The Dalit Panthers, organized in June 1972 in Siddhartha Nagar, Bombay, emerged as a resistance group against caste discrimination. Known to have based their political strategies on the US Black Panthers – a social movement that fought against police brutality during the Civil Rights Movement – questions have emerged around whether the Dalit Panthers were simply a ‘copycat’ Black Panther movement, or whether they succeeded in the South Asian context. This blog will attempt to analyse this claim…
Who were the Black Panthers?
The Black Panthers were founded in 1966, sparked from the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965. Their original aim was to patrol African American neighbourhoods to protect against police brutality. Their ideology was based in revolutionary Marxist theory as they believed that the root cause for all oppression was economic exploitation. This meant that they believed wealthy African Americans could exploit poorer African Americans which separated them from other Black Rights movements of the time. They also made distinctions between racist and non-racist white people and allied with some that they perceived non-racist.
Main Achievements: Despite their original aim being to protect against police brutality, the Black Panthers did a lot for the most disadvantaged in society; they opened free health care clinics, a tuition free school, food banks etc etc.
- Both groups supported rights for all those at the bottom of society
- Dalit Panthers’ structure based on Black Panthers’ presidential structure
- Both saw violence as a legitimate means for their desired ends
- The Black Panthers had a very particular recruitment strategy which protected them from infiltrators (such as police) and enabled them to continue their work without an overwhelming number of recruits however in comparison, the Dalit Panthers allowed anyone in that wanted to join and this created ideological issues
- The Black Panthers are still having an impact today despite the group no longer being in existence e.g. Beyonce Super Bowl performance and arguably the Black Lives Matter campaign has been formed off of the idea of not accepting police brutally which was normalised by the Black Panthers whereas the Dalit Panthers seemed to have a limited impact on the caste structure
- Though the Black Panthers had a clear Marxist political ideology the Dalit Panthers did not have a clear ideological perspective
- Black Panthers didn’t have a conflict within their ideology and leadership whereas the Dalit Panthers did e.g. Neo Buddhism vs Marxism
In order to understand the emergence and need for the Dalit Panther Movement, it’s best to trace back to the early 1950s and look at the mass conversions from Hinduism to Buddhism that were going on at the time. Caste discrimination was particularly prevalent in India in early 20th century, which prevented the “Untouchables” from using public water tanks, entering Hindu temples, sitting in classrooms with Caste Hindus, seeking dignified employment, and having social contact with higher castes. Many thought that this discrimination was rooted in the hierarchical ideology of Hinduism, and that caste was therefore a direct result of this religion. The first significant attempt of escaping this hierarchical social structure, and a way of resisting caste discrimination at the time, was led by B.R Ambedkar in what we know to be the Dalit Buddhist Movement (also known as the Neo-Buddhist Movement): a socio-political movement by Dalits in India in which Hindus converted to Buddhism as a method of resistance.
“He wanted Untouchables to reject the Hindu social order without forfeiting their Indian Cultural Heritage, and he saw in Buddhism a rational and moral ethic that would challenge the obscurant elements of Hinduism and provide a philosophy of action for Untouchables.”
Ambedkar therefore radically re-interpreted Buddhism, and the movement rejected Hinduism, challenged the caste system and promoted the rights of the Dalit Community. Although scholars have since debated whether conversion was a successful way of escaping caste – as every religion has its own ideological ideas around caste despite the anti-caste discourses, this was still a significant factor in the history of the Dalit Panthers and how they came into being.
Fast forward 20 years, and these Dalit’s who had converted to Buddhism, became writers in what scholars have named the Little Magazine Movement, which challenged the monopoly of high-caste Hindu’s and brought anti-establishment literature to the masses through Marathi literary magazines. These writers created a new language through which Dalit resistance to power and oppression could become a public discourse, and established a trend for Dalit politics in which virtually ever Dalit who could write, did so before becoming an activist. The Dalit Panthers, who were formally established in 1972, were rooted in this little Magazine Movement and were deeply inspired by the Black Panther Movement of America. Their militant literature, community service and political struggle were something that the Dalit’s were familiar with, and so a lot of their movement was inspired by their Civil Rights struggle.
They called themselves ‘Dalit’ meaning downtrodden or ground down, because it was a casteless term that both acknowledged and challenged their history of class oppression; and ‘Panthers’ because they were supposed to fight for their rights like Panthers, and not get suppressed by the strength and might of their oppressors. The movement was characterised in the beginning as Buddhist and vaguely socialist but as having no specific political ideology. As the Panthers become better organized and more popular, they went beyond the criticism of caste and addressed issues of economics, gender and class.
