In Memoriam, Namavistar – Contours of the Namantar Struggle for Renaming of Marathwada University

January 13, 2015


By Prakash Sirsat. Translated by Swati Birla.

Note by the translator:

Prakash Sirsat is a long time activist associated with the Dalit Yuvak Aghadi (Dalit Youth Front) of Marathwada. He is a close observer of politics in this region of Maharashtra since early 1970s. Dalit Yuvak Aghadi was a student and youth group formed in Marathwada in early 1970s. Their politics centered around dalit struggles such as those for gairan lands (village commons), for shared public wells, and for better-funded student scholarships.

The struggle for the renaming of the Marathwada University or the Namantar movement was a long struggle spanning close to 20 years in the region with ripple effects nationally. The name was altered on 14 January 1994. The Namantar struggle was a watershed moment not only in Dalit politics but progressive politics more generally. There is a dearth of first hand accounts reflecting on the politics of the time in English language. We hope to bridge the gap with this translation from Marathi.


Published in: Namantar Parva
Edited by Ratankumar Pandagale
Year: 2006
Author: Prakash Sirsat
Translated by: Swati Birla

In memoriam, Namavistar

By Prakash Sirsat

Eleven years have elapsed since the Namantar (renaming) of Marathwada University. Time enough to assess the struggle for Namantar. There is always a danger of not being able to evaluate a struggle properly when one is too close to it. One has to wait for events to unfold. There is also a danger in reviewing history too distantly because memories become fuzzy and emotions dull. This is the right moment to revisit the Namantar struggle.

If one were to write the history of Dalit movement after Babasaheb Ambedkar, Dadasaheb Gaikwad’s satyagraha for the landless is the most notable moment followed by the struggle for better scholarships for dalit students. Linearly, Namantar comes last. This is not the space to appraise the first two moments, but time and circumstances necessitate a critical examination of the Namantar movement.

During the Emergency the demand for Namantar was the domain of Dalit Panthers. Participation by others was minimal. Perhaps the Panthers worked towards it so they could avoid sharing the credit for it. During the Marathwada Vikas Andolan of 1974, progressive youth organizations launched common struggles for regional development; Namantar was one of their demands. Panthers decided against joining their protests, instead they organized an independent rally for Namantar. Subsequently, those sympathetic to Namantar in the progressive front, altered their stance. Their behavior shows lack of awareness of the need for concerted effort in such political demands. Non-Dalit groups clearly felt no need for solidarity; but there is no evidence that other Dalit groups had made any earlier attempts for political mobilization on this question.

Dalit Yuvak Aghadi was one of the political groups active in Marathwada at the time. Their politics was independent. Namantar was not the first issue on their priority list. It was one concern among other dalit struggles such as those for gairan lands (village commons), for shared public wells, and for better-funded student scholarships. After the Emergency, political struggles intensified, Namantar was one of them. At this time the Congress party had lost the state assembly elections. A new coalitional government was formed under the leadership of Sharad Pawar. The insistence of many progressive MLAs and force of the Namantar movement compelled this government to resolve the (by then long pending) Namantar question. Their problem simply put was how to arrive at a consensus between two opposing factions, one demanding to rename the University after Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar while the second insisting the acknowledgement of the region Marathwada with the name. The government decided upon the name “Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University” as the middle. The resolution to change the name thus was introduced in both houses of the assembly and unanimously approved. The movement’s demand was only for Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s name. Journalists were naturally curious about the reception of this compromise among the leaders of the movement. They invited the reactions of one of the leaders of the movement also the leader of Dalit Panthers, Prof. Arun Kamble. Radio was the only mass medium of the time. We stuck to it waiting for the news.

The assembly resolution was announced followed by the Panther’s reaction. They had accepted the compromise! At that moment we had a premonition that riots would start that night. One did not require special powers to see this. The progressive MLAs gave tacit approval to the compromise. They calculated that Panthers would reject the compromise, thus giving them ample room to maneuver. The Panthers went public with their acceptance very early in the game. It put the progressive MLAs in a non-enviable position of having to recant their position publicly. This move came on the heels of the radio announcement. Panthers did not possess the political acumen to understand that their haste in making the announcement and eagerness to dialogue relatively early would change the power dynamics. To put it differently, they were not well versed in the drama of politics. A public show of their unwillingness could have averted the riots. This would have thrown the ball back into the court of the progressive MLAs through the reintroduction of the ordinance in the assembly. Perhaps the name change would have been effected then instead of being dragged out for 17 years. Utter tactlessness and lack of strategy converted the potential victory into a loss.

