Vidarbha – the Punyabhoomi of Progressive Civil Society Movements
On 14 November I was at Sewagram for a meeting of civil society leaders from across Maharashtra. Before the meeting started I visited Bapu Kuti where there was a large group. From the dress of the men – Khadi kurtas and saffron caps, I immediately recognized them as karyakartas of Sri Gurudev Sewa Mandal. One of them told me that they were from nearby villages and were on their way to Gurukunj Mojhri (Amravati) for Rashtrasant Tukdoji Maharaj’s Punyatithi. They go there every year and every year they first come to Bapu Kuti.
Indeed 14 November was an important day. Hundreds congregated at Deekshabhoomi at Nagpur to relive the revolutionary moment when Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar had renounced Hinduism and entered the folds of Buddhism along with lakhs of his followers. And an equally massive number of people congregated at the Samadhi of Rashtrasant Tukdoji Maharaj at Gurukunj Mojhri to pay their homage to Rashtrasant, observing a pin drop silence at exactly 4.58 p.m to honour his memory.
Throughout the day, even as the meeting continued, my mind wandered between Deekshabhoomi and Mojri and I started to think how the sacred geographies of Deekshabhoomi, Sewagram and Gurukunj Mojri stand as important markers of the vast, rich and diverse philosophies that sustain civil society in Vidarbha. It set me thinking how, unfortunately, the liberal, progressive meaning of ‘civil society’ has come to take a restricted meaning. By definition, civil society represents the space between family and state but while articulating this space the modern rational-legal state is seen as the repository of public authority to which or on which the movements make certain demands. The movements are in constant cacophonous dialogue with the state to make laws and policies. Issue-based or rights-based organising naturally imbibes the language of law and justice, making law and policy the centrepiece of activism – create a new law, implement the law, repeal or amend the law. The conundrum is that the state is not autonomous from society – at the very minimum the society expresses itself every five years about who should represent to rule and what the ideology of governance should be. Now, if the so-called progressive civil society finds itself at odds with an elected government that commands majority in parliament, then it is a signal that such section of the civil society has lost touch with the majority that voted such a government into power in the first place. It is not only the opposition party which is decimated but progressive movements are floundering. Left – liberal movements are denigrated as being ‘woke’, duplicitous, deracinated, snobbish, elitist, antinational, urban naxals and andolanjeevis and there is growing hatred on all sides.
Instead of hitting out in anger, let us approach in a Gandhian spirit and concede that our opponents may have a piece of the truth – however tiny. One truth that is beginning to dawn on me is that many civil society activists and movements, because of their fascination with rights, have become rather dry and materialistic in their approach and praxis – right to education, right to health, right to jal, jangal, jameen, right to land and the list is endless. It is forgotten that beyond the need for materialistic survival is a spiritual hunger in all human beings that is ignored. Some organisations and movements are so wary of anything remotely religious that they end up alienating the audience even before uttering a complete sentence. Sewagram, Deekshabhoomi and Gurukunj Mojhri remind us that no matter how important land pattas and forest rights and minimum support price for farmers are, there is also the need for calmness beyond anger, to connect with the larger society on equal terms and with a larger spiritual force that requires inward humility and outward humanness.
There is perhaps no other better place than Vidarbha to revisit, reconceptualise and expand the understanding of civil society because of the region’s direct connection with three great creators of modern India – Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and Rashtrasant Tukdoji Maharaj. Mahatma Gandhi came to Vidarbha in the 1930s and from 1936 onwards started living in Wardha. Sewagram Ashram became an important centre for his constructive programmes as well as the freedom movement. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar chose Nagpur as the venue of the first conversion to Buddhism in 1956. Rashtrasant Tukdoji Maharaj was born in Yawli village in Amrawati district but he travelled across the region with his message of social reform, patriotism and communal harmony. These are the three leaders who interacted with thousands of people from all walks of life and people of Vidarbha remember them with a directedness that is startling. For example I was recently in Chimur and meeting a group of friends and we just happened to talk about the history of Chimur. One person in the group, a lawyer, told me about how his grandfather and father travelled miles on a bullock cart from Chimur to Nagpur to attend Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Dhammadeeksha in 1956. “They actually saw him, you know. They actually saw Babasaheb,” he said in wonder and in pride.
That lawyer is not alone. I have spent twenty three years in Vidarbha and I have heard sentences from villagers and ordinary people in this region that I have not heard elsewhere. Sentences like – ‘My grandmother spun cotton with Gandhiji’, ‘ Tukdoji Maharaj had food at our place’, ‘This is my father in the picture, when he was ten years old, sitting at the feet of Maharaj’, ‘Gandhiji stayed in this village for seven days’, ‘Babasaheb stopped at this rest house on his way from Nagpur to Chandrapur’. There is perhaps no other place in the country where the tallest stalwarts of modern India connected directly with the masses, provided them not just guidance on material well-being but spiritual succor as well.
