Vilas Sonawane: Tribute to a ‘Satyashodhak’ Marxist

Amalendu Upadhyaya
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Personality and life of Vilas Sonawane

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat

The passing away of Comrade Vilas Sonawane is a huge loss to Dalit- OBC-Pasmanda movement all over the country. He was one of the very few who were extremely articulate and well-read on the issue. Apart from that, his own experience of working with the Communist Party of India (Marxist) gave him enough understanding of what ails our socio-political movements, as well as his relations with Phulewadi-Ambedkarite organisations.

Sonawane was a building bridge in his later years between various progressive and revolutionary ideologies. Listening to him was a treat. There are very few who can explain the issue of class, caste, occupations in such a simple way as he used to.

I personally felt that Vilas had enormous knowledge but remained underused even when he was active till few years but many time our public activities cause harm to our intellectual work which is more damaging. I have this complaint with another important person who I worked with, Prof D Prempati, a man of extraordinary knowledge yet because of extreme mass contact programme, left with no time to leave behind the work which would have become important for the coming generations. This happens with most of the friends who are active at the ‘grassroots’ as in their public relations they ignore the important work of writings.

His public life began with student politics.

Vilas emerged from a student movement as he was the founding secretary of the Student Federation of India (SFI), Maharashtra.  He was the first Communist Student Secretary of Siddharth College Mumbai Students Union from 1973-75. He was expelled from the Communist Party of India (Marxist)  in 1978 and got associated with Comrade Sharad Patil who established Satyashodhak Communist Party in the same year.

Actually, Vilas always spoke about the caste bias in the party and that compelled him to work for the rights of the OBCs in Maharastra in particular where political leaderships of different parties were not giving space to them.

He never compromised his Marxism

Vilas never compromised his Marxism. Despite having big differences with the leaders of his party and others in the left movement, he never ever dissociated with Marxism. It was a powerful idea of bringing together Phule-Ambedkar-Marx-Buddha by Comrade Sharad Patil that actually brought him into debating with him the importance of the caste ignored by the Marxists in India.

Sharad Patel was working on the issue for a long and understood it well that if India needs a strong fight against the Brahmanical system, it needs a combination of powerful ideologies which provide alternative and it can not be an ideology imported from anywhere. You have powerful movements in India and that is why he was consistent in saying it Phule-Ambedkar -Marx-Buddha and why they were needed. The name Satyashodhak Communist party, therefore, represented the great influence of Jyoti Ba Phule on Sharad Patil.

In various conversations that I had with Vilas whenever we got the opportunity to meet, he would give examples and examples quoting both Phule and Ambedkar about the shudra jaatis or shramik castes.

Vilas’s knowledge came with his enormous mass contact and participation in various movements in Maharashtra and outside. That apart, he continued to debate with ideologues like Sharad Patil and it resulted in knowledge that may or may not is documented. He was not merely an ideologue or philosopher but an initiator and participant in these pathbreaking movements.

He came more active in the post Mandal era as the country saw a resurgence of the Dalit-OBC unity initiatives everywhere.

Vilas knew it well that Muslims too have caste structure and encouraged Muslim OBCs to speak up which resulted in the establishment of the Muslim Marathi Sahitya Parishad in 1990. Two years later, he began the Muslim OBC movement. By the late nineties, he could realise that it was important to start a dialogue process with all secular-socialist-Bahujan forces and that process began in 1999. He would say that we need to bring together all secular progressive forces. Even when many had aversion with Gandhians, he had no such issue and felt that there are good people everywhere and they need to have a dialogue.

When the UPA I in 2004 started rigorous land acquisition process and a new ‘concept’ of Special Economic Zone came into being threatening lives and livelihoods of thousands of people particularly Dalit Adivasis as well as peasants Vilas joined hand with Justice P B Sawant and Justice BG Kolse Patil to fight against the unjust law and acquisition. They formed Mahamumbai Shetkari Sangharsh Samiti to fight against the whole process of the land acquisition.

His organisation Yuva Bharat formed in 2001 played a very vital role in mobilisation of the masses against the land acquisition process.

The Samiti not only started working mobilisation of people against the whole process but also decided to challenge it through the process of law. They remained amply clear that no land for any purpose. This movement against SEZs in the region brought him in ideological conflict with the ‘mainstream left’ and so-called social movements campaigning against big dams. They also blamed these forces for using their media connection to hijack the movement and give wrong information.

