On May29th we celebrate 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. The Black Panther movement in America, the Naxalbari movement, and the Vietnam war crystallised the spirit of the Dalit community to confront fascist opression .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 ruthlessly discriminated against them.
Inspite of Garibi Hatao programme and a Socialist agenda price rise was soaring and economic misery 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.Inspite 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 creation of dalit poetry, novels and paintings. The Dalits were inspired to wage armed resistance against 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.
I thank references from Subhod More and Bernard De’ Mello for this article.
Genesis of Party
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 hyper, with the rage of cal burning in a furnace.
In 1967, the first non-Congress state governments had been formed. Political movements by youth were sprouting 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. Between 1959 and 1964, a large land rights movement led by Dadasaheb Gaikwad, undertook struggles in Marathwada and Khandesh, and over 1 lakh people were imprisoned. In the late Sixties, The movement made it imperative for Chief Minister Y B Chavan to intensify reservation benefits to converted Buddhists too.
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 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 25 December, 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 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 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 Panther manifesto not only defined dalits as Buddhist converts but also agricultural labourers, farmers, landlords, poor farmers etc.Nanded 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 CPM, gave no vent to the inherent frustrations of the Dalits , this most deeply socially oppressed section of Indian society. Indeed, parliamentary democracy in a country like India, without the eradication of the caste system, and thus without a strata of people considered equal citizens, has been hypocritical. A potential reservoir for radical change was created by a chain of protests involving thousands of persons, confronting the menace of semi-feudalism. . The Panthers’ successful call for the boycott of a by-election to the Lok Sabha (the lower house of Parliament) 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, its task greatly diluted by the Congress government-directed police force that left no stone unturned in smashing the base of the Dalit Panther Movement.
The Little Magazine movement, enabled dalit literature to flourish. Dr M N 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, 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 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 nd 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 establish links 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 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 mist of state wide turbulence 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. . 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-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. 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 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 was led by the Dalits, CPI, CPM, 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 Koreagaon the State’s strategy is to isolate the Dalit movement which has elements from the extreme Left, thus discouraging some youngsters from joining the Left.
Reasons for setback of Movement
A phenomenon to study is what propelled rank of dalit community to join hands with parties like Shiv Sena and Congress.
I also feel 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 establish any relations with a genuine Revolutionary group. In my view absence of the vanguard Leninist party resulted in it’s demise. The chief cause for the reversal of Dalit Panthers in a Marxist party has been the failure of establishing a genuinely Revolutionary Communist Party or integrating with the working class movement.
Unlike the Black Panthers it was unable to launch armed resistance in any sustained manner or any proper alternative structures in any to day living like literacy, health, shelter etc. The Dalit panther leaders although inspired by Naxalbari failed to grasp Maoist ideology of peoples War and Cultural Revolution, like the Black Panther cadres .not linking itself with the politics of Naxalbari.
The chief cause for the reversal of Dalit Panthers in a Marxist party has been the failure of establishing a genuinely Revolutionary Communist Party or integrating with the working class movement.
In the last decades a major degeneration has taken within the dalit panthers with most of its constituents embracing ruling class electoral alliances. Some sections uphold Ambedkarism and a very minute section supports Marxism. The most progessive section, the ‘Republican panthers’ has done qualitative work in undertaking campaigns and protests condemning the Bhima Rao Koregaon arrests, and rebuking ideology of Brahmanical fascism. It patronised sections like the Kabir Kala Manch which hosted a series of cultural programmes all around Maharashtra and was influential in dalit basti areas. Impressive solidarity a programme was also initiated condemning Operation Greenhunt.In 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 opressed castes. I was very deeply impressed by a 10000 people strong protest in Mumbai in February 2016 which symbolised resistance against opression at it’s highest magnitude.
