History of the Movement: Where did it all Begin?

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.

babasaheb and buddhism

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.

References:
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. 

Dalit Literary Movement

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.”

Dalit Panther of india-namdev dhasal

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.