Skip to main content

Rise and fall of Dalit Panthers: Tirade against Left, joining 'caste-ridden' Congress, BJP?

Dalit Panther founder JV Pawar
By Harsh Thakor* 
On May 29 was the 50th anniversary of the Dalit Panther Party. Its formation was a landmark event in the post-1947 era of India defining a new epoch in the assertion of the Dalit community. It was a manifestation of the rage simmering at a boiling point against their subjugation for centuries which hardly diluted after Independence.
It fused Ambedkarist ideology with Marxism. For the first time a constructive manifesto was constructed for the political liberation of the Dalit community. Many Dalits quit the Shiv Sena fold, which discriminated against them.
In spite of Garibi Hatao programme and a socialist agenda, price rise was soaring and economic misery was intensifying. Reservations hardly generated any impact on the lives of the scheduled castes in any manner, who faced the worst brunt of impoverishment of the common man. They simply found no avenues to channelize their grievances through the parliamentary democratic system.
In spite of making promises no political party gave attention to the discrimination Dalits faced in obtaining employment, in conditions at workplace, in educational institutions or even residences. Social boycott of Dalits penetrated every walk of life.
Political consciousness sharpened at an unprecedented magnitude, with the Dalit community understanding the futility of the parliamentary reforms and functioning of the social order and the agenda of Gandhism. It boosted the enthusiasm of Dalits to study Marxism. Dalit cultural resurgence sprung with the creation of Dalit poetry, novels and paintings.
The Dalits were inspired to resist upper caste fascism on a scale untouched. It emulated the Black Panther Party of America in important ways. Dalits also displayed scorn for the traditional Marxist parties for literally placing caste agenda in the dustbin.

