Remembering Dalit Panthers founder Raja Dhale

Published : Jul 23, 2019 11:59 IST

Raja Dhale, a 2017 photograph.

Raja Dhale, a 2017 photograph.

The death of Raja Dhale marks the passing of an era. Although Dhale was not as active publicly as he once was, he served as an icon for those who knew what the Ambedkarite movement stood for and what it has deteriorated into. At the age of 78, the writer, activist and co-founder of the Dalit Panthers movement died in Mumbai on July 16 following a cardiac arrest at his home in Vikhroli.

Dhale was born in Nandre village in Maharashtra’s Sangli district in 1940. His parents died when he was very young and was looked after by an aunt and uncle. Young Dhale accompanied them to live in Bombay at Worli’s BDD chawls, which was still a hotbed of Dalit discourse. Dhale had his education at the Maratha Mandir school. His voracious reading habits, analytical mind and observations in his growing up years drew him to the Dalit movement. His early years in the movement focussed on writing, but he was a fierce fighter and came early to believe in retribution.

On May 29, 1972, the Dalit Panthers, a social organisation that fought caste discrimination, was founded. Its founders, Namdeo Dhasal, J.V. Pawar and Raja Dale, were well known in the community as poets and writers but what catapulted them to fame was the creation of the organisation. While Dalit Panthers’ inspiration was Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, it was also inspired in thought and name by the Black Panthers of the United States, and, like their American counterpart, the organisation too was successful and controversial in equal part.

Dhale, especially, seemed to draw in controversy. In 1972, soon after the formation of the Panthers, he wrote an essay in the socialist Marathi weekly Sadhana . It was the 25th year of Independence and Dhale marked it by an explosive essay titled “Kaala Swantrata Divas”, or Black Independence Day, in which he essentially stated that if after 25 years of Independence Dalits could not have either security or dignity in India, then the tricolour should be regarded as no more than a piece of cloth. The article was provoked by a surge of atrocities against Dalits.

The Dalit Panthers believed that physical violence was a means to end the aggression that was inflicted on Dalits. The movement was criticised for this thinking but, as Dhale pointed out, society seemed to find it all right for Dalits to be at the receiving end but did not of their attempts to defend themselves. This sort of no-holds-barred language made the Panthers feared and hated by their aggressors and revered by young Dalits who were among the first generation that felt it could assert its rights.

In 1973, the Dalit Panthers integrated Marxist ideals into its advocacy of embracing Buddhist identity. This meant taking into its fole more oppressed classes and peoples such asthe Scheduled Castes, exploited women, peasants and landless labour. As a corollary came new enemies—capitalists, moneylenders, landlords, especially absentee ones, and the government. But while the community experienced a sense of freedom like never before, the activities of the Panthers also meant that they were on the watch list of the police. Inevitably, the Dalit Panthers faded away, but even after the movement died out in the early 1980s Dhale continued his work independently.

Dhale yearned for a pan-India movement of Dalits whose sheer numbers, he believed, would make them a power to reckon with. He was baffled that thhhat kind of unity was difficult to achieve. Gradually, the movement came to be plagued by with factionalism and personal interests. It lost its social, political and moral edge. Dhale probably saw this coming. In his later years he disconnected from the movement, disillusioned as he was by the direction it had taken and expressed himself so with his characteristic curtness.

Dhale never bowed to political correctness for its own sake. Instead, he preferred an in-your-face approach—once again, not for its sake, but to remind everyone that even though the Constitution guaranteed equality it was being flouted on a daily basis and no one knew this better than Dalits. The Panthers’ movement was fierce about using the word Dalit, meaning oppressed, but Dhale himself would not let the centuries of oppression be forgotten easily. He would use the word achoot , literally meaning untouchable, with a deliberate and acute consciousness reminding everyone that untouchability was not something consigned to history but an idea and attitude that was still prevalent in thought and practice.

Literature, the arts and politics, Dhale touched them all. With and after the Panthers, he led a mini Rennaisance for Dalits.

Dhale leaves behind his wife, Deeksha, and daughter Gatha.

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