The day when they said ‘enough is enough’ and launched the Dalit Panther

Today is the 48th anniversary of the founding of the Dalit Panther movement. In the following excerpt from ‘Dalit Panther: An Authoritative History’, co-founder J.V. Pawar describes the incidents that led to Mumbai’s Ambedkarite youth coming together against social injustice as the Dalit Panthers

Two atrocities in Maharashtra sparked outrage among the Dalit youth in 1972. One had taken place in Bawda village, in Pune district, where the entire village had ostracized Dalits. Shahajirao Patil, whose brother Shankarrao Patil was a minister of state, had given the call for boycotting Dalits. This led to a demand for Shankarrao to own moral responsibility and resign. While the incident was still fresh in the minds of people, two Dalit women were stripped and paraded naked at Brahmangaon village in Parbhani district. Their offence was that they were walking to a well belonging to an upper-caste Sopan Dajiba to quench their thirst. Before they could even have a sip, the casteist villagers spotted them, made them strip and used thorny branches of Babool trees to hit their naked bodies. 

Several organizations condemned the incident. A meeting was held in Worli, Mumbai. Baburao Bagul, who presided over the meeting, gave a clarion call to the Dalit youth to rise and fight against such atrocities. However, he also said that he would not actively be part of these struggles or sign any memorandum. Youths carrying torches marched to the Chembur police station on May 27. V.M. Kadam, Ratan Salve, Prof Yadavrao Gangurde and D.S. Rajguru led the march. They submitted a memorandum to the chief inspector Suresh Mathure. An organization called Yuvak Kranti Dal staged a dharna (sit-in) opposite the state secretariat, Sachivalaya. In all, 25 youths, including Husain Dalwai, Subhash Pawar, Hiralal Sonawane and Bhalchandra Mungekar, participated in it. The agitators blamed the Congress party for the rise in atrocities against Dalits. 

The leaders of Yuvak Aghadi met Chief Minister Vasantrao Naik on May 28 and submitted a memorandum. Despite being considered a progressive state in India, they wrote, under his leadership, Maharashtra was witnessing a rise in atrocities against Buddhists in several places like Sultanpur, Longaon, Bawda and Brahmangaon. They demanded that the chief minister institute a judicial inquiry to punish the culprits and create a special government division to curb such incidents and protect minorities. The signatories were Raja Dhale, Chintaman Jawale, Vasant Kamble, Bhagwan Zarekar and Vinayak Ranjane. Others who were listed in the memorandum (but didn’t sign) were Madhav Dhiwar, Sudhakar Halwalkar and Arjun Dangle. The chief minister suggested that Yuvak Aghadi send its representatives to the affected villages, get first-hand information and submit a report to him. He said judicial inquiries weren’t always successful in revealing the truth, but that he would conduct a judicial inquiry and compare the two reports, before taking action against the culprits. I was not a member of the Yuvak Aghadi but I had still accompanied the team on this visit to the chief minister’s bungalow. Later in the day, a meeting was held at the Siddharth Vihar hostel in Wadala. 

Bhagwan Zarekar and Raja Dhale were students residing in Siddharth Vihar hostel. Namdeo Dhasal and I, who were outsiders, rejected the chief minister’s suggestion that we meet the victims of atrocities and file a report. We pointed out that the government had the machinery and intelligence network for the purpose. We said that investigating incidents and reporting the findings to the government was not our job. Both of us walked out of the meeting. Dhasal and I lived in the same area. Dhasal used to stay on Jairaj Bhai Lane. That was the name of the locality only in the municipal records. It was popularly known as Dhor Chawl because of the kababs prepared and sold there. It was also known as Nabab Chawl. Apart from the postmen, few knew the real name of the lane. “Dhor” means “cattle” and it was used to describe a particular caste. It was very demeaning. Near Dhasal’s locality, I used to live on Kamathipura’s First Lane, in quarters allotted to municipal employees engaged in sanitation work. It was known as Siddharth Nagar. Dhasal and I used to meet almost every day. By default, I used to be the first audience for the poems that he wrote. Even after meeting me at my home in the morning, he used to visit my office. Chapattis from my home and dal from the Aap Ki Dukaan restaurant at Kemp’s Corner were what we had for lunch. This routine continued till my office was shifted to Charni Road. 

One day, while returning from Siddharth Vihar, we thought of launching an underground movement to put those committing atrocities against Dalits in their place. We wanted to visit the victims promptly and deal with the perpetrators of the crime. However, there was a hitch. Our society would not patronize such a movement and it would boomerang on us. Besides, we were getting used to being in the limelight. After much debate, we gave up the idea.  

A lull followed. As such, I usually fell ill during the summer months of April and May. Perhaps, the “earning and learning” that had gone on simultaneously from the ninth grade, when I started attending an evening high school, would take a toll. That April, too, I fell ill due to typhoid and was ordered compulsory rest. I spent the time reading newspapers. 

I had joined Bank of India in February 1972 after resigning from Mumbai Telephones. This had become possible after Indira Gandhi nationalized banks in 1969. I was also studying for my MA but had to skip the examination due to ill health and my preoccupation with the Dalit movement. Finally, instead of completing my post-graduation in arts and launching into a career in academia, I opted for the Ambedkarite movement. 

Raja Dhale, J.V. Pawar and Namdeo Dhasal – the threesome who went on to become the most prominent faces of the movement

On 29 May 1972, I resumed work. Dhasal dropped by my house. I had just recovered from typhoid and was feeling weak. Stepping out of the house, we began walking on Vitthalbhai Patel Road towards the Opera House via Alankar Cinema, where we drank mosambi juice. As we were walking, we were discussing the possibility of launching a militant organization to combat atrocities against Dalits. We thought of various names for the organization, but ultimately we zeroed in on “Dalit Panther”. Hence, the birth of the “Dalit Panther” took place as we were walking along a Mumbai street. It lived up to its name by taking to the streets for the cause. Having decided to form the organization, the next step was to make it public. Dhasal was well acquainted with people in the socialist movement, which had an office of its workers’ wing on Raja Ram Mohan Roy Road, close to my office. We met Ramesh Samarth, who used to work as a typist in that office. I knew Ramesh because he was a poet and I had read his volume of poetry titled Lakhlakhtya Bhakri (Dazzling Bread). He typed out a press release announcing the formation of the Dalit Panther. Dhasal signed it first and then I did. Dhasal distributed copies of the press release to various newspapers and magazines. Nava Kaal, Nav Shakti, Sandhyakaal and Maratha published it. It did not get prominent space in the dailies, as they and the police thought of it as just another frivolous organization. 

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

An individual or an organization cannot stand on its own. It needs to stand on a strong foundation and on the shoulders of giants. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar was standing on the shoulders of Buddha and Krantiba Jotiba Phule. After Babasaheb’s death, the Ambedkarite movement stood on the foundation that he built. We had inherited his legacy from the older generation of Ambedkarites and wanted to do something different. After the creation of the Dalit Panther, we planned to organize a rally. 

I issued a statement which read: “Caste prejudice has gone berserk in Maharashtra, where rich farmers, those in power and their upper-caste goons are indulging in heinous crimes. To take on such inhuman casteist elements, the rebel youth from Mumbai have formed a new organization, the Dalit Panther. J.V. Pawar, Namdeo Dhasal, Arjun Dangle, Vijay Girkar, Prahlad Chendwankar, Ramdas Sorte, Maruti Sorte, Kondiram Thorat, Uttam Kharat and Arjun Kasbe have been holding organizational meetings across Mumbai. These meetings have evoked an overwhelming response.”

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