Genesis

The Dalit Panthers was formed on July 9, 1972, when India was preparing for grand celebrations to mark 25 years of Independence. However, things had begun taking shape in October 1956, when Dalits converted to Buddhism en masse, inspired by Babasaheb Ambedkar. On December 6 the same year, Ambedkar died.
Between 1959 and 1964, a large Dalit land rights movement led by Dadasaheb Gaikwad, undertook struggles in Marathwada and Khandesh, and over 1 lakh people were imprisoned. In Maharashtra the Yuvak Kranti Dal was formed. In the late 1960s the movement made it imperative for Chief Minister YB Chavan to offer reservation benefits to converted Buddhists too.
There is a background to the formation of Dalit Panthers. The Keelvenmani massacre in 1968 was a classic illustration of how inequality prevalent in the caste system enhanced the hegemony of class interests of exploiters. The landless Dalits who were enslaved by the landlords in and around Tanjavur district, began demanding adequate wages under the leadership of the CPI(M) in the late 1960s.
When their demand for ‘half a measure of rice more for each sack of rice harvested’ was discarded, the Keelvenmani workers went on strike and withheld part of the harvest. Tensions aggravated between the unionists and the landlords. On December 25, 1969 the landlords and their henchmen went to Keelvenmani in police trucks and started attacking the labourers and set fire to the hut in which many women, children, and the aged took shelter.
A total of 44 of them were brutally murdered that night, including 5 aged men, 16 women and 23 children. This event made anger simmer at a boiling point in the hearts of the dalit community and was one precursors of the Dalit panther movement.
Inspired by the Black Panthers movement for civil rights and against racism, writer-poets JV Pawar and Namdeo Dhasal decided to form the Dalit Panthers, and immediately called for a boycott of the 25th Independence Day revelry, calling it a ‘Black Independence Day’. Their anger was fuelled by recent atrocities perpetrated against Dalits -- a Dalit woman paraded naked in Pune district and two Dalit men’s eyes gouged out in Dhakali village in Akola district.
The Dalit Panthers manifesto not only defined Dalits as Buddhist converts but also agricultural labourers, farmers, landlords, poor farmers etc. Namdeo Dhasal asserted that not only caste system but also class system should be eradicated.
Left radicalism was in very blood of some of the young Dalit writers and poets, fused with indignation at the opportunistic tactics of the mainstream Dalit politicians of the Republican Party of India (RPI), co-opted as they were by the Congress Party. The mainstream Communist parties, the CPI and the CPI(M), gave no vent to the inherent frustrations of the Dalits.
The Panthers’ successful call for the boycott of a by-election to the Lok Sabha from the constituency of Central Bombay in January 1974 shook the political establishment at the very core. The RPI leadership retaliated by suppressing the Panthers wherever they were. The Congress government-directed police force left no stone unturned in smashing the base of the Dalit Panthers movement.
The Little Magazine movement enabled Dalit literature to flourish. Dr MN Wankhede published ‘Asmita’ from Aurangabad; Baburao Bagul started ‘Amhi’ (We) in Mumbai. These magazines gave birth to a galaxy of Dalit literary stars including Daya Pawar, Namdeo Dhasal, Arjun Dangle, Avinash Mahatekar and Raja Dhale. Dhasal’s ‘Golpitha’ was published in 1971, with its down to earth language creating panic in conservative Marathi literary circles.
Founding member Raja Dhale wrote an essay in ‘Sadhana’ magazine published from Pune, ‘Tirangaa’. If it couldn’t protect a Dalit woman’s dignity, it was only a rag, he wrote. Dhale faced a defamation case while the Dalit Panthers gained wide publicity. The Panthers would encompass villages where incidents of atrocities had been reported and shimmer the flame of rebellion. In Mumbai, as they developed strongholds in Matunga Labour Camp, Naigaon-Dadar, Chembur, Ghatkopar, Sewri, Parel and Worli, they challenged the Shiv Sena and Balasaheb Thackeray.
In 1974, the Worli riots took place after an event where Dhasal and Dhale were speakers. Those gathered faced repercussion of police repression; even policemen’s kids donned khaki uniforms and joined Shiv Sainiks in assaulting Dalits. Dhale was severely injured. On January 10, 1974, as a protest rally wound its way out of Bhoiwada, a large grinding stone was hurled from a building by Shiv Sainiks near Parel Railway workshop, and Bhagwat Jadhav died, the first Dalit Panther martyr.
In the midst of state wide turbulence, women leaders, including socialist Mrinal Gore, Communist leaders Ahilya Rangnekar and Tara Reddy and others in the Left, organised gherao of the old Vidhan Sabha at Kala Ghoda on the issue of public distribution system (PDS) rations. The Panthers invested every ounce of their energy in garnering support for this movement.
Moving beyond the arena emotive politics, the Dalit Panthers focused on economic issues and social justice. They were themselves all working people -- Pawar and Mahatekar worked at banks, Dangle at the Bombay Port Trust, Prahlad Chendwankar at the docks. That’s also how their writing reflected the popular unrest even in their titles, such as Daya Pawar’s ‘Kondwada’ (Blockades) or JV Pawar’s ‘Nakebandi’.
Namdeo Dhasal
When the Dalit Panthers appealed for a boycott of the by-election to the Bombay Lok Sabha seat in 1974, Congress candidate Ramrao Adik lost, paying the price for taking Dalit votes for granted. Communist leader SA Dange’s daughter Roza Deshpande won. While the Congress also began to label Dhasal a Leftist stooge, in reality, the Left supported the Dalit movement. Satyendra More was a supporter of the Dalit Panthers, and when Dhasal was underground, he spent time at GL Reddy’s house.

