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No difference between a Dalit woman and a Brahmin woman: Dalit Panther founder

Counterview Desk

JV Pawar, one of the founders of Dalit Panther, which drew the attention not only of India but of the entire world in the early 1980s, talks to Rajshree Saikia on Dalit literature. Pawar tells Saikia, who is a Dalit literature scholar, on how Dalit Panther was born, how the then government launched a well-planned campaign to paralyse it, and what the organisation's concept of Dalit literature, influenced by it, was, and the state of Dalit literature today.
Speaking on a large number of issues, ranging from Ambedkarism to Dalit women, he says, "Political parties want to take Dalits along but they ensure that Dalits do not get real power. Dalits are required to do only low-level work..."

Edited excerpt

Rajshree Saikia: You have been one of the founders of Dalit Panther. It was a movement that impacted not only politics but also literature. So, first of all, I would like to know that what were the circumstances that led to the founding of Dalit Panther.
JV Pawar: Till Babasaheb Ambedkar was alive, no leader could dare oppose him. After the Mahaparinirvan of Babasaheb, incidents of atrocities against and injustice with Dalits started increasing. Thanks to Babasaheb's writings, our problems came to light. Before that we were not even allowed to express our views. Babasheb’s fight was of the brain and the pen. Atrocities continued even in the 1960s, when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister. The government supported the Dalits in those days. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi set up a committee and appointed its chairperson. The committee was assigned the task of preparing a report on the atrocities against the Dalits in different parts of the country. The report was to be tabled in Parliament on January 3, 1972. But it was so damning that the government felt that it would create problems for it. So, it gathered dust for three months. It was not tabled in Parliament. Ultimately at the insistence of some leaders it was presented before the Parliament in 1974.
Just like the Dalits here, in America, the Blacks were subjected to atrocities. The Blacks took to the streets and formed an outfit known as Black Panther. This led us to the conclusion that we not only need pen but also a militant organisation that could fight. I will give you an example. At the time, in a village called Brahmangaon in the Parbhani district of Maharashtra, two Dalit women were stripped and paraded naked in the village just because their shadow had fallen on a well. The news of the incident was published in the newspapers. Our blood boiled on reading about it. We protested against the two women being brought before the public again and again. So, lots of atrocities were being committed against the Dalits. Namdeo Dhasal and I thought that something should be done to stop atrocities against the Dalits. We decided to launch a movement. But what should be its name? Just as the Black people in America had launched Black Panther, so we thought of establishing an organisation like Panther. In America, they were Black people, so they chose the name 'Black Panther'. Here we were Dalits, so we thought that here we will name it 'Dalit Panther'. That was how I and Namdeo Dhasal laid the foundation of Dalit Panther. Nowadays many people claim that they had founded Dalit Panther. But the fact is that I and Dhasal had established Dalit Panther and began the struggle.
Rajshree Saikia: According to you, how far was the Dalit Panther movement successful? Are you satisfied with its success?
JV Pawar: The Dalit Panther movement lasted from May 9, 1972 to June 12, 1975. We worked only for three years. The Black Panther movement also lasted for 3-4 years. For how long we worked is not important. What is important is that what we did in that period. We worked a lot against injustices and atrocities. The government started fearing us. The Dalit people felt that at least there was someone to fight for them. We didn't kill anybody, we didn’t attack anybody, we didn't pick up arms. At the time, all the letters addressed to Dalit Panther came to me. Mumbai is a huge city. Yet, a letter addressed to just JV Pawar, Dalit Panther, reached me, no matter from where it was posted. Even if it was from America, it used to come to me. Thus the organisation had become very famous in those days. I am satisfied with whatever work we did in those three years. Had our work continued the injustice and atrocities that are being committed today in north India, in Maharashtra and elsewhere would not have been there.
Rajshree Saikia: What was the main reason behind the collapse of Dalit Panther? Do you see any possibility of its revival?
JV Pawar: Political parties want to take Dalits along but they ensure that Dalits do not get real power. Dalits are required to do only low-level work. But the rise of Dalit Panther gave a voice to the Dalits. All the political parties felt that the voice of Dalit Panther should be silenced. The Congress party was in power at that time. The government thought that the organisation should not be allowed to grow. It should be stopped. The government took the help of the police etc to dismantle the organisation. For example, if a case was registered against any of us in one district, another case was filed at place 400 km away. We didn't have money. We told the government that we are not afraid. If they want to file cases against us, let them do it at one place. All cases under Section 153 should be tried at one place. The government filed a large number of cases in the courts and harassed us. It tried to ensure that we could not appear in the courts. Taking advantage of this, they used to put us in jail. The government worked systematically to weaken the organisation. The government won over our workers and disintegrated the organisation.
Rajshree Saikia: What is your take on the Dalit and social justice politics in north India and Maharashtra over the past some years?
JV Pawar: There was a time when Ambedkarism enjoyed a large following in north India. For instance, Ambedkarism was there in the politics of Uttar Pradesh. Even before Kanshiram, Babasaheb's thoughts were known in Uttar Pradesh. Ambedkarism had spread in north India. But if we talk of Uttar Pradesh today, in 2021, when a Sadhu is the chief minister of a state, atrocities are bound to happen. You know that sadhus belong to a particular religion. Our country is a secular. In a secular country, all religions are given equal respect. Atrocities are growing in Uttar Pradesh because of a surge in religiosity there, because power is in the hands of people of one religion. Religiosity and casteism go hand in hand. So, casteism has increased there. There are many castes and sub-castes. Some considered themselves superior to the others and so this feeling of high and low spread in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. There was no movement like Chavdar Talab, Mahad, Jotiba Phule or Ambedkar there. That's why casteism has not reduced in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. The people there are steeped in tradition. They are unable to break free from the tradition. There are no influential social workers there and that is why injustice and atrocities are more there.
Rajshree Saikia: The politics of social justice in south India was influenced by Periyar. I would like to know your views on the contribution of Periyar to the social justice movements.
JV Pawar: In south India, Periyar had a great influence. It was Periyar who brought to light the history of the Dravidians and the Adi-Dravidians. That history had been forgotten. In a sense he held up a mirror to the people. He told them, look, this is your history. In this way, he made the Dravidians realise their power, their strength. All the chief ministers there were influenced by Dravidian ideology. Periyar did all this. Like Babasaheb, Periyar, too, raised questions on Manusmriti. Because of Periyar's influence, Babasaheb's thoughts are spreading easily there. Films like Jai Bhim show that influence.
Rajshree Saikia: But for Dalit Panther, would Marathi Dalit literature taken such rapid strides. How do you view the relationship between Dalit Panther and literature?
JV Pawar: Before we formed Dalit Panther, we were Dalit litterateurs. As I have already told you, Babasaheb waged his struggle through brain and pen. Dalit literature came first. Dalit Panther came later. There was a phase in Dalit literature when many people were not ready to fight. They only used their pen to talk about the state. They were not ready to take to the streets. Like us, there were many well-known writers of Dalit literature. They wrote that we are fighters; that we should fight. But when it was time to fight, they ran away. All were not like that. There were some among us who did not run away when it was time to fight. There were fighters and deserters both. The concept of Dalit literature was already there. Babasaheb's beliefs and ideology were part of Dalit literature. When we founded the Dalit Panther, we became a sort of pressure group, which even the government could not resist. Dalit Panther became the talking point. Along with it, Dalit literature also became the talking point. Just as Dalit Panther reached America and London, so did Dalit literature. It led to globalisation of Dalit literature. It is true that but for Dalit Panther, Dalit literature would not have gained such prominence. Dalit literature predated Dalit Panther. We believe that as Dalit literature came first, it should be given more importance. There were some who turned their back when it came to fighting. But those who fought, they were strengthened by the emergence of Dalit Panther. Due to Dalit Panther, Dalit literature also became a talking point. We are no longer Dalits in that sense. "Black is beauty" was the initial slogan of the Blacks. Now they say, "Black is power". Similarly, we are no longer Dalits in that sense. We have adopted the ideology of Babasaheb. We no longer say Dalit literature, we say Ambedkarite literature.
Rajshree Saikia: How did Marathi Dalit literature, contribute to the growth of Hindi Dalit literature?