As riots became imminent, we sought out police officers in our areas of work and visited as many places as possible making security arrangements that very night. The next day intense riots broke out throughout Marathwada, but the villages where Dalit Yuvak Aghadi had been active whether for gairan or common public wells remain untouched by violence. Even villages with an ongoing boycott of dalits were riot free.

The Panthers were taken by surprise by the sheer breadth and intensity of anger. They were politically paralyzed and did not make even simple gestures such as visiting villages where riots had occurred in order to console affected villagers. Those were monsoon days. People’s troubles were at their peak as if there was no government for ten days. No assistance could reach the affected dalit communities. There was a complete media blackout. Journalsists associated with leading newspapers like ‘Marathwada’ were opposed to Namantar. No news of dalit communities ravaged by riots filtered out. Dalit Yuvak Aghadi stepped into fill the void. I travelled with Pandharinath Savant who at the time was working with the magazine ‘Shree’ and publicized the intensity and extent of the violence. This is the most significant contribution that the Dalit Yuvak Aghadi made for the Namantar struggle.

At moments such as this where a movement is forced to encounter the limits of their tactics it must creatively reimagine not only its tactics but also new forms of politics. Failing to do so exposes the myopias of the movement. After such a reactionary response, taking the struggle forward became a historical responsibility. Dalit Yuvak Aghadi took on this task.

There were two things necessary for the moment. It was important to maintain a public presence of the Ambedkarite movement, to show that the violence had not crushed its spirit. At the same time care had to be taken to contain conflict and not allow conflagration. The first Dalit literary meet was scheduled in Aurangabad. The festival was held on the ground situated at the center of the Ajanta hostel of Milind College. The Hindi writer, journalist and progressive thinker Kamleshwar was invited to inaugurate the meet. Artists, writers, progressive thinkers of the literary world of Maharashtra and journalists attended the event. A shadow of the anti-dalit riots loomed large over the event. At the event they decided to organize a symposium of Namantar. Subsequently a meeting was called for at Mangvadgaon (Taluka Kej, District Beed).

Dalit Yuvak Aghadi, had organized a three day workshop on the land under collective farming at Mangvadgaon. The symposium was held at the end of this workshop. Among the participants were Dr. Adhav and Kumar Shiralkar. A decision to take a public position on Namantar was made at this meeting. As a part of this, two events were scheduled. First scheduled event in Aurangabad was the Namantar Parishad (symposium) in the Vasant Bhuvan. All pro Namantar activists were to be invited to plan a mass mobilization campaign for this. The second event was a Namantar Satyagraha. People from all over Maharashtra would march to Aurangabad and converge at Kranti chowk at December 6, 1979. The Satyagragh would be announced in the very Parishad.

The Parishad took place on 22nd June 1979 in Vasant Bhuvan at Aurangabad. As per the decision made at Mangvadgaon, the Satyagraha was announced for December 6, 1979. Nagpur and Kolhapur were furthest from Aurangabad. Professor Bapurao Jagtap, one of the leaders of the renaming movement, was prominent among those who wanted this Satyagraha to be named as the ‘Long March’. So the protestors from there had to leave earlier than the rest. Accordingly, they left. This does not a long march make! Leaving early is not a license to declare oneself the originator of the movement. Some people blatantly ignore history and continue to parade themselves as leaders. Society also participates in this farce.

Scores of people entered Aurangabad before 6th of December. Among them was a socialist youth group from ‘Bihar Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini’. The police blockaded those who came by road at various places. Assemblies of people were banned in districts surrounding Aurangabad. This restricted entry into the district. Arrests were made in the districts surrounding Aurangabad. But preparations for the Satyagraha continued in full force. People from groups across the political spectrum came together and formed the Namantar Working Committee. Communists who had a different stand earlier also joined in. Socialists joined in against the wishes of their own activists. Activists of the Yuvak Kranti Dal also joined in. There were a lot of heated discussions in Rashtra Seva Dal. When the organization refused to take a stand on Namantar a big group of activists from western Maharashtra, walked out. Professor Ranjit Pardeshi, Arun Thakur, Suresh Pagare, Sanjeev Sane, and Mohan Gunjale quit the Seva Dal and joined the Namantar Working Committee. With all this public activity the masses were further politicized on the issue. At the same time repression increased. The police did their best to ensure that the movement leadership could not enter the city. They were hoping that the mobilization would control the spread of the agitation. Baba Adhav was arrested and put in Yerwada jail. I was imprisoned at Nashik central jail. Journalists would come to meet us in the jail. From them we heard that the Satyagraha was phenomenal. Lakhs of people courted arrest. Jails and schools were too inadequate to accommodate the satyagrahis. Open spaces where people were assembled were declared as jails, and people declared to be under arrest. We went on hunger strike in jails to protest the arrests.

