Raja Dhale passes away aged 78: Remembering the tireless Panther who fired the Dalit literary imagination

  • Raja Dhale’s words gave voice, and a philosophy, to the grief of the masses — something that no writer of his time had hitherto been able to provide

  • With Dhale’s demise, India has lost not only the Panther who fought for his people, but also an individual with a vision for the new life

Every year on 6 December, the death anniversary of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, Chaityabhoomi in Dadar, Mumbai, is the site for a gathering unlike any other. At the surrounding Shivaji Park, hundreds of bokstores — stalls really, made of bamboo and cloth — come up, stocking titles that you wouldn’t find elsewhere. Two such pandals are invariably amongst them, set up at a distance of 100 metres or so from each other.

One of the stalls belongs to JV Pawar, eminent historian, wrier, and founding member of the Dalit Panthers.  The other also belonged to a founding member of the Panthers — Raja Dhale, the Buddhist philosopher, writer, poet, painter and art critic, who passed away on 16 July 2019 aged 78.

Dhale’s stall was less a spot for him to sell his books and more a place to meet with Ambedkarite writers, activists, intellectuals and his followers. Amid the dust and bustle of Shivaji Park, and songs about Ambedkar and Buddha being played over loudspeakers, Dhale could be seen mingling with visitors, engaged in conversation. On the rare occasions that he was alone, he’d silently contemplate the Ambedkari Samaj before him.  This year, Dhale’s presence at Chaityabhoomi will be sorely missed, even if his book stall itself is opened in its usual spot.

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Dhale was born on 30 September 1940 in Nandre village in Sangli, Maharashtra. At the age of six, he was brought to then Bombay by his uncle. Later, he would study at Siddharth College, Fort, among the Mumbai institutions run by the People’s Education Society. (The Society was established by Dr Ambedkar.) It was at Siddharth College that Dhale became acquainted with many of the peers who would later become the giants of Dalit literature (and indeed, literature in general); it was here that his literary pursuits gained an ideological dimension.

In the early 1970s in Maharastra, the political situation of the Dalit/Buddhist community had undergone several setbacks. The political leadership had splintered; atrocities against the community were rampant nationwide, as highlighted in the 1972 Perumal Committee Report. At the time, Dhale lived at the Siddharth College hostel in Wadala. The college was where Dalit activists and prominent figures like Namdeo Dhasal, JV Pawar, Arun Kamble (all of whom would soon lay the foundations of the Dalit Panthers) met, to share their ideas. Dhale was perhaps the most creative among them. The Perumal Committee Report had enraged them, but they also wished to channelise their anger in a concrete and constructive way.

 Raja Dhale passes away aged 78: Remembering the tireless Panther who fired the Dalit literary imagination

Buldhana, 1973. Raja Dhale is seated in the centre of the middle row. To his right, are Arjun Gawai and Namdeo Dhasal

These newly educated and energised Dalit/Buddhist youth formed a front called the Yuvak Aghadi (The Youth Front), which then became the Dalit Panthers in 1972. The rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, in later years, the Dalit Panthers too broke apart. The split was interpreted in various ways but the most commonly accepted narrative (as set down in books and reported by activists) attributes it to the ideological inclinations of the organisation’s leaders. Namdeo Dhasal was more partial to Marxist ideas for achieving the community’s goals and Dhale held steadfast to the Buddhist way of struggle. Split notwithstanding, the Dalit Panthers were and continue to be a guiding force for Dalit youth fighting discrimination.

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The founding members of the Dalits Panthers were all also brilliant writers, so it was only natural that their influence over society would also be disseminated through their literature.  Dhale was extremely well versed in the subjects of history, ideology, religion, language and art and aesthetics, as they pertained to India. In 1950, along with Appa Ranpise and Bhausaheb Adsul from Worli’s BDD Chawl, Dhale formed an organisation called the Maharashtra Dalit Sahitya Sangh.

According to Jayawant Hire, a senior Ambedkarite activist from Ramabai Nagar, Dhale was “in the truest sense, the pioneer of Little Magazine Movement — especially when it was dominated by so-called liberal Savarna writers”. The Marathi literary magazine SatyaKatha, then considered prestigious, was called out by Dhale for its Savarna-dominated content. An avid reader, Dhale (while pursuing his MA) had combed through the literature published by SatyaKatha over 34 years to articulate a sharp, withering, 48-page critique.

Other instances also show Dhale’s keen sense of justice, his mastery of language and philosophy. In 1972, a Dalit/Buddhist woman had been paraded naked in a village in Maharashtra. On Independence Day that year, Dhale authored an article titled “Kala Swatantra Din” (Black Independence Day) in the Marathi weekly Sadhana, comparing the value of the tricolour to the dignity of Dalit/Buddhist women. Then, at the inaugural event for Namdeo Dhasal’s Golpitha, the famous writer Durga Bhagwat also delivered a speech. In it, Bhagwat supported legalising sex work, saying it kept other women safe. Dhale countered Bhagwat’s point by asking if she’d be willing to start this legal prostitution with herself. Dhale’s point was what Bhagwat had chosen to ignore: the caste to which the majority of sex workers belonged.

Dikshabhoomi, Nagpur,1980. Raja Dhale stands in the middle, wearing black sunglasses.

Dikshabhoomi, Nagpur,1980. Raja Dhale stands in the middle, wearing black sunglasses.

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His language may have been sharp, but it was used only in the pursuit of justice and mental liberation. Dhale’s words gave voice, and a philosophy, to the grief of the masses — something that no writer of his time had hitherto been able to provide. Perhaps his artistic imagination had something to do with this ability (Dhale was a painter). His words and art are remarkable in the sense that they link present-day Dalits/Buddhists with their history, making them beings with a history.

“Raja Dhale was a solid painter with an independent view of Buddhist art… He was also a pioneer of the theory suggesting that in India, whenever the influence of caste waned, art had prospered. His illustrations of the paintings in the Karla caves and Ajanta are very important because they express the cultural/relational history of the Buddhist people, says Dr Sunil Awachar, poet, painter and professor in Mumbai University’s Department of Marathi.

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With Dhale’s demise, India has lost not only the Panther who fought for his people, but also an individual with a vision for the ‘new life’. A writer who laid bare the hypocrisies of Savarnas, disguised as their liberalism. An individual who had a language for the new world, who dared go beyond the trap of identities. A man who boldly proclaimed that humaneness, and not Dalitness, must be our ultimate goal.

Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther's Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Updated Date: Jul 19, 2019 10:09:11 IST