Differences

The movement had differences right since its inception. Dhasal, Bagul and Dhale had clear Left leanings, but not everybody among the first generation Panthers saw eye-to-eye. 
When Dhasal released their manifesto, called Zahirnama, in 1972, Dhale retorted with a pamphlet saying it had a purely Communist agenda. It was a Namazahir, his pamphlet mocked. Bagul and Dhale’s Left leanings were honed by Annabhau Sathe, who is known to have inaugurated the first Dalit Sahitya Sammelan in Maharashtra in 1958.
During the Emergency, imposed in 1975, Dhasal supported Indira Gandhi and a crisis developed within the Panthers. After the Nagpur conference in 1976, Dhale and JV Pawar left to form their own organisation Mass Movement. That defined the post-1976 or second stage of the Panthers.
As Dhasal lost clout after 1977, a new generation of leaders, such as professor-orator Arun Kamble and Ramdas Athawale took charge, renaming it the Bharatiya Dalit Panthers. They helped the Panthers grow roots in every village. They found appeal among educated youth through their support of the Naamantar or resurrecting movement for Marathwada University. Thousands were arrested for protests demanding that the university be renamed after Ambedkar.
They found appeal among educated youth through their support of the Naamantar or resurrecting movement for Marathwada University. Thousands were arrested for protests demanding that the university be renamed after Ambedkar. Now, the Left-Ambedkar dichotomy was no longer an issue — the Naamantar movement included not just Dalits, but also CPI, CPI-M, CPI-ML, Lal Nishaan and other socialist groups.
In 1988, Ramadas Athawale was made a minister by Sharad Pawar, and the Panthers was officially dissolved. Later attempts to form a united Republican Party were shortlived too.
In recent years, whether after the Khairlanji massacre, or after Bhima Koregaon incident, the state’s strategy is to isolate the Dalit movement, which has elements from the extreme Left.

Reasons for setback

What propelled rank of Dalit community to join hands with parties like Shiv Sena and Congress? The movement exposed a weakness of not being able to forge a link with the trade union struggles in urban areas like the Railway Workers Strike of 1974. It also did not work to establish any long term relations with Left groups. They were wary of it the Maoist ideology, and refused to identify themselves with the politics of Naxalbari.
In the last few decades a major degeneration has taken within the already defunct Dalit Panthers ranks with most of its constituents embracing ruling class electoral alliances. Some sections uphold Ambedkarism and a very minute section supports Marxism.
The most progressive section, the Republican Panthers, has done qualitative work in undertaking campaigns and protests condemning the Bhima Rao Koregaon arrests, and rebuking the ideology of Brahmanical fascism. It patronised the Kabir Kala Manch which hosted a series of cultural programmes all around Maharashtra and was influential in Dalit basti areas.
In the Tata Institute of Social Sciences very positive programmes were undertaken illustrating the content of Brahmanic fascism and its relation with a political economy that alienates the oppressed castes. There was also a 10,000 strong protest in Mumbai in February 2016 which symbolised resistance against oppression.
Meanwhile, a number of Marxists groups made intensive evaluation of how Communists gave no heed to the caste question. Anuradha Gandhy, Anand Teltumbde Arundhati Roy, Ajith (Murali) and N Venugopal and Prof GN Saibaba have pointed out why every caste oppression should an integral part of the Marxist movement.
Wrote late Anuradha Ghandy:
“Today, many of the present-day leaders of the Dalit movement go on a tirade against Communists but see no harm in associating with such caste-ridden parties as the Congress (I) or BJP. Why does this happen? For two reasons.
“Firstly, the traditional ‘communists’ (specifically the CPI and CPM) have not understood the caste question in India and have often taken a reactionary stand on the Dalit question. Secondly, the established leadership of the present-day Dalit movement do not seek a total smashing of the caste system, but only certain concessions within the existing caste structure.
“As early as 1956 Dr Ambedkar gave a speech at Katmandu comparing the ideas of Marxism and Buddhism. In 1958, when Dadasaheb Gaikwad and Dadasaheb Rupavae split the RPI (Republican Party of India), the major criticism of Rupavate was that Gaikwad was a Communist.
“Again in 1974 when Raja Dhale and Namdeo Dhasal split the Dalit Panthers the main accusation of Dhale was that Dhasal was a Communist. And later, Raosaheb Kasbe, Sharad Patil others have sought to link the views of Ambedkar and Marx.”

