Amid A Shaky Future For Dalit Panthers, A New Movement Awaits

The fragmentation of the Dalit Panthers and the Republican Party of India (RPI) has been a blow to Dalit activism. But the future may see the emergence of new Dalit leaders who give a different direction to the Dalit movement.

The resident of JV Pawar, The Dalit Panthers was started in 1972, to respond to the atrocities that Dalits were facing across Maharashtra.

The Dalit parliamentary politics, which was autonomous and independent, is finished now. The Dalits have been forming their own independent choices and they do not need either Prakash Ambedkar, leader of the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi, or Ramdas Athawale of the Republican Party of India, to tell them where to cast their votes. Dalit politics is so fragmented that it has reached its dead end, says Dr Surendra Jondhale, Dalit scholar and analyst.

“There is no creative representation of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s ideas. Everyone, including the Dalits are saying the same things about Babasaheb. If the Dalit movement has to move forward, there have to be newer ideas and interpretations. This lack is a failure of the Dalit politics,” says Jondhale.

A former head of the Department of Political Science at the University of Mumbai, Jondhale has researched and studied the various Dalit movements, including that of the Dalit Panthers, for several decades. “I hail from Nanded, where the Dalit Panthers leader S M Pradhan was a close friend. I was a participant during my student days, thereafter I moved into academics,” he says.

According to him, the fragmentation of the Dalit Panthers and the Republican Party of India (RPI) has been a blow to Dalit activism. Presently, there are 15 factions of the Dalit Panthers and 21 factions of the RPI. The Dalit Panthers were born out of anger over the atrocities against the Dalits in the 1970s and the ensuing silence of the RPI. Though the Dalits continue to face brutalities, and the RPI continues to be silent, there cannot be a rebirth of the Dalit Panthers, says the scholar. “There have been too many social and economic changes within the Dalits. The street politics was the hallmark of the Dalit Panthers. This is missing now. The Dalit Panthers cannot be reinvented,” says Jondhale.

Speaking about the militant days of the Dalit Panthers in the 1970s, Jondhale firmly believes that the same cannot be replicated due to the class division that has emerged within the Dalits. The emerging middle class among the Dalits cannot be dictated to either by Prakash Ambedkar or Athavale, he says. “This aspirational class of the community aligns itself to whichever political party they feel inclined to. For several years there has been talk of RPI unity. With so many splinter groups such unity has not been possible. The same is the case with the Dalit Panthers. It is not possible for all of them to come together,” says Jondhale.

An organisation that came into being to fight the anti-class and anti-caste discrimination, the Dalit Panthers was led by Dalit writers Raja Dhale, Namdeo Dhasal and J V Pawar. They started this organisation which took on a militant form to fight the RPI’s factionalism, corruption and failure to take on the establishment of the atrocities that were committed against the Dalits. Though the situation of the lower-class Dalits has not changed much since Independence and they continue to be discriminated against and brutalised, the re-emergence of the Dalit Panthers will not be possible, is Jondhale’s firm opinion.

“The bigger question is who will lead the Dalit Panthers from amongst all the factions that exist. The Dalit militancy which existed in the past is not possible now. There are sporadic protests but these are not organised. After the new economic policy of 1990, the Dalits have become consumerists. The present political situation is also another reason for the lack of street protests,” he says.

The erosion of activists and workers is also a major problem that is plaguing both the Dalit Panthers and the RPI. “There are too many leaders and not enough workers. Even for protests, there are no workers coming out onto the streets. When this is the situation, how can any resurgence happen?” says Jondhale.

However, he further says the future could see the emergence of newer Dalit leaders in India. “The concerns of the Dalits have changed. The era of globalisation has impacted the community like every other. There is political cynicism amongst the Dalits. From this could emerge new leaders. If this happens it could be a different direction for the Dalit movement in the country. In Maharashtra too, there will be the emergence of new Dalit politics,” says the scholar.