Ultimately, Reliance has to withdraw from Raigarh SEZ in 2009. It was a big battle which they claim that Maharastra farmers rejected the ‘reformist’ and ‘NGO model’ which wanted to focus on ‘rehabilitation’ and not really focus on broader issues of farmers and their own agency to lead their struggle.

Vilas was also called the father of the successful fight against the Dow Chemicals Company near Pune with the help of Warakaris in the year 2008.

Actually, Vilas had realised it was better to move away from ‘ideological rigidities’ and being ‘camp followers’ as he wanted to make an effective political intervention with a greater impact on the masses. Right from the formation of Yuva Bharat and his efforts to reach out to other ideological spaces of Gandhian, Ambedkarites, Marxists, Phuleites, Socialists, Lohiasts, JPites was a pragmatic way to find a common ground against communal capitalist forces. He was certain that all these talks of unity will not be possible without discussing the issue of representation at the decision-making bodies level.

He was extremely close to Comrade Sharad Patil whose Phule Ambedkar Marx Buddha combination alternative was liked by many but as Vilas said in a wide-ranging conversation with me that for twenty-five years Sharad Patil Saheb did not agree with him but ultimately agreed that he was wrong and the question of representation was important and critical.

Listening to Vilas Sonawane was a treat but he was definitely not made for the ‘online’ age as he would speak with great ease and would not like to be ‘disturbed’. Even when he was neither an academic nor a teacher yet he had enormous knowledge which came from his vast studies and his relationship with communities and people.

For youngsters like us, sitting with him was listening to a live encyclopaedia but his anecdotes and stories can definitely bring Bahujan communities together which espoused for. His analysis of relations of peasants with Dalit communities is extraordinary and should be taught to every student of social justice.  Even about the Mahad satyagraha, he has a very interesting analysis that has not been revealed. Mahad was the movement that is termed as a success story of Baba Saheb Ambedkar but why Mahad succeeded and Vilas explained this beautifully in the conversation with me, “

“There were two Satyagrah in Mahad. One was for water rights and the other was the burning of Manusmriti. It is also a fact that Manusmiriti was burnt by sahshrabhuddhe, a Chitpawan brahmin friend of Baba Saheb. He gave a 40 minutes speech. Baba Saheb was standing nearby. People normally term the victory of Baba Saheb as that of Mahars but that is not true. In Ratnagiri and Raigarh there were only 4% Mahars at that point in time, who did not have voting rights.  The 1937 elections were not an ideal franchise as voting rights were given to only those who were property holders and Mahars did not have the property or even houses. Most of their houses were there on Khotland i.e., that of Zamindars. Not a single Mahar had voting rights. But in the elections that year, Independent Labour Party, from Ratnagiri which includes today’s Sindhudurg and Ratnagiri, ILP won 16 seats out of 18. In the Raigarh district, they won 14 out of 16 and three MLCs were appointed by the governor. How could it be possible? Not without the support of other castes. It means that the water rights campaign of Baba Saheb Ambedkar attracted other farming communities too to his fold.” 

He says that while Baba Saheb formed Scheduled Caste Federation for protecting the interests of the untouchables, it is the Independent Labour Party that gave him wider representation and his acceptance as leaders of all castes and not merely that of untouchables or depressed classes.

Vilas was categorical that both Baba Saheb and Jyoti Ba Phule had brahmins friends but they were enlightened and committed to the causes. He however felt that some brahmin dining with Dalits or Shudras or sitting with them does not end the caste system.

On the issue of the Dalit OBC conflict, he said normally the peasantry and the artisan communities have close working relationship and therefore farming is not merely a business of one caste but the involvement of many others in different forms.

He said that both he and Sharad Patil had left CPM but that time we were ideologically not that strong and we simply felt that if we put Phule and Ambedkar with Marx, all the issues will get resolved. Though I had no issue with linking all of them I put a question to Sharad Patil about the leadership issue which did not respond in 1977. My question was simple. There were about 1000 members of the party at that time, of which 600 odd members belonged to Adivasi communities. But when the question of state executive or district executive came it was a different scenario. There were not even 75 brahmins in the entire state who were members of the party but ironically, in the state’s highest body there were 24 brahmins out of 27 in the state committee and the rest got adjusted in various district committees. How can you do that those who build the party get no representation at the top level of leadership while Brahmins were there just to ‘lead’ the party? This will not work.

Vilas said that Sharad Patil accepted his position after 25 years at the fag end of his life but it did not matter much nothing could have been done at that point in time.

