Who was revolutionary Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal really?

When a Dalitbahujan writer writes, there can be no shower of petals. There will be fire instead. For, how can you expect dignified language from them when Manuwad has torn their own dignity into shreds? This applies to Namdeo Dhasal too. But he started off as a Dalit Panther and eventually became a Shiv Sainik? How did that happen?

Namdeo Dhasal’s first collection of poems was Golpeetha. It was published in 1972, taking the Marathi literary world by storm. The feelings of many Savarna writers and reviewers were hurt. The words of Namdeo had struck them and their culture like a heavy hammer. Namdeo’s poetry had given a vivid expression to the life of a Dalit – something which was awaiting expression for a long time. The dark underbelly of Bombay’s red-light area – caged women preparing themselves to be feasted; hunger and unsettling thoughts gnawing on them; the helplessness of having to sell one’s body to satiate the hunger of the stomach – and of below it. All this and much more was portrayed in Golpeetha. Namdeo raised question after question on the women involved in prostitution. But his questions were not immersed in tears; they blazed with rage.

Namdeo Dhasal (15 February 1949 – 15 January 2014)

The sun leaked

And was dying in the arms of the night

At such a time was I born, on a footpath

I grew up in tatters

And became orphaned

The mother who had given birth to me

Went towards the skies, to my father

Sick of the tortures of the ghosts of footpaths

To wash off the darkness of the earth

Like a fused man

I kept on moving

On the filth of the path

Give me five paise

Take five abuses

On the path to dargah

In this poem, Namdeo himself is present, so is his mother and also the lives of suffering women – women in a dilemma. The thoughts of Namdeo emerge through the poem distinctly. He does not beg for money. He hurls five abuses and collects money in a huff. He had a new philosophy of life, which he lived and which came through in his literature. The style employed and the selection of words in Golpeetha are very different from his other poems – this is what famous Marathi litterateur Vijay Tendulkar also said in the foreword to Golpeetha.

It is said that there is always a real-life incident the forms the background for each work of literature. Golpeetha is no different. Namdeo was in love. The affair ended. His caste was the reason it ended. Understandably, he was benumbed. He took shelter in liquor and in the dark alleys of Bombay. His childhood was spent in a similar milieu. In Mumbai, when you get down from the local train, on the the eastern side of the Grant Road railway station, after walking for about a kilometre, you start seeing brothels. Falkland and Golpeetha are also nearby. Everything happens in the open here. There is no one to stop you. There are schools and clinics. This has been going on here since the British period. There has never been any ban on the trade here, never any agitation to close down this flesh market. It is said that just as the government had given licence to liquor sellers, it had given licence to operators here too. People have come and gone. The women have lived there and so have their children.

How many people know what was behind Namdeo’s pain? What kind of ignominies, born of social inequality, he had to face as he left his childhood behind and entered youth? When he grew up into a young man he understood the language of society. Thousands of contradictions stared him at his face. He has bared all of them in his poetry and the readers feel the heat.

Between light and darkness,
Between love and sorrows

I have given the space outside of pain

To poetry

I really
Sowed myself into the earth
And standing on ‘medh’
Began waiting for myself

To grow out from the earth

Namdeo was surrounded by bitter memories. Born into a Dalit family of Purgaon village in Pune district on 15 February 1949, Namdeo moved to Bombay with his father when he was a child. His father used to work in a slaughterhouse. He moved from the village to Bombay but the grip of religion and rituals continued to be strong. Namdeo took them on and turned into a powerful poet – a poet whose words were fiery enough to burn down the Hindu religious system.

Namdeo Dhasal and his wife Malika

Reading the works of Marathi Dalit poets and writers and hearing about them whetted my curiosity. In fact, it was more than curiosity. It stirred my heart and raised a series of questions. Why did they turn rebels? What inside him was about to blow up? Why did they lambast the Hindu religion and its set-up? Why did they hurl abuses at Hindu gods and goddesses? The same kind of questions must have been aroused in the hearts and the minds of lakhs of others. Why did he write Golpeetha? Why was his poem titled “Gandu Bagicha”? Why did words like “Gandu”, “Bhadwa” and “Dalal” keep recurring in his writings? Golpeetha and the Dalit Movement took shape simultaneously. It was from the womb of Dalit movement that Dalit literature was born.

