Casting a dark shadow
June 2, 2011 5:43 pm
An 80-year-old man still dreams of a better tomorrow, of a society without class and caste. It is what he set out to build as a young man, what made him one of the founder’s of the Peoples War Group. But the enemy was within, caste put you in your place in the revolution. Today K G Satyamurthy says his life is a ‘terrible joke’
Text and Photograph by Asha Menon, published in http://www.inkthemagazine.com/2011/06/318/
Comrade SM is 80 and looks it. He knows the end is near, but he finds it difficult to be at ease. He has spent nearly all his life trying to create a world that is more equitable and more fair, but now he feels an emptiness that is hard to escape. “I want to create an equal world,” he had once told a police interrogator, as a young revolutionary in his thirties. Today, after having given half a century to that dream, “My life has become a terrible joke.”
His eyes seem far away. He can still remember his wife, in a blue sari, waving him goodbye as he went off to help usher in a revolution that never came. The biggest enemy, he now realises, was neither the state nor the reactionaries. It was a phantom that nobody, not even the comrades, acknowledged. Even he had overlooked it in his early years as a revolutionary. It was the ancient enemy—caste, a subject that is anathema to the communists, but something that seems almost part of an Indian’s DNA and shows itself virtually everywhere.
Today, K G Sathyamurthy, or Comrade SM, is wheelchair-bound and lives with his daughter Sridevi, an engineer at a steel plant in Vishakapatnam. “My daughter,” he says, proudly pointing to her, “she takes care of me, not the party.”
SM speaks in a whisper. His 17-year-old grandson, from his elder son, lives with the family to mind him.
SM lost his health to years of life on the run and in the jungles. Sreedevi, 52, is conflicted over her father’s politics. “He leaves when he is well and returns when he falls sick. Last time, when his party called and asked me to pick him up from Guntur, I did not go for a few days. When he was leaving that time, I had told him not to. He is diabetic and I knew they could not take good care of him in the jungle (where classes and meetings happen). But he was insistent, and left. He came back paralysed from the waist down. Even today, he keeps telling me that he will go back. All he thinks about is his party and the people. We come last.” Helpless anger and pride inflect her voice. She can’t stop a smile.
But he does not let his daughter clear away the tomes of Marx and Mao that crowd his shelf, perhaps the only bookshelf in the neighbourhood that carries such works.
K G Satyamurthy, better known as Comrade SM in his daughters’s fl at in Vishakhapatnam
Comrade SM lives today in a place that would be the epitome of all that is bourgeois. The identical housing blocks in the expansive steel plant township are all painted in pastel shades. Everyone has a sensible, private vehicle. Sreedevi’s friend once told her that the township looks like Tirupathi in the morning, with its surrounding hills, and a “naxal area” in the night because of the desolation. But his thoughts are still around the battles that can be fought and won. He still hopes, though it seems increasingly forlorn.
It was all so different in 1967, when the “spring thunder” rumbled across the skies. Satyamurthy was an English teacher at Fatima School in Warangal, north Andhra Pradesh, where the legendary Kondapalli Seetharamiah was teaching Hindi. They quickly became friends. Kondapalli shared his disillusionment with the mainstream Marxist parties with his new friend.
Life as a teacher was comfortable. Sridevi remembers that he earned Rs 1,000. “When I started working, that was my first salary,” She muses. But for Satyamurthy teaching was not enough. He wanted to see a new, equal world and to be part of the making. He began to attend the meetings held by left leaders in small, discreet groups.
The year was 1969 and the Telangana agitation was at its height. “People were asking those who came from Andhra to leave and quit stealing their jobs. We had to go,” remembers Sridevi. “My father decided to part ways with us. We were sent away to live with our grandfather.”
Her mother was supportive of his efforts. “She told him, ‘I will take care of the children, you do something for society’,” says Sridevi. And so he morphed into the famous Comrade SM, co-founder of the People’s War Group, along with Seetharamaiah, in 1980.