The anti-Namantar riots were a moral set back to the people; the Satyagraha brought a new spark to the struggle. After the Satyagraha nomadic tribes, adivasis, and other backward communities supported the Dalits. The struggle intensified. The Namantar Working Committee intensified the struggle. Creative forms of protest were invented. This brought the students closer to the struggle. At the time, barring a few, most students were from outside Aurangabad city. They regularly received letters and money orders from their relatives and family. One campaign was to ask the relatives and family to postmark these letters to ‘Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar University’ instead of addressing it to ‘Marathwada University’. Everyday hundreds of letters arrived for Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar University. This greatly encouraged the students.

Every year the University holds convocation, this was also creatively exploited. On the day of the convocation a parallel degree awarding ceremony of the Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar University would be held. On the occasion people would gather at the Milind College some year and in the University campus on some other. People discussed Namantar along with dialogues and talks on Education. The Vice Chancellor of this University would be some senior Namantar activists and we celebrated them on the occasion of the convocation. Slowly it became customary for most Namantar activists to attend the alternative convocation and used it to popularize Namantar. This program was also besieged by police surveillance and arrests preceded the day of the program. We ensured that alternate arrangements were made so the arrests would not put a stop to the program. Activists learnt how to deal with the police and skillfully saw programs through as planned.

The next program of the Namantar working committee was a rally planned around the legislative (vidhimandal) session in Nagpur. With the massive turnout for the Satyagraha of December 6, 1979 the committee had become a force to be reckoned with. At the time to hold on to state power the Chief Minister asked the respected R. S. Gawai to oppose the rally. Gawai was well versed this script and performed it to the hilt. The rally had to be cancelled.

The struggle continued despite this. Instead of putting people between a rock and a hard place at every step symbolic protests were favored. Rallies, protest marches, “jail bharo andolan” (movement to occupy the jails) were organized. Along with these a Satyagraha was also organized. After the arrests in Mumbai the leaders of Namantar were kept in the Arthur road jail. These included Comrade Sharad Patil, Dr. Baba Adhav, advocate Ankush Bhalekar, among others. They went on a historic eleven-day fast for Namantar in the jail. The fast came to an end when they were released due to poor health. The fast pushed the government into a corner again.

At the time of establishing Namantar working committee, Professor M.B. Chitnis had staged a leading role. However, the Panthers decided to maintain an independent position on Namantar instead of joining the committee. During times of crisis they appealed to the working committee for solidarity; but with the understanding that the Panthers were leading the Namantar movement. Interim, the Panthers shrunk in numbers and influence. The force of its political activities also diminished, as did their presence in the Namantar struggle.

By the time of appointment of Ramdas Athavale as the Minister for Social Welfare the influence of the struggle had also eroded. The prospects for Namantar were dim. Disheartened, many activists committed suicide. None of the Namantar groups had approached suicides as an organized strategy for the struggle. The suicides also cut across regional, caste, ideological and organizational lines. It included the Panther Gautam Waghmare from Nanded just as much as it included Vilas Dhone of Western Maharashtra. Waghmare announced his intentions and immolated himself. Dhone carried a suicide note in his pocket and walked in front of a running train. There can be no doubts that as individual acts these suicides were grim. But within the broad time and space of the Namantar struggle they were trivial events. They are not the defining feature of the struggle. Thus the only question that still remains is, was Namantar achieved by the struggle or due to the backdoor politicking of Ramdas Athavale. On January 14,1994 an announcement for the Naamvistar (name expansion) was made. One part of the struggle was over.

It is the social norm that once an event is over, reviews and analysis of it’s highs and lows, its achievements or otherwise follow. Should we not subject Namantar to same treatment? The demand of the movement was to rename the university as Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar University, i.e. Namantar. We struggled for it. The legislative assembly attached ‘Marathwada’ to the name. Panthers yielded. It must be duly noted that hereafter the Panther struggle was to rename the university as ‘Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University’. As to when such a dramatic change in position was taken is not public; we only got to know it through its actualization.

