Kumar Shiralkar – A comrade who steeled himself for the revolution

Kumar Shiralkar

Kumar Shiralkar, activist, served the adivasis and other oppressed people for decades with great devotion and selflessness.. He in turn was so much loved by the adivasis that after his passing way on October 2 they buried his body.

Kumar was born in a Brahmin family but he had completely given up his caste and class affiliation, totally identified with the masses.So the significance of the burial.

No one amidst us had in all these years shown such a spirit of self sacrifice, declared Arjun Dangle, well known dalit writer, founder of Dalit Panther, at a meeting held last evening by the Left Front to remember Kumar..

People across political affiliations greatly respected and admired Kumar which explains the large turn out at the meeting. Teesta Setalvad, on bail at last from her unjust arrest, was there and also Medha Patkar , Prakash Ambedkar among several others.

I have seen tributes paid to Kumar on the social media by numerous people which show the deep love they had for him and this was a result of the deep love he gave to ordinary people. A saintly figure, in the best sense of the word. Few have given so much love and got it too.

Kumar steeled himself to become a revolutionary, he would sleep on the floor, did not use bed, mattress, recalled Suhas Paranjape, an IIT trained engineer, who worked full time with other other well educated younsters in the early seventies among adivasis in Shahada in Dhule district.

All voluntary work. The group was led by Sudhir Bedekar, who some saw as our Marx with Kumar as Engels.Both were great in shaping, teaching activists.

It is true, as Paranjape recalled, that in those days, activists thought the revolution was round the corner and we would be midwives of that transformation.

Chhaya Datar recalled that she worked for three years in the early days of the seventies in Shahada in women’s organisations led by the likes of Nirmala Sathe.

Medha Patkar recalled the help extended in her work by Kumar. He was a great cementing force for different groups.

Among others paying homage were Dr Ashok Dhawale, CPM polit bureau member, B Venkat, secretary of the CPM union of agricultural workers union, Uday Narkar, state CPM secretary, Hussain Dalwai, former Congress minister who was an activist in Yukrand, yuak Kranti dal, in the seventies, Ajit Patil, Sanjay Singhvi, Vijay Kulkarni, Ramesh Kamble, sociology professor,S.V. Jadhav of PWP and several others.

Kumar suffered numerous assaults from the goons of landlords, in the process he had lost hearing in one ear.

Kumar, who later became a central committee member of the CPM , was also great communicator and teacher. His booklet in Marathi Uth Wedya Tod Bedya (wake up man, break your chains) sold thousands of copies and many acknowledge that they became activists after reading it.

Good to have been to Gavaskar hall in MMGS after long, it used to be a very popular venue for public meetings some thirty years ago. It is sad that Kohinoor Textile mill of the NTC on the other side of the road in Dadar has given way to a vulgar, luxurious high rise residential tower called RA Residences on a 3 acre plot.

The other Kohinoor mill opposite Sena Bhavan is now Kohinoor Towers. Such an outrageous loss of land, it could have b een used so creatively. The leaders have b etrayed the public, all for pocketing some crores.

In May 1972, Shiralkar, along with Sudhir Bedekar, Suhas Paranjape, Anant Phadke and others, established Magowa (Search), a progressive group in the quest for building a new society, in Bombay. The group attracted scientists, engineers, doctors, social scientists and other professionals from leading institutions in the city such as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), IIT, and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), and from similar institutions in Pune and elsewhere in Maharashtra. Although the proclamation of Emergency in 1975 curtailed the group’s activities, with only some 12 full-time campaigners, Magowa managed to remain active until around 1978.

Here is a moving account of the funeral of Shiralkar written by Ajit Narkar, state general secretary of the CPM.

In his words.

Kumar Shiralkar (1948 – 2022)

It was a moment hard to define. Kumar’s inert body lay around which his Adivasi and non-Adivasi near ones had gathered in huge numbers, traveling overnight from far and near. Adivasis, among whom he had spent half a century, were not ready to accept the fact. Women wailed asking in unison, _Kumarbhau, parat ya_ ; Brother Kumar, please come back. In that sea of tens of hundreds, a large section of women among them, only one or two were his direct blood relations. In that collective mourning almost everyone also felt the pain of the loss individually. The air was filled with a tangible sense of poignancy as well as with some kind of intangible energy, the seeds of which, the person at rest, had sown in them. Was that inert body the soul and I, standing beside, mere body? Before I could suppress that unsettling thought, Jaysing Mali, Kumar’s close confidante for decades, began to speak in the mike he held in his trembling hands. “Comrade … “, and he paused. Was he groping for the right word, unsure of what he was going to say? One suspected. No, he was not referring to Kumar. The word comrade is both singular and plural in Marathi. Jaysing was addressing us. “Now is the time to bid farewell to Kumarbhau.” He had not been able to overcome his initial hesitation. Then he gathered more than right words and continued, “we are now going to perform the last rites. We had planned for cremation. But all the Adivasis collected here said, he is one of us. We will perform our traditional rites. We have therefore decided that …”, now his words were measured, tone firm, “we will bury, not cremate Kumar.”

