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:
- Raja Dhale – One of the Original leaders 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
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…