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The Dalit Panther Project: Chronicling An Inspiring Era Of India’s Dalit Rights Movement

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Some time in February 2016, two of my friends and I decided to interview activists from the Dalit Panther, a radical social organisation established in Mumbai, in 1972. Over the last ten months, we have met its founding members, leaders and grassroot activists, incredible human beings who have committed their entire lives to the struggle for a casteless and classless society.

While the Dalit Panther organisation split in 1974, most of its activists went on to lead other prominent Dalit organisations in Maharashtra in the decades that followed. In addition to the interviews, excerpts from which we intend to publish before the year ends, we have started our own initiative to digitally preserve such documents, of and about the Dalit Panthers, that we have come across in the last year. In time, we intend to expand the scope of this project and make it more comprehensive, with the hope that we can shed more light on this inspiring stage in the history of the Dalit movement in India, and understand its continuing relevance for our generation of youth.

Why The Dalit Panther Project?

Forty six years after the fact, what draws us to the story of the Dalit Panthers?

Today, our country is caught in the throes of a violent struggle to define its soul. We grew up in a period when our textbooks were replete with references to a modern India which was forged through the iron will of Gandhi, Nehru, and other towering leaders of the freedom struggle. Over the decades since Independence, an older India, of a feudal, casteist and patriarchal ethos wrestled with this so called ‘Nehruvian’ India, and has presented itself to us with great pomp, in the last two years.

Through these decades, and for the greater part, silently, some of the most wretched of our earth have constructed a movement around a man named Bhimrao Ambedkar. A man who, in his lifetime, undertook the herculean mission of fashioning human beings out of a race of Untouchables. Ambedkar wrote, argued, organised, lobbied, legislated and prevailed. Born into subjugation as a Hindu, he declared, he would not die as one. Towards redeeming this promise, he became one of India’s most prominent philosophers, overthrew the gods of the Hindu pantheon, and single-handedly laid the foundations of one of the world’s most significant social and political struggle for human rights.

Since Ambedkar’s death in December 1956, generations of ex-untouchables have consumed his writings and pondered deeply over it. From time to time, inspired by his ideals, local struggles of Dalits have erupted, and been put down swiftly, and viciously. Only 16 years after his death, a small group of youth in Maharashtra came together to declare a social movement that was ready to bring together all women, regardless of their caste, all scheduled castes and tribes, workers and the religious minorities. Sharankumar Limbale, a famous Dalit writer and professor says that the struggle of a man whose very existence is denied, is all encompassing. This, indeed, was the spirit of the Dalit Panthers, one that dug its heels in, stared the Indian state and society in its eyes, and demanded a better world for all.

From a 1973 pamphlet on the Dalit Panther, written by J.V. Pawar, then Treasurer of the organisation.
From a 1973 pamphlet on the Dalit Panther, written by J.V. Pawar, then Treasurer of the organisation.

The truth is, the members of this team read the last letter Rohith Vemula wrote, like many other young Indians. Rohith pointed out that ‘the value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of stardust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.’ It compelled us to think deeply about the society we are living in. It moved us to ask how it could be that forty six years after Dalit youth in Mumbai shook up the nation with their clear demand for social change, we still lived in a situation where a bright young Dalit mind is lost to the same social evils.

Over the course of our research, we have often been told that the story of the Dalit Panthers, is a sad one. We, however, do not believe that this is a story of despair. The manner in which the Panthers defined ‘Dalit’ flew in the face of those powerful political figures who usurped the movement set into motion by Ambedkar, by wanting to restrict its liberating potential to a few ex-untouchable castes. It also decisively put the question of women, irrespective of their caste and class background, and all workers, on the agenda. This, again, was something that post – Ambedkar political leaders lacked the imagination to do. To us, the language of the Manifesto is relevant even in 2016, a time where the youth in India are searching for a way to understand the political realities of the world around them.

For all their significance, the Dalit Panthers have gone nearly undocumented in any language except Marathi. Admittedly, the organisation existed in its original form for a relatively brief period of time. This is one instance, however, where the importance of an movement cannot be measured simply by the period for which it existed – the Dalit Panther was a convergence of hope and rage, poetry and literature, word and action. Few have come before or after them, that managed to capture the spirit of their times so vividly. Forgetting this fact does great disservice to the sacrifices of its activists; in the Dalit Panther Project, we hope to undo this wrong, in our own small way.

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