Positively, my social philosophy may be said to be enshrined in three words: liberty, equality and fraternity. Let no one however say that I have borrowed my philosophy from the French Revolution. I have not. My philosophy has its roots in religion and not in political science. I have derived them from the teachings of my master, the Buddha.- Thus Spoke Ambedkar
Dalit Panther emerged as a movement of radical assertion for the claim of equality against the upper caste. The movement lasted for three years from 1972-1975 and gradually lost its hold due to several subsequent splits. During the short span of time, Dalit Panther left impact not only in India but all over the world. It was the first movement in India where the oppressed caste tried to reply upper caste Hindus in an aggressive way. Lots of reasons are given for the split of Dalit Panther including politics of power, lack of infrastructure, mismanagement of money, ego clashes between the leaders etc. An ideological difference was one of the main reasons that increased the rift. Especially between Namdeo Dhasal and Raja Dhale, where Dhasal being inclined to left politics, Dhale was a staunch follower of Ambedkarism and Buddhism. This paper is an attempt to understand this difference and to analyse how far it affected the movement.
Emergence of the Movement
The economic policies of Indian Government, since independence, failed to reach to the poor, economically depraved class in the rural areas. The major benefit was enjoyed by the rich farmers and they became powerful economically and well as politically. This in turn worsens the conditions of the depressed class landless labourers. The worldwide economic depression of 1965 affected the country. The severe draught of 1965-67 added to the misery of the people. These socio economic conditions prior to emergence created the atmosphere for the revolt by the Panthers. Due to reservation policy, Dalit Youth got the education opportunities and became aware of their condition. It was this awakening that contributed in the emergence of Dalit Panther. Dalit youth could analyse the reasons behind their poverty, exploitation, humiliation due to social status and the indifferent attitude of political parties. Creative minds in Dalits started expressing their feelings boldly through literature. Biographies and poems developed consciousness not only among Dalits but among other classes about untouchables and their sufferings. This literature gained immense popularity and reached to the international level. The bold expression of the experience through the literary platform built the confidence among Dalits and the success added more to it.
Growing number of atrocities and humiliation mainly in the rural areas was one of the main reasons that broke the silence of Dalit community. Exploitation, humiliation, gang rape, murders became the norm against Dalits. Law and order being in the hand of upper caste and run by them was never an option for their rescue. In fact there were lots of cased of humiliation from the police. Mathura case was the classic example of the attitude of law and order agency of Indian Government towards untouchables. Political parties had lethargically approach towards these atrocities. At the same time popularity of Black Panther movement caught attentions of Dalit leaders. All these factors contributed in the emergence of Dalit Panther Movement and the news of formation of Dali Panther organization was first published in “Navakal” issue of 19 June 1972 and Praja Sattak issue of 26 June 1972.
Dalit Panther movement is theoretically emerged from relative deprivation. According to R.K.Merton, the theory of relative deprivation is based on the comparison with the group from which the others are deprived of. Dalits, traditionally called untouchables in Hindu caste system are deprived of their social status, decent occupation, right to decent leaving. They are reduced to the status of subhuman by upper caste Hindus and it was legitimised by Karma theory. This theory says that your misery is essentially the result of your sins committed in the past birth. The only way of emancipation is to follow the duty as untouchable, means to serve upper caste in all the possible ways so that you will get the higher status in the next birth. This theory is indoctrinated in the minds of untouchables for thousands of years and this major chunk of population was kept outside the sphere of dignified human life.
Due to the reservation policies, educated dalit youth started understanding the politics of power that is working against his community. He also started understanding the politics of religion and religious scriptures that legitimised unequal status of untouchables. They started comparing their lives with upper caste and found the vast difference between them. Besides, upper caste enjoying their upper status at the expense of untouchables by making them doing all kinds of low level job, like scavenging, etc.
This difference in the quality of life aroused the sense of deprivation among Dalits and that was the main source of the emergence of this movement.
As a type of movement, Dalit Panther is a protest movement where Dalit assert their protest against the age old exploitation and domination of upper caste. The movement was geared towards changing of the overall structure of the society and hence it is radical transformation movement and not the reformatory activity. The movement was change oriented and the target was of a structural change. Dalit Panther leader were not asserting their protest for a positional change. In the political arena they wanted to participate with the stand of confrontation for the emancipation of Dalits. They were looking for the new social order.
The name of the organization was borrowed from Black Panther movement of USA. The name “panther” was an indication of the fight for right. The initiative for starting Dalit Panther Movement (DPM) was taken jointly by Namdeo Dhasal and J.V. Pawar. Other members as per news reports were Dangle, Girkar, Chendwankar, Ramdas Sorte, Torat, Kharat and Arjun Kasabe. There was no mention of Raja Dhale in the list.
