From the horse’s mouth: J.V. Pawar chronicles history of Dalit Panther

Raja Dhale and Namdeo Dhasal have laid excessive emphasis on their own roles in their accounts of the history of Dalit Panther and lacked truthfulness in some of their narrations. On the other hand, J.V. Pawar has been self-critical and has acknowledged his mistakes. Harnam Singh Verma reviews Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History by JV Pawar:

Arranged in very short 50 chapters, Dalit Panthers:  Authoritative History is a book that tells the tale of Dalit Panthers by Pawar, someone who was its general secretary and pivotal organizer of all Dalit Panther actions, and who kept meticulous records of Dalit Panther events. These 50 chapters are also not very long as is the case with the celebrated historical treatises of noted Indian and foreign historians.


As is well known, the Dalit Panthers was formed by Raja Dhale, Namdev Dhasal and J V Pawar on 29 May, 1972 and just after its national attention-catching tumultuous journey in Maharashtra it was disbanded on 7 March, 1977. It was a militant Dalit movement that attracted worldwide attention and carried the erstwhile Ambedkarite movement from passive resistance to inequality, atrocities, violence and exploitation of the Dalits to a new militant level where they began taking appropriate corrective actions without waiting for the unwilling government machinery to redress them.  The subtitle of the book deems it as an ‘authoritative history’ of Dalit Panther movement. However, Pawar himself states in the Preface that it is a ‘sketchy history’.  Pawar’s account is both ‘sketchy’ as well as ‘authoritative’.  It is authoritative in terms of details of events, specific participants in them and the elaborate description of nuts and bolts of their organization and outcomes, changing configurations of its organizational journey. Dhale and Dhasal have also written their versions of Dalit Panthers’ history but they lack objective descriptions of the organization as well as its programmes during its short-lived existence. Pawar is dead right when he states that only three Dalit Panthers, Raja Dhale, Namdev Dhasal, and he himself, could have written its history. It so happens that all three have written this tumultuous history, and their accounts, but when compared, they are found to be often at variance with each other. I would agree with Pawar that he has the best credentials to claim the adjective “authoritative” for his history of the Dalit Panthers since he was its Secretary, kept all the records, was organizing most of the consequential events, and compared to highly emotional and often irresponsible Dhale and Dhasal, was the more down to earth operative of the Dalit Panthers.

Authoritative but not analyzing

After reading the book carefully, I would say that the book is “authoritative” in detailing – not analyzing – what it covers but there are obvious and far too many gaping holes.  I would not enumerate them all but give example of one significant one. One such gaping hole for example does not cover one of the significant contributions of the Dalit Panthers, namely starting and developing a Dalit tradition of literature in Marathi in Maharashtra which rubbed off its sheen on literary Dalits active in languages such as Hindi to produce an alternative view of the Dalits and their socio-economic-cultural- political existence! In Pawar’s personal and Dalit Panthers’ context, this is all the more galling omission since apart from Raja Dhale and Namdev Dhasal, Pawar himself was a leading Dalit literary figure who brought out outstanding Dalit literary output that debunked the mainstream Marathi literary view of the empirical reality in Maharashtra. That this is indeed so  is very competently analyzed by Eleanor Zilliot in her book, From the Untouchable to the Dalit, especially  when juxtaposed against mainstream Marathi literature, how Dalit literary view depicts an altogether new and far more truer  perspective of  Dalit literature, culture, art and   history. Pawar mentions Eleanor Zilliot in his narrative but  conveniently  forgets to record the conclusions of  her analysis dealing with the contribution of   Dalit Panther literature  in developing a Dalit view of social reality  of Dalits in Maharashtra and how it is different from the mainstream Marathi literary works.

“Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History” and author J. V. Pawar

Pawar’s history of Dalit Panthers is  detailed descriptive account of the  post-Ambedkar context in which the movement burst on the political  turf of Maharashtra. Pawar identifies two major causes of the birth of the Dalit Panthers as an organization: the unwillingness of the Government of Maharashtra to take any concrete steps to redress the grievances of the Dalits, and  no  decisive attempt by  the  Republican Party of India  to fight for Dalit causes due to its split in to various factions to enjoy   the crumbs of power  conferred by the Congress rulers. Informed readers know that in spite of the foregoing, unlike the ground reality of the Dalits in  most other states, Maharashtra’s  society possessed what Harish Wankhede ( Return to a  Radical Past: Bhima-Koregaon Protests Reflected Acts that Define Dalit Consciousness And Its Agenda, The Indian Express, 17 January, 2018 ) calls Ambedkar Civil Society  consisting of numerous NGOs, cultural fronts, social cooperatives, Buddhist faith- based organizations and other self-motivated groups, which functioned  along with many intellectual forums, social activists and students’ organizations to propagate the ideas of Ambedkar. Even Wankhede does not label it correctly.  In fact Maharashtra possessed Bahujan Civil Society and-not only Dalit Civil Society- that included the other deprived sections of the  society like the OBCs and the Scheduled Tribes. Pawar  certainly refers to them in his 50 short chapters of  history of Dalit Panthers but appears to downplay their contributory role in the success of the Dalit Panthers. In fact, as Wankhede states  this Ambedkar Civil Society has continued to function effectively even  after the  disbanding of the Dalit Panthers  in 1975 as for example  seen in 2017 episode at Bhima Koregaon . It has carved an independent space in the socio-cultural domain without directly attaching itself to political fronts. These engage in independent acts of Dalit/ Bahujan resistance in the social sphere  in an arena of conflict between the proponents of the Brahminical Hindu social order and defenders of social equality. Thus,  the  Dalit civil society  was present in the post –split period of the Republican Party of India as it is today in the post- Dalit Panthers era and subsequent to its disintegration in 1975 :  it  had distanced  itself from  the political milieu and  is engages in transformative social change periodically . Pawar mentions their contribution in his narrative throughout  but  does not prominently  acknowledge their role in  contributing  to the success of  the Dalit Panthers. As Harish Wankhede  argues, it is these everyday social ,cultural and intellectual activisms that define Dalit consciousness and its agenda today. The Dalit protests on the streets of Maharashtra testify that the Dalit movement has retained its radical and progressive character against all odds (and despite absence of militant organizations like the Dalit Panthers of the mid 1970s).

