Vinod Mubayi

From time to time, the Insaf Bulletin’s editorial column pauses its review and analysis of current events to focus on the lives of recently departed progressive South Asian comrades whose work greatly enriched their academic, social, or cultural community in many ways. In March 2022, we paused to remember our comrades Sudheer Bedekar and Aijaz Ahmad who passed away then.

In this issue, we recall the life and work of Com Kumar Shiralkar, who I would like to characterize as a secular, communist saint. Although this terminology may sound contradictory, it would not be strange to those who knew Kumar. His total identification with some of the most marginalized groups in the Indian social order, the tribal Adivasis, to the point of abandoning every iota of privilege accorded to him by the accident of his Brahmin birth, even in death, would qualify him as a saint even as his embrace of rationality, dedication to Marxist thought, and consistent opposition to all forms of religious obscurantism mean that he also deserves to be remembered by the terms secular and communist.

Kumar’s politics in his early years were formed in part by his close association with the Magowa group that was active in Maharashtra in the 1970s. The article below is written by his Magowa and lifelong comrade Suhas Paranjape with some editorial assistance from two other Magowa (and lifelong) comrades, Anant Phadke and Waheed Mukaddam. I was privileged to be a small part of Magowa when I lived in Bombay (now Mumbai) in the first half of the 1970s and I treasure my friendship and association with Kumar since then.


Suhas Paranjape

This is the story of our friend and comrade Kumar Shiralkar who passed away on the 2nd of October this year at the age of 81 from a cancer that had been detected a few years ago. His body was taken to the Adivasi village Mod in Talode tehsil of Nandurbar District on the 3rd of October. It was where his closest Adivasi activist friend, Com. Jaysing Mali (Jayshya as Kumar used to call him) lived and where they had together worked together to set up the BTR School for Adivasi children. For more than thirty years he was listed as part of the household on the ration card of Com. Narayan Sajan Thakre from Gunjali village in Shahade Tehsil, another close friend. (By a strange and sad coincidence, Comrade Thakre too passed away the night Kumar’s last rites were performed.) And for the last few years of his life he lived mostly with Krishna Thakre’s father’s family in Chinchore village in the Satpuda foothills in Shahade tehsil where he had helped set up an eco-restoration project.

I was not able to go to Mod but the photographs and the videos of the burial and the subsequent vigil that reached me took me back to a 48-year-old event in February 1974, the day that the great Adivasi leader Ambarsing Maharaj (Suratwanti) had passed away at a very young age. That day as Kumar, I and all of us activists in the Shramik Sanghatana in Shahade walked with Ambarsing’s body to his village Padalde, we saw the hills become alive with people. It was 1974, no mobiles, not even telephones, but word had spread like lightning. That day, all roads led to Padalde, Ambarsing’s village, as Adivasis poured in in their thousands from all sides, and thousands stayed back to keep vigil for the next twelve days.

On the 3rd of October 2022, a similar gathering had to take an additional decision about Kumar’s last rites. Kumar had left no will and the topic of last rites had never come up for discussion with his friends or comrades. No one knew what he would have liked. So the gathering exercised its right, just as it had exercised the right to carry his body from Comrade Dr. Karad’s hospital in Nashik to Mod. They declared that by his work amongst them, by living with them and leading and standing with them in their fight against exploitation all his life, he had already become one of their own and they decided to bury him with full Adivasi rites. Perhaps this is the only example of a non-Adivasi activist being buried with full Adivasi rites. I cannot think of a greater honour that could have been bestowed on a non-Adivasi leader. 

And then on the 9th in Mumbai and the 12th in Pune I attended two commemoration meetings, among the many that were held all over Maharashtra. As I sat there and listened to speaker after speaker speak in memory of him, I realised how wide was the influence that this unassuming man had wielded. Kumar was a staunch communist, he was part of the Magowa group and the Shramik Sanghatana from 1972 to 1982 and then onwards he was a member of the CPI(M). Yet the speakers included activists and representatives from all the progressive currents in Maharashtra, the different communist parties and groupings, the socialist groupings, the people’s science movements, the women’s movement, issue-based grass roots organisations, different factions of the erstwhile Republican Party and members of the erstwhile Dalit Panthers. Not only did they all speak with respect, but with great affection the way one speaks of a personal friend. I cannot think of another CPI(M) leader who has such close relationships with the entire spectrum of left and progressive grass-root activists in Maharashtra. This was uniquely Kumar.