The Mahatma’s presence is most powerfully felt in Sewagram and across Wardha district where the social and cultural life seems to revolve around Gandhiji and his great disciples like Jamnalal Bajaj, Vinoba Bhave and Maganlal Gandhi. There is Bapu’s presence, not just in Bapu Kuti but in Nai Talim, in Gopuri, in Magan Sangrahalaya, in Vinoba Bhave’s Ashram at Paonar, in Kamal Nayan Bajaj Foundation and even in the small shops that sell khadi cloth bags and handmade soap and pickles. There is something pristine and pure in these places that connect us immediately to our national history of freedom struggle on the one hand and the vision of a nurturing, gentle, inclusive co-existence on the other.
Gandhiji’s influence pervades other districts of Vidarbha as well. For instance I have found Bapu in many corners of Chandrapur district – in Mul, Saoli, Bhadrawati and Warora. In April 1999 I crossed Mul’s Gandhi Chowk for the first time. Gandhi Chowk has a statue of the Mahatma with a plaque which says that Mahatma Gandhi crossed that place twice – in 1933 and 1936. The Nag Vidarbha Charkha Sangh with its head office in Mul began its work under Gandhiji’s All India Spinners’ Association and today co-ordinates the activities of five districts of Vidarbha. Shri. Gajanan Gawhankar a staunch Gandhian who walked beside Gandhiji in the Dandi Yatra hailed from Mul. Charkha Sangh started spinning activities in Saoli the 1920s and it continues to this day. It is a historic place where Gandhiji stayed for a week in 1936. In Bhadrawati there is the Gramodaya Sangha formed in 1955 by S.K. Mirmira, a Gandhian ceramicist who travelled from Bengaluru to Sewagram and thence to Bhadrawati to help the artisan potters develop their livelihood through appropriate technology. The organisation continues to run a pottery training centre. And in Warora the globally acclaimed Anandwan started by Baba Amte continues to uphold Gandhian values.
The Gandhian philosophy influences many different sectors of work – for instance Vrukshamitra, founded in 1984 works on environmental/Adivasi issues with a strong Gandhian basis. I have heard Mohan Hirabai Hiralal, the founder, speak many times about the importance of Gram Sabha, decentralized governance and a strong insistence on ‘consensus’ and not ‘majority vote’ as basis of public decision-making and each time he referred to Mahatma Gandhi and Hind Swaraj. Mohanbhai, Devaji Tofa and the villagers of Mendha-Lekha in Gadchiroli district are forerunners in the implementation of community forest rights not just in Vidarbha but in the whole country. It is model of environmentalism which does not see Adivasis as intruders, but empowers local communities as the authoritative custodians of natural resources.
Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar
As in all parts of India, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar is always present in people’s lives through statues, Panchsheel flags and Bouddha Viharas as also in community organisations, the plethora of small publications and community libraries and reading rooms. His name is the driving force behind organisations ranging from the tiniest Mahila Bachat Gats to large institutions that seek to establish substantive justice in the country. For instance, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s philosophy is the inspiration behind Vidarbha Molkarin Sanghatana – a pioneer organisation founded by Dr. Rupatai Kulkarni Bodhi that organizes domestic workers in huge numbers. This organisation was at the forefront of the struggle which led to the formation of the domestic workers’ board in Maharashtra. Rupatai is a renowned scholar of Sanskrit and converted to Buddhism as a stand against the caste system. I remember a conversation with her around twenty years back when she told me about the Buddha’s Bhikhuni Sangh and how 2500 years ago the Bhikhunis felt empowered to write their autobiography in poetry. She was at that time translating Therigatha into Marathi. We cannot divorce Rupatai’s activism through Vidarbha Molkarin Sanghatana from her commitment to Babasaheb’s ideology. In fact, the Vidarbha Molkarin Sanghatana provides a fierce and formidable combination of feminist praxis with Ambedkarite philosophy to further the cause of women’s rights.
In recent times there is a strong and continuously developing movement around the importance of the Constitution and specially the Preamble in India’s public life. Since the BJP came into power there is a feeling that the Constitution is ‘in danger’, that constitutional values and authorities are being constantly undermined by the ruling disposition. It has been pointed out that Maharashtra is in the forefront when it comes to the urgency with which the Constitution is discussed and sought to be brought centrestage. Needless to say there are several organisations in Vidarbha like Sanvidhan Foundation, Nagpur led by E.Z. Khobragade and ex-IAS officer, who have a strong basis in Ambedkarite values and who approach the Constitution as an extensive articulation of Babasaheb’s philosophy advocating justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, right to life and equal opportunity.
Rashtrasant Tukdoji Maharaj
While travelling in rural Vidarbha you will often cross modest one-roomed structures with a small statue or photograph of Rashtrasant Tukdoji Maharaj. These are Prarthana Mandirs where Maharaj’s followers congregate daily for samudayik prarthana. Maharaj was very close to both Mahatma Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave and his legacy lives through village-level bhajan mandals, shramadaan, punyatithi mahotsavas, annual khanjari bhajan spardhas and myriad publications. Dr. Rajendra Prasad conferred the title ‘Rashtrasant’ on Maharaj who had dedicated his life to village upliftment and spiritual reform. Through his magnum opus Gram Geeta he called upon the youth to prepare for community service and make personal sacrifices for the freedom struggle and social reform. In 1942 he responded to the call of Quit India movement and his powerful bhajans lead to nationalist uprisings in Chimur and Ashti. Maharaj was imprisoned in Nagpur Central and Raipur jails while his followers were sentenced to life imprisonment.
