Revolutionary struggles, in India as in other parts of the world, are sometimes unable to breach socio-cultural hierarchies that divide the oppressed. Caste has, for millennia, shaped how people of the Indian subcontinent live, the work they can do, who they can eat with and sit with, who they can marry, even who they can touch and see. It pervades our economic, social, cultural, religious, and political worlds, diving us into enclosed hierarchical groups1. Yet the importance of caste has not distilled into the ideologies of many Left movements in the country. The Dalit Panthers represent a spark of hope, an all-too-brief interlude to this pattern.
The anti-caste movement has a long history. It’s biggest champion in the 20th Century was Babasaheb Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, who was a theoretician, political leader and lawyer who drafted India’s Constitution. Ambedkar believed in equality, liberty and fraternity, and sought to annihilate the caste system to end caste oppression through peaceful and constitutional means. He was influenced by the pragmatism and liberalism of John Dewey, his mentor at Columbia University, and by Fabian Socialism. He launched several political agitations that sought to unite the working classes with the anti-caste movement in the fight against brahmanism and capitalism. Before his death, Ambedkar renounced Hinduism and converted to Buddhism, a practice that many of his followers would adopt after his death. The mantle of the Ambedkarite movement was taken up by the Republican Party of India after his demise, which fell prey to electoralism and could not initiate any anti-caste movements of significance.
The Dalit Panthers emerged in Bombay, Maharashtra in the early 1970s, as a response to rising instances of caste-based violence against Dalits. The late 1960s and 1970s was an explosive period across the globe in terms of the rise of resistance to capitalism and imperialism, and India was no exception. Struggles erupted in various parts of the country, particularly of landless farmers and poor peasants, who were disillusioned by the pro-poor facade of the Congress behind which lurked the maintenance of status quo. The Naxalbari uprising in 1969 in Bengal was one such movement, and The Dalit Panthers was another. The founders of the Dalit Panthers were young Dalit men who were angry with the ineffectiveness of both the ruling Congress as well as the electorally oriented Republican Party of India. The Panthers modelled themselves after the Black Panthers in the US, and sought inspiration from “Vietnam, Cambodia, Africa and the like.”
Like Bhagat Singh before them, the Panthers considered independence from the British a partial or false independence for Dalits and the working classes of the country, in which power now rests with domestic ruling classes i.e. upper castes and the Congress Party (which was dominated by these very upper-castes). Like Ambedkar, who forged the Dalit identity by uniting the various castes of the Ati-Shudras, the Panthers broadened the understanding of Dalit to encompass Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Neo-Buddhists, the landless, poor peasants, the working classes, women, and all those exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion. They understood, like Ambedkar, that the future of the Dalit movement is closely tied to the fate of all working and oppressed classes, and actively sought to cultivate a working class consciousness that directly confronted caste oppression, something that the Communist parties had failed to do.
The Panthers considered all oppressed in society, and revolutionary movements which seek to break down both caste and class, as their allies, and declared landlords, capitalists, money-lenders, and parties that engage in ‘religious or casteist politics’ to be their enemies. Their aim was “complete and total revolutionary change,” “to gather a revolutionary mass, rouse the people, out of the struggle of this giant mass will come the tidal wave of revolutions.” In concrete terms they opposed untouchability, caste oppression, and the economic exploitation of Dalits, which they viewed to be central to Indian capitalism.
Their means were confrontational — they sought to intervene in instances of caste-based violence and enforce justice through brute force if necessary, and more broadly to build a revolutionary movement. J.V. Pawar, one of the founders of the Dalit Panthers, recounts in an interview how Dalits mobilised by the Panthers would show up in large numbers in villages of Maharashtra where upper-castes had committed atrocities against Dalits, and through a show of strength, ‘convince’ the upper-castes to make legal amends. They organised demonstrations and agitations, often against parliamentary parties, held rallies, and mobilized Dalits into groups — the latter often occurred in a decentralised manner. By 1974 the Dalit Panthers had established a presence in Bombay (and Maharashtra as a whole).