JV Pawar: Marathi Dalit literature was translated into Hindi. But the translation was not loyal to the way we put things. Nowadays, they write themselves. So, they are no longer dependent on Marathi literature. They write about their own experiences. Out literature was based on imagination, it was fictional. But what they write is based on what has actually happened, on experience. So, their literature is powerful. It is true that Marathi literature was the precursor of Marathi Dalit literature. Talking of the present, Hindi, Telugu, Kannada and Punjabi literature is better than our literature. We are confident that one day Ambedkarite literature would be the only literature. I am sure that this will happen.
Rajshree Saikia: Do you believe that only a Dalit can write Dalit literature. I would like to hear your views on this in detail.
JV Pawar: Our elders used to say that whatever has been written by Dalits about Dalits is Dalit literature. That was their opinion. We don't agree with it. Abraham Lincoln had said "for the people, of the people, by the people". Similarly, initially Dalit literature was ‘for the Dalit, of the Dalit, by the Dalit. But it is no longer so. Now, Brahmin women also form part of Dalit literature. No matter to which caste she belongs, a woman is a Dalit. Women have to face injustice. In Dalit literature we wrote about them, we said when these women write about the injustices perpetrated on them, when they are not allowed entry into certain places, then they are also Dalits. And their literature is Ambedkarite literature. Ambedkar tried to do justice to all through the Constitution. That is why they write, they are able to write. Whether she is from Punjab, or Bengal…from anywhere, from whichever caste, we consider all women as Dalits. Those who believe in the Constitution, those who believe in what is written in the Constitution about equality, fraternity, unity etc – whatever is written about it, whosoever writes it, we will call it Ambedkarite literature. So it is wrong to say that Dalit literature is only what Dalits have written.
Rajshree Saikia: Do you think the problems of the upper-caste and Dalit women are different?
JV Pawar: Every caste is different. And so are their problems. But if you look at Manusmriti, you will find that it gives no importance to women. In today's age of globalization, the difference in the nature of the problems faced by the women of the two classes has narrowed down. Not long back, Brahmin women kept mum on atrocities against Dalit women. She is facing injustice, she is being stripped, she is a Dalit, it is not happening in my Brahmin caste, what have I to do with it. This was the attitude. But the times have changed. For instance, today, if any Dalit woman is oppressed the Brahmin woman thinks that she may be a Dalit but she is woman like her. She may belong to any caste or class but I will not tolerate this. Today, women think on these lines and that it good. We should welcome it. Earlier, there was a difference but it is no longer now. Earlier, women did not step out of their homes. They did not know what was happening beyond their locality. Now, technology has changed all that. Now, there is no difference between a Dalit woman and a Brahmin woman. For instance, the Nirbhaya murder case happened in Delhi. All women got united on the issue. No one said Nirbhaya belonged to this caste or that caste. Dalit women also joined in. So, now Babasaheb's thoughts are being discussed. The women, who did not come out of their homes earlier, are now ready to fight on the streets. She is a modern woman but still she is fighting to uphold the ideals of Babasaheb. Today, all women, whether they are untouchables or of any caste, are getting united.

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