He visited villages, organised squads and wrote poetry under the pseudonym Shiv Sagar. His literature inspired many people, including Varavara Rao. The Virasam leader later published all of Shiv Sagar’s poetry in the magazine he headed and also published all his books. SM steadily grew in the party. At one point there was a Rs 25,000 reward on his head. In 1972, when it was still in CPI (ML), SM was mistakenly pronounced dead and in 1974, arrested by deceit.
The police interrogator was known for his toughness, but SM did not falter. “Why do you want to waste your life? You are young,” asked the inspector.
“I want to form an equal society and eliminate poverty.”
“But that is what Indira Gandhi promises, too,” came the argument.
SM replied: “But I don’t believe in this government.”
No one would have sensed the doubts that he had begun to harbour, not even his family, who met him in jail, four years after he had left them. Even here, in the pure heart of revolution, SM was beginning to notice casteism.
“I am a Mala, an untouchable. Whenever I went for a bath, someone would leave something valuable in the bathing area to see if I stole it. They thought it was a caste habit and I guess they were testing me,” says SM. He did not react, trusting that the revolutionary culture would eliminate it in time.
He waited in vain. He could hear the echoes in the indulgent laughter of upper-caste squad members when the other castes and tribals performed their cultural programmes or sang, or in the daily assigning of tasks.
“The squad commander would ask people their caste and assign jobs on that basis,” says Sridevi. SM saw a dhobi asked to wash clothes and a barber by caste asked to shave comrades.
In 1977, KS (as Seetharamaiah was known) was arrested and SM headed the party. “When KS entered the meeting room with committee members, everyone rose in a jiffy. But when I walked in, I could see they were hesitating. Is it ok to stand for a Dalit?”
Then, there was his apparel. SM had always been simple but people noticed that the state secretaries dressed more elaborately than this national leader. “He’s a Dalit, how can he know,” was someone’s guess, with a short laugh. But SM was not amused.
“When KS was in jail, people started coming to me and telling me about the caste discrimination they faced. They were proud of me, but they were afraid to challenge the leadership.” SM started talking about BR Ambedkar’s teachings and caste discrimination in the party.
“SM said the party should encourage Dalit leadership,” says Ashok (name changed), who was part of a Naxal party front. “Dalits do not have access to education or resources and it should be the party’s responsibility to groom them as leaders, but the exact opposite was happening.”
SM also noticed that qualities generally considered essential for leadership were particular to certain castes. For example, leaders often need to be aggressive. “People from our caste are generally less so. Over the centuries, they have been conditioned to obey, so they are quickly consigned as cadre, not commanders.”
In 1986, SM stopped receiving messages from the party. “For four years, my father could not contact the party, because they abandoned him. He could not come out, fearing arrest,” says Sridevi. SM was given shelter by the Tamil Nadu and Mahashtra wings of the party.
In 1990, at a press conference held by Virasam (Viplava Rachayitula Sangham), SM declared his identity in public. “He was not arrested,” says Sridevi. “Later, a few police officials told me that he is only a philosopher, what harm can he do?”
In May 2004, a press release given by PWG to a section of the press, said SM and a few others like Pilla Venkateswara Rao had surrendered for monetary benefits from the government. SM was furious because his aversion to money was well known. Sreedevi says people in the party used to mock him for not knowing how to handle money. “My mother handled all the finances and she gave him spending money. I never understood his aversion.” Varavara Rao, too, does not refer to this accusation but instead says there were accusations that SM was trying to divide the party along with the Tamil Nadu state secretary.
In the same year, 2004, PWG merged with the Maoist Communist Centre, which was born in the mud and grime of caste politics in Bihar. It is said that it has its beginnings in 1967, in a little village called Ekwar in Bhojpur district, where Jagdeesh Mahato organised the tillers of the oppressed castes to fight the landlords. When it grew in notoriety in 1980s, the chief victims were the caste villains — Bhumihar, Rajputs and their henchmen, politicians and policemen. The upper-castes organised private armies, like the Ranvir Sena. Even SM believes that MCC has a better understanding of caste. “They try to recruit leaders from every caste.”