Honest and self-critical

Pawar’s history of Dalit Panthers has elaborate detailing of important Dalit Panther events but not necessarily in either logical or historical sequence. However, it is an honest, fairly self-critical participative account outlining of birth and development, functioning of the Dalit Panthers movement, its inherent organisational, and operational weaknesses including individual whims and fancies of its important pallbearers. What comes out of his account is the repetitive, and painful story of very strong, potent and pulsating movement succeeding in the shortest possible term but also disintegrating in short time span. The Dalit Panthers movement had all elements of empowerment and yet did not sustain itself despite enormous goodwill even from segments such as the  OBCs and the tribal deprived . It shows  the contrasts   of short –period success of a militant outfit like Dalit  Panther  in the socio-political terrain of Maharashtra and  that  of a far more politically broad-based movement of BSP   on one hand in the 1990s and the  still birth of Bhim Army in  UP in 2017 where a civil society of all three deprived sections of the society is still non-existent.

J.V. Pawar is arrested for burning a book by MK Gandhi on 29 April 1975

Pawar’s Dalit Panthers history, although decidedly authoritative looked at from one viewpoint, is incomplete once a comprehensive overall view of Dalit Panther movement is taken, and  the book must be read in conjunction with the  similar accounts separately brought out by Pawar as well as other Dalit Panther notables. Pawar himself has authored some  aspects of accounts of the Dalit Panthers movement  like the contribution of Dalit  Panthers literary output  in separate writings. Since these are not included in this book,  it  must be read along with writings of Pawar, and fellow Dalit Panther notables like Raja Dhale and Namdev Dhasal on the one hand  and  analyses of noted researchers like Eleanor Zelliot, Gail Omvedt, and Anupama Rao.

Pawar’s book is an honest, fairly self-critical participative account outlining of birth and development, functioning of the Dalit Panthers movement, its inherent structural, and operational weaknesses including individual whims and fancies of its important leaders. Raja Dhale and Namdev Dhasal in their accounts of Dalit Panther movement have shown excessive emphasis on their own role; they have even not been truthful in some of their descriptions. Pawar is just the opposite: unlike Dhale and Dhasal, he has  been self critical and has acknowledged his mistakes! And it goes without saying that no one—including  Anupma Rao,  Gail Omvedt and Eleanor Zealot– has Pawar’s depth and specification.

Simple language

Pawar’s book is not analytical; it is descriptive, episode by episode, quite often not arranged  in sequential in its narrative; it is not history in the styles of say historians like BB Mishra. However, I am not inclined to term his book lacking analytical rigour. It is deliberately written in a very simple language.  I know that Pawar  has been a notable literary figure in Marathi literature  whose poetry has been outstanding exhibit of rich Marathi  literary expression. This book does not reflect that literary genre. It is written in low key  language that a typical Maharashtrian uses in his day-to-day life.  What he has done is writing people’s history for people’s  consumption. However, this history, although decidedly authoritative looked at from one viewpoint, is incomplete once a comprehensive overall view of Dalit Panther movement is taken, and must be read in conjunction with the   similar accounts separately brought out by other Dalit Panther notables. Raja  Dhale and Namdev Dhashal on the one hand  and  analyses of noted researchers like Eleanor Zilliot, Gail Omvedt, Anupama Rao and Shoorykaant Waghmore on the Dalit Panther movement.

Given the detailed auto-ethnographic character of Pawar’s history of Dalit Panthers, its price tag of Rs 500 for a 246 page book  fixed by the  Forward Press/ The Marginalised is surely is very reasonable. Had it been published by upstream publishers like it would have been not less than Rs. 1000. It is my sincere hope that the Forward Press/The Maginalised would also bring out  its Hindi version  shortly.

Title: Dalit Panthers: an Authoritative History

Page: 246

Publisher: Forward Press Books, The Marginalised Publications, 803/92, Nehru Place, New Delhi  110019

Price: Rs 500

(Copy-editing:  Zeeshan/ Amrish Herdenia)

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The Case for Bahujan Literature

Mahishasur: A people’s hero

Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History

Mahishasur: Mithak wa Paramparayen

The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

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