LUCKNOW, Uttar Pradesh — There is a story that Ravikant, an assistant professor of Hindi literature at Lucknow University, has grown up hearing from his mother. Every few days, she said, his grandfather would visit the open air market near his village and wait for the farmers and traders to leave. It would be dusk by the time he could begin scrounging the ground near the empty sacks of wheat. He would then take the fallen grain to feed his family.
By the time Ravikant was growing up in Bundelkhand, the semi-arid, desperately poor and caste-ridden region in southern Uttar Pradesh, his father had found work as a teacher in a government school.
Ravikant considers himself “lucky”.
After all, says the 39 year old, it can take three generations for a Dalit family to emerge from the centuries of persecution inflicted by India’s caste system and enter the mainstream. It helps if someone in the family—like his father—catches a break.
“Do you know what a Dalit votes for? When he leaves his house, he does not have to avert his eyes. When he walks down the street, he does not have to hear a gaali. If there is a disagreement, he does not have to get beaten or lose his life. These are the things that a Dalit votes for,” he said.
For Ravikant, elections have always been about safeguarding the social justice movement that has empowered Dalits.
The 2019 election, however, is different.
The academic, whose literary award was cancelled because of his critical views of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, believes “this election is about saving the country, the Constitution and our conscience.”
In other words, how India votes over the next five weeks will determine whether he can live in India as a freethinking citizen and exercise his right to free speech for the next five years.
“Does speaking against Modi make one a traitor? Does offering a contrary opinion to the government make one an ‘anti-national’?” he asked.
“This election is about saving the country, the Constitution and our conscience.”
Cancelling an award
In 2012, two women were arrested for a Facebook post on Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray’s funeral, which said, “Today Mumbai shuts down due to fear and not due to respect.” Their arrest made news and sparked outrage.
In the five years since the BJP came to power in 2014, someone getting arrested—or even charged with sedition—over a Facebook post has become a run-of-the-mill occurrence.
Last year, HuffPost India reported that dozens of Indians—teachers, students, businessmen, auto-rickshaw drivers, and members of the police and paramilitary force—have been arrested for sharing memes, cartoons and messages criticizing Modi.
Many live in fear of imprisonment for sharing a WhatsApp message, and others have been murdered for dissenting.
Govind Pansare, a Leftist scholar critical of the Hindu right, was murdered in Mumbai in February 2015. A few months later, M.M. Kalburgi, a Kannada scholar and rationalist, was shot dead in Karnataka. In 2017, Gauri Lankesh, a noted journalist who was critical of right-wing politics, was shot dead in Bengaluru.
Even when the Congress was in power, India has never been a beacon of press freedom.
In 2018, it was ranked 138 out of 180 countries by Reporters Without Borders (RSF - in French), down two places from 2017, behind Myanmar and just ahead of Pakistan.
In its report, RSF said, “In India, hate speech targeting journalists is shared and amplified on social networks, often by troll armies in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pay.”
Over the past two years, Ravikant has been subjected to foul language and threatening messages for his Facebook posts. He has been accosted by angry students who have questioned him about his posts in an intimidating manner.
In March 2018, Ravikant, while commenting on the alliance between Mayawati’s BSP and Akhilesh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP), posted an old slogan in a Facebook post: “Mile Mulayam aur Kanshi Ram, hawa mein ud gaye Jai Shri Ram.”
This throwback to the alliance between the SP and BSP in 1993, triggered a blowback in the comments section, with messages like, “Master ji, stay in your senses…”, “maneater”, and others that HuffPost India has decided not to reproduce here.
In March, after he praised Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan for sending Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman back to India, Ravikant was hit with messages like, “First, you should be declared a traitor and sent to jail... you will forget all your professor-ree.”
Ravikant is now used to the foul language that greets his posts on Facebook, but he was stunned when Uttar Pradesh’s Rajya Karamchari Sahitya Sansthan (State Employees Literary Association) decided to revoke the Raman Lal Agarwal Award, a few weeks after it was conferred on him.
