50 Years of Dalit Panther

Amey Tirokdar

We were angry. The atrocities against Dalits were committed across Maharashtra. We were young, well-read and ready to take to the streets. We had read about the Black Panther movement from the US. It was a movement of young rebellious intellectuals. We could relate to them and that’s how Dalit Panther started,” says J V Pawar, one of the three founders of India’s first aggressive Dalit youth organisation, Dalit Panther. The year 2022 marks the 50th year since its inception.]

Dalit Panther was a spontaneous and aggressive reaction to the atrocities against Dalits in Maharashtra. It changed the political landscape of the state and had an undeniable impact on the Dalit politics of India.

The year this all started was 1972. Not all years have the fortune to be remembered by thousands of people. But 1972 was different. Indian independence was 25 years old and the youth and students’ movements had taken to streets across the globe. Mumbai’s youths too, especially from the Dalit community, were reading about the conflicts and protests worldwide.

The conflicts taking place in India were not much different. India was freed from the British but not from the atrocities, ill treatment of a large part of its population. Dalits and tribals were facing the worst kinds of attacks from upper castes. There was atrocious case of Dhakali, Akola where eyes of two Dalit brothers were ripped out by upper caste people from the village. A Dalit woman was paraded nude in Parbhani’s Bramhangaon village around the same time. Dalits were socially boycotted by the entire village of Bavda in Pune. All these cases were provoking the young, newly literate Dalit youths of Mumbai and Pune.

And who were these youths? Their most famous and celebrated leader was Namdev Dhasal, a rebel Marathi poet. His poems such as Golpitha had garnered attention from across India. His style was magnetic and provocative. Namdev, who was a Dalit himself, drove taxi on the roads of Mumbai. Raja Dhale was also part of the founding trio. He was a young author, intellectual and known to be articulate. His article on the eve of 25th anniversary of Indian independence published in the Marathi weekly Sadhana stirred the conscience of many in the state. He asked what is the use of this ‘freedom’ for him or thousands like him? “What is to be done with this tricolor?” he questioned in his article pointing to the lack of improvement in the lives of Dalits despite 25 years of independence. This article led to quite an uproar and started a completely new debate in Maharashtra.

After Dr Ambedkar changed his religion to embrace Buddhism in 1956, the generation that followed him was one of the first literate generations among Dalits. Namdev, Raja, and Pawar represented this generation. “The dearth of Dalit and tribal seats in government jobs and conspicuous rejection of new learned Dalit youths from various posts were clearly visible. The youths, especially from the cities like Mumbai and Pune, were disturbed and wanted to stand against this discrimination. Dalit panther was their way of taking on the mighty system”.

Dalit Panther came up with a manifesto after its foundation. “We do not need space in the Bramhan area. We want power from all India. We are not just looking at human beings as individuals. We are here to change the system. We believe that atrocities against us won’t stop by changing the hearts of the oppressors. We will have to rise against them,” said this manifesto. This also took a clear stand against the capitalist powers; it stated that justice and equality will come only after defeating capitalist powers.

The impact of Dalit Panther on national political as well as social landscape is immense. Very few know that the Bahujan Samaj Party founder Kashiram – someone who took Dalit politics to new heights in North India – was inspired by Dalit Panther.

 By 1977, differences in Dalit Panther emerged and manifested on various levels. That year, Ramdas Athavale – who is now the minister of state for social justice of India – along with Professor Arun Kambale, SM Pradhan, Preeramkumar Shegaonkar, and others, started ‘Bharatiya Dalit Panther’. The differences on the issue of core ideology also hit the organisation. Dhale and his supporters believed and reportedly accused Namdev Dhasal of being pro-communist. Later on, Dalit politics in Maharashtra got fragmented into multiple parties, organisations and groups. But these developments do not undermine the importance and contribution of Dalit Panther to Maharashtra’s and Indian social and political landscape. “Panther was against discrimination, injustice, atrocities and fascism. Today’s situation is no different. The spirit of Panthers can be seen in various Dalit organisations across India.

The political analyst believes that Dalit Panther Movement created a space in socio-cultural-political arena and no one can deny that. For today’s Maharashtrian youths, especially Dalit youths, Panther is an iconic movement. The celebration of the 50th year of Panther is being organised and is planned by youths.

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Vol 54, No. 31, Jan 30 - Feb 5, 2022