After he left the PWG, SM experimented with various philosophies to annihilate caste. He started a Marxist-Leninist Centre with U Sambasiva Rao. The two believe the Indian democratic revolution cannot succeed unless Marx and Ambedkar come together. They believe the answer lies in a group formed of castes who form the working class. Karthik Navayan, a lawyer and Dalit activist, gives an example.
“Shankar Rao, an MLA and a crorepati, went to inaugurate a temple. After he left, the upper castes washed the place with cow urine. They were poorer than him.” A revolution would need to liberate a person both socially and economically. Therefore, a rich Dalit would still be considered as a cadre for a Marxist-Ambedkarite party.
For a while, SM associated with the Bahujan Samaj Party. But his revolutionary politics was not welcome. So SM launched the Bahujan Republican Party (BRP) in 1996.
“The political stand was to bring together SC/STs, bahujan and other minorities and fight elections. They had a militant and some semi-legal wings,” says Ashok, the Dalit activist. “There was always the fear of attacks from landlords and other upper-caste leaders once you are politically active. So people need to protect themselves.”
It was a peculiar situation. In order to participate peacefully in the democratic process that the Constitution guarantees them, they needed a militant wing. This is a formula that keeps repeating itself in Dalit revolutionary parties.
The BRP, which lasted till 2006-2007, did not win any seats. “I don’t know why, but no Dalit party ever makes it on its own,” says Ashok.
SM was also closely associated with Veeranna, who left the CPI (ML) Janashakti to train Dalits and other oppressed castes as leaders. But none of his experiments led to a successful integration of caste and class identities.
Radicals who left
Many of the lower castes abandoned revolutionary politics, believing it to be indifferent to caste. Ashok, for instance, is now working with a non-governmental organistion. His immediate reason for leaving Janashakti was the expulsion of SM. He believes SM was driven out because he discussed caste.
His own brother Anil (name changed) was squad member for 10 years, but left because he believed the lower castes were treated badly. He felt the leadership would always remain with the upper castes, who would be safe in the cities while the fighting and dying was done by the other castes.
As for Ashok, he does not discount the party’s contribution to the Dalit cause. “They helped more than anyone else,” he says. “But I left because of the routine argument — Dalits are not allowed into certain ranks.”
The party’s answer
Varavara Rao dismisses these contentions. “When KS was arrested in 1977, SM was asked to take charge of the party. From 1982 to ’84, SM was secretary of the CPI-ML central committee, so how can one promoted to such a senior level accuse the party of caste discrimination? It was his personal failure to guide the party that resulted in his expulsion.
“SM was a good Bhavuka (rough translation, philosopher). But when people went to him with real problems he would quote poetry and say things like ‘no matter how many big trees fall, the wind will never stop’. The truth is, SM failed when he was asked to lead.”
According to the Virasam leader, SM had given up his political programme as a revolutionary in 1990. “When he came out in the open, SM said the PWG has no political programme and that it is only an economic struggle.”
People from our caste are generally less so. Over the centuries, they have been conditioned to obey, so they are quickly consigned as cadre, not commanders
Then, SM committed the cardinal sin, by asserting an identity based on caste and religion. “He started saying he is first a Dalit, then a Christian and then a Marxist,” says Varvara Rao. “How can that be? You are born into a caste and religion, but by consciousness you become a revolutionary. When you are a Marxist, you have already given up caste or religion, which was never your choice.
“I am not saying there is no caste in the party,” says Rao. “The party recognised that the essential problems in revolutionary movement in India are two — parliamentary politics and caste.”
In fact, during the Mandal agitation, he says, the party decided that if there was an opening within the party for a leader and the contenders were a Dalit, woman and an upper-caste, preference would be given to Dalits and women.”
If all the contenders were equally articulate, with raised revolutionary consciousness, the criterion wouild be identity-based preference.
Rao says the problem of caste-based leadership is raised only by educated Dalits. “You don’t find this in the villages where the struggle is being waged.”
He believes that Dalit organisations fail on two counts — not addressing the land issue and fighting within the constitutional framework.
“Can you show me any Dalit organisation fighting for land issue?”
