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Dhasal’s times of irony and anger

Namdeo Salubai Dhasal, one of the founders of the militant Dalit Panthers movement and whose stark imagery on the dalit experience stunned the literary scene in the seventies, lies today in hospital...

Written by Rakshitsonawane |
September 11, 2007 4:41:39 am

Namdeo Salubai Dhasal, one of the founders of the militant Dalit Panthers movement and whose stark imagery on the dalit experience stunned the literary scene in the seventies, lies today in hospital with myasthenia gravis, a rare ailment. The 58-year-old poet is in need of money for his treatment and his wife, Mallika Amar Shaikh, the daughter of legendary Shahir Amar Shaikh, whose folk songs played a crucial role during the Samyukta Maharashtra movement, has appealed for contributions.

Dhasal has lived life in its ironical extremes: from hutment homes to chauffeur-driven imported cars; from staunch Marxism to joining hands with the Shiv Sena. Brought up by his mother in extreme poverty in Mumbai’s redlight Kamathipura area, he lived among prostitutes, beggars, goons and eunuchs, surrounded by hooch dens and overflowing gutters. Violence was always in the air, with blood often being spilt. He did not graduate in literature or learn the finer aspects of language. But there was a simmering anguish within him and a flair for reading, even as he went about doing odd jobs and earning a living as a taxi driver. Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s political philosophy made a deep impact on his mind. But despite Ambedkar’s well-known reservations on the utility of Marxism in an India divided by castes and religions, Dhasal became a Marxist.

In the seventies a new generation of dalits were getting educated — their access to higher education having been made easier by institutions set up by Ambedkar in Mumbai and Aurangabad. This generation was disillusioned with the system. In 1972 they came together as the Dalit Panthers, inspired by America’s Black Panthers.

Dhasal had started composing free verse and his first volume, Golpitha, carried his mother’s name as his middle name. The book scandalised the Marathi literary world, which had always been dominated by upper-caste writers. Golpitha was initially attacked for not being a literary work worth the name. Taking artistic liberty with free verse, Dhasal lashed out against the system, using words that had never been printed. He also attacked intellectuals: These great intellectuals are roaming with blazing torches in their hands/ through lanes and bylanes, chawls and chawls/ claiming that they understand the darkness in our huts, where even rats die of hunger/ they are great like horny whores/ those who don’t know that there is darkness under their arses/ can exhibit coquettish excellence with ease.

The big moment for the Panthers came in 1974 during a by-election for the Mumbai South-Central Lok Sabha seat. The Congress candidate was Ramrao Adik while his rival was Roza Deshpande, daughter of veteran communist leader S.A. Dange. The Panthers played a pivotal role in mobilising the dalit vote against Adik. Roza managed to defeat Adik, creating a sensation. The Panthers emerged as heroes, much to the annoyance of the Sena, which vowed to take on the dalit youth. The limelight changed Dhasal’s life. He now moved freely in the corridors of power. He enjoyed his new-found prosperity, never hesitating to splurge on himself. “I have tried all kinds of vices,” he would later confess to V. S. Naipaul, who profiled him in his India: A Million Mutinies Now. Dhasal’s communist leanings were objected to by his colleagues who preferred Ambedkar to Marx. Powerful Congress leaders, who were waiting for an opportunity to tame the Panthers, succeeded in driving a wedge between them. The Panthers split, with Dhasal heading the Left-oriented group and Raja Dhale heading an eclectic pro-Buddhist section.

When Emergency was imposed in 1975, the Panthers supported it, as did the Sena. But the animosity between the Panthers and the Sena continued. Even a factionalised Panthers constituted a formidable power against the Sena during the riots of 1978 that followed the announcement of Marathwada University being renamed after Ambedkar.

Dhasal’s most ironical act was crossing the ideological divide in 1997 and supporting the Sena, which was in power in the state in a coalitional arrangement with the BJP. Dhasal was well-feted at that juncture by the ruling establishment and was conferred the Padma Shri. Since then, he has been a friend of Bal Thackeray and, at a recent public meeting, even regretted having once abused Hindu gods and goddesses.

His alliance with the Sena and his penchant for life’s luxuries, invited the wrath of a large section of dalits. He was perceived by them as a betrayer of the dalit cause. But even those who denounce his politics today cannot deny his great contribution to literature. To this day the imagery he introduced into Marathi poetry remains path-breaking.

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