By Rahul Banerjee
Horrendous caste oppression will not end and Dalit emancipation will not happen only if a few well-meaning and diligent Savarna officers do their duty as depicted in the much-hyped film “Article 15”, but will be possible only if there are militant Dalit activists in large numbers who can lead their community in a conscious fight against casteism.
Unfortunately there are too few of these, and in a great tragedy for the western Madhya Pradesh region and India as a whole, we lost one of the greatest self-made Dalit activists prematurely at the age of 47 on July 6, 2019. Kemat Gawale passed away after battling valiantly for almost a month against a series of brain strokes that he suffered since the first one on June 12th 2019, which had paralysed his left side.
Kemat hailed from a marginal farmer family of which he was the eldest of seven sons, though he had elder sisters. Despite his father educating him with great deprivation so that he would eventually get a government job and so relieve their poverty, Kemat decided to join the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) to fight against the Sardar Sarovar Dam which was to submerge their farm land in Kakrana village on the banks of the Narmada River in Alirajpur district.
He later gave up his studies without completing his graduation to become a full time activist of the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath (KMCS), which was fighting for the rights of Adivasis and Dalits in Alirajpur district to the great chagrin of his father who threw him out of the house.
Even though his contributions to the struggles against the dam and for the rights of Adivasis and Dalits through community mobilisation, for which he was imprisoned and tortured several times, is of great importance, his seminal contribution is in the field of education. He set up along with other members of the KMCS a residential school in Kakrana village named the Rani Kajal Jeevan Shala (RKJS).
The major problem in Alirajpur, which according to the Census 2011 is the district with the least amount of literacy in the country of just 37%, is that the people migrate to Gujarat and towns in Madhya Pradesh seasonally to increase their earnings as the income from agriculture on their marginal farms is not enough for them to make ends meet. This results in the children missing out on their education as they have to go with their parents.
Kemat’s last journey to the school he founded where he was kept for some time on the central platform built around a big neem tree before being taken for cremation. There is a skeleton hanging from the branches of the tree which is used to teach the students about the bone structure of humans. Here it eerily conveys the futility of the fight for justice which is continually losing its most militant protagonists
Moreover, the standard of pedagogy in government schools is abysmal with high student teacher ratios, multigrade teaching by the same unqualified teacher and poor facilities. Matters are compounded by the fact that the Adiavasis and Dalits in Alirajpur speak the Bhili dialects, and so it is even more difficult for first time learners to understand the sanskritised Hindi texts that are prescribed in the syllabus.
So the RKJS developed its own pedagogy in Bhili to initiate children into studies under the leadership of Kemat and provided quality education in a residential milieu to the children of migrating parents.
To ensure that girls too get a good education, the fees are waived totally for them and so 40% of the students are girls. Even for the boys the education is subsidised and the school runs on a grant of about Rs 25 lakh a year which are mobilised by Kemat and his team from various donors. Consequently there are some 220 boarding students from as many as 52 villages of Alirajpur district and every year there is a huge rush among parents to get their children admitted to this school.
The motto of the school is “Padhai Ladai Saath Saath” which means learning and struggle together. The pedagogy is radical in character aimed at producing youth who will challenge the oppressive status quo that stifles the genius of the Adivasis and Dalits in Alirajpur.
One of the great things about the KMCS is the huge number of organic intellectuals and independent minded activists that it has produced among the local people and Kemat was among the best. Even though he gave up formal studies he continued to read radical literature, as did Shankar Tadwal, the Adivasi grassroots leader, who too gave up formal studies to become a full timer of the KMCS.
Even though the KMCS was initially led by Savarna activists, Kemat, Shankar and others soon became critical of this, and within a decade of its inception by 1996, the local members of the organisation became capable enough to run it by themselves and all the Savarnas left.
Kemat was fiercely independent and conscious of his Dalit identity, as is Shankar of his Adivasi identity. So even though we Savarna activists have continued to be associated with KMCS and RKJS in many ways, Kemat and Shankar have called the shots. I will remember with great fondness the many times that Kemat has given me a dressing down not mincing the fact that we Savarnas are at the root of most of the problems of this country and definitely of Dalits.
Kemat also led reform movements within his community to restrict the amount of the bride price, alcoholism and gender based violence against women. He was in addition a public health activist trying to improve the access to health services and their quality for the poor.
Sadly, we have lost him at the peak of his abilities and at a time when there are very few new activists coming up to fight for justice. His passing away in this way prematurely is also a telling commentary on the abominable status of public health in this country.
Kemat suffered from diabetes and hypertension but despite being aware as a health activist that these are silent killers and require constant monitoring, preoccupation with work prevented him from doing so and over the past four months or so he had not been taking medication regularly. This lack of proper management of these diseases led to the sudden brain stroke and paralysis.
He had to be brought to Indore which is five hours away from Kakrana as there was no hospital nearer than that where he could be given even preliminary intensive care. Even though he was admitted to one of the best corporate hospitals at great expense and was treated by the best neuro surgeons under good intensive care with proper medication and finally surgery, he could not be saved.
We lost Khemraj Choudhary a month back, Chhotubhai a little earlier,
Pushpendra before that and Khemla, another militant Adivasi founder of
the KMCS, two years back. Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it
tolls for thee.