In the broadest and most organic sense, Akhil Bharatiya Sri Gurudev Seva Mandal registered as a public trust is one of the largest civil society organisations in Vidarbha. Headquartered in Gurukunj Mojri the organisation runs schools, colleges, publications, bhajan mandals and many other activities inspired by the teachings of Maharaj. There are Sri Gurudev Sewa Mandals in around 10,000 villages across Vidarbha which are linked to Gurukunj Mojri. The Pratinidhi Mandal of Pracharaks elects a new Sarvadhikari and other members of the governing body in a democratic manner every three years.
Around 1964 one of Maharaj’s closest disciples Karmayogi Tukaram Dada Geetacharya chose a forested place called Adyal Tekdi in Brahmapuri taluka of Chandrapur district for meditation. He meditated in the Adyal forest for 12 years and as directed by Maharaj he maintained silence this entire time. Villagers from nearby villages came to know of the tapasvi, and they started taking turns to bring him food and thus for twelve years the people literally sustained him. In those twelve years, when he barely spoke, people provided voluntary labour, money and materials to build 14 bhavans. After the period of tapasya was over, Karmayogi Tukaram Dada dedicated his life to conduct experiments on rural development as envisioned by Rashtrasant Tukdoji Maharaj in Gram Geeta. Adyal Tekdi came to be known has ‘Tapobhoomi Bhuvaikunth’ – the centre of activities such as group marriages, naturopathy, prohibition, anti-dowry movement etc. From the 1990s Tukaram Dada became one of the strongest votaries of Panchayati Raj in which he upheld the Gram Sabha as the most important unit of self-governance. He represented the cause of Adivasis and rural people to the highest echelons of the government, but he never registered any formal NGO or Sangathan.
Shramik Elgar, an organisation that I co-founded in 1999 became recognized for Darubandi movement which led to liquor ban in Chandrapur district for five years between 2015 and 2020. The movement was named ‘Vandaniya Rashtrasant Tukdoji Maharaj Chandrapur Jilla Darumukti Abhiyan’. Although many individuals and organisations contributed to the abhiyan, there are some without whom the campaign would not have moved forward – first and foremost the staunch Gandhians Dr. Abhay Bang, Dr. Ranitai Bang and SEARCH organisation who provided invaluable guidance and support. And secondly, Sri Gurudev Seva Mandal whose Sarvadhikari at that time Prakash Dada Wagh provided great moral support and whose pracharaks like Sewakramji Milmile worked tirelessly.
Why was the liquor mafia unable to counter the movement in spite of their vast money power and political connections? Looking back I realize that apart from other things, the answer lies in the instinctive association of the movement with the names of Mahatma Gandhi, Rashtrasant Tukdoji Maharaj, and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. This association allowed us to reclaim powerful symbols of protest like charkha spinning and strategies like long march and satyagraha. Maharaj’s bhajans resounded throughout the andolan instilling courage and resolve, offering a shared idiom rooted in the very soil of Vidarbha. After prohibition was announced the liquor association went to High Court and Supreme Court but inspite of the employing a battery of lawyers they lost in both places because the courts upheld Art.47 of the Constitution which mandates the state to impose restrictions on addictive substances. I remember one woman consoling another by saying, ‘let the daruwallas go to court. Babasaheb himself will fight from our side.’
The Journey Begins from Vidarbha
We, the self-proclaimed progressive liberal section of civil society have a lot of work to do to reclaim our true legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and Rashtrasant Tukdoji Maharaj. Before that, we have to let go of our overly legalistic language and relearn the language of ordinary people so that we understand each other. We have to be humble and accept that we are as much responsible for the rise of right-wing politics in the country as anyone else. We have been so caught up in our own little bubble-world of NGOs and Sangathans that we have neglected to make organic connections with the world outside. Let me give you my own example – I hang my head in shame to write that the offices of Nag Vidarbha Charkha Sangh is in disrepair in my own town. I have not done a single minute of Shramadaan to repair it nor have I contributed a penny for its maintenance. What sort of a Gandhi admirer am I? We are so busy talking to (or trying to talk to) ministers and secretaries that where do we have the time for a conversation with reformist organisations like Sri Gurudev Seva Mandal? It is we who limit Babasaheb to the Constitution because that sits so well with our legalistic mindset and helps to undergrid our andolans, but beyond that we don’t even try to understand the nuances of Navayana Buddhism or the cultural struggle that Babasaheb spearheaded. Vidarbha is geographically at the centre of India, literally the heart of India. This is the heart where Gandhiji, Babasaheb and Maharaj reside. If the progressive, liberal civil society wants to seriously reflect on and rectify its inner defects, it must start the journey of course correction from Vidarbha.
- Paromita Goswami