Needed: A new Dalit Panthers

July 9 is the Foundation day of the Dalit Panthers. H.L. Dusadh throws light on how the militant organization came into being, its historical importance and also the interdependence of the Panthers and Marathi Dalit literature

A Dalit Panthers Foundation Day special

Namdeo Dhasal 2

Namdeo Dhasal (centre)

The Dalit Panthers came into being on 9 July 1972. Namdeo Laxman Dhasal and his writer friends were the founders of the organization. After Dr Ambedkar, it was the Panthers who awakened the Dalit community that had stopped reacting to the humiliation heaped on it and had become bereft of aspirations. The progressive Dalit youths associated with this organization aroused the Dalit community, which was completely disillusioned with the double-faced so-called Ambedkarite leaders and their self-centred policies and activities. They imbued it with the tit-for-tat spirit. Raja Dhale of the Panthers created a sensation in the country by writing an article titled “Kala Swatantra Diwas” (Black Independence Day) in the 1972 I-Day special number of Sadhna and Dhasal announced that if the state assemblies and Parliament did not solve the problems of the common man, the Panthers would burn them down.

The founders of the Dalit Panthers were inspired by the United States’ Black Panthers movement, which had been fighting since 1966 to secure human, socio-economic and political rights for the coloured people. Though Dhasal and others had borrowed the name of their organization from the Black Panthers, their ideology was purely Ambedkarite. They not only adopted that ideology but also developed it. It formed the basis of their manifesto.

The manifesto says, “The Dalit Panthers is a revolt against the wheeler-dealer leadership of the RPI. Members of Scheduled castes and Tribes, the landless and poor peasants and all those who are being exploited politically, economically are our friends. Landlords, capitalists, moneylenders and their lackeys, those parties who indulge in religious or casteist politics and the government which depends on them are our enemies”. It also says “We will have to exercise our power in economic, political, cultural fields as well. We do not want a little place in the Brahmin alley. We want to rule the whole country. A change of heart, liberal education, etc will not end our state of exploitation. We will rouse the revolutionary people and organize them so that change takes place. We believe that we’ll be able to spark a fire of revolution among the people through a struggle. Because we know that society will never change through demands for concessions, elections and satyagrahas. Our ideas of social revolution and rebellion will take root in the hearts of our people and they will be like hot steel. Ultimately, our struggle will break the chains of slavery.”

The manifesto of the Dalit Panthers created a stir among awakened Dalits and the progressive young generation and shook the socialist, communist and progressive writers and thinkers up from their stupor. But in spite of all its noble intentions and firm ideas, the Dalit Panthers failed to achieve its declared objectives. In the words of Ajay Kumar, author of Dalit Panther Andolan, “This movement was quite different from the earlier movements launched by Dalit and non-Dalit leaders for the emancipation of SCs in the country and left an indelible mark. The activists of the Dalit Panthers worked like real panthers. Though all their demands were not accepted they did succeed in forcing the government to bow before them. But due to mutual differences among its leaders, the movement could not reach its climax. The spark could not get transformed into a raging fire as the organization suffered from organizational, structural, financial and ideological infirmities. Had the movement overcome its internal wrangling and moved forward on the basis of a single ideology, it could have sounded the death knell for untouchability and the dialectics of rich-poor, high-low and sacred-polluted.”

J.V. Pawar (centre), one of the founders of the Dalit Panthers

It is true that the organization could never realize its full potential, yet its achievements were worth taking pride in. According to well-known Marathi Dalit thinker Dr Anand Teltumbde, “It demonstrated what the wrath of the wretched could be! It provided a valuable insight that was pathetically missing in Dalit politics. Going by their manifesto, Dalit Panthers broke new ground in terms of radicalizing the political space for the Dalit movement. They imparted the proletarian, radical-class identity to Dalits and linked their struggles to the struggles of all oppressed people around the world.”

The Dalit Panthers movement and Dalit literature are two sides of the same coin. Those who founded the organization were Dalit litterateurs. After they launched the Dalit Panthers, their writings touched a new high and soon Dalit literature won a status equivalent to Marathi literature. Subsequently, Marathi Dalit literature, based on Dr Ambedkar’s ideology, spread to the Hindi belt and other parts of the country.

One would do well to remember that at the time when Namdeo Dhasal and his associates established the Dalit Panthers, the disparities in the country were not as deep and wide as they are today. The nation had just celebrated the silver jubilee of independence and there was still a hope that the leaders of the country would help do away with socio-economic inequalities, a call for the end of which was given by the father of the Indian Constitution on 25 November 1949. But today, seven decades after Independence, inequalities have grown many times over and at least in this respect, India is a world champion. A small minority, which has traditionally been resourceful and privileged, controls 80-85 per cent of trade and business and dominates the religious, cultural and educational arenas besides the government and the administration. On the other hand, 85 per cent of the population has to remain content with only 15-20 per cent of the available opportunities. No other society in the world is as unequal. In no democratic country is the division of opportunities in the economic, political and cultural fields so lop-sided. These disparities have divided the country into “Atulya” Bharat and “Bahujan” Bharat. While in the shining “Atulya” Bharat, the number of millionaires and billionaires is growing by leaps and bounds, more than 84 crore people are forced to live on just Rs20 a day in the ‘Bahujan’ Bharat. The Bahujans, who have little or no place in the fields of business, religion and culture, are mainly employed in the unorganized sector where there is no provident fund, no annual leave, no medical facilities and no job security.

But the leaders of the Bahujan society are closing their eyes to this reality. It was this lethargy, this inertia that had led Namdeo Dhasal and his associates to launch the Dalit Panthers. Will any Bahujan student, teacher or writer step into Dhasal’s shoes in today’s India?

For more on Bahujan literature, visit, order a copy of Forward Press Books’ “Bahujan Sahitya Ki Prastavana” (Hindi edition) and have it delivered to your homes. The English edition, titled “The Case for Bahujan Literature”, will be available soon.

About The Author