Shahade Movement

Kumar came to the Shahade region fifty years ago in 1972, to be precise on the 30th of January 1972. He had come to attend the Bhu-Mukti Melava (Land liberation conference) in response to a call to the youth to become full time activists and join the Adivasi leader Ambarsing Maharaj (Suratvanti) and work with him. It has been his home ever since. Here, he became part of and helped build what came to be known as the Shramik Sanghatana and the Shahade movement. It was one of the most militant Adivasi agricultural labourers’ movements in India. 

The Shahade movement was unique in many ways and just to name a few of them: it was one of the first mass organisation centred on the landless labourers and militantly pursued their demands including a minimum wage; it was the first movement where the decision making body comprised of only the full time activists working in the area, had no office bearers and took decisions by consensus rather than by voting; it was one of the first mass organisations to take up women’s issues – the first women’s shibir in Shahade took place in 1973 two years ahead of the International Women’s Year which sparked off the new wave of women’s movements in India; it participated in and supported the Dalit movements like the March against Atrocities, the movement for naming the Marathwada University after Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar; and it fought the terror and the culture of violence in the area with the minimal use of counter-violence. And though the Shahade movement, except for Amabarsing Maharaj, was not identified with any one leader, it would not be wrong to say that after Ambarsing Maharaj, Kumar was the most important figure, the natural leader of the movement.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Shahade movement was the number of young people who were attracted to the movement and had put in a stint of full-timer-ship at Shahade.  I think there must have been a total of about thirty-forty young persons from outside who have come and spent some time in Shahade as full timers. At any given moment there could be 10 outside activists serving their full timer-ship. There was a constant turnover of activists: most stayed a few weeks to a few months, some for a few years. I too was a full time activist at Shahade between 1972 to 75. But it was the outside and local activists who stayed on who provided the continuity and stability to the movement in the period in its heyday from 1972 to 82 and their number was by no means small. As far as I can remember, besides Kumar, this core comprised the Adivasi poet Vaharu Sonavane, Deenanath Manohar, Vijay Kanhere, Prakash Samant, Vikram Kanhere, Ashok Manohar, and the local Adivasi actvists Jayasingh, Gulab Singh, Chandrasingh, Rupsingh, Bhuribai, Thagibai, Hirkana, and Chhayatai (Ambarsingh Maharaj’s wife), pardon me if I may have left out a few. Kumar was part of this community of activists and it was one of the most important formative influences in his life.

Kumar was born into a Brahmin middle class family in Miraj, a town in Sangli district. He graduated as a mechanical engineer from the Sangli Engineering College in 1965. He had applied for and been granted admission to M. Tech. in Mumbai IIT, but he did not accept it. He chose to take up a job because he had family responsibilities, particularly he had to get his youngest sister married and settled. The late 1960s were a different time and revolution was in the air he breathed. The world was in a ferment. It was impossible not to be affected by it. Kumar’s voracious reading and large network of friends ensured that. He came in contact with the then recently set up Yuvak Kranti Dal and Baba Amte. He also came into contact with Sudheer Bedekar, the Marxist who would later run the ‘Magowa’ monthly magazine. Sometime in the late sixties, Kumar decided that he would leave home and work in the rural areas. In 1970, soon after the marriage of his youngest sister, he left home never to return. He joined Baba Amte’s Shramik Vidyapeeth (the Toilers’ University) in Somnath and he, Deenanath Manohar and Vijay Kanhere who joined them both in 1971 had the same intentions and they waited for a suitable opportunity. That opportunity was the 30 January 1972 Bhu Mukti Melava mentioned above.

Magowa Group and Shramik Sanghatana

Sudheer Bedekar was part of an ongoing interaction between a few young communists from various parts of Maharashtra who at a theoretical level were dissatisfied with the traditional communist parties’ reading of Marx and wanted a re-examination of Marxist theory and at a practical level were similarly dissatisfied with the parliamentarism of the established communist parties and the adventurism of the far left and their readings of the Indian state and social structure. This fitted in well with Kumar’s ideas. On the 30th of January 1972 Kumar reconnected with Sudheer (they became life-long friends) and some others who were part of this ongoing interaction. And this then led to Kumar becoming a founder member of the Magowa group which was formed on 22 April 1972. The Magowa group was the other most important influence on Kumar in his formative period. 