Riots followed this. The legislative order was postponed. Different alternatives to Namantar were suggested. They were rejected because they were similar in spirit to ‘separate public wells’ for dalits. The state took some decisions to appease the riot-affected dalits. One of the main decisions was to establish the Mahatma Phule Backward Class Finances and Development Corporation. The idea was to provide economic assistance to dalits for self-employment initiatives. It is important to investigate the impact of this program on dalit well being. Its impact on the movement is discernible. Before the establishment of the corporation, dalit political parties and groups had directed a wide range of developmental questions at non-delivering state departments. After this moment, all parties beat a path to the doors of the corporation and loaning banks. This rendered a fatal blow to the dalit movement.

Another decision in the aftermath of the riots was to start a technical university under the name of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar in Konkan. Various states with bahujan party governments decided to establish educational institutes under the name of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, afterwards. This was also an impact of the Namantar struggle.

When one looks back at the moment of Namvistaar announcement a lot of things become clear. One the name change is not a realization of the movement’s demand. Instead the name change honored the disingenuous performance of regional pride by the Namantar opponents. Our demand was for a university that represented the hopes of an entire population of Marathwada and beyond. What we got instead divided the region (Marathwada). To add insult to the injury, a sub-center of the University was started in Osmanabad. There is a possibility that there will be a demand for this being a full-fledged University in the future. 1 By contrast with nary a political price, the Namantar opponents got a separate university for four districts. The university was named after their leader Swami Ramanand Teerth. To put it even more clearly, they got an independent university at the same time as their demand for the incorporation of the regional name was honored. After putting up an extended political struggle what we got is pittance compared to what they received. How should we understand this moment of renaming — as a success of the movement or as its failure, arising directly from the lack of a firm political stance? At some point we will have to answer this question.

It’s natural that the Namvistaar (name expansion) was fêted by dalit masses, that they held celebrations for it. The thinkers and the leaders of the movement, those that gave it direction must reflect on this. Gautam Waghmare must definitely be counted among the martyrs, but Vilas Dhone also sacrificed his life. Why is his name missing from the list of martyrs? Who is responsible for this omission? Why is it committed? We must scrutinize the reasons behind it. We must celebrate the memorial to the sacrifice of Gautam Waghmare built at the entrance to the University. We must also celebrate the etching of his name on an expensive black granite stone. By the same token should we not be concerned with the destitution of his wife and children? Isn’t their destitution shameful for the movement that acknowledges their sacrifice? A rupee a visitor to the university memorial for martyrs on Namvistaar day alone would have ensured that the children of this martyr would not starve. Who should this complain be addressed to? Will anyone pay heed to it? What guarantees that the money will reach the people its intended for? There are many such questions that we need to raise and answer. But for that we need to distance ourselves from the celebratory mood. Unless the euphoria recedes it is not possible to raise these questions and reflect on them.

The Namantar riots raised two concerns; foremost is that of rehabilitation of those dispossessed by the riots. According to the official estimates about 1,725 houses were burnt down. To this we must add the numbers of homeless who were also affected by the riots. Those whose houses were not burnt but they experienced other forms of violence. Those who fled to the cities after the riots were countless. It was easier to rehabilitate the latter because they were in the cities; indeed Panther did some work towards it. But they did not concern themselves with the other dispossessed. Perhaps rehabilitation work was not on their program. In contrast, the Dalit Yuvak Aghadi constituted committees to take on this rehabilitation work of dalits affected by the riots. This ensured that material assistance and, more importantly, moral support reached the dalits in villages in a timely manner. These committees drew people from across caste lines with people. One group with Advocate Kashinath Navandar, Advocate Bapusaheb Solanke, Advocate Ankush Bhalekar, Golatgaonkar and others travelled to the furthest villages of Nanded district in order to account for people and mobilize assistance. This helped relieve a lot of caste tensions. An all-encompassing Namantar Working Committee had laid the grounds for this to occur.

The second concern in the aftermath of riots was legal proceedings against the rioters. The districts of Nanded and Parbhani followed by Aurangabad were most affected by the riots. These were areas of Panthers political activity hence the responsibility of following the police investigations closely was theirs. The rioters, including those who murdered Pochiram Kamble and Janradan Mawade, however were acquitted. When we scrutinize the cases closely we realize that little attention had been paid to the registration of crimes and during the court hearings. For the movement it was important to attend to these matters closely, but the indifference expose the limitations of the struggle. It is clear that it is important to investigate the Namantar moment from these perspectives.

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