Dalit Panthers: With rusty arms and burning flags, they fought for their rights

Remembering 'Dalit Panthers', an organisation formed by three famous poets, and authors, 50 years later on Dr BR Ambedkar's death anniversary

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Via Twitter

Santoshee Gulabkali Mishra

In the early 1970s, Maharashtra witnessed a series of violent acts across its towns and villages. The perpetrators? Dalit activist groups that were burning flags, copies of the Constitution, and effigies of various leaders. They even took up arms, albeit old and rusty ones that were antithetical to their goals.

Across the state, there was a flurry of cases being levied upon them, and leading the charge in wishing to curb their activities was the then Maharashtra Minister of State for Home Sharad Pawar. He vowed to break the backs of those hell-bent on destroying the harmonious fabric of the country.

However, one day, just like it began, all rebellion came to an abrupt halt and the cases that were filed against the Dalit activists were withdrawn. It so happened that Pawar, who had not been wholly conversant with all the facts, had been approached by sympathizers of the activists. They explained to him that despite a quarter of a century into Independence and the guarantees afforded to them under the Constitution written by their own icon Dr BR Ambedkar, Dalits continued to be among the most deprived sections of society.

They were exploited in the villages where upper caste individuals grabbed their lands. These individuals could influence the police force with money and power to thwart any protests against their unjustifiable acts. Untouchability continued to be practiced in the modern day, while at the same time, Dalit women were raped and paraded naked, children were turned into slaves and the entire community was ostracised and denigrated. ‘'How do you expect them then to respect the flag or Constitution that really do not offer them any protection on the ground?” the sympathisers asked the home minister.

Pawar immediately understood and empathised. He sent out orders to the police to cease all action against the Dalit groups despite their previous seditious activities. At the same time, the Dalit Panthers were persuaded to give up burning flags and copies of the constitution. They were asked to put down their rusty arms.

Life in the villages saw considerable improvement. Now, they had a sympathetic police force on their side, along with a Home Minister who was not complicit in their oppression. He warned the upper-caste individuals – any unlawful activity on their part would lead to strict action. They would not be spared arrests and court trials simply on account of their money, status, or position in society. These events are a testament to the power of the Dalit Panthers. Although influenced by the violent activities of Black Panthers in the United States, they had far greater success than their American counterparts in forcing the government to sit up and take notice of the plight of their community. 

The Dalit Panthers was incubated by three young, well-read, and educated individuals exactly 50 years ago. And although the Dalit Panthers were disbanded soon after and its founders went their separate ways by the  1980s, the community owes a great deal to these young men-Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale and JV Pawar. They changed the perception of the country on what it meant to be a Dalit in those times.

JV Pawar, one of the surviving founders of the movement, said “We knew that whatever was happening with Dalits then wasn’t getting an audience. India had completed 25 years of Independence and the atrocities were increasing. Therefore, we came up with this movement on the lines of Black Panthers. Not only were Dalits physically abused, but upper castes were continuing to violate all their constitutional rights. One Dalit woman was paraded nude simply for asserting her rights and the incident still gives me goosebumps.”

Dhasal was a poet and Dhale was a writer. The fire in their pens had shaken up the political circles in Maharashtra. Together with JV Pawar, an anti-discrimination activist, the trio became the frontline messengers of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s teachings and exhortation to the community – to educate themselves, organise their forces and then emancipate the community, says Arjun Dangle, another veteran Dalit activist.

Dangle said, “A big question of those times was if Dr Ambedkar’s movement had gotten buried under time and politics. But Dalit Panthers ensured that the movement was revived and took it a step further.”

Sharad Pawar's empathy and swift action against the exploiters of Dalit individuals led to the Dalit Panthers laying down their rusty arms and dissolving the organisation in 1977, five years after its formation. In later years, the movement became fragmented into the Republican Party of India, founded by Dr Ambedkar, which got broken up into more than a dozen groups, each with its own leader.

Dangle rues the disappearance of the Dalit Panthers. It had been set up for all the right reasons, he says, which was to protect the rights of Dalits and tribals and combat caste discrimination in society. But no court would have acquitted them on sympathetic grounds due to the activities they took part in such as burning the flag and the constitution. As a result, that was the price they had to pay for Sharad Pawar’s compassion and understanding and the withdrawal of cases against them. The home minister, though, kept his word and their lot grew steadily better as overt exploitation ceased and their rights were restored on the ground as well as on paper.

Nevertheless, this year various Dalit groups commemorated the Dalit  Panthers by bringing together its surviving leaders with those of the Black Panthers in the US. The event that took place in Nanded a few months ago saw Henry Gaddis and Michael D McCarty from the US and JV Pawar and Indira Athawale from India come together with the Bhim Army, the latest militant organisation set up in the interest of Dalit Rights, to mark 50 years of its formation. The organisation may be dead, but its promoters believe that the event was necessary to remind people that not much has changed in the past fifty years. Dalits continue to be exploited and denied equal rights. Violent means of asserting their rights may not be an option any longer, but they must never let down their guard, lest the world forgets what was done to them.  

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