Atrocities against Dalits were on the rise in the country when Namdeo was penning his poems. Maharashtra was no exception to this trend. On 24 May 1972, socialist thinker Madhu Limaye raised this burning question in the Lok Sabha. It was as if conditions for the founding of Dalit Panther were being created. The apathetic attitude of the leadership of the Republican Party was also one reason. The Republican Party had splintered into innumerable factions. According to J.V. Pawar, he, Daya Pawar, Arjun Dangle, Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale and Prahlad Chendwankar, met at an Irani hotel in Dadar, Bombay, to discuss how to deal with the situation and put pressure on the government. They decided to prepare a memorandum on the atrocities against Dalits and have people sign them. Later, Umakand Randhir, Bhimrao Shere Wale, Gangadhar Gade, etc, signed it. The first meeting of the Dalit Panther was held at Siddhartha Nagar in Bombay on 9 July 1972, in which participants agreed to publish a pamphlet announcing the launch of Dalit Panther. Namdeo played an important role in the writing of the pamphlet. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Namdeo built the organization with his sweat and blood. In the 1970s, along with the other Dalit Panthers, Namdeo took the organization forward with his fighting spirit. He never gave up. For some months, he even drove a taxi. All this helped him develop a deep understanding of the common man.

Through the 1980s, I struggled, too. I wanted to do something in my life. The seed of Dalit Literature, which had been sowed in my heart, was growing. Safdar Ek Bayan, a collection of my poems, came out in 1980. In 1981, I launched a Hindi fortnightly Bahujan Nagar. In the mid-1980s, I began frequenting Mandi House, Delhi, which was becoming the centre of theatre-related activities in the capital. I went on to write a play called Hello Comrade, which was also staged. I wrote a radio programme Kaun Kahan Aur Kab under a contract with the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP). The desire of doing something in life was becoming stronger.

In the 1980s, I started visiting Bombay at least once every month and this practice continued till the 1990s. If I could not reserve a berth on the train, I travelled sitting in the sleeper compartment. Those whom I met on my initial visits to Delhi were Daya Pawar, Raja Dhale, J.V. Pawar, etc. On one of those visits, I got Namdeo’s address from Daya Pawar. Namdeo used to live in Mahalaxmi, a suburb of Bombay. I was not sure whether he would meet me. I did not have his phone number and mobiles did not exist then. Still, I caught a train from Kurla and got down at Mahalaxmi railway station. I asked about the location of his house, climbed down a flight of stairs and entered the locality. Standing outside his two- or three-room house, I wanted to ask someone whether I was at the right place. Suddenly a woman asked, “Kisko maangta hai?” (Who do you want?) in her Bombay lingo. I said, “Namdeo”. She answered, “Ho”. She asked me where I had come from. “Delhi,” I said. I heard the “ho” again. Then, she raised her voice and said, “Namdeo, tere ku dilli se koyee milne aaya” (Namdeo, someone from Delhi has come to meet you). From inside, a man said, “Send him inside.” The woman told me, “Go in, Namdeo is calling you.” I entered the room somewhat hesitatingly. I saw a man seated on a chair. The wheatish man sported a beared and was well-built. A cigarette was dangling from his fingers. He was wearing shorts and a vest. I said, “Jai Bhim” and he reciprocated the greeting. I introduced myself. When he heard my name, he said, “Baso” (sit down). I sat down on a chair placed in front of him. He said, “You are a well-known writer and journalist. I keep reading you, you write well.” In the 1980s, the Navbharat Times regularly published my articles. They were carried on the edit page, which was common for all the editions – almost 12 in number, published from Bombay, Rajasthan, Nagpur, etc. This meant a readership of around 4-5 lakhs. At the time, Navbharat Times was the leading Hindi newspaper in Bombay. Our Maharashtra friends read it with great interest.