---
*Freelance journalist based in Mumbai

Comments

TRENDING

North Gujarat gram panchayat bars villagers from dealing with Muslim hawkers, traders

By Our Representative  A gram panchayat in North Gujarat has barred its residents not to buy anything from Muslim traders and hawkers. An order of the Waghasan group gram panchayat of Tharad taluka of Banaskantha district dated June 30 states that the decision has been taken in the wake of beheading of a Hindu tailor after he posted a derogatory writeup on Prophet Mohammad in Udaipur. The gram panchayat resolution says, anyone seen buying or selling any commodity from a Muslim hawker or trader would be fined Rs 5,100. Bringing this to light, Mujahid Nafees, convener, Minority Coordination Committee, in a letter to Gujarat chief minister Bhupendra Patel, says, the state government should take legal action against the panchayat chief who has signed the “unjust” order. The letter says, the act of the sarpanch and other signatories is a violation of rule of law of the state and threat to peace, pointing out, the move is in violation of Article 15 of the Constitution, which says that none

Unlike Soviet Union, Russia is no friend to India: Ukrainian scholar tells 'Indian friends'

Counterview Desk In an open letter to "dear Indian friends", Anastasia Piliavsky, born in Odessa, Ukraine, studied at Boston and Oxford Universities (on a Rhodes Scholarship), and now teaches at King’s College, London, has said that she faces "deep moral dilemma", personally and professionally, over the "astonishingly unified Indian response to the war in Ukraine." Based on her interaction with a "number of thoughtful and caring Indian friends", in this letter, she says, she is "reeling at the ubiquitous silence at, justifications of or outright support for Putin’s terror, which now prevails in India, at the ubiquitous #IStandWithPutin and #istandwithrussia hashtags." She insists, India must understand, "Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is no friend to India. Soviet leaders, beginning with (the Ukrainian) Nikita Khrushchev – who declared hindi rusi bhai bhai – built up deep political and cultural exchange with India." Text : I

Technocratic globalism, tyranny? Health Ministry warned: bill to 'enslave' Indians

Sandeep Pandey, Tushar Gandhi By Rosamma Thomas*  Union of Concerned Citizens, a group comprising Magsaysay Award winner Prof Sandeep Pandey, human rights activist Tushar Gandhi, former judge of the Bombay High Court BG Kolse Patil, pediatrician Dr Jacob Puliyel and several renowned Indian citizens have written to the Union Health Minister cautioning him against tabling the draft Public Health Bill in the Monsoon Session of Parliament. “The Public Health (Prevention, Control And Management Of Epidemics, Bio-Terrorism And Disasters) Bill, 2017 and a Prospective Bill of 2022 as discussed in news articles, is straightforwardly violative of Fundamental Rights of the citizens of India and therefore, Ultra Vires of the Indian Constitution. It contravenes several International Treaties and Conventions including the Nuremberg Treaty of 1947 which was enacted to ensure that no country would repeat such inhuman medical atrocities on fellow human beings”, the 12-page letter reads. “Strangely, t

Protesters demand release of Teesta Setalvad, Sreekumar, seek review of SC order

By Our Representative  Protests broke out across India on June 27 following Teesta Setalvad’s arrest demanding her immediate release. Sabrang India , a site run by Setalvad, claimed she was “arrested on trumped-up charges after the Supreme Court dismissed the petition moved by Zakia Jafri demanding an investigation into the larger conspiracy behind the 2002 Gujarat violence.” The protesters also demanded release of former DGP Gujarat police RB Sreekumar, also arrested simultaneously. The protests were preceded by over 2,200 people from across the globe signing a statement demanding their immediate release. Leading signatories such as People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) general secretary V Suresh, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) convenor Medha Patkar, former Naval chief Admiral Ramdas. “The state has used the observations made in the judgment to falsely and vindictively prosecute those who had struggled for justice even in the face of state callousness and complicit

Buddhist shrines were 'massively destroyed' by Brahmanical rulers: Historian DN Jha

Nalanda mahavihara By Our Representative Prominent historian DN Jha, an expert in India's ancient and medieval past, in his new book , "Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History", in a sharp critique of "Hindutva ideologues", who look at the ancient period of Indian history as "a golden age marked by social harmony, devoid of any religious violence", has said, "Demolition and desecration of rival religious establishments, and the appropriation of their idols, was not uncommon in India before the advent of Islam".