In a letter to Ravikant, the state-funded Association, which is supposed to be autonomous, made it clear that his award was being cancelled because of his Facebook posts.
It was a third party, a Delhi-based NGO called Human and Animal Crime Control Association, which had complained to the literary body about Ravikant’s Facebook posts.
“That award was for literature. For them to cancel the award because of my private views on Facebook—well, that is just shocking. If the government is going to fixate on such minor things, then what direction is the country going to take? Is all dissent going to be crushed?” he said.
“For them to cancel the award because of my private views on Facebook—well, that is just shocking. Is all dissent going to be crushed?”
The Association, which was founded in 1996, has been giving away more than 25 awards every year to distinguished literary personalities who write in Hindi.
His criticism of the Modi government is well-known, said Ravikant. His two books challenging the rightwing version of Hindu nationalism, Azadi aur Rashtravaad and Aaj ke Aayiney mein Rashtravaad, were best sellers. Aaj ke Aayiney mein Rashtravaad was included in Dainik Jagran’s bestsellers list for 2018.
While speaking to The Wire, general secretary of the literary association, Dinesh Chandra Awasthi, said that unlike the other awards the association gives, the Raman Lal Agarwal Award is privately funded, and it was cancelled to avoid “any political controversy”.
Ravikant recalled Hindi writer Munshi Premchand’s address at the first All India Progressive Writers’ Association meeting in Lucknow in 1936.
He remembered the gist of the speech as — a writer does not follow politics, but is a flaming torch that precedes it.
Premchand’s words were: “The writer’s aim is not to cheer the audience and not to provide material for entertainment. Don’t degrade him to such a level. He is not even that truth which follows behind patriotism and politics; instead he is the standard bearer who shows the path.”
“He is not even that truth which follows behind patriotism and politics; instead he is the standard bearer who shows the path.”
Hindutva for Dalits
Ravikant’s politics is straightforward. He opposes the BJP, and finds “unis-bees ka farak” (19-20% difference) in the Congress, the SP and BSP.
He plans to vote for the SP-BSP alliance to beat the BJP.
The SP and BSP’s mutually exclusive and loyal voters, made up of Yadavs and Jatav Dalits, account for 21% of the voting population and present a significant challenge to the BJP.
While Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav can count on their core vote bank, BJP has made inroads into Dalit communities other than the Jatavs, and into Other Backward Class (OBC) communities other than the Yadavs.
Ravikant thinks that the BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have been trying to make Hindutva relevant to Dalits. He illustrates this with an example.
When the Kalyan Singh-led BJP government was in power in UP in 1991, the RSS, Ravikant said, revived the theory that Lucknow was named after Laxman, revered by millions as the brother of Hindu god Ram.
When Mayawati came to power, the BSP, according to Ravikant, started saying that Lucknow was named after Lakhan Pasi, a medieval-era king of the Pasi community, included in the Scheduled Caste category.
“And now, the RSS has moved the discourse to Lakhan Pasi being a reincarnation of Laxman,” he said. “They have included Dalits in the middle of Hindutva.”
“They have included Dalits in the middle of Hindutva.”
In 2014, the BJP won the highest number of seats reserved for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST) in the Lok Sabha, 66 out of 131.
In UP, it won all the 17 reserved seats.
In the 2017 state assembly election, of the 86 reserved seats, the BJP and its allies won 76, with BSP getting two seats and failing to finish second on the majority of seats.
An analysis of data from the Election Commission also reveals that the BJP has won more reserved seats than the Congress in eight elections from 1989, according to The Times of India. Analysts, however, attribute this to a decline in dominant caste votes for the Congress in the same constituencies.
Observers say that 2019 is different from 2014. There is no Modi wave, and the BJP has lost favour with Dalits after a series of events: Dalit student Rohith Vemula’s suicide in Hyderabad, the flogging of Dalit tanners in Gujarat and the attempted dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities Act), 1989.
