01 May 2020

ON 29 MAY 1972, the anti-caste activists JV Pawar—seen here being arrested, three years later, for burning a book by MK Gandhi—and Namdeo Dhasal founded the Dalit Panthers in Bombay. Drawing inspiration from the contemporary Black Panthers in the United States and building on the work of BR Ambedkar and Jotirao Phule, the revolutionary organisation defined Dalits as “members of scheduled castes and tribes, Neo-Buddhists, the working people, the landless and poor peasants, women and all those who are being exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion.” Its manifesto promised to “strengthen this growing revolutionary unity of the many” and “paralyzingly attack untouchability, casteism and economic exploitation.”

The Panthers opposed Congress rule, calling it “essentially a continuation of the old Hindu feudalism which kept the Dalits deprived of power, wealth and status for thousands of years.” They also rejected the parliamentary Left, which had “not combined the caste struggle with the struggle against untouchability,” as well as the rival factions of Ambedkar’s Republican Party of India, whose “contemptible leaders made capital out of his name” and “got enmeshed in the web of votes, demands, select places for a handful of the dalits and concessions.” The Panthers expressed solidarity with the Naxalite movement and revolutionary struggles throughout the Global South.

Besides building a rich tradition of anti-caste literature, the Panthers began organising in Dalit slums and resisting caste atrocities, in the vein of the Black Panthers’ politics of “survival pending revolution.” On 5 January 1974, a Dalit Panthers meeting was attacked by rioters and the police. This was followed by violence against Dalits throughout Bombay, injuring nearly two hundred people. The police arrested over a hundred Dalits, and a subsequent protest against the police’s partisan attitude was also attacked. State repression during the Emergency and ideological schisms hampered the Panthers’ work, and the group formally disbanded in March 1977.