In Shahade, in early 1972, as the newly arrived activists spread out into the villages with a definite plan the movement spread like wildfire. Within the first month, the Adivasis refused to perform veth, a form of traditional unpaid labour extracted from the Adivasis by the kulaks as well as the Forest Department! By May 1972, the movement was able to regain and occupy more than 1800 acres of Adivasi land that was being tilled illegally by the kulaks. What happened next took even the activists by surprise. It was the custom in the area to renew yearly laborers contracts on Akhatri, Akshay tritiya, the third day of month Vaishakh, which that year fell on 15th of April. In village after village Adivasi labourers went on strike demanding a decent wage and decent treatment and informed the activists that they had done so! Almost half the villages in the Shahade and Talode plains went on strike. A huge May Day rally was organised on the 1st of May. Many villages were still on strike. At the rally, Ambarsingh gave one of his most impassioned speeches demanding that Adivasi labourers be treated like human beings, paid a decent wage, not asked to do menial tasks and not treated like slaves. The formation of the mass organisation, the Shramik Sanghatana was declared at this rally and it became the name by which the movement was known.

The Sanghatana took up one issue after another. The year 1972 was one of the worst droughts in the history of Maharashtra and the most urgent issue before the people was work and food. Which led to the issue of drought relief works, rationing system which occupied the movement as major issues right into the 1973 monsoon. Other non-Adivasi toiling sections began to approach the Sanghatana with their issues. And then the women’s shibir and Youth circle meetings opened up still more issues. Very soon the movement began to become a movement of all toiling sections in this Adivasi area that embraced all aspects of their lives.

This is not the place to elaborate on the history of Shahade movement in any detail, but I think I should here mention the Prakashe incident of 1974 and the notorious ‘Purushottam Sena’ affair which was a turning point for the movement as well as for Kumar. The hardest period of all for the Shahade movement was the one just following the untimely death of Amabarsing in February 1974. Earlier in 1973, the kulaks had tried to put in place what came to known as the Purushottam Sena. Each village anyway had what the farmers called a Crop Protection Society which essentially was a weapon of terror and harassment. The Adivasis called them ‘Denga’ – that is Lathi – societies! Now the proposal was to unite all of these into one centralised unit with the help of one Jeep, 12 motorcycles, 100 horses and 120 rifles. This was nothing short of a state within the state. When the Sanghatana brought it out into public view, there was such a furore that the kulaks had to abandon the scheme. The kulaks were furious at having had to abandon the plan and were waiting to strike back.

The Sanghatana had organised an agricultural labourers conference as a show of strength on 17 April 1974 which was attended by about 15,000 people. In retaliation, on April 28 the farmers called a Farmers’ Conference. Knowing that Kumar would be there in the village, the next day farmers came in tractor-loads and attacked the Adivasi hamlet. Kumar was injured, but not gravely so and the Adivasis carried him to safety. After that the Adivasis dispersed, took shelter behind the huts and the trees, surrounded the farmers and pelted them with heavy stones fired from catapults. Many farmers were injured and they had to run for their lives. More than a hundred Adivasis including the activists were arrested at random the next day but had to be freed. However, instead of working in favour of the farmers, the incident worked against them and it gave the Adivasis confidence to stand up against the kulaks. There were to be two more attempts on Kumar’s life, one in 1983 at Shelti and later in Karadi village both of which he would survive but not unscathed. Loss of hearing in one ear and a limp were the permanent marks of these incidents that he carried.

Kumar Joins CPI(M)

Right when the Shahade movement was at its peak, the Emergency intervened. With warrants out for their arrests, the activists dispersed and went underground. Some of them were jailed. Meanwhile, in an important development, the Magowa group had fallen apart and dissolved itself a little before the Emergency was imposed. Post-emergency the movement was first faced with the task of regaining the support and the territory it had lost. This it did pretty quickly. However, because of the experiences of the post-emergency period, some of the Shramik Sanghatana comrades as well as some ex-Magowa comrades began to feel that small groups were proving to be politically non-effective and that it was important to join larger political formations. They felt they should look for which political formation was the closest to one’s political thinking and join it. Others felt that it was more important to regroup and form an independent group. Kumar and about half of the local activists withdrew from the Shramik Sanghatana and joined the CPI(M) (in 1982). Ashok Manohar joined the Lal Nishan Party and many of the rest helped form a new group, the Shramik Mukti Dal (SMD). None of them could put in sufficient effort needed to sustain the Sanghatana. What was left of the Shramik Sanghatana could not sustain itself and slowly withered away. Most of the Shramik Sanghatana full time activists who had come from outside withdrew from the area. All of them continued to contribute to the movement in one way or the other. The only ones who stayed on were Kumar, who had joined the CPI(M), and Vikram and Ranjana Kanhere, who now run a small NGO, live as simply as possible and contribute as much as they can to the welfare of the Adivasis.

