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Now we are the mainstream

Sunita Bhosale
Sunita Bhosale published her autobiography Vinchavacha Tel (Scorpion Oil) recently.

Sunita Bhosale, who is at the forefront of the struggle to protect Pardhi community’s self-esteem, has recently been awarded the Karyakarta Puraskar (Activist Award) by the Maharashtra Foundation.[1]Maharashtra Foundation, established as a charitable organisation under the laws of the United States (US), is committed to the basic humanitarian principles enshrined in the US Constitution, namely … Continue reading Her autobiography titled Vinchavacha Tel (Scorpion Oil) is the tale of the struggle Sunita had to go through. In this article, Prashant Rupawate, who is also the co-author of the book, evokes some memories from the creative process of the book.

All of us like to tell stories about ourselves. Those whose lives haven’t been remarkable have also started expressing themselves. Every so often they are totally meaningless, shallow, and hypocritical. Our so-called creative story is based on pretence. But Sunita’s life struggle, on the other hand, is no less dramatic than a film or a play.

Sunita speaks without a pause, like a bursting spring. She doesn’t allow you to take a breather. Her conversation is full of legal jargon — that man… convicted under section 395… 398… 110, etc. Although she would speak in Marathi, I had difficulty in understanding it.

For me the issues of caste, exploitation, injustice, and atrocities weren’t new. My father (Prof GV Rupavate) while studying in college lived in the hostel for Dalit students started by Dadasaheb Rupavate.[2]Dadasaheb Rupwate was an Indian politician, Ambedkarite, social activist and newspaper editor from Maharashtra. Initially he was a member of the Scheduled Castes Federation and the Republican Party … Continue reading His was the second batch of students; in the first batch were luminaries like writer Daya Pawar (his memoir Baluta is considered a milestone in Marathi literature), scholar Raosaheb Kasbe and Madhukar Pichad, who was a minister in Maharashtra assembly. My father was vigorously involved in social movements and activist writers like Lakshman Mane, Parth Polke used to hold meetings in our house. 

I was exposed to so many movements and thoughts; yet when I heard Sunita I was shaken from within. After listening to her story, I decided that her account needs to be made public. I felt the need to expose the dark and heinous side of the so-called great, tolerant and vibrant culture that denies any civility to the groups living on the edges. And from this, Vinchavacha Tel took shape. 

Where did I meet Sunita? That’s also funny. I had secured a fellowship for my ground research on the issue of caste panchayats. But the typical Sadashiv Pethi (upper casteist, narrow-minded) approach, hypocrisy and dishonesty of the organisation struck me and I left the assignment. 

Meanwhile I found the root cause of the perpetual fallacy of branding few communities as criminal. We are told that the criminal communities were created by the colonial government. But the British colonised 50 other countries and, except for India, none other country had criminal communities. Since the Brits wanted to rule here, they studied the caste system. Even before British rule, some castes were termed as outcastes and criminal. These communities were living on the edges. The British rulers arrived at the inference that caste is by birth and businesses are done according to caste. If a person has stolen something from a field and if he happens to be a Fase Pardhi, all Fase Pardhis must be thieves, that must be their occupation, the colonial rulers deduced. So, when a theft happened, they rounded up individuals belonging to the castes termed as criminal. So, the British are not responsible for the creation of criminal castes. Indian society had already created ‘criminal castes.’ You will find its references in the appendices of the book.

I passed on information about Sunita’s autobiography to Ganesh Devy, who is a scholar and linguist. He appreciated my work and happily agreed to write a foreword to the book. 

Prior to that, that is, in the year 2003-04 I was part of the fact-finding committee for investigating the murders of Fase Pardhi men at Bhum-Paranda in Maharashtra. During this assignment I got acquainted with Eknath Awhad and Balkrushna Renke; they had first-hand information of the situation.

I also got a chance to get some information about Sunita Bhosale. Awhad had informed me that Sunita’s activism had started at the age of 11. She caught my attention. I got her number, contacted her and went straight to Shirur to meet her. We met at the cluttered and oily canteen in State Transport Corporation’s Shirur depot. We both were jobless and were feeling hopeless. Sunita started speaking… which was like a torrential flow. She was narrating the ‘bundi’ incident (bundi are fried and sugared balls of chickpea flour).