Soon, there was water to drink and then tea. Namdeo introduced me to his wife and told her about me. “He is a famous writer from Delhi – an ‘aapla manus’ [our man].” He talked in Hindi but switched to Marathi in between. When her wife, Malika Amar Sheikh, left, he said, “Nemishrai ji, you write well. You hold up a mirror to these buffoons very well, Ye saale …” He wanted to say something more but suddenly Malika entered the room to ask whether we needed anything else. Then she left. I was there for about half an hour. Namdeo asked me about our Delhi comrades and also about the latest in Dalit Literature. He also asked me about the people who were writing Dalit literature then. The meeting was brief but it was long enough to understand a Dalit Panther.

Namdeo had a rough and rugged personality. When he spoke, it was if he was spitting fire. People rarely saw him smile. But when he laughed, he laughed heartily and a glow appeared on his face. He had a typical style of glancing sideways at you while picking his teeth. Even his friends did not know when he would come down heavily on any of them and what words he would use.

My second meeting with him took place at the same house in Mahalaxmi. On that day, his wife bore a different look. She was heading out just as I arrived. She was dusky and wore a white sari; she had left her hair untied and had dark sunglasses on. “Jai Bhim”, she greeted me, and before starting the car and driving away, she said aloud, “Just see Namdeo, who is here to meet you.” That is when Namdeo came out. He first glanced at the car speeding away and then came towards me. “Welcome Nemishrai ji, let us go inside,” he said, and I followed him into the room. He first served me a glass of water and then started making tea. I asked him not to, but he said, “Let us have a cup of tea first and then we can talk.” Then, he turned towards me and smiled. I did not say anything. By then, Namdeo had read some more of my articles. I had also been writing for Jansatta, Sanjha, Dharmayug and other newspapers and magazines. One of my pieces was titled “Samandar mein doobta suraj aur mein” (The sun and I drowing in the sea), which Namdeo had read. He liked it. He said, “Nemishrai ji, you should not drown in the sea. Here, there is a sea to drown in and forests to be lost in.” By then, the tea was ready. He poured it into two cups. Handing one of them to me, he said, “I know, Nemishrai will neither drown in the sea nor get lost in the forest.” He looked towards me. For some moments, there was silence. I took a sip and thanked him. “It is good,” I said. “You liked it?” He asked. “Malika will return at night. There is some programme.” Then he asked me to fill him in on the goings-on in Delhi. I briefed him. Tea over, he lit a cigarette. There was no one else in the house. Some newspapers and magazines were lying haphazardly on the table. There was an air of anarchy about the place. That is how it is with most writers. Literature and society occupy the central place in their lives. Home is not a priority at all. Suddenly, the phone rang. Someone was inviting him over for the evening. Namdeo said, “A well-known journalist from Delhi is here. Not today. I will think about it tomorrow.”

Namdeo Dhasal with his friends

We kept on talking about literature and the Dalit movement. Another call interrupted our conversation. He said Arun Kamble was on the other end. By then, it was evening. He telephoned someone and asked for a “half” (half bottle of liquor) and some salted snacks. A man delivered both. While making a drink he asked me where was I putting up. I said, “Kurla”. Then, he fell silent. After some time, he said, “If you have any problems, let me know.” This was the first time I was drinking with him. Liquor turned him vocal. He hurled abuses at politicians and used expletives for the savarnas. I only had two pegs, because I had to go back to Kurla, where I was staying. By the time I left the place, it was dark. From Mahalaxmi to Parel and from there to Kurla. I was staying with Ashok Pandit. He was associated with the film world. Three-four months later, I happened to be in Mumbai again. I phoned Namdeo. He asked me to meet him in a bar near Bombay Central. I reached the place around 8 in the evening. He was waiting for me alone.