In 1982, the year Kumar joined the CPI(M), the CPI(M) led Maharashtra Agricultural Workers Union was formed at the State Level. The same year the CPI(M) led All India Agricultural Workers Union was established at the national level. Till that date there was no CPI(M) led Agricultural Labourers Union at either the national level or the state level in Maharashtra. There was a reason for this. There was a strong and influential section in the Party which was opposed to such a move.  They thought that the Kisan sabhas could take care of the agricultural labourers’ problems. In fact, in a 1972 document on the agrarian question, CPI(M) leader P. Sundarayya had to acknowledge and openly castigate this section and its line of thinking. It took another 10 years for the Union to actually come into being. It was an opportune and welcome development and facilitated Kumar’s entry into the Party.

Kumar became President of the state organisation and a Joint-Secretary of the national organisation. This was Kumar’s major work on the mass front, the work of organising agricultural labourers. Of course, Kumar was very much active on other fronts and on the political font within the Party. In 1985 he was elected to the State Committee, in 1988 to the State Politburo and in 2005 to the Central Committee of the party. Com. Dhavale recounts how Kumar was not even present at the Congress in Delhi to accept the membership because he had ceded his right to attend the Congress in favour of a younger alternative member who had never attended a Party Congress. That was typical Kumar.

In Shahade, he helped set up the BTR School in Mod village and kept a keen watch on it, ensuring that it received sufficient resources, human power and innovative ideas. He was in touch with all the progressive currents in Maharashtra and the roving activist that he was, whenever he visited a town he made it a point to visit them. He had an inoffensive way of making his point which helped him in this respect. In a situation where progressives seem to be drifting away and disintegrating, perhaps his most lasting contribution will be the set of younger comrades that he has nurtured and has been able to keep connected to the party. I also believe that he has had the same effect on the non-CPI(M) activists that he has been connected with.

In the last ten or twelve years he focussed his attention mainly on his local work. He was becoming increasingly attracted towards eco-socialist thinking. His lectures on the issue clearly bring this out. He helped start an eco-restoration project in the village of Chinchore where he now lived. Chinchore village had managed to get 138 ha of land under the Forest Rights Act. He got the Naam Foundation to support farm ponds and bunds on it. He wanted to make an example of it. He approached the Maharashtra Knowledge Company Limited (MKCL) for funds as well as software support. The MKCL, which may be considered a no- or low-profit corporate off shoot with its roots in the people’s science movement, readily agreed. He approached the Ecological Society, Pune for planning and logistics support in eco-restoration. The project began in 2018. After his illness, he spent more and more of his time in Chinchora and the eco-restoration project became his refuge.

Kumar’s Unique Leadership Qualities in the Shahade Movement

I would like to talk a little more about what it was about Kumar that made him Kumar. Many times, the traits he held are attributed to Gandhian thinking or even some kind of a karmayog. However, I see a mutually reinforcing relationship between his traits and the environment of the Shahade movement. Very little is known about this aspect of the Shahade movement and I would like to spend a little time on it.

Take for example the way the decision making was conducted in the Shahade movement. As I have briefly indicated earlier all decisions were taken collectively by all those who were working as full timers at a given time. There were no posts, no Secretaries, no Presidents, no Conveners, nothing. Decisions would be taken by consensus, not by voting, which implied that anyone advocating a certain course of action would not only have to convince a majority of people who thought alike but would have to bring on board the minority that may be thinking differently.

Nothing suited Kumar better. Firstly, he never used the authority conferred by a post in order to exercise leadership. He led by example and by the respect he won for his work. Secondly, he rarely if ever polemized. That did not mean he was a pragmatist. Or that he hid his opinions. He pointed out mistakes and differences clearly, but he did not dwell on them. He did not then go into an elaborate refutation, but moved on to what needed to be done, what could be the common ground of action, in spite of the differences. He did not have that tendency of theoretical overkill that is so common in many communists, of rubbing salt into the opponent’s wounds, of annihilating them theoretically, and enjoying it, not even realising that sometimes one is losing a potential ally and making enemies for life. May I also point out, as an aside, that in the Indian context, the tendency of such theoretical nitpicking is rooted in the Brahmanical tradition of display of panditya and there is much need for communists to free themselves of this tendency. It is because of this trait, honed and sharpened in the Shramik Sanghatana that Kumar could maintain such close relations with so many people from so many progressive currents. This organisational structure served the movement well until it broke down in 1982 on the issue of joining the CPI(M) where no consensus could be reached.

Another important aspect of the movement is that there were no `fronts’ on which different people worked. Every activist had to work on and oversee every aspect of work. Activists had to look after the women’s activity, the Youth Mandals, the labourers as well as the small farmers, keep contact with the Dalit bastis. This helped activists acquire an all-rounded view of grass roots problems and activity.

