Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History book review — JV Pawar documents facts, fanaticism and a movement against caste oppression

JV Pawar’s recently translated book in English from Marathi, Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History, is the first-hand documentation of how and why the movement of Dalit Panthers took shape in Maharashtra and how it spread across several Indian states from south to north.

Being one of the founding members of the Dalit Panthers, besides Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale, and others, the narrative transports us through the time that gave birth to an unprecedented anti-caste movement, Dalit Panthers. This book not only offers us the background of the emergence of Dalit Panthers but surprises us by telling tales behind the stories popularised by media and literature of dominants.

 Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History book review — JV Pawar documents facts, fanaticism and a movement against caste oppression

Cover of the book Dalit Panthers — An Authoritative History. Image courtesy: Forward Press

The book is an enthusiastic read for those who are interested in knowing history through the eyes of Dalits. In this sense, this book, unlike those written with a dominant Brahminical imagination on Dalit Panthers, offers us the scope to learn that history in India has many facets. It also tells us that history, once it is written and produced as narratives, changes with the caste-class location of a person who writes it.

Pawar, in his book, mentions incidents of caste-atrocities, which perhaps are never heard or forgotten long before. Therefore, this book is a rare documentation of both facts and fanaticism of upper caste culprits who committed atrocities on Dalits. For example, in a chapter called 'Inhuman blinding of the Gavai Brother', he mentions:

On 26 September 1974, a barbaric act was committed in Dhakli village of Akola district. The eyes of two brothers were gouged out for resisting injustice. The incident did not receive the attention it deserved till I called a press conference in Mumbai on 25 January 1975. The residents of the village had justified the act and created an impression that two local goons had been punished. They failed to see that even if the two men had indulged in a criminal act, they had no authority to take the law into their own hands and mete out punishment. Nobody bothered to find out whether they were really criminals and what their crime was.

One of the facts, as the book suggests, behind the atrocities that went unheard and unnoticed was also the inability of the political leaders among Dalits to address the issues and demand for justice, as most of them either had their own separate groups such as the Republican Party of India (RPI) or Congress had strategically co-opted them. Depicting this awful situation about Dalit leaders, Pawar writes that “some of them went on to become leaders but could not give up their old habits. After Dr Ambedkar’s death, the movement disintegrated. These squabbling leaders fell prey to the crooked politics of the Congress party that led to further division in society”.

The result of this, claims Pawar, was that the gap between Dalit leaders and masses widened. The restlessness and hopelessness among the people was widespread. In such a situation, as we read in the book, a few Dalit youths from Mumbai (then known as Bombay) mostly talented budding writers and poets — Pawar being one of them — decided to resist the onslaught of atrocities on Dalits. Thus, there emerged Dalit Panthers, a movement responsible for transforming the realm of consciousness of Dalit youth in Maharashtra for several decades.

In the absence of any written history on Dalit Panthers by the Panthers, people's imagination of this movement could have been different. Hence, it is in this context that Pawar’s documentation of events, incidents, conflicts and the politics in this book makes a compulsory reading. But the book is not only an attempt to document or write but also tell the angst among the Dalit youth back then, and which translated into their radical stands against caste, and drawing further, strategies to tackle the issues of atrocities on Dalits.

Unlike the decades-long struggle in the past, especially when Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar was alive, the Dalits under Dalit Panthers — taking cues from the Black Panthers of America — abled themselves to fight against oppression and oppressors, by being present at the sight of atrocity in a group of hundred or often thousands.

This book is full of such atrocious stories presenting the ugly face of the country. This furious sense of unity among them (the Dalit Panthers) further provided utmost confidence to the Dalit youth that was necessary to fight oppression by the Upper castes and articulate resistance through poems, stories, and songs.

Pawar who has authored more than two dozen of books on the Dalit movement has undoubtedly managed to express the anger in the form of this book. This book is a priceless souvenir for one who aspires to resist caste, to fight it, and to write the songs of resistance.

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Updated Date: Apr 15, 2018 08:27:11 IST