First meeting of Black Panthers & Dalit Panthers soon: Why this is historic

In an interview to TNM’s Executive Editor Sudipto Mondal, Bhim Army's Rahul Pradhan talks about the conference, shares some interesting Panthers anecdotes from his childhood, and says there is more 'ideological clarity' in the anti-caste movement today.
Rahul Pradhan
Rahul Pradhan
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On May 28 and 29, a historic conference is scheduled to take place at Nanded city in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra which will bring together — for the first time on a common platform — erstwhile leaders of the Black Panther Party of the US and the Dalit Panthers of India. The event which is being organised to mark the Golden Jubilee year of the Dalit Panthers, will feature icons such as Henry Gaddis and Michael D McCarty from the US and JV Pawar and Indira Athawale from the Indian side.

It all started when a group of young writers and activists from Scheduled Caste communities discovered a copy of the Time Magazine that featured the Black Panthers of the US and started planning to build something similar in India. On May 29 this year, it will be 50 years since that radical young group came together to form the Dalit Panthers in Maharashtra.

Many of the Black and Dalit panthers did not make it past their youth as they fell to brutal reprisals from White and Hindu supremacists backed by the police and governments of the two large democracies. Many more vanished into obscurity. But their ideas changed the course of the anti-caste and anti-racism movements in their countries and globally.

The Black panthers introduced aggressive self-defense and a new vocabulary of self-respect. They ushered out the era when even African American leaders accepted the 'N-word' as a legitimate way to address Black people. Although the word ‘Dalit’ is of an older vintage, the panthers in Maharashtra provided it with the momentum that has today made the word ‘Dalit’ globally recognisable as a term of self-identification for the communities considered untouchable. Just the same, the era post the Dalit Panthers saw the words like ‘Harijan’ or ‘Girijan’, which are detested by anti-caste intellectuals, going out of circulation.

The men who founded the Dalit Panthers in 1972 experimented with an ideology that was a mix of Ambedkarite Buddhism and Marxism. They tried to combine this with the Black Panthers’ style of militancy and self-defense.

It was a mix of isms that at once fired the imagination of many young Dalits, even as it perplexed more traditional anti-caste organisations of the time. What part of it was Marxist and what part was Ambedkarite or Buddhist? What did militant self-defense mean in the Indian context, which is similar yet very different from the world in which the Black Panthers operated?

Indeed, it is on the question of ideology that the Dalit Panthers was suddenly declared “dissolved” by its two most prominent founders — Namdeo Dhasal and JV Pawar — on March 7, 1