The Dalit Panther as a convergence of hope and rage

In the recently published book Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History, co-founder J.V. Pawar writes a memoir of his time in the movement – its inaugural years, unwavering commitment to social justice, internal rifts and ultimate dispersal. A review by Ravinder Goel

Book review 

Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History is a first-hand historical account of the Dalit Panther movement of the 1970s by J.V. Pawar, one of the founders of the movement. The other two important leaders of the movement, Raja Dhale and Namdeo Dhasal, have already authored books on it. Pawar’s account, though, seems to be the most authentic one, for as the secretary of the Dalit Panthers, he handled all the correspondence and even had access to the Government of Maharashtra archives, including police as well as intelligence reports on the movement. The book was first published in Marathi in 2010. The English edition (translated by Rakshit Sonawane) has just been released.

Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History By J.V. Pawar Translated from Marathi by Rakshit Sonawane Forward Press Books, Delhi, 248 pages, Rs 500

The book essentially is the story of how the movement swept Maharashtra. The author tells the readers that Rameshchandra Parmar, Bapurao Pakidiye and S.L. Birdi are writing separate books on the Dalit Panther movement in Gujarat, Delhi and Punjab, respectively. The book is a must-read not only for those interested in the Dalit movement (its past and present) but also for activists and academics who are interested in the dynamics of social movements. This account will enable today’s activists to avoid the mistakes made by the Panthers and give a clear perspective on the ongoing movement and its potential.

At the outset, it needs to be noted that Dalit Panthers was a Maharashtra-centric movement. Though it did have other places like Delhi and Gujarat, it only attracted a small section of society, including Dalit activists and others. The author recalls a meeting that the Panthers had organized in Delhi. It was held at short notice in July 1974 but was well attended because of general curiosity about the movement. However, it is clear from Manikarnika, the second volume of the autobiography of Dalit scholar Dr Tulsi Ram, that the movement did not draw much attention in North India. Manikarnika talks about his life in the first half of the 1970s in Benaras Hindu University (BHU), Varanasi, as a student activist and leader, and about the Naxalite movement, the casteist mentality of communists, caste atrocities in eastern UP and so on. But there is no mention of the concurrent Dalit Panthers movement in Maharashtra.

The Dalit Panther movement had a short life of five years only. It was formed on 29 May 1972 and formally disbanded on 7 March 1977. Two of those years overlapped Indira Gandhi’s Emergency (starting in June 1975). The movement was thus active for merely three years. The movement needs to be credited for taking up vigorously the atrocities on Dalits and resolving them in the interest of social justice in this brief period of time – be it highlighting the “divinely sanctioned” killing of Ramdas Narnavre to save a village from a cholera epidemic or the restoration to Vithu Dagadoo More his land that had been in the illegal possession of Askhed village strongman Dagadoo Baburao Limbore in Rajguru Nagar tehsil, in Pune. These are just a few examples of the numerous cases that the Panthers took up for redressal and resolution.

An important contribution of the movement was its efforts in retrieving Dr Ambedkar’s writings from oblivion. Till 1970s, only some of his writings had been published and they too were not easily available. The rest of his writings could not be published without the permission of the legal heirs of Dr Ambedkar – Bhaiyyasahib (son) and Maisaheb (wife). Unfortunately, the two were not on good terms. Yet, the Panthers somehow persuaded the legal heirs to grant permission for the publication of his works and also convinced the Maharashtra government to publish the writings at its expense. In 1980s, when the government released the fourth volume, some people objected to the inclusion of Riddles of Hinduism in the volume. They wanted the text to be edited first. But more than a million Dalits took to the streets of Mumbai demanding that not a single comma be deleted from the volume. At the time of the writing of the Marathi edition of this book (December 2010), the Maharashtra government had published 24 volumes of Ambedkar’s writings.

The Dalit Panthers were committed to social justice. Their concern was not confined to the plight of the Dalits. They also fought the excesses that the upper-caste people faced. Illustrative of this point is their response to the harassment of two professors, namely Narendra Kukde and Subhash Joshi. The management of the college in which they taught had issued a show-cause notice to them for espousing liberal ideas and supporting the Panthers. Dalit Panthers built sufficient pressure on the college management for it to desist from victimizing the professors. The impact was positive and helped the movement get active supporters and sympathizers among upper castes too. Pawar notes “… even government employees, irrespective of caste, started seeking our help”.

The manifesto of the Dalit Panthers that Namdeo Dhasal issued sometime in mid 1973 sowed the seeds of disruption of the movement. It said that society would not change merely by constitutional methods, requests, concessions, elections and satyagraha. This hastily issued manifesto did not have the approval of Pawar, Dhale and other leaders of the movement. Pawar writes that “such statements left our youths perplexed. … To clear the confusion, Raja Dhale wrote a series of articles in Nava Kaal. We also printed booklets.”

J.V. Pawar is arrested for publicly burning one of Gandhiji’s books at Azad Maidan in Mumbai on 29 April 1975

Pawar alludes to the role of communist leaders in creating a rift in the movement. He writes, “Their only job was to project Dhasal’s leftist leanings and thus drive a wedge between Dalit Panthers.” The book is a timely reminder of how most movements flounder because of internal frailties and weaknesses. Although it is true that movements grow and flourish through internal dialogues and by dealing with weaknesses, the book suggests that there were a number of instances of the Dalit Panther leaders tolerating Dhasal’s extravagance and other negative tendencies. Pawar does not provide any explanation as to why there was no timely intervention. Similarly, the movement leaders degenerating to land-dealers, slumlords and extortionists towards the end is a reflection of the internal weakness. This is what prompted the leaders of the Dalit Panther to disband the movement.

Reading about the disbanding of the Dalit Panther makes one sad. However, it is not a story of despair. Even though the organization existed in its original form for a relatively brief period of time, the importance of the movement cannot be understated – the Dalit Panther was a convergence of hope and rage, poetry and literature, word and action. There are few movements that have captured the spirit of their times so vividly. Forgetting this fact means doing great disservice to the sacrifice of its activists.

Inclusion of some documents in this “authoritative history” would have made it even more authentic – particularly, the press release of 29 May 1972 announcing the formation of Dalit Panthers; the controversial article by Raja Dhale in the 25th Independence day issue of the Saadhanaa magazine (1972), exposing the hypocrisy and double standards of a society whose punishment for disrespect shown to the national flag was more severe than for sexual assault on a Dalit woman; Namdeo Dhasal’s “manifesto” and J.V. Pawar’s article titled “Beyond Friendship”, articulating two different visions for the movement; and the statement of 7 March 1977 disbanding the movement. Also, the lack of an index reduces its overall usefulness.

Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History is available for purchase on Amazon here. Get your copy of the e-book here.

 

 


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