Comrade for All Seasons
‘And dreaming is no sin’
When I first met him Comrade Pansare was already a legend. It was at the CPI’s Bhupesh Gupta Bhavan in Mumbai, where a few years before filmmakers protesting censorship at the Mumbai International Film Festival across the road had staged a highly successful parallel film festival called Vikalp. Following on our momentum we continued with monthly screenings of documentaries at Bhupesh, regardless of whether the film had acquired a censor certificate. So far there had not been any official interventions.
In 2007 we announced a screening of Sanjay Kak’s new film on Kashmir, Jashn e Azadi. The audience had arrived and the film was about to start. Comrade Pansare who was visiting from Kolhapur was present when the police suddenly swooped in and ordered us to stop. Someone had told them we were showing “terrorist” propaganda and they were making enquiries on who we were and threatening arrests. It was here that Comrade Pansare stepped in. He literally ordered the police out, stating that they had entered private property without a warrant. For Pansare apart from being a longtime top leader of the CPI was also an accomplished labour lawyer. Such was his moral authority that the police withdrew without a word.
In the following years I followed Govind Pansare’s work from a distance but really got to know him only after 16 February 2015, when he and his partner, Uma, were fired upon by two motor cyclists in Kolhapur who had tracked them returning home from their morning walk. Uma tai eventually recovered from her wounds but Comrade Pansare despite early signs of recovery passed away on February 20.
It is a blow that Maharashtra and India have yet to recover from. Only two years before, on August 20, 2013 a rationalist, Dr Narendra Dabholkar, had been gunned down by motorcyclists while he was on his morning walk in Pune. The eerie similarity forced me into cinematic investigation of these two murders. In the three-plus years it took to complete our film Reason/Vivek, two more rationalists, professor M.M Kalburgi and secular activist and journalist Gauri Lankesh were also gunned down by killers on motorcycles.The police and State however, while arresting a few of the pawns, seem completely averse to naming and investigating the masterminds.
Today I’m not here to elaborate on this glaring lapse of justice. I am here to do at least cursory justice to a true hero who lived his entire life and laid this life down so all of us could breathe the air of the just and secular democracy that our freedom fighters had fought, lived and died for.
Much of my appreciation for the life and work of Comrade Pansare began as I immersed myself in his speeches, writings and the persona I pieced together from those who had known and worked with him. I realized that Pansare was a communist who not only understood the full horror of caste, he was also someone always willing to make common cause against fascism. As Reason grew into a 4 hour epic covering the vast history and geography of India, much of Pansare’s amazing down-to-earth vision could not find its way into the finished work, but those who watch what there is of him may not be able to help but marvel at his intellect, knowledge base, courage and through it all, his irrepressible sense of humor.
As I write this I am struck by the parallel with the life work and personal magnetism of Dr Narendra Dabholkar. Clearly the killers did not choose their targets off hand. They chose people who were successful in their appeal to the secular heart of India just as Mahatma Gandhi had been over half a century ago.
Again it is to Comrade Pansare I owe the knowledge that those who finally killed Gandhi in 1948 were Brahminists who had made six earlier such attempts starting as far back as 1934 ! At which point in time as Pansare pointed out, there was no concept of Pakistan. So it was not Gandhi the Muslim Appeaser that Brahminical Hindutva hated at this stage, but the Gandhi who had defiled caste purity by insisting that everyone should do their own manual scavenging. This was the Gandhi who went on a hunger strike to reassure Dr B.R Ambedkar that Hindus could do away with untouchability, and to whom people responded by throwing open temples and wells to Dalits. This was the Gandhi who initiated the Poona Pact with Dr Ambedkar which first gave birth to the policy of Reservations for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Newspapers of the day quote Ambedkar thanking Gandhi profusely for granting more reserved seats than had been asked for.
Another gem from Pansare that I retained in the film was his take on Shivaji. Shivaji whom the 19th century anti-caste leader Mahatma Jotiba Phule had shown to be a fighter for peasants and the underclass, had since been appropriated by the elite as an icon of Hindutva whose main identity was distorted to a Hindu king fighting Muslim rule in India. Pansare rescued him with his booklet “Who was Shivaji” published and translated into scores of Indian languages, where he pointed out that there were key Muslims in Shivaji’s army and key Hindus in the armies of his Muslim opponents. It was not a Hindu Muslim war but a war against oppression.
Yet another Pansare contribution I retained was his defence of S.M Mushrif’s book “Who killed Karkare”, which is a shockingly plausible expose of the 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai in 2008. By now the whole world believes that the attack was the exclusive handiwork of 10 terrorists who came by boat from Pakistan and killed almost 200 people. What Mushrif exhaustively and painstakingly showed and what Pansare endorsed was that while a Pakistani terror attack did indeed take place it was restricted to a few hotels in South Mumbai. Indian intelligence had been warned in advance about this attack by US intelligence but this information never reached our coast guard or our Navy. Instead a parallel attack was simultaneously launched by Hindutva operatives whose main objective was to eliminate Hemant Karkare, chief of Maharashtra's Anti Terror Squad.
Hindutva terror had been operating with impunity since 2002 conducting a series of bomb blasts across the country and blaming them all on Muslims. Karkare had become dangerous to Hindutva as he was the first high ranking officer to begin a probe into these attacks, and had unearthed crucial evidence in the form of video and audio tapes of planning meetings recorded by the Hindutva operatives themselves. The probe had reached a critical stage with many confessing to their role. Among the accused were top ranking BJP leaders as well as army officers like Colonel Purohit accused of stealing and distributing army grade RDX that was used in several blasts.
A denouement to this case would expose a can of worms. Karkare had to be eliminated. He was killed, his death then passed off as the handiwork of Pakistan-based terrorists. Within a few years of his death all the Hindutva terror cases he had been investigating, including many where confessions had been made before independent magistrates were overturned. Today Pragya Singh Thakur, accused in the Malegaon bomb blast, is a BJP member of Parliament. Col Purohit, Aseemanand and almost all other Hindutva accused are out of jail.
Many feel that it was Pansare’s vow to hold 150 meetings across Maharashtra to talk about “Who killed Karkare” which became the last straw that led to his murder.
I did not want to end on a note of utter despair so I closed the film with a quote from Govind Pansare who was ever the optimist. Like many progressives he believed that iniquity would inevitably lead the downtrodden to rise. “It will happen. It’s not just a dream” he said, and paused, for much as he was a communist he was also a poet of the future - so he added, “And dreaming is no sin.”
Anand Patwardhan is a well known Indian documentary filmmaker.