Dr Anand Teltumbde, a prominent Dalit intellectual, agrees. But he says it is only a surface reality. “Caste is the foundation with infinite cracks and hence movements based on it are destined to fail.” He believes levels of oppression should be the binding factor, not caste.
Rao cites the Bahujan Samaj Party to show electoral victory is not the answer. “What good did it do for the Dalits of UP? Real political power will come by capturing the state, and that is the limitation of all caste parties. They have to start with the land question. If you approach only through the vote, you merely change the address and not the system. Overthrowing the state should be through occupation of land.”
“In villages, ownership of land can change the production relations. Once that is changed, as in Jagityal (Andhra Pradesh), non-brahminical, non-upper caste hegemony will come.
“We don’t underestimate the grievance of any identity movement, but the way they have chosen will not work. We need to unite all identities in a class struggle,” says the poet.
“The party encourages inter-dining and inter-marriage, but bourgeois ideas, built over thousands of years cannot be removed easily. Marxism is young. It is only 150 years and it never had enough time to rule because the regime always collapsed before cultural transformation took place.”
As an idea of class-based struggle that could change caste equations, he cites an idea he mooted to PALA, a cultural organisation for radical left politics. “I told them every organisation takes people into the temple, so you organise a parallel movement, a people’s movement in which you occoupy land belonging to religious organisations. In Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, the biggest landlords are religious mutts. The Naxal party did that in Rayalseema where people occupied devarmanya or inam lands.”
Mao made leaders of the people who had to be liberated. The upper castes do not need a revolution, the lower castes do, so they should lead. If madigas are the commanders they will decide whether they should fight or not. If the upper castes decide without consulting them you lose your followers in time
But Batulla Sidheswar, state secretary of the Communist Party of United States of India (Madiga Mahajana Kramika Vimukti Sanga), believes participating in elections can raise the revolutionary temper among Dalits.
“In the 70s, there were two factions of the CPI-ML, one of Chandrapulla Reddy and the other KS. While the first believed in elections, the second only trusted armed struggle. But neither gave importance to caste.”
Sideshwar says, “Without addressing caste, why should Dalits join the revolutionary movement? How is it different from other upper-caste parties?”
The answer, to him, is in Marxism. “Karmiki karana kavali,” he says in Telugu. “The capitalist must become a worker. It is called declassification. In India we have caste, so we need to need to ‘decasteify’ also. Even Kanshi Ram said that. Become a chamar. Don’t look at society from the Brahmin’s perspective but through the madiga’s (untouchable’s) eyes who gives respect to the other.
He does not think caste is consciously practised in the Naxal parties. “An upper-caste man takes classes because he is comfortable with the terms. Then a lower-caste commander wonders how he can contribute because he cannot do that. He remembers his skill as a barber or a washerman, and thinks he can contribute with that. But the party must have upper-caste people who say ‘I will wash the vessels or clothes and you take classes’. This is possible only if they incorporate caste into the politics.”
Sideshwar cites the example of the Chinese revolution. “Mao made leaders of the people the people who had to be liberated. The upper castes do not need a revolution, the lower castes do, so they should lead. If madigas are the commanders they will decide whether they should fight or not. If the upper castes decide without consulting them you lose your followers in time.”
Then, too, today’s youngsters have so many opportunities that they are not impressed with calls for armed struggle, says Sideswar. So his party believes in integrating elections and militant methods. “We had squads, about 12 of them from 1995 to 2005. Even I received training. But after Veeranna was ‘encountered’, all of them were either killed or they surrendered.
“Revolution only comes through armed struggle. But if you call us to vote we will go. If at the polling booth we are not allowed to vote we will choose armed struggle.”
They field candidates in elections to give people a choice. “If your enemy is in the dirt, you will have to get into it and fight him. You can’t afford to be repelled by it.”
He says that once people are politicised and are willing to vote for revolutionaries, the upper caste, upper class state will not stay silent. They will not let the people vote and upset the power structure. Then there will be armed struggle, which will lead to the final overturning of the state.
