In the afternoon of October 28, poet, theatre artist and Dalit rights champion Jayesh Solanki died by suicide at his home in Bhuvaldi, about 50 km from Gujarat capital Ahmedabad. During the Asmita Yatra after the flogging of the four youth at Una in 2016, Jayesh had emerged as a charismatic leader of Dalits on protest in Gujarat, vowing to give up their traditional caste-based occupation of cleaning the carcasses of cattle and demanding land for the landless.
In an interview posted on website Dalit Camera, Jayesh narrated that he had begun work as a child, while still in Class 8. He failed his Class 10 examinations and dropped out of formal education, but remained a curious and active mind and emerged as a theatre artist and poet. He worked in a factory from 1995-2002. After the Gujarat riots of 2002, he got drawn into work with groups that were campaigning for communal harmony, and joined NGO work.
Through his interactions with colleagues, he learned of Marxism and gained deeper insights in Indian history and sociology. He would raise the slogan ‘Jai Bhim, Lal Salaam, Jai Savitribai’ – causing some people to question where he stood, ideologically.
He offered, in his interview on Dalit Camera, a reasoned argument for why he would not turn away anyone who expressed support for the Dalit cause. “We do not have to agree about all things under the sun. If one stands in solidarity with the Dalit cause, then one belongs as much as anyone else. I think there is no truth to the allegation that Left activists worm their way into Dalit mobilizations,” he said.
He had worked with an NGO until 2009, and said he left when he found the assertion of his caste identity was a cause of tension. In the interview on Dalit Camera website, Jayesh said he was a misfit – unable to identify completely with established ideologies, still learning and seeking his own path. During the Shaheen Bagh protests in New Delhi against the Citizenship Amendment Act earlier this year, Jayesh had addressed protesters.
He said the Left had been consistent in raising class issues, but tended not to address the caste matter with as much rigour. He admitted, though, that even within Left groups there were people seeking and attempting to learn, and so they were welcome to join the mobilizations around caste. He said he himself worked at a factory and he understood the need to raise issues of fair wages – however, even among workers, there were those who would not dine with a Dalit. “One cannot prioritize one issue over the other; caste and class and gender must all be addressed simultaneously, even if there is fear that these matters could cause rifts within the group that leads the fight for social justice.”
“In the time of Ambedkar and during the freedom struggle, Dalits were told political freedom should come first; questions of caste equality would be addressed later. That did not happen. Among Dalits, women are especially victimized – these are issues that we cannot put off for later,” he said, admitting that even when Dalit women may not yet be present to take over leadership roles in the movement, the issue of gender must be raised with honesty. “Feminists too are mostly upper caste and upper class, so when women’s issues are raised, it is the concerns of the upper caste and class women that take precedence.”
Listening to Jayesh’s interview, it is hard to imagine that he educated himself about India’s history; his learning about social structure was mostly from his lived reality. An obituary on Workers’ Unity website in Hindi mentions that he had struggled with depression and been talked out of suicide by close friends in November last year. He had mentioned that his identity as a leader of the Dalits had made NGOs somewhat wary of him, and work had dried up. He would hold theatre workshops to make a modest living, but even that had stopped with the lockdown imposed in March 2020. His father had passed away a few months ago, and the financial situation of his home had been weighing heavy.
He was depressed, and alcohol had begun to affect the functioning of his kidneys and liver, the Workers’ Unity website mentions. He had posted his CV on Facebook and sought help with finding work; friends had pitched in with money, but there was still enormous uncertainty.
Jayesh’s suicide came at the end of a lonely struggle.
Here is his last poem, translated from the Gujarati by Hemang Desai:
An Immortal Poem
I wish to write
From now onwards
All my poems
Not on paper
But on the smooth slate
Of a sandy seashore.
How I wish
That a huge wave swept over
And wiped off the lovely poem
As soon as I dig it
In the wet sand,
So that I can write another, just as lovely,
For another giant wave,
That’s the wretched destiny
Of all Dalit poets
To be written and written off, endlessly
From time immemorial.
Jayesh is survived by his mother and two married sisters.
Jai Bhim, Lal Salaam, Jai Savitribai!
Rosamma Thomas is a freelance reporter based in Pune.