In the post-1990s, Vilas got active in bringing different groups together and formation of Muslim OBC organisation in Maharashtra. He said on the OBC question more than 200 Talukas of Maharastra saw both Muslim and Hindu OBCs fighting for their rights together. It happened the first time after Phule, said someone in a journal who somehow reached to Sharad Pawar who called Vilas and wanted to know from him about this. After this, Sharad Pawar picked up OBCs from different places in his party. Our question was that leave your religion aside and fight for your rights.

He also felt that the Bahujan masses are still leaderless and the only way to bring Dalit OBC together is to raise their socio-economic issues. Unfortunately, the Marxists forgot to speak about social issues while those claiming Buddhism speak about social and cultural ideas of Buddha but not his economic model. Buddha’s economic model is extremely important and we will have to say that he was able to suggest this nearly 2,500 years before Karl Marx.

Vilas said that those who use the system often misquote and misuse the facts and hide those things detrimental to their interest. He gave an example of Shivaji and says most of us only speak about Shivaji in relations with Mughals and then convert it into a Hindu Muslim issue but none speak about Land Reforms initiated by Shivaji. 90& of the battle Shivaji fought against his own relatives and were Vatandars who turned against him because of the land reform initiatives.

When we were discussing the issue of bringing together Dalits and OBCs as well as their contradiction, Vilas was clear that frankly originally, they were all the same jaatis as every jaati was having its own traditional work and expertise while being interdependent on each others. So nobody could go ahead if any one of them withdrew. He was of the opinion that Bahujan masses will have to embrace Phule-Ambedkar-Buddha and only then there will be change.

He felt that had Baba Saheb taken a conflicting stand on the round table conference against Gandhi, we would have had a social revolution that time. So, for him, an Ambedkar of the Independent Labour Party is acceptable so that he becomes the leader of all.  To those who say that Baba Saheb Ambedkar did not write much about land or worked for the peasantry, Vilas Sonawane gave a powerful example from his own experience in the fight against Reliance SEZs in Raigarh.

He said, “ In the Konkan region the farmers went on a strike till seven years from 1929 to 1936. It was about the tax to be given to Zamindars and they were demanding it should be not left to their whims and fancies. So finally, the farmers won and it was 25% to Zamindars and 75% to Kisan. The three castes of which benefitted were not untouchables. Most of them were savarna castes. Baba Saheb won the battle for them. The anti-Zamindari movement made Baba Saheb extremely popular among all. Even today, Konkan’s caste Hindu farmers have Baba Saheb’s photographs in their homes for the battle that he fought for them.

It is also important to notice that Baba Saheb Ambedkar presented an anti-Khoti ( Zamindari) bill in the Bombay Legislative Council in 1936 and it was the basis of the same bill which became the basis for passage of the Zamindari Abolition Act in 1948 by the Indian Parliament. So, all the Kurmis, Yadavs, Jats, Gujjars and other peasantry communities who have got farming land actually owe it to Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar.

I had several opportunities to share the stage with Vilas Sonawane and discuss these issues. It was always enlightening to speaking with him. The amount of knowledge that he had needed someone to record and decipher. Both of us were honoured by the Ambedkarite Buddhist Organisation in Ayodhya on Ambedkar Jayanti several years back. He participated in many events organised by me in Delhi. He would share his ideas with the youngsters and be always hopeful of a better future. It was not an easy task to sit with him for a formal conversation. When I along with my friend Vivek Sakpal from Mumbai, went to Pune and invited him to come to Mumbai for a conversation, he came. It is difficult to ask a person of his calibre who we looked up to clarification of many things to get fixated on a particular format. I would have loved to record a much bigger conversation with him but unfortunately that day it was quite delayed and he had to return to Pune.

We had already recorded over three hours plus. Some of my friends suggested that you edit the interview and make it to a small version but principally, I remained against editing and second there was nothing that could be edited. We were of the opinion that whatever is there must be uploaded in one go. I am sure if people have patience and time the three hours interview will give them numerous ideas and information related to Dr Ambedkar’s work in relation to the farming communities and why should they join hands together and protect their livelihood and resources.

One sincerely hopes family members and friends will bring together his writings and thoughts in the greater interest of common people victims of the hierarchical system as well as imported imperialist capitalists’ order.

A big salute to Comrade Vilas Sonawane, a Satyashodhak Marxist for their remarkable contribution to strengthening the Bahujan debate as well as social movements by articulating the issue of land, resources, farmers and identity in such an extraordinarily simple way.


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