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.