Besides this explicit organisational structure, the Shahade movement also had an unwritten code of conduct for activists which was also strictly enforced. First, every activist was allowed to spend, roughly, an amount that was a little more than the agricultural labourer’s wage. They could not wear fancy clothes, and preferably wore hand-me-down clothes. Second, activists were to travel by foot wherever possible and only when necessary, travel by the State Transport buses. On the way to their destination village they were to stop for a while in the villages they passed on the way and talk with the Sanghatana contacts in those villages, especially to the women. Third, they were to wait to be invited for food by some household and were not to invite themselves. They were to see to it that no special food was prepared for them. They had to sit with the people and eat whatever they ate and publicly thank the women who provided them with the food. They were not to pay for the food they ate, the people had to offer them food out of commitment and not for the money. And, when in the office at Shahade, none of us slept on mattresses.

This living style was common to all the activists of the Shramik Sanghatana. These are Kumar’s traits and he had a lot to do in putting this code of conduct in place. And it did pay rich dividends. The affection and support the Adivasi and Dalit agricultural labourers in the area showered on us was phenomenal. But this was not due to any saintliness or any Gandhian influence. Far from it. It was in the first instance, rooted in the ideas we held then about de-classing ourselves and winning over the masses.  However, for Kumar it was more than an organisational code of conduct. For example, none of the activists followed such an austere regime once they had left Shahade. It was different with Kumar. For him it was a way of life. And if we seek its roots we will have to go back to Che his first inspiration, and to Bhagat Singh and Lenin.

He believed in being ‘revolution-ready’ (being kranti-sajja). If I am not mistaken, Bhagat Singh has somewhere said that your body is the most important weapon you have and it is your duty to keep it ready and at the service of the revolution. Kumar exercised and did his yogasanas every day, first thing in the morning. He slept without a mattress because as a revolutionary, you never knew what hardships you may have to face and you did not want your flesh to become used to the comforts and weaken your will.

And he took Lenin’s description of the professional revolutionary in What is to be Done very seriously. He always had the possibility of being prepared to go underground in his mind. Because of this he would speak at length on many issues, but he hardly ever spoke about himself and would give away as little information as possible about his own movements. In the matter of practical details, he gave out only what was necessary and no more. We saw how important these things were when we had to go underground during the Emergency. He had inculcated those habits. He was revolution-ready at every instant of his life.

But what stands out above everything is his humanity, his great love for common people. There are a number of people who in theory and in the abstract love humanity but behave despicably and condescendingly with real human beings. He never condescended to people. He was a very good listener. He listened attentively to everyone he met. Talking to him you felt respected. He knew how to nurture people, even treasure them, in spite of their faults and failings. However, he was a somewhat of an introverted person and did not readily share his personal thoughts, feelings and dilemmas. There was an element of opacity in some of his decisions and he had his own set of failings arising out of it.  The saving grace was that he did not make a virtue out of the necessary evils that political practice in an imperfect world enforces upon us.

I often wondered whether he was personally happy with the Party and the choice he had made in 1982. He never discussed it and evaded the issue. For example, there was the issue of how we should approach agrarian issues. The Shramik Sanghatana was of the strong opinion – an opinion that Kumar shared – that the farmers should not be treated as a bloc and revolutionary rural politics must be based on bringing together the landless agricultural labourers and the toiling section among the farmers. While Kumar did much to establish and nurture agricultural labourers’ unions, the Party’s politics in the rural areas remain one that centred on farmers as a bloc, virtually excluding the agricultural labourers instead of building a bloc of the agricultural labourers and the toiling farmers based on their common character as toilers. As an aside, I would also like to point out that in the Indian context it also meant the exclusion of the rural Dalits and Adivasis. There were a number of such issues on which his thinking was very different from the dominant Party thinking and practice. In spite of his differences, however, he remained a loyal partyman to the core. Unlike Sudheer Bedekar who resigned from the Party and could be quite caustic in his criticism of the Party in private, Kumar merely expressed mild agreement with some of our criticisms and shrugged, often saying, these things happen. In my opinion, in his later years he turned his eyes away from intra-party affairs and concentrated much more on nurturing the new generation of young communist youth which was being attracted to the communist movement.

He had his share of sorrows too. The youngest sister for whom he had delayed leaving his house had a bad marriage that ended in separation and divorce. His only attempt at marriage too ended in a separation and divorce. For the last few years and especially after his illness, even though he was still the roving activist and travelled as much as he could, he had turned a little more silent, a little more lost in himself. Who knows what devils he was fighting? Or maybe he heard the bell toll for him. Today, after he is gone, I miss him, I feel a part of myself washed away. I mourn him with all my heart. What else can I say to you, comrade, but your beloved – Laal Salaam?

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