1974. Dalit Panthers: Another View. Economic and Political Weekly. Vol 9 No 18.
Contursi, J. A. (1993) Political Technology: Text and Practice in a Dalit Panther Community. The Journal of Asian Studies. Vol 52. No 2.
Hopeless and leaderless, the demise of Ambedkar left the ‘Dalit Panthers’ without a unifier; devoid of a figurehead who would have their grievances recognised and press the government’s buttons for greater rights for the ‘scheduled castes’ with what little influence he had. It became like a dream, far from being fulfilled, and for the Dalit’s a nightmare, leaving them demoralised. It yet again, left the Dalit population feeling dejected, as if been put in a checkmate and worst of all back to being ‘untouchables’ with their efforts swept behind in synchrony with their leader’s death.
Not all was bleak though. The 1960’s saw a new wave of educated youth, all Dalits, that thrived on poetry, prose as a passive means of getting their message across. Their determination to have their rights recognised was unparalleled. It was uncommon for anyone to not know that the media was dominated by Brahmins and majority of media conglomerates were Brahmin as well. The educated Dalits affirmed faith in the power of the pen. These educated youths with their awakened sense of consciousness entered the literary realm, which was primarily dominated by caste Hindus and their supposedly sophisticated writings. This young generation or the new Dalit intelligentsia wanted to articulate themselves in their own words and in their own style, without a sense of borrowedness. In other words, this was attempt by the Dalit Panthers to un-caste the literary world. In brief, a period of frustration and despondency gave birth to the Dalit Literary Movement. Arjun Dangle commenting on the nature of Dalit literature says:
“Dalit literature portrays the hopes and aspirations of the exploited masses. Their fight for survival, their daily problems, the insults they have to put up with, their experiences and their outlook towards all these events…Dalit literature is one which acquaints people with caste system and untouchability in India, its appalling nature and its system of exploitation.”
The Dalit Literary Movement commenced with the notion of ‘speaking for oneself’. This later developed into identifying problems, envisaging problems experienced by the scheduled castes. The collective effort to channelize their thought through their writings paved way via Little Magazine movement of 1967 which, in the words of Lata Murugkar, “challenged and protested against the monopoly of the established caste Hindu writers’ ideology in the literary field”
Conclusively, it can be understood that the Dalit Panthers that are often confused with the Black Panthers in the USA, were not as fierce compared to their American counterparts, even though they used literature to get their movement across. In times of a revolution, to be the stronger party, the use of force is necessary.
Successes of the Dalit Panthers:
Although the Dalit Panther movement quickly disbanded after it started, it is still a solid organization that had many successes, especially during establishment. The rise of the Dalit Panther movement started in 1972 in Maharashtra. The most important factor responsible for the rise of the Dalit Panther movement was the repression and terror the oppressed Scheduled Castes continued to receive while living in rural areas. Dalit youth demonstrated resilience in that the lowest castes were not going to accept indignities without protest (Paswan and Jaideva, 2002). They organized protests in objection towards caste Hindus who have done them injustice and object their degraded status. Recognising that the protective discrimination policy does not benefit them, they built this organisation on the premise of protecting each other, whether male or female. Their biggest success is the strong sense of community and connection they have towards each other. Reflecting Ambedkar’s concern for gender equality, they have also paid attention to women issues and consistently protected their female counterparts. When Dalit women experienced incidents of abuse, rape or kidnapping by police or outsiders, Dalit men have intervened to help women in their times of need. “Shabirs”, also referred to as study circles, are also held to empower women in which they learn to confront bureaucratic authority (Contursi, 1993). Even after the original Dalit Panther organisation split in 1974, it continued under different leadership, exemplifying the power of its influence. More recently in 1988, nearly 10,000 people took part in a protest from different regions of Maharashtra (Paswan and Jaideva, 2002).
Failures of the Dalit Panthers:
Despite the successes of the Dalit Panther movement, the organisation became unstable with split opinions and lacked organisational resources to bring together more oppressed and caste Hindus. Raja Dhale, the elected President, and Namdeo Dhasal, the elected Defence Minister, failed to provide proper leadership and execute their ideas towards a better future. Their manifesto emphasised the significance of issues pertinent to all Dalits which brought them closer together. However, no serious attempts were made to comprehend and then tackle the problems, especially in the cases of Dalits living in villages (Paswan and Jaideva, 2002). To sustain the movement, this organisation needed more order in executing their aims and supporting their slogans. No serious efforts were made towards Dhale and Dhasal’s joint actions, therefore, this movement was not able to launch at a national level. But most importantly, this organisation needed leaders who agreed on crucial standpoints. The rift between Dhale and Dhasal is the main reason why the Dalit Panther movement split in 1974. They were split between Buddhism/Ambedkar and Marxism perspectives on how to run the organisation (Paswan and Jaideva, 2002). Due to these differences, there was not proper leadership and this movement failed to move in the right direction.