I was stunned. Honestly, it took quite a moment for me to digest what he was saying.

“Please, don’t misunderstand, he belonged to us,” Jaysing said with finality.

All readily agreed, of course. We had all taken a huge cultural leap. The collective began to move towards the assigned place in the ground of the Com. B. T. Randive High School. A six-seven feet deep pit was already dug. Kumar’s body, after a few rounds around the pit in the slogans of Lal Salam, was placed inside it. It was symbolically fed with cooked rice and water mixed with jaggery. The latter would be an alcoholic drink for those born Adivasi. A compromise was made for Kumar. Each of us turned our back to him and put a handful of soil in the pit. What will he grow into?

Kumar was born a Brahmin. He did not die a Brahmin. His parental house must have been part orthodox part progressive. A lot of secularization has taken place in the way those kind of people live.

Kumar’s funeral set me thinking. No Brahmin, orthodox or otherwise, Maharashtrian at least, would be buried after death. I haven’t heard of any instance where such a wish was ever made or carried out. One would wish to donate the body for medical education and experiment. That wish is not frowned upon much.

This final act of burying Kumar is an act of solidarity steeled in the furnace of struggle. That would not be steeled if Kumar had carried his cultural baggage along with him.

Kumar had an ancestral house in the town of Miraj which boasts of both practising enviable Hindu-Muslim amity and playing up intermittent episodes of communal strife. Kumar’s house was located in the Brahmin quarters. After he joined the movement to fight the oppression of the Adivasis in Nandurbar district and gradually began turning that fight into a war to overthrow the system that begets various kinds of oppression and exploitation, he began shedding all the baggage given to him by custom. He sold the ancestral house and bought a small flat for his mother. He occasionally visited it in normal times (a rarity for Kumar) and took leave from the Party (he was a wholetimer) to nurse her in time of need. He had to again take leave from party work to take care full time of his elder sister who was being treated in a sanatorium. All the attendant agonies and travails were strictly his personal affair. The pains and problems of others too he made his personal affair. He wanted to minimize whatever belonged to him, he was a person with few needs.

Once in a visit to our house he asked me for an old chappal I didn’t use. His was badly broken. He had used it till the point it was useless to call one anymore. I offered to buy a new one. He flatly refused and threatened to go away bare feet. I surrendered.

Kumar was briefly married. It must have been one of the shortest marriages ever. Once I poked him about it. “Arrey, you need to waste too much time, I have better things to do,” he said simply.

In the condolence meeting all the speakers tried piece him together from whatever they had got from him. Some saw Gandhi in him, some saw Phule and still some others Ambedkar. But all agreed, he was a communist to the dot.

As I sat listening to those speeches, I mulled over a thought. What kind of memorial could we build to cherish his memory? Museum of personal assets was out of the question. You don’t leave anything personal behind, the Adivasi culture apparently demands. His backpack was placed beside his body and with him buried.

A museum was a superfluous idea. Every house in those Adivasi hamlets is a museum of everything that he has left behind. Orhan Pamuk has written a novel called a Museum of Innocence. Every house in that area is a museum of Kumar’s memories.

We all left in the evening. This morning a comrade sent me a message. Young Kumar having decided to bind his fate with that of these Adivasis began living since 1971 in the house of Narayan Thakare. The then seventeen year Narayan immediately became a comrade in arms and Kumar became a member of the Thakare family. That became his address. Kumar’s name entered the Thakare ration card. The address on the Aadhar and voting cards too was that of the Thakares.

As Kumar’s body lay in wake, seventy odd years old Narayan was listening to the condolence speeches. Nobody noticed Narayan leave. At midnight Narayan had a massive heart attack and he passed away.

Red Salute, Comrade.’

Vidyadhar Date is senior journalist and author of a book on public transport

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