Be it installation of Ambedkar statue in London or organising protests at UN against Dalits atrocities, Rajkumar Kamble led many efforts.
After years of careful exclusion, several Indian missions abroad have now earmarked April 14, Ambedkar Jayanti, as a day of official importance. The international Ambedkarite movement, active in over 21 countries, forced Indian missions to acknowledge the existence of a Dalit diaspora.
One person who stands out for pioneering the international Dalit movement is Rajkumar (Raju) Kamble, who passed away 16 August in Vancouver.
Kamble was born 4 January 1954 in Nagpur, the base of the Ambedkarite movement in India. He graduated from the Laxminarayan Institute of Technology, Nagpur and then from the prestigious Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru with a degree in engineering.
As one of the first-generation highly educated Dalits, Kamble was dedicated to the mission of “pay(ing) back to society”. After getting a coveted government job in Delhi, he knocked the doors of well-paid Dalit officers as well as went to bastis to organise poor working class Dalits under a Bahujan movement. His single room in Delhi was used for mounting the first Dalit atrocity exhibition under the leadership of Kanshi Ram.
Kamble worked with the likes of Kanshi Ram and Mayawati. He escorted Mayawati during her visits to various remote locations in north India during the formative years of The All India Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation, or BAMCEF.
He was witness to the BAMCEF/BSP formation and its division. At the first central executive committee of BAMCEF, Kamble remarked, “I saw him [referring to a leader who is now a national president of a BAMCEF faction] creating a rift. I could see him sowing the seeds of differences and it eventually broke”.
Notwithstanding the internal conflicts, Kamble resolved to continue with his work overseas, and laid the foundation for an international Dalit movement.
Kamble’s career as a chemical engineer, spanning 37 years, took him to various parts of the world. Wherever he went, he established a Dalit movement. His grassroots and international experience helped the Dalit diaspora start chapters of Dr Ambedkar International Mission and other Ambedkarite groups in over 21 countries.
Farewell to the general
Kamble was a general of the international Ambedkarite army, and aligned the cause of Ambedkarism with other social justice movements. As a result, the African-American, the Burakumin, the south Asian Dalits as well as the progressive Indian diaspora were his allies. He had resolved to begin the movement in Africa too.
After Babasaheb Ambedkar and N. Sivaraj, Kamble was the formidable name who put the Dalit struggle on the world map.
The caste-based identity struggle could not adequately find favourable attention in the history of Indian diaspora. Therefore, when we come to understand the issue of global caste-based struggle, we find the lacunae of past 200 years is filled by contemporary Ambedkarite movement, which was spearheaded by Kamble.
His love for books and his belief in their power proved to be a blessing for the Dalit cause. He was an unofficial librarian of Ambedkar’s writings and speeches, and gifted books on the leader to everyone he met in the last 35 years.
A witness to the post-Ambedkar India, Kamble firmly believed in nurturing the next generation. He regularly visited educational institutes to support and encourage Dalit students by distributing books and organising talks. Many students in the audience, who eventually went abroad, became leaders of Ambedkarite international organisations in countries they settled in.
In my years of international activism, I have found people from different ideologies united in their appreciation of Kamble’s relentless efforts. He involved everyone and worked with anyone who was committed to the Dalit cause.
At the 125th Ambedkar Jayanti in Columbia University, everyone in the audience was given a chance to take the stage and express their appreciation of Ambedkar. In his conferences, everyone listened to everyone — a sharing of Dalit empathy and solidarity. “I give everyone a stage, so they don’t become a problem in future” was his strategic move.
Kamble helped organise global conferences and seminars on the issue of caste and untouchability. Many universities in the West witnessed a growing awareness of Ambedkarite discourse when a singular ideology of Brahminical elements was dominant.
Be it the Ambedkar Chair in Columbia, the installation of statues and portraits of Ambedkar in London, or organising protests at the United Nations against the Indian government for atrocities against Dalits, Kamble was at the forefront of these efforts.
He was critical of some recently monetised Dalit movements in the diaspora that stressed issues unrelated to the movement. The NGOization of the movement stood in the way of creating a robust critical mass of audience that would eventually join the movement as a sincere cadre.
Kamble has left behind a carefully crafted international Dalit movement. His story needs to be recorded and it needs to be told. His work stands as an inspiration to not only Dalit activists but other parallel movements in the world, which desperately seek an international audience.
Suraj Yengde is an international Dalit rights activist based in the USA, and is a Shorenstein Center inaugural postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.