dialogue between common people to shed light on Marxist ideas without ever mentioning Marx.  

Our literature, the songs we write and perform, must be relevant to the lives of people in the way Sankirtyayan&’s work still is. We must also make use of newer forms, like cinema, to reach out to more people. Cinema is not a medium the movement has ever used but must do so now. A politically stimulating well-made film has a longevity that few other media can possibly have.

But making a film is an expensive affair and almost unthinkable for a movement that has no money.

When we want to change the world, we can’t be limited to thinking that films can only be made with pots of money. There are several good artists and technicians who are open to working on political subjects today and we must find a way to bring them together as well as the general public as a part of the film-making process.

Some people, like Mohammad Ghani in Mathura, are doing this. Ghani is a tailor by profession who also makes films and shows it to people. He keeps a tight budget and manages to recover costs by passing the hat around.

You spoke about the role of cultural activists in articulating a new politics in a language that people understand and can identify with. Why is political education important in the present context?

Today, there are several bourgeoisie political parties that claim to be practicing Marxist/Ambedkarite politics. For them, Marxist/Ambedkarite ideology is a progressive mask. Although it is business as usual behind the mask, common people believe that what these parties are doing is revolutionary and for the good of the masses.

Political education is important because only that will allow the masses to understand how they are being fooled. It is a given that mainstream political parties will not be interested in political education as it will give people the knowledge to question the status quo and challenge oppression.

Political education also comes with its risks. Marxism, for instance, is anti-system in itself, and those trained in it will have the ability to question their own organisation and the broad fronts (like the Joint Action Committees of the present times in several cities) they are part of. This could create some friction within the movement, but in the long term, can only strengthen it.

Following liberalisation in the late 1980s, forging solidarities has also become very difficult. In the absence of any political education, the working class has splintered, trade unions have been smashed and contract work has taken root. Overall, people seem to have become far more tolerant — while thousands would hit the streets in earlier decades even if there was a five paisa rise in prices, today, you find very few agitated with the high inflation rate! 

In the last several months, following incidents at IIT, Madras, FTII and Rohith Vemula&’s suicide at the University of Hyderabad, there has been a coming together of Marxist and Ambedkarite students’ organisations from across the country. We haven’t seen something like this at this scale in the last 30 years. Do you think there is more space available today to discuss complex issues like caste, given the changed political situation?

In a way, yes. There is more space available but there is also a lot of dishonesty.

I strongly believe space is what we make of it. I recall this one instance during the commemoration of those killed during the 1992 Bombay riots in Ramabai Nagar. It was the 10th year after the firing and several radical cultural groups had come together to organise a programme close to the spot where the firing had occurred. We had also invited mainstream artists, singers like Anand Shinde to participate in the programme. But the latter group took up almost the entire time set aside for performances. Since we had organised the programme, we were very angry with this as we had collected funds, mobilised people and organised everything. 

We decided to take some people from each radical group and formed a new team that was stronger than any of the original teams. That night, although we sang just one song, we were able to bring the focus back on caste. With that one song, we were able to undo what the so-called progressive professional singers, co-opted by the system, did over several hours.


(the interviewer is the statesman&’s Mumbai-based special correspondent)