Mooknayak: the paper that kick-started politics of assertion


Dr. Mrinal Chatterjee

Mooknayak (The Leader of the Voiceless) was a Marathi fortnightly newspaper published from Bombay on alternate Saturdays that Babasaheb Ambedkar started in 1920. He was 29 then. It was his first journalistic venture. The title of the newspaper was probably inspired by the quatrain written by 17th century Marathi Bhakti poet, Tukaram(1608-1650). This particular quatrain also found place beneath the heading of the paper. 

Why should I feel shy?
I have laid aside hesitation and opened my mouth.
Here, on earth, no notice is taken of a dumb creature;
No real good can be secured by over-modesty.

Ambedkar’s aim in launching this journal was to put forward his own point of view on matters such as the evils of untouchability, the socio-economic status of ‘untouchables’, their position in the Hindu society, would swaraj bring about any change in their status, etc. These issues and questions had hitherto not found due representation in mainstream Hindi or Marathi journals. Ambedkar tried to bring forth these issues to the limelight. The tone was set from the very first editorial that he wrote in the opening issue published on 31 January 2020:

“The Hindu society is like a tower of many stories. It has neither a ladder nor a door to go out. And therefore there is no way to interchange stories. Those who are born on a particular storey die in that storey. Even if the lowest storey person is worthy deserving to be promoted to the upper storey he cannot move to that level. And if the person in the upper storey is most unworthy and undeserving still he cannot be pushed down” …….

In a way Mooknayak provided a forum to the marginalized classes of people in the society and laid the foundations of an assertive Dalit politics in India.

Interestingly, Ambedkar was never officially associated with the operations of Mooknayak, as he was in government service then. He worked as it’s ‘behind the scene’ de facto editor for at least six months, before leaving India to continue with his doctoral studies at the London School of Economics.

He is believed to have edited 12 issues in the span of six months. The first official editor of the Mooknayak, was Pandhurang Nandram Bhatkar. Bhatkar, an employee of the Bombay Port Trust was one of the known activists working in the Bombay based Dalit-non Brahmin activist circles.

Before his stint as an editor, Bhatkar, a graduate from Fergusson College Pune, came into limelight for his marriage to a Brahmin woman in Bombay. He, however, held a largely ceremonial position at the paper. In July 1920, he was replaced by Dnyandev Gholap, who also had experience of working for Mooknayak as a manager and accountant.

Gholap had assisted Ambedkar in 1919 to prepare a memorandum of demands to be submitted to the colonial government and played a vital role as its editor. He attained a unique reputation of becoming the first nominated member from the untouchable community to find place in the Bombay Legislative Council.

But due to the complaints of mismanagement of the periodical, ties between Gholap and Ambedkar got bitter in the later years. Subsequently, Ambedkar had to distance himself from the activities of Mooknayak from 1923 onwards. Soon, after a public spat with Ambedkar, Gholap left Bombay for his native village in Satara. It was here he restarted Mooknayak with a new title Abhinav Mooknayak. This periodical didn’t have a long life, mostly due to lack of finances and subscriptions. In the later years, Gholap joined the Congress.

The price of a single copy of the Mooknayak was 2.5 ānā, and the annual subscription was Rs 2.50. The circulation of the newspaper was limited to 700 subscribers in July 1920, with a marginal rise in later years. By July 1922, the circulation had risen to 1,000 subscribers.

But the paper faced serious financial and management problems since its inception. In the times of financial crisis, Ambedkar’s close Parsi friend Naval Bhathena provided vital funds. Bhathena, an entrepreneur himself, was a classmate of Ambedkar at Columbia University.

The friendship between Ambedkar and Bhathena was particularly interesting as despite being a Gandhi admirer and Congress supporter, Bhathena and Ambedkar remained lifelong friends. In Ambedkar’s absence, it was Bhathena who financially bailed out Mooknayak on several occasions. He also helped Mooknayak reach out to big businessmen like Godrej for advertisements.

The paper faced several hurdles and prejudices even before it was published. However, it was Ambedkar’s grit and determination and help from some persons that saw the paper through and kept it going. Chatrapati Shahuji Maharaj, the ruler of the erstwhile princely state of Kolhapur donated Rs 2500 for Mooknayak

Though the paper closed down within three years primarily becauyse of mismanagement and internal quibbling- it left a lasting legacy. In fact as Prabodhan Pol writes in “Mooknayak’s establishment in 1920 reflected the conspicuous shift in the socio-political discourse on caste and untouchability in India. Ambedkar’s newspapers, beginning with Mooknayak, a Marathi fortnightly, helped to inaugurate new politics of assertion that challenged the dominant social diseases.”

Mooknayak went through many ups and downs. It remained in circulation just for three years. Despite its short life, Mooknayak laid the foundations of an assertive and organised Dalit politics. It announced the arrival of a newer generation of anti-caste politics that broke the confines of region, language and political boundaries and coincided with the larger developments on the nationalist scene. 

Ambedkar started three more newspapers after Mooknayak. In April 1927, he bought a printing press through donations. He named it ‘Bharat Bhushan Printing Press’ and launched a fortnightly newspaper Bahishkrit Bharat (Ostracized India). But Bahishkrit Bharat, too, faced financial difficulties and ultimately shut down in November 1929. In 1930, Ambedkar started another fortnightly titled Janta (Masses), and later in 1954, he relaunched it as Prabuddha Bharat (Awakened India) a weekly to coincide with his drive to mass conversion to Buddhism with his followers. All of its issues carried the line “Founded by Dr Ambedkar” below the masthead. Babasaheb ran this paper till his death in 1956. His son Yashwant tried to keep the newspaper afloat till 1960, but eventually, it shut down. Attempts were again made to revive the newspaper in the 1980s and 1990, but each time it could not be sustained beyond a few months. It was again revived as a fortnightly in end 2017.

Ambedkar had considered the press as a key tool in his quest to achieve social justice. With his over four-decade-long journey as a social reformer and a political thinker, he had started several newspapers. These newspapers propagated his revolutionary ideas and focussed on the issues faced by the oppressed and were run at a time when the nationalist movement was rife. His writings remained highly critical of both the prevalent caste system and the nationalist movement which, he felt, remained blind towards the issues of the servile classes – the shudras and the untouchables.

However, the lessons from the Mooknayak experiment not only changed Ambedkar’s perspective towards conducting newspapers but it was an instructive exercise for many forthcoming generations of Ambedkarite activists.

Mooknayak carried reports and opinions particularly dealing with western India. However, there were also insightful responses to pan-India concerns. One of the important components of Ambedkar’s newspapers (including Mooknayak) were the regular publication of the open letters which were sent by common Dalits, demanding immediate attention to their particular cases of caste oppression and violence. 

The advent of the Mooknayak was symptomatic of the rise of Dalits in the public sphere. Printed pamphlets, leaflets and periodicals became easiest vehicles to generate public activism amongst the masses.

The rhetoric of nationalism, according to Mooknayak, would not work in the long-term, unless social-religious discriminations and the institution of caste were completely annihilated. 

These are concepts which resonate particularly today. 


Writer: Mrinal Chatterjee

Image Source: InterviewTimes

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