Another crucial arena in which the deep impact of the Dalit Panthers was felt was the arts. Many of the founders of the Dalit Panthers, such as Namdeo Dhasal and Raja Dhale, were writers and poets. The rise of the Panthers occurred in tandem with, and fed into, a renaissance in arts, literature, poetry, theatre and other forms of expression, in which Dalits shook up the upper-caste’s sanitised status quo by centering their material existence and experiences of oppression. The visceral intensity of their works ruptured the art world like the sharp smell of blood or the acrid smell of piss, the smell of all things that upper-castes deem too impure to touch.
The Dalit Panthers had to go underground during 1975-1977 when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed a National Emergency in the face of increasing resistance from people’s struggles across the country, and her weakening hold over parliamentary power. The Panthers also struggled through internal conflicts on the direction of the organisation, particularly on the relative emphasis of Ambedkarite versus Marxist principles and tactics. Ultimately the Panthers split in 1977, though movements inspired by the Panthers emerged in other parts of the country, particularly Tamil Nadu.
Sparks flare up though, from time to time, which hold the spirit of the Dalit Panthers. One of the incendiary consequences of the rise of Narendra Modi and the mass popularisation of Hindu-supremacist, or Hindutva, ideology over the last decade has been a surge in instances of mob lynchings in the name of ‘cow protection.’ Such attacks are typically aimed at Dalits and Muslims, since occupations related to animal carcasses, butchery, corpses, human waste and anything else considered unclean by the Hindu caste system have historically been condemned upon Dalits. In one instance in Una, Gujarat in 2016, seven members of a Dalit family who were skinning a dead cow were stripped, flogged and paraded by upper-castes claiming to belong to a cow-protection group. It ignited Dalits across Gujarat, and there was an eruption of mass protests. The movement linked the social oppression of Dalits to their economic exploitation by upper-castes, and one of the demands of the movement was the redistribution of land to Dalits. Jignesh Mevnani, one of the prominent leaders of the movement, called on Dalits to give up their traditional professions of dealing with carcasses, in effect calling for a strike.
The spirit of the Dalit Panthers also thrives in Anand Teltumbde, a Dalit-Marxist activist and writer who has developed a materialist analysis for caste. Teltumbde has argued that the creation of a landed peasantry among the Shudras after tenancy rights were introduced in the post-independence period has sharpened antagonism between these increasingly dominant castes and Dalits, who continue to form the bulk of agricultural labour. It is this antagonism that reflects in the increasing attacks on rural Dalits by dominant Shudra castes after independence. He points to the growing divide between Dalits and non-Dalits as the biggest cleavage in Indian society today. Teltumbde’s analysis is sharp and cuts across ideological boundaries, charting new political courses. At present he has been imprisoned by the Modi government for over a year, along with dozens of other Dalit and tribal-rights activists, in relation to trumped-up charges.
It can be said that the Dalit Panthers failed in achieving the aims laid out in their manifesto. They could not enforce the redistribution of land to landless Dalit labourers or end caste atrocities. But that would be unfair. What the Dalit Panthers represent is a moment of rupture, of clarity in the chaos of multi-fanged exploitation. They tapped into the seething anger of Dalits against their oppressive conditions, and were unwilling to be bound by structures of constitutionality and civility. And they recognised that the struggles of the Dalits, and the struggles of the working classes, can only have a future if they become intertwined. Echoes of the Panthers resonate today in movements and people, whether in Una or in Teltumbde’s prison cell. More than anything, the Dalit Panthers are the hope that people can, and will, rise up to make a better world.
1In crude terms the caste hierarchy is as follows: Brahmins, the priestly caste, Kshatriyas, the warrior/ruling caste, Vaishyas, the merchant caste, Shudras, the labouring caste, and Ati-Shudras, a fifth group outside the caste system who were formerly untouchables.