(Written by Subodh More)
The Dalit Panthers was formed on July 9, 1972. India was preparing for grand celebrations to mark 25 years of Independence, but India’s Dalit youth were restive.
In 1967, the first non-Congress state governments had been formed. Political movements by youth were picking up worldwide and in Maharashtra too, the Yuvak Kranti Dal had been formed. Dalits converted to Buddhism en masse in October 1956. On December 6 the same year, Babasaheb Ambedkar died. But Buddhists had a new identity. Some were benefiting from reservation and were studying in colleges. Between 1959 and 1964, a large land rights movement led by Dadasaheb Gaikwad, who was associated with the Left, had conducted agitations in Marathwada and Khandesh, and over 1 lakh people were in jail. In the late Sixties, Chief Minister Y B Chavan was forced to extend reservation benefits to converted Buddhists too.
It was in the backdrop of these developments that Dalit youth felt emboldened to question the new post-Ambedkar leadership of the Republican Party of India who, they felt, were soft on their issues.
Simultaneously with the Little Magazine movement, Dalit literature began to blossom, speaking a new, angry language. Dr M N Wankhede published Asmita from Aurangabad, Baburao Bagul started Amhi (We) in Mumbai. These magazines threw up 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, its crude language causing havoc in prudish Marathi literary circles.
Inspired by the Black Panthers movement for civil rights and against racism, writer-poets J V 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 sparked by recent atrocities against Dalits — a Dalit woman paraded naked in Pune district and two Dalit men’s eyes gouged out in Dhakali village in Akola district.
Founding member Raja Dhale wrote an essay in Sadhana magazine published from Pune, on the ‘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 go to villages where incidents of atrocities had been reported and hold protests. In Mumbai, as they developed strongholds in Matunga Labour Camp, Naigaon-Dadar, Chembur, Ghatkopar, Sewri, Parel and Worli, they challenged the Shiv Sena and Bal Thackeray.
Dhasal, Bagul and Dangle 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 Dangle’s Left leanings were honed by Annabhau Sathe who inaugurated the first Dalit Sahitya Sammelan in Maharashtra in 1958.
The Panthers also bore the influence of the Black Panthers. In fact, J V Pawar named his daughter Angela after Angela Davis. They began to network with civil rights groups worldwide and grew in stature. In 1974, the Worli riots took place after an event where Dhasal and Dhale were speakers. Those gathered faced 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.
Amid the subsequent unrest across the state, women leaders including socialist Mrinal Gore, Comrade Ahilya Rangnekar, Comrade Tara Reddy and other Left parties gheraoed the old Vidhan Sabha at Kala Ghoda on the issue of PDS rations. I was there too. The Panthers played a major role in supporting this movement.
Moving beyond emotive politics, the Dalit Panthers focused on economic issues and social justice. They were themselves all working-class 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 J V Pawar’s Nakebandi.
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. Comrade 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 too. My father Comrade Satyendra More was a supporter of the Dalit Panthers, and when Dhasal was underground, he spent time at Comrade GL Reddy’s house.
But during the Emergency, Dhasal supported Indira Gandhi and a crisis developed within the Panthers. After the Nagpur conference in 1976, Dhale and J V Pawar left to form their own organisation ‘Mass Movement’. That began 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 rechristening movement for Marathwada University. Thousands were arrested for protests demanding that the university be renamed after Ambedkar. I too was arrested with other Left activists for 15 days in Mumbai.
Now, the Left-Ambedkar dichotomy was no longer an issue — the Naamantar movement was led by the Dalits, CPI, CPM, CPI-ML, Lal Nishaan and other socialist groups. The young generation helped the organisation grow. Fiction writers found inspiration in the movement too. Non Dalits grew aware of the movement while it spread wings and branches elsewhere in the country including the south and north.
But in 1988, 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, the State’s strategy is to insinuate that the Dalit movement has elements from the extreme Left, thus dissuading some youngsters from joining the Left. But I believe a new crop of young radical activists and thinkers will soon be seen in the Ambedkarite movement.
The writer is a senior Left and cultural activist in Mumbai and state committee member of the Jati Anta Sangharsh Samiti