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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.


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.


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



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