“So, you have come Nemishrai ji,” he asked, “What will you have?” I said, “Whatever you feel like having.” Namdeo looked at me as if he wanted to say something but then stopped himself. The waiter came. Namdeo ordered two pegs and peanuts. “Let us begin, Nemishrai ji,” he said, and clinked his glass with mine. When we were through with the first peg, he asked the waiter to bring two more pegs and a plate of salad. The waiter left with the order. Holding the empty glass in his hands, he said, “Nemishrai ji, the life of us Dalits is like this. Everyone comes and tries to colour our lives in his colour. We only look on.” Then, the waiter came with two pegs and took back the empty glasses. Namdeo looked at the filled glass. He wanted to say something. Then he lifted the glass and drank half of it. He put the glass on the table with a slight bang. I understood his reaction. But I did not say anything. Suddenly, he asked me why this happened. My answer was that the Hindu religious system is based on inequality. Namdeo heard it. It was as if he had started boiling with rage from the inside. He ordered the third peg. It was a while before the waiter reappeared. It was getting late. He had the fourth peg and then the fifth. I had only three pegs. But Namdeo had peg after peg. It was quite late in the night by then. The customers had started leaving. The tables and chairs were empty. Soon, there was no one except us. The manager came and with folded hands he said it was quite late. Namdeo looked at him and then at me. I softly said that we should leave. “OK, let us go,” he said as he got up. I had to go to Bombay Central where I was staying at a guest house. Despite being heavily drunk, he drove the car well and dropped me at Bombay Central. I waved a goodbye. He said, “If you are in Bombay again, do meet me.” I said, “Of course.” We would continue to meet in Delhi, Bombay and Nagpur. Every time I met him, I tried to read his mind, to understand him.

Also read: The Dalit Panther as a convergence of hope and rage

When I saw him for the last time, he said, “Nemishrai ji, open the closed cellars of history, mercilessly attack the courtiers and the middlemen in politics, tear away the mask of the Hindushahi, destroy their traditions and rituals, throw their gods and goddesses into the dustbin.” His questions always stirred, moved and searched, whether we were meeting in the tiny house at Mahalaxmi or in the sprawling one at Andheri, whether at the canteen of the MLAs’ resthouse or at the Dalit Panthers’ conclave at Vadala, whether at the bar near Bombay Central or at the Gandhu Bagicha. Seasons and other things changed but Namdeo’s mind was always where it had been in our previous meeting. This drew me towards him.

As we move on in life, changes take place, new streams spring up, new thoughts are born. Namdeo was also in a dilemma. There was a rivalry between Dalit literature and the Dalit movement. It had begun with the birth of the Dalit Panther. To some extent, politics was the reason. Politics had led to all kinds of problems and tensions between comrades and that was hurting the organization. Namdeo was becoming alienated. Those who were associated with him in the initial phase, gradually walked away. To my mind, Namdeo joining the Shiv Sena was a key moment in the history of the Dalit movement. That triggered a race between the Marathi Dalit intellectuals to join different political parties. This was not entirely a new phenomenon but the lust was. Namdeo told me why he had joined the Shiv Sena. During a meeting in Pune to discuss unification of the Republican Party, he said, “I had a tiff with Prakash Ambedkar and he kicked me on my chest. I wrote many letters to the Republican Party about the incident but there was no reply. This put me off so much that I joined the Shiv Sena.” However, there is another version, too. It has to do with Namdeo’s son and wife – their security. Once Malika himself shared her familial problems with me. When I met them in Andheri flat, she had told me that because of Namdeo, the entire family was in trouble and that the life of their son was in danger. “I am very worried. Anything can happen anytime,” she said.

I did have one or two more conversations with Namdeo over the phone. My Mumbai visits had become considerably less frequent. Giving any advice to Namdeo meant inviting trouble. Far from heeding advice, he was not even ready to listen. He had a peculiar nature and sometimes he got caught in it. Whatever might have been the reason, Namdeo’s decision had shaken me and many others to the core. The religion, the culture, the gods and goddesses, the traditions which he despised and rejected – into their trap he himself fell. Was this fate? Was a Dalit volcano destined to die like this? He died on 15 January 2014, leaving behind many unanswered questions. Who will answer them?

The Government of India conferred Padmashri on him in 1999. In 2004, the Sahitya Academy feted him with the Jeevan Gaurav Award. The Maharashtra Government also awarded him for his services in the field of literature. He was given Soviet Land Nehru Award for Golpeetha.

Among his other books were Gandu Bagicha, Tuhi Iyatta Kanchi, Hadki Hadwal, Andhle Shatak and Khel. His wife Malika is also a famous writer. Her autobiography Mujhe Dhwast Hona Hai (I Want to Destroy Myself) was well received. Her father Shahir Amar Sheikh was a well-known poet of Maharashtra and was associated with the communist movement.

Translated by Amrish Herdenia


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