By Prem Ayyathurai:
One of the most important contributions of Maharasthra’s Dalit Panther movement to Dalit politics in general was the fact that its leadership was constituted by Dhale and Namdeo Dhasal, both were poets with a large following. The Panther movement saw an explosion of Dalit literature and poetry which echoed the sense of confidence that its violent street action generated.
However meteoric its rise in Maharashtra’s political scene was, the Panther movement failed to consolidate itself. There was a fundamental ideological dispute — whether the term ‘Dalit’ (which the Panther had popularised) should be construed narrowly to mean only those who were treated as untouchables or understood more broadly to encompass all the exploited classes; moreover, whether the claim over being Ambedkarite should be restricted to ‘neo-buddhists’ or all Dalits, whether Hindu or Buddhist. Adding to their ideological disunity was the fact that the Panthers failed as an organization to provide effective protection to Dalits in Marathwada during the Namantar campaign of the 1980s.
The then Shiv Sena-BJP government in Maharashtra contributed towards harsh repression of the resurgent Dalit cultural and political mobilization under the Panthers. The Panthers were created as a reaction to the broader Dalit disillusionment about the failure of their own political leaders; the movement contributed a potent vocabulary of protest into the psyche of the people and left lasting impressions upon the future of the politics of the oppressed in Maharashtra.
In 2002, Sharmila Rege wrote about how tamasha, a form of folk theatre, was used by contested identities to express themselves. The tamasha was claimed by Phule’s Satyashodhak Samaj in the form of jalsa where issues of untouchability, blind faith, oppression of women and brahminical hegemony were conveyed to the masses. Used effectively by the Samaj, the jalsa went on to play a pivotal role in forming and spreading a popular Maharashtra culture of religious and caste revolt. This tradition of using the jalsa as a vehicle of ideas was used by all subsequent popular politics in Maharashtra — one offshoot was the Ambedkari jalsa. Rege highlights the work of Lokshahir Vaman Kardak that argued for the annihilation of caste and was critical of alliance with the Communists:
“Oh the women in red with her lover in Moscow.
Beware or else you may be fooled!”
The 1980s in Mumbai saw the Avahan Natya Manch stage street plays across the city which mounted plays ranging from a critique of the education system to issuing a call for the boycott of the Lok Sabha elections. The Manch was originally formed by young students who were from affluent backgrounds. But towards the end of the ‘80s they discovered the talent of Sambhaji Bhagat and Vilas Ghogre, both of whom were from the lower castes and had lived in desperate poverty throughout their lives
A Renewed Resistance and Vigorous Repression by Avahan and Sambhaji Bhagat has contributed to subsequent cultural resistance in Mahashtra. In a conversation with Sambhaji, he mentioned how in the late 1990s, Dalit activists came together to declare the Vidrohi Sahitya Sammelan in Dharavi as a challenge to the Maharashtra Sahitya Sammelan declared by the then SS government in the state. This rebel conference attracted remarkable participation over the next years but characteristically split into factions over time.
Sudhir Dhawale was active in the Vidrohi campaigns and later went on to be a crucial organizer of the Republican Panther Jati Antachi Chalwal (Movement for Annihilation of Caste). Formed in 2007, it attempted to take on instances of caste atrocities in the state while also organizing workshops to analyse and critique Salwa Judum, Operation Greenhunt and other state-sponsored terrorism. Sudhir Dhawale had gone to Wardha to attend the Yuvak Ambedkari Sahitya Sammelan and investigate atrocities on adivasis there in December 2009. The state, which had an inkling of the RP’s attempts to branch out and spread its ‘dangerous’ ideology, arrested Sudhir from Wardha station, slapped multiple charges on him and put him behind bars charged with various offences under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
In and around Chandrapur in Maharashtra, an organization named Deshbhakti Yuva Manch arose post 2002 out of a college band which initiated various awareness campaigns. By 2007, they claimed a membership of thousands and ran campaigns around the birth anniversaries of Ambedkar, Phule, Marx and Bhagat Singh. In January 2008, nine members of the Deshbhakti Yuva Manch were arrested and charged with sedition and offences under the UAPA.
Kabir Kala Manch (KKM) was an organization which was formed after the Godhra riots in 2002 by Amarnath Chandeliya in Pune. In its initial years, it used to focus on performances which challenged the politics of communalism. After interacting with the Republican Panther movement, however, the content of their work transformed radically — they adopted the methods of shahiri developed over years by Sambhaji Bhagat and their songs turned to stinging critiques of the failure of the Dalit movement, issues of gender and unbridled capitalism.
Over the years their influence spread to different parts of Maharashtra and in early 2011, the Maharashtra ATS arrested four members of the KKM including Dengle. Just as in earlier cases, they were charged for multiple offences under the UAPA as being members of the banned CPI (Maoist). Close on the heels of their arrest, a huge propaganda campaign was unleashed, declaring them as a Naxal front organization. Arguably had it not been for Patwardhan’s film Jai BhimÂ Comrade and the sustained campaign initiated by him under the banner of the Kabir Kala Manch Defence Committee, this organization too would have been destroyed by the state’s onslaught.
In 2013, the Bombay High Court released certain members of the KKM on bail, declaring amongst other things that merely believing in revolutionary politics wouldn’t make a person liable to be charged under the UAPA. This judgment is only an affirmation of existing precedent on the same question laid down by the Supreme Court of India, regardless of which the state indulges in rampant abuse of anti terrorism legislation to suppress any political work that appears to have ‘revolutionary’ tendencies. After two years of having been underground, members of KKM were finally offered a stage to perform first by students in Pune and later in Bangalore as a part of a larger campaign to reassert the legitimacy of the politics of dissent in India. After the Pune performance, ABVP members heckled artists of the KKM and the organizing students and finally assaulted them. In a blog post (which has since been taken down) the Pune wing of ABVP explained that the activities of a ‘Naxal’ KKM were anti-nationalist and hence it was only natural that they should be attacked (“Na marxvad, na Naxalvad, sabse aage Rashtravad”).
This has been a typical ideological positioning of the Hindutva right in India, one of understanding the vibrant Left wing as ‘terrorism’ devoid of an economic and sociological analysis. For Dalit cultural activism in Maharashtra, the legacy of an inadequate theoretical response by the Left political parties and repeated failure and corruption of Dalit leadership in parliamentary politics has left a critical void. In this context, the tradition of both Congress as well as SS-BJP governments to stifle radical Dalit politics continues, shifting from the earlier overtly casteist rhetoric to the more legitimate language of ‘anti-terrorism’.
In conversations with members of the KKM, what becomes obvious is that attempts like theirs to tie together leftist and Ambedkarite strands also face stiff resistance from conventional Ambedkarite politics, reminiscent of the ideological dispute in the early stages of the Panther movement over the term ‘Dalit’. These activists continue to struggle in a political culture where seemingly any effective attempt at mobilizing Dalit opinion risks the chance of being branded Maoist. These activists are poised at critical moment in the experience of democratic Dalit mobilization in Maharashtra. Arguably, the manner in which they choose to continue their work will define the future of how the oppressed succeed democratic space in Maharashtra’s political circles.