“It was the month of May. It was really hot even at 8am in the morning. By 10 o’clock the temperature would rise up to 35 Celsius. It was also the wedding season and I got to know of a wedding which was to take place at Kalvantwadi around 2 kilometres from our place. I went there with my younger brother Avinash. We were waiting for hours in front of the wedding hall near the garbage bin. The wedding feast was in full swing from morning till 4 o’clock in the evening. I and my younger brother used to run to the garbage bin once the plates were thrown there. We had to drive away the stray dogs. We collected the bundi from the garbage in a plastic bag. We had forgotten everything, including our hunger. We were also worried about being shooed away by the police. Hence, we had kept the packets of bundi hidden under a tree. When we went there after some time, the packets were gone. Stray dogs had taken them away. The hard work we had put in while we were hungry was wasted. My younger brother Avinash and I couldn’t stop crying. Hearing our cries, people from the wedding hall came out. After listening to us they understood the real situation and they generously gave us fresh bundi.

Prashant Rupawate

I was engrossed in Sunita’s riveting account when the TV set fixed on the canteen wall started telecasting the news about the successful launch of Mangalyaan. The prime minister was congratulating the scientist at the Sriharikota space centre. The prime minister was proud of the ‘great and glorious’ culture of ancient India. That was the moment when I decided to bring before the world the ancient and ‘glorious legacy’ of India in which Sunita lived. The decision to write a book on Sunita and her life was finalised on that day.

I started visiting Shirur-Amble but I had limited means. I was under the spell of Sunita’s life account. I wanted to tell the world about it. But I had run out of resources. Then my friend Medha Kulkarni supported me and I finished writing her account in a couple of years. But who would publish such a book? Who would be interested in the story of a tribe? Then my publisher friend Kirtikumar Shinde, who managed ‘Navata Book World’ publishing, offered to bring out the autobiography. But I thought of breaking out of the circle of the non-mainstream and like-minded writers and publishers. The convention of Bhosale’s or Rupavate’s books being read by Shinde and Kamble had to stop.[3]The surnames mentioned here usually belong to Dalit and OBC communities. The mainstream has to take note of the lives of the other half. Then I took the manuscript to the mainstream publisher Rohan Prakashan and they published Vinchavacha Tel without any hesitation. 

The scorpion oil is used as a weapon against the accused belonging to ‘lower castes.’ They apply this oil on the genitals of the accused man. This causes swelling and burning of the genitals. The accused is not able to endure the pain and he pleads guilty. This is similar to an attack on creativity. Society has used this oil as a weapon on the Dalit, dispossessed and nomads. It’s used in various metaphorical forms to evoke caste divide or at times to further the agenda of divide and rule. 

Sunita belonged to the caste living on the edges. She was born in a tribe branded as ‘criminal.’ She had to face violence and discrimination since childhood. But she is brave and she has found a solution to the ‘scorpion’ that stings — the Indian Constitution and the slogan of Jai Bhim. These are the remedies for conquering the scorpion of casteism.

Sunita started speaking out against the criminalisation and exploitation of Fase Pardhi at the age of 11. Vinchavacha Tel is the life story of this fiery and self-made activist. The coterie of Marathi publishers who had blacked out the narrative of the dispossessed, deserve punishment for their casteist mindset. They have to be exposed and their sham needs to be made public. They claim the ownership of culture, knowledge and language and promote the writers belonging to only certain castes. But we have started changing this narrative. The seeds sowed by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar have begun to grow. The colonies of Dalits are where they used to be but they are changing. The four and six lane highways have come closer to their dwellings, destroying their sad past with the lethal scorpion oil. 

The path shown by Baluta is shining and sparkling. Your age-old mansions and alleys have been filled with eternal darkness. They are on the verge of extinction and even if they don’t die a natural death, we are there with our trident and sword and, if not, then with the weapon of the constitution and slogan of Jai Bhim. 

August Strindberg, the Swedish dramatist of the 19th century, once said, “Shallow people demand variety but I have been writing the same story throughout my life every time trying to cut nearer the aching nerve.” Sunita’s biography will certainly try to cut nearer our aching nerve. 

In fact, the stories of Bahujans, comprising of OBCs, Dalits and Adivasis, should have been the mainstream. But their narrative was either blacked out or appropriated by the upper castes. Now’s the payback time and time to reclaim the ‘mainstream.’

Vinchavacha Tel
Sunita Bhosale
Co-writer Prashant Rupawate
Rohan Prakashan
Pages 208, Price ₹250

(This article was first published in Divya Marathi and has been translated to English from Marathi.)

Notes

Notes
1 Maharashtra Foundation, established as a charitable organisation under the laws of the United States (US), is committed to the basic humanitarian principles enshrined in the US Constitution, namely freedom, equality, secularism and human rights.
2 Dadasaheb Rupwate was an Indian politician, Ambedkarite, social activist and newspaper editor from Maharashtra. Initially he was a member of the Scheduled Castes Federation and the Republican Party of India, and later the Indian National Congress.
3 The surnames mentioned here usually belong to Dalit and OBC communities.

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