The Modi government, in the wake of nationwide protests, passed an ordinance nullifying the Supreme Court order that weakened the Act.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, atrocities against SCs increased by 25% from 2006 to 2016. The BJP came to power in 2014. According to the data, atrocities against Dalits increased 5.5% in 2016 from the previous year.
In 2016, UP accounted for 25.6% of atrocities against Dalits, followed by Bihar and Rajasthan.
Dalit leaders have pointed out that atrocities against Dalits in recent years have also been committed by OBC communities, not just the dominant castes.
Eventually, the success of the alliance will depend on whether Dalits vote for the SP and the OBCs vote for the BSP. The by-polls in Kairana and Phulpur in 2018, where the BSP and SP joined forces and defeated the BJP, suggests that these votes will transfer.
Observers do detect a certain reluctance among party workers of SP and BSP to work together, but they do not see it as a major roadblock for the alliance.
Ravikant, who will vote for the BSP candidate standing in Jalaun, said he would have voted for the SP candidate if needed.
“Right now, the country needs to fight for our diversity, with all its religions, with all its colours to survive. If not, the BJP is ready to impose Hindutva and just one colour: bhagwa (saffron).”
“The country needs to fight for our diversity, with all its religions, with all its colours to survive.”
Fighting for his alma mater
Ravikant was 12 years old when Hindu kar sevaks demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. He grew up believing that razing the 16th century mosque was the right thing to do—until he joined Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi.
“It was the most significant thing that happened in my life. It opened up a whole new world. Everything, national, international and local issues, was up for debate and disagreement,” he said. “Now, JNU is called a hub of traitors—the tukde, tukde gang. This is too too much.”
While JNU has always been a favourite target for the right wing, the attack on the institution has been particularly vicious since 2016, with students expressing contrarian opinions being labelled as “anti-nationals”, “traitors” and “communists”, and, in some cases, arrested and charged with sedition.
Ravikant did not leave JNU a “communist” or even inclined to the Left, he said.
The Left political parties, he has come to believe, are riddled with casteism just like the other parties.
In the first ever general election in India, the Communist Party of India (CPI) finished second, with 16 seats, while the three rightwing parties — the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, Akhil Bharatiya Ram Rajya Parishad, and the Bharatiya Jan Sangh — won 3-4 seats each.
“So, what happened? Where did it go wrong?” he asked. “We should ask how the Left Parties how many tribals, Dalits and women they have in their politburos.”
What the Left ideology did for Ravikant, though, was help him counter the Hindutva school of thought, which had led him to believe that demolishing the Babri Masjid was the right thing to do.
Ravikant, who loves his alma mater, is worried that if the BJP returns for a second term, JNU will change in ways that will fundamentally alter its character.
The most disturbing trend to him is the changes in reservation policies that have led to a drastic drop in the admission of SC, ST and OBC students in JNU after 2017.
“They are changing policies that have allowed Dalits and Adivasis with no money to reach JNU. Those policies helped me reach JNU. I was able to learn and grow to the extent that I’m able to teach others,” he said.
“I was able to learn and grow to the extent that I’m able to teach others.”
Mayawati vs Chandrasekhar
Mayawati did not win a single seat in UP in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
Ravikant is not surprised.
There was a time when the literature professor had looked up to Mayawati, even though the Dalit leader did little to inspire people.
Till date, the BSP supremo rarely ventures out to meet voters and is notorious for reading out written speeches at election rallies. And still, the grounds at her rallies are packed.
For the “Dalit self-respect” and power that she had come to symbolize, Ravikant was willing to ignore the lavish self-promotion, the multi-crore money garland she wore in 2010, and persistent allegations of massive corruption.
“Mayawati had come to represent Dalit swabhimaan (self-respect). So even this display of wealth was seen through the prism of self-respect. But all this—I’m a devi, give me chadhava—it appealed to Dalits then. I’m not sure it does anymore,” he said. “There is a feeling that she only reaches out when she wants votes. That does not inspire people.”
“She only reaches out when she wants votes. That does not inspire people.”