The organizational structure of the Dalit Panther was patterned after presidential structure of the Black Panther of USA. Though the organization had a hierarchical structure, there was no supreme authority as such because of the acceptance of the principle of presidium, i.e. group leadership. It was decided by the founders of the organization that no any single leader but only Dr. Ambedkar’s ideology would lead the organization. However this principle remained on paper and the intrusion of the leftist politics showed that the movement was not run only on Ambedkarian ideology.
There was an indication that some of the working principles of Dalit Panther were based on Shivsena Model. Their chhavnis were similar to shivsena shaka. In the early phase of the movement Dalit Panther enjoyed mass support and committed leadership. But due to lack of effective structure of decision making and mainly due to the ideological confusion, the growth of the movement was restricted. There was no effective co ordination among chhavnis. Beside the brutal repression from police also adversely affected the movement.
Leaflets and handbills were common means of communication. Some regional newspapers like Navakal, Navshakti and Maratha helped panthers to propagate the movement. Booklets and pamphlets were used to inform about the programmes and the objectives of the movement to the masses. The meetings were held on very short notice and were attended by the crowd of Dalit Youth mostly below 25.
The leadership was young and literary figures of Dalit that gained immense popularity through creative abilities. Raja Dhale wrote an article ‘Kala Swatantra Din “in a magazine “Sadhana” on 15/8/1972. The article stirred the atmosphere among the masses as well as intellectuals. Dhale became popular overnight and received substantial following among Dalits. He was a staunch follower of Dr. Ambedkar and his Buddhism as mentioned above. He wanted to run the movement on democratic ways. His inclination towards Buddhism and blind faith of Ambedkarism helped him to mobilize major chunk of dalit population behind him after the split.
On the other hand, Dhasal was people’s leader and could communicate with the grass roots. He was also popular in the literary world with “Golpitha”, the book of collection of poems. He spent his childhood in red light area of Mumbai and had experienced discrimination and exploitation himself which he could reflect effectively in his writings and speeches. He was inclined towards Marxian ideology and was always in touch with the leaders of left party. His inclusion of “Class” in the movements manifesto became one of the reasons to propagate his opponent that Dhasal is promoting communist agenda under the fabric of Ambedkarism.
Rest of the leaders were all educated middle class Dalit youths came together against the oppressive conditions of Dalits and wanted to fight with aggressive way. J. V Pawar was bank employee mostly handling the organizational aspects of the movement. Avinash Mahatekar and advocate Sunil Dighe were influential leaders apart from Dhale and Dhasal.
The Dalit Panther Movement is a classic example of a movement which was not based on a particular ideology to start with. The movement was immediately against the established Hindu Caste system and its hierarchy due to the growing numbers of brutal atrocities on Dalits. The movement also targeted Congress party and Gandhi. According to Dalit Panther’s understanding Congress was always backing the upper caste and Gandhi was the firm supporter of Chaturvarna system. All panther leaders, in spite of their ideological differences had one thing in common. They all had burning hatred against oppressive conditions of Dalits especially in rural areas. Some of them, like Dhasal also believe that Indian constitution has its own limitations and the movement cannot be run within the democratic sphere. And hence in the beginning the movement has the militant stand.
Processions and demonstrations against atrocities was the regular part of the programme of Dalit Panther movement. Opening of new branches and holding meetings was carried out to expand the movement. The programmes were arranged mainly to target Hindu religion, Hindu Gods and goddesses, religious heads, government authorities, hierarchical system, police, feudal landlords, capitalists, Shiv Sena and also RPI leaders who were called as white collared Brahmins. The programmes of Dalit Panther were essentially anti establishment against capitalistic structure and political authority and the hierarchical Hindu caste system.
Reasons of the split
- Lack of commitment: The leaders were together on emotional appeal due to the atrocities on Dalits. The togetherness was not based on sound ideology. The lack of uniform ideology and personal revelry affected the unity.
- Anti Marxist & Pro Buddhist feelings: Due to strong prejudice against Marxist ideology, Dalit community wanted to remain or cultural agenda rather than material problems.
- Socio-Economic constrains: Acute unemployment and weak national economy made Dalit leaders to shift their militant stand against atrocities.
- Power of politics: All major arties wanted to share the power of Dali Panther for their own growth which created a rift in the movement due to the politics of accommodation.
- Ideological Differences: Raja Dhale’s inclination towards Ambedkarism and Buddhism was sharply contrast with the Marxian inclination of Dhasal which saw the seed of the split.