Paswan, S. and Jaideva, P. 2002. Encyclopaedia of Dalits in India Movements. India: Kalpaz Publications.
Contursi, J. A. 1993. Political Theology: Text and Practice in a Dalit Panther Community. The Journal of Asian Studies. 52(2), pp.320-330.
The Influence of B.A Ambedkar:
The Dalit Panthers based much of their ideological aims off of Ambedkarite philosophy. Ambedkar, unlike Gandhi, saw that to organise against caste oppression and the tyranny of the caste-system, a movement built on liberation was essential, rather than one based simply on a sympathy for the Dalit. Ambedkar influenced the formation of the Dalit Panthers due to his more radical ideology of using education and electoral politics as a means of creating social change. Ambedkar was one of the first scheduled caste members to stand up for the scheduled castes, proclaiming that for a total restructuring of society to be successful, all those suffering from socially or economically exploitative times must unit under one movement. Ambedkar’s “We must become a ruling community” became the prominent saying of the movement.
Ambedkar’s philosophy proclaimed the transition from Hinduism to Buddhism, becoming a major ideological facet for the Dalit Panthers; Neo-Buddhism became the new form of religion, derived from Ambedkar’s interpretation and alteration of Buddhist ideas.With the conception of the Dalit Panther movement, a mixed Ambedkarite and Marxist ideology provided the revolutionary and radical platform for its political inclinations, shown particularly within the language of the 1973 Manifesto:
“We do not want a little place in the brahmin alley. We want to rule the whole country. We are not looking at persons but at a system. Change of heart, liberal education, etc. will not end our state of exploitation. When we gather a revolutionary mass, rouse the people, out of the struggle of this giant mass will come the tidal wave of revolutions.”
Excerpt from the Dalit Panther Manifesto of 1973
Leadership of the Dalit Panthers:
When the Dalit Panthers was founded in 1972, the initial leaders were Dhasal and J.V. Pawar. The organisation of the movement was hierarchical, however resided in some form of group or joint leadership. The main four leaders were Dhasal, Dhale, Mahatekar and Sangare. Due to ideological differences, each competed for leadership of the movement, with both Dhasal and Dhale causing the majority of the infighting. With a lack of organisational strategy and structure of decision making, the movement was mainly kept together through a commitment to Ambedkarite ideology (some in so far as pleasing the Neo-Buddhists).
Most of the leaders were well educated but lacked experience when it came to organising a political movement. With the Dalit Panthers seemingly radical position shown within the 1973 manifesto, Dhale had indicated his dismay over its publication. Dhale argued that the manifesto was not a representation of the Panthers’ ideology but was simply published without the consensus of the working committee. This divergent nature of the Dalit Panthers arguably led to its initial split and potentially its demise.
Positions within the movement included the President (Raja Dhale), Vice-president (Vithal Sathe), Secretary (J.V. Pawar), Treasurer (Avinash Mahatekar), Defence Minister (Namdeo Dhasal), Minister for Communication (Thorat), Public Minister (Uddhav Salve), and a position for the women’s wing (Jayavanta Jagdhane).
Division within the movement:
In 1974 (two years after the movements conception) the Dalit Panthers split its organisation due to the political differences of both Dhale and Dhasal. With Dhasal having allegiances with the communists, Dhale found the potential infiltration of communists disturbing, as they would try to alter the ideological composition of the organisation. As a result of this split, Dhale took the majority of the members (due to many holding Amberdkar as the bastion of the caste movement) and Dhasal making his own movement of more radical members. These new organisations had later undergone their own splits, creating four new movements: Mass Movement (led by Raja Dhale), Maharastra Dalit Panthers (led by Arun Kamble), Dalit Panthers (led by Sangare and Mahatekar) and the Dalit Panthers (led by Namdeo Dhasal).
Murugkar, L. (1991) “Dalit Panther Movement in Maharashtra: A Sociological Appraisal, India: Sangam Books
Omvedt, G. (1991) “The anti-caste movement and discourse of power”, Race & Class, 33(2), pp. 15-27
Slate, N (2012) “Black Power Beyond Borders: The Global Dimensions of the Black Power Movement”, in Contemporary Black History, United States: Palgrave Macmillan