Earlier in 2004 an impressive campaign was launched by a dalit cultural youth front RADA in Mumbai condemning the death sentence on dalit agricultural workers in Bara in December 1991 and various other dalit massacres in Bihar of upper caste gangs like Lorik Sena and Bhoomi Sena or Rajputs in Laxmanpur Bather,,Shankrbiga etc…Analytically it linked the caste with the class question, with examples of uneven distribution of land and how land rights existed only on paper for the dalits. A study circle was organised on the role of Dalits in Independence Movement, highlighting how 1857 revolt gave their liberation no tacit support .Fascinatingly it also organized a 2 part study programme on the Chinese Revolution., delving particularly on the Chinese Revolution.
Near the airport slums of Ambedkar protesting land eviction by South African company G.V.K, a significant programme was launched In 2007 with the backing of the Jagrut Kamgar Manch,forging a link with the birth centenary year of Shaheed Bhagat Singh. Significant that the majority of participants were from the Dalit Community. In 2006 a most impactful protest was also launched of the dalit massacre in Khairlanj as well as in Ramabai nagar in 1997.
Commendable work was also undertaken by organisations like Vidhyarti Praghati Sanghatana and Naujwan Bharat Sabha challenging horrors like suicide of Activist Vilas Ghore.Even if differing with terroristic trends in their line we must praise the efforts of leaders like Late Kondapalli Seetharmiah or even Maoist party in integrating caste question at the very core.
A number of former members of Marxist-Leninist groups intensively made an evaluation of how even Communist Revolutionary groups gave no heed to the caste question. Late Anuradha Gandhy wrote a dialectical documentO n annihilation of caste, which had a heart telling effect on many cadres. In recent times Anand Teltumbde Arundhati Roy ,Ajith(Murali) and N.Venugopal and Professor G.N.Saibaba have too cut the very roots of caste oppression establishing how caste question is an integral part of the Marxist Movement .I recommend everyone to read Ajit’s book on Brahmanical fascism ,which most intrinsically traces the evolution of caste system and the dialectical link between class struggle and caste struggle. Many Marxist groups now commemorate birth and death anniversary of Babasaheb Ambedkar.It is laudable that many dalits have even come out of the fold of traditional left parties to join ranks of anti-casteist organsations.
Even if it is my subjective view I feel that the democratic revolutionary camp is being swayed by the tide of Ambedkarism and failing to forge it’s link with Marxism or class question. Instead of classifying Ambedkar as a social reformer they award him the tag of a Social Revolutionary. Historically even if Ambedkar was champion of dalit and human rights, he did not organise solidarity to Marxist movements or support strikes of Industrial workers or class struggles of the peasantry.
. Quoting 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. It is primarily for these two reasons that the leadership of the present-day Dalit movement tends to take anti-communist positions.”
“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 Namdev 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’
“From a Marxist point of view what is significant is his objective role in the democratic transformation of society, whatever his shortcomings in approach towards class struggle.”
Ambedkar was responsible for planting the seeds to nurture Rights for dalits,crystallising many a social movement which confronted the debarring of dalits.in issues like drinking water,accomodation ,eating meals jointly. etc.Even if a social reformer he played a great historical role in making the dalit community socially conscious. Not a Marxist but laid the ground for the dalits to atleast reach a democratic revolutionary platform. At the very root he exposed M.K.Gandhi’s pro –caste stand.
I had a word with former APRSU leader K.Srinivas and Bhaskar Vishwnathan Muthu of the anti-fascist movement in Tamil Nadu who asserted that his role was truly laudable to arouse consciousness within dalit Community.
Some Marxist groups are still dogmatic in upholding his positive contribution.Ambedkar stitched the base of the civil rights movement of the untoucahables, which would eradicate untouchability and invoke the sympathy of the Hindus.Ambedkar mobilised the lowest castes in confronting caste oppression. He resurrected the soul of people, thrown into slavery for centuries, into establishing self –identity .His guidance made entire Mahar community convert to Buddhism.
Today we are missing clear cut Marxist evaluation of how to integrate caste question with Marxism within the CR camp. I recommend evaluations of caste question and Marxism by Arjun Prasad Singh in ‘Caste Question in India and the Paths of Its Resolution “in 2013 Arvind Memorial Seminar.
Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist from Mumbai who has studied mass movements and ideology of Dalit panther Movement being in touch with Dalit activists.