Ravikant’s admiration for Mayawati has waned after Dalit empowerment took a backseat to political expediency.
While she brought Brahmins into the BSP fold, Mayawati lost influential Dalit leaders like R.K. Chaudhary, a face of the Pasi community, who quit the party, accusing the BSP supreme of running the party like a “private real estate company.”
Then there was Swami Prasad Maurya, who accused her of “auctioning off tickets” and quit in 2016. Also Naseemuddin Siddique, the Muslim face of the party until she fired him after the BSP’s abysmal performance in the 2017 UP Assembly election. Siddique claimed that Mayawati used the word “traitors” to describe Muslims.
There are three reasons why Ravikant lost faith in Mayawati: her bias towards her own Jatav community, allying with Brahmins in order to win elections, and leaving no room for other Dalit leaders to emerge.
In 2019, Ravikant prefers Chandrasekhar Azad, the young Dalit activist from Saharanpur, who was slapped with the National Security Act by the Yogi Adityanath government in connection with caste violence in western UP, and jailed for over one year.
Mayawati, who also sees the Congress as potentially poaching her Dalit vote in UP, lashed out after Azad’s meeting with Priyanka Gandhi last month.
Not only did she announce that the BSP would not form an alliance with the Congress anywhere in the country, the BSP accused Azad of being a tool of the RSS.
Ravikant doesn’t believe it.
“It is absurd. There is no young Dalit, who is educated and has a mind of his own, who would join the BJP or the RSS,” he said.
“There is no young Dalit, who is educated and has a mind of his own, who would join the BJP or the RSS.”
A menacing environment
No political party, including the Congress, has wholeheartedly protected the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed to Indians under the Constitution.
It was the Congress government in Madhya Pradesh, Ravikant recalled, which banned Marxist writer Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh’s Bharat Itihas aur Samskriti, during his lifetime. Muktibodh, now recognized as one of India’s finest Hindi-language poets, died in 1964. He was 46 years old.
But there is a difference between Congress and the BJP, the professor of Hindi literature insisted.
“There was a sense of shame in Congress. When there was a lot of criticism, they would take it into account. There was some sense of caring, accepting mistakes and apologizing for it,” he said. “Now, it isn’t just books and thoughts that are getting banned, but people are getting killed.”
Ravikant teaches the works of several writers and poets, including Premchand, Bihari Lal, Suryakant Tripathi aka Nirala and Kabir. His syllabus is approved by the university. His classes are not political, but politics does come up during discussions.
So far, university authorities have not interfered with his classes, but he remains on edge.
On two occasions students have surrounded him on campus, objected to his Facebook posts, and spoken to him in a threatening manner.
He can’t help but think about Gauri Lankesh, and the Bengali poet Mandakranta Sen, who was threatened with gang rape after she supported a fellow poet’s poem criticising UP Chief Minister Adityanath.
Ravikant, who does not intend to censor himself, says there isn’t a lot he can do to address these fears. He is, however, taking precautions like not venturing far from campus at night, and using his helmet while riding his bike even for short distances.
“My fear is that someone will hit me from the back,” he said. “But if we don’t fight back, we will have neither a country nor a Constitution. There will only be Narendra Modi.”
“My fear is that someone will hit me from the back.”
A boy named Kabir
In a private act of rebellion against the intolerance that has come about, Ravikant named his son, who was born last year, Kabir.
Kabir, Ravikant’s favourite poet, condemns religiosity in Hinduism and Islam.
Ravikant recalled two of his favourite dohas (couplets).
“paththar pooje hari mile, to main poojun pahad isse to chakki bhali pees khaye sansar.”
“kankar pathad jodi ke masjid leyi banaye, ta chadhi mulla baang de kya bahra hua khudaye.”
The first one says Hindus are better off praying to a chakki that grinds flour instead of worshipping a stone.
The second asks why Muslims need to build large mosques and shout for Allah, unless they think Allah is deaf.
Ravikant said, “We are in desperate need of Kabir right now.”