The people must also be powerful enough to wage an armed revolution. “Kanshi Ram said that a vote is light and a weapon, heavy. How can you ask people who can’t drop a vote to wield a weapon? If you lose votes, you only lose an election. If you lose an armed struggle, you lose lives. It cannot be taken lightly.”
Teltumbde, who leans towards class struggle, sounds impressed by Sidheshwar’s politics. “I do not disagree with the proposition that parliamentary politics is not to be completely discarded.” But he does not agree that revolutionary parties should themselves participate in parliamentary politics. “What I would want is that they have sufficient mass base which would impinge on the parliamentary politics and project revolutionary viewpoint to the larger masses.”
Teltumbde blames this “unfortunate duality” of caste and class on the early communists, who tried to fit in the social reality of India into moulds borrowed from Europe. “If they had not internalised the meaning of social classes as the objective reality, they would not have excluded caste as something belonging to a different universe.
Take for instance Lenin’s definition of class: ‘Classes are large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated by law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organisation of labour, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and their mode of acquiring it’. (Vladimir I. Lenin: ‘A Great Beginning: Heroism of the Workers in the Rear: ‘Communist Subbotniks’ in Collected Works, Volume 29; Moscow; 1965; p. 421).
“Even if this definition had been followed by Indian communists, caste would have been incorporated within the class analysis and the duality would not have been born. But instead of that they followed the kind of classes conceived by Lenin in Russian society. This error has done incalculable harm to the revolutionary project in this country. Therefore, it is vital for us to comprehend this historical error with utmost honesty.”
However, he does not see organising around caste as the answer. “The caste movements can never, repeat never, lead to the emancipation of oppressed people, neither from their caste nor from non-caste oppression.” Teltumbde’s answer is to base it on oppression.
“Orient the Dalit movement towards class, shunning the sectarian caste idiom and join hands with similarly placed people of the other castes; wake up to their crises of living and take up issues stemming from them for their struggle and dampen the identitarian projection.”
As for the left, he has some simple words of advice. They should “see that without annihilation of caste they can never realise the project of revolution. If the Left, armed with requisite conviction (and not mere projections for electoral calculations or swelling their cadre to appeal to Dalits) join the hands of Dalits at this point to avenge casteist crimes, they would slowly gain confidence of Dalits.”
In other words, he too is talking about an internal change of attitude, something that precipitated Comrade SM’s exit, without quite admitting as much.
While Veerana gave rise to a radical alternative to mainstream revolutionary parties, even his idea could not survive the divisive power of caste. Its power in moulding and mutating the most extreme revolutionary movements cannot be denied.
What does the old revolutionary say? Cultural revolution is central to solving the caste-class contradictions. He believes that cultural transformation must lead the revolution.
This is where he is at odds with people like Varvara Rao who believes: “Politics should lead and cultural revolution must be carried out along with it.” That is, the capture of a state must come first and whether a Dalit achieves that goal or not is only secondary.
The Marxists believe that by changing the production relations, caste can be eliminated. Sideswar does not agree. “It’s not only about economics. We need to understand the beginning and the history of things.”
Caste divisions, according to him, “destroyed the inherent unity (of society) and so now, the state run by the upper-castes is clueless about its citizens.” Veeranna’s party cadre would subvert festivals to relook at history. For example, while Dussehra is usually celebrated as the death of Ravana, party members would commemorate the death anniversary of an indigenous king.
SM has never stopped criticising the Naxal leaders for failing the oppressed castes. In May 2005, he blasted Varavara Rao for sending letters against Kalyan Rao and balladeer Gadar to the naxal leaders. If that letter had not been sent the merger of PWG and Maoist Central Committee, would have seen the the two occupying top positions in the new party and discrimination against Dalits would have been exposed.
There is a question SM asks repeatedly, unknowingly, during the interview. “Why did the party expel me?” Sometimes Sridevi wonders how he did not make it, like the other leaders.
She told him, once, in exasperation, “You have failed. ’He merely said no’.”
He can still hear the distant roll of ‘spring thunder’ though it’s been a long time since it first sounded. “The revolution will come,” he says, listening intently to the evening news.