- Media Politics: Media played important role in the split of the movement. They propagate Dhasal’s Marxian stand in the paper and blown it out of proportion.
- Loose organization and Financial mismanagement: Leaders were never serious about cadre building programmes and effective communication. The money was sometimes used for the personal requirements.
- The split was officially announced by Dhasal’s group on 9/10/1974.
- There was a wide gap between goals and efforts.
- Lack of basic organization and basic infrastructure.
- Failed to link themselves with ongoing social movements.
- Inconsistency in programmes. • No efforts for cadre building.
- Insufficient social, economical and political resources.
- Other untouchables including Mang, Dhor, Vadars, Charmakars were away from the movement. They remained doubtful about Dalit Panther as a movement of Neo Buddhist or the movement of Mahars.
- The leadership was mainly from urban areas.
- Lack of communication.
- Police brutality and oppressive measures.
- Usage of obscene language in the meetings.
- Dalit Panther started fighting against atrocities and the developed courage and the sense of social security among Dalits in the rural areas.
- The age old notion of passiveness of untouchables was destroyed by the militant stand of Dalit Panther.
- The massive support of Dalits behind Dalit Panther made them powerful which couldn’t be ignored and taken for granted by other political parties.
- This movement compelled Government of India to fulfil the backlog of reservation.
- This movement witnessed finest Dalit literature of its time.
- Dalit Panther movement created counter culture and separate identity of Dalits.
- The category “Dalit” was accepted on national as well as international level because of the movement.
Analytical Overview of the Split
Raja Dhale was inclined towards Buddhism and was in favour of a parliamentary democratic approach. Caste annihilation through Cultural Revolution and through spreading Buddhism was important to him. As against this Dhasal was a militant favouring a revolutionary path to bring about the radical changes by combining class struggle with caste struggle. Dhasal charged Dhale for making the movement of neo Buddhist while Dhale charged Dhasal to promoting Marxian agenda under the fabric of Ambedkarism.
If these ideologies are further analysed to their roots, the speeches and writings of Dr. Ambedkar suggests that he rejected Marxian way of bringing social change. In his famous essay “Buddha or Marx” though he agreed to the necessity of bringing communism, he never approved the violent ways of communist. He also didn’t agree with the basic principles of Marx that says revolution of proletariat is inevitable. He didn’t believe that workers are merged continuously into poverty and misery in the age of industrialization. He was against the economical interpretation of history which was articulated by Marx. More than this, religion or Dhamma was essential aspect of life for Dr. Ambedkar. He was of an opinion that Marx’s famous quotation about religion of being opium pill was essential for Christian religion and Marxist wrapped all the religions under this blanket. He strongly articulated that Buddhism is the surest way of bringing equality in the society with fraternity and liberty. According to Dr. Ambedkar, communism can bring equality but not fraternity and liberty. He was also against any type of dictatorship. In his speech which he prepared for Jat Pat Todak Mandal in 1936, under the name of Annihilation of Caste, his radical stand against the hieratical order of Hindu Caste system didn’t go beyond the democratic parliamentary ways. He never advocated any kind of dictatorship or the militant stand.
The ideological difference between the leader and the differences in the roots clearly indicates that there was a basic different in the perception which manifested into the implementation of the programmes. Dhasal was always surrounded by the Marxist leaders taking advice from them. Harsh language in Dalit Panther meetings lead to the infamous riot of Worli which created fear among Dalit Community. The obscene language which was generally used in the meetings was not approved by not only the parties that had sympathy towards the movement but also by Dalit community.
There was a growing fear among Dalit community because of the militant stand of the Panthers due to their minority in the population and mainly because of the brutality and oppressive measures taken by the police. It was revealed in the riots that all upper caste leaders and population forget their differences while uniting against Dalits. Crushing economic pressures and unemployment couldn’t allow militant stand of Panthers for long. In summary, though the assertive militant way was successful in the initial stage of the movement it was not possible to continue with the same stand for the long run. It was this militant stand and the confusion of ideology among the leaders that created the rift in the movement which ultimately lead to the split.
Annihilation of caste – Dr. B. R. Ambedkar
Buddha or Marx – Dr. B. R. Ambedkar
Ambedkar Ani Marx – Raosaheb Kasbe
Dalit Vidroha – Arjun Dangle
Kondwada – Anil Awchat
Dalit Panther Movement of Maharashtra – A Sociological Appraisal – Dr. Lata Murugkar
Revisiting Dalit Panther Seminar held on 5/2/2011 in Mumbai University
Dr. P. G. Jogdand
Dr. Ramesh Kamble