Electoral bonds scheme 'compromises' voluntary nature PM relief fund donations

By Rosamma Thomas*  The Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF) is meant to collect voluntary donations from the general public, either individuals or organizations, to enable assistance to people in times of natural disaster, or for expensive medical treatment. That fundamental voluntary character of the fund, however, has changed in recent years.  The gazette notification of January 2018 announcing the Electoral Bond scheme states, in Clause 12 (2): “The amount of bonds not encashed within the validity period of fifteen days shall be deposited by the authorized bank to the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund”. The Union government has, thus, through notification, directed funds to be deposited into what was meant to be purely voluntary. Commodore Lokesh Batra, who has been campaigning for transparency in government functioning, holds that once a gazette notification has been issued directing that funds be deposited into the PMNRF, the character of the whole fund has changed,

'Highly abnormal': AltNews journo's arrest suggests 'deterioration in media freedom'

By Bharat Dogra*  Leading media organizations have come out in strong support of recently arrested journalist Mohammed Zubair. These organizations include, among others, the Editors Guild of India, the Press Club of India, the Delhi Union of Journalists and DIGIPUB, a platform for several important digital media organizations. All these organizations have condemned the recent arrest of the noted journalist and demanded his immediate release. While leading human rights organizations and political parties have also made somewhat similar statements, the strong support of media organizations is particularly important as the effort of the authorities has been to try to present the arrested journalist as someone who has been indulging in irresponsible journalism.  In such a situation the support of those media organizations who are familiar with his work and who are most capable of judging the quality of his work is very important. In this context it is important that some media organization

Majoritarian silence helping Hindutva forces 'handover' national resources to corporates

By Bhabani Shankar Nayak*  The majority of Indian citizens are witnessing the persecution and everyday violence against their fellow citizens who are Muslims and religious minorities. The growing assaults on reason, science, secularism, Indian democracy and constitution are going to be landmarks in Indian history of diminishing democracy and citizenship rights. It is clear that Hindutva ideology is directly promoting sectarian politics of hate which is dangerous for the unity and integrity of India, peace and prosperity of Indians. The majoritarian silence helps in empowering Hindutva and their electoral dividends. From witnessing the persecution in the sidelines to the active participation and cheering loud or silence accelerates violence against our neighbours and our fellow citizens. How and why do majority of Indians stay silent and contribute to the persecution of their fellow citizens who are Muslims and religious minorities? The question baffles me as an Indian because I have gr

Electricity Bill: Centre's reform measures contain 'carrot and stick package' for states

Counterview Desk  The Peoples’ Commission on Public Sector and Public Services (PCPSPS), claiming to be a network of eminent academics, jurists, erstwhile administrators, trade unionists and social activists, seeking consultations with stakeholders with those who are against the government’s decision to monetise, disinvest and privatise public assets/enterprises, has said that the proposed Electricity (Amendment) Bill-2022 will have far-reaching impacts on the finances of states. Insisting that the proposed Bill would lead to “assault on India’s federal structure”, in a statement, it says, it would weaken the finances of states’ power distribution companies, have adverse impact on utility employees, cripple the states' finances, impose a heavy cost burden on the smaller subsidized consumers (especially farmers), and benefit only corporate business houses. “States cannot afford to ignore the far-reaching implications of the Bill on their economy, finances, agricultural and industria

Cops 'refuse to register' complaint after BSF shot landless worker off Bangla border

By Our Representative  Kirity Roy, secretary, Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), and national convener, Programme Against Custodial Torture & Impunity (PACTI), in a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), referring to the incident of “firing and execution” of a poor Muslim youth, has alleged that the 26 year old was was shot at “without giving any warning” one and half kilometers inside the Indian territory from Bangladesh border by an on- duty Border Security Force (BSF) personnel. Stating that the person, Ruhul Mondal, belonged to an Other Backward Class (OBC), and hailed from Ramnarayan Para village under Sagarpara police station in Murshidabad district, West Bengal, Roy in his representation said, the BSF person who shot at him is “attached with Singpara Border Outpost, 141 Battalion”, underlining, the BSF has now floated “self defense theory” to cover up its operation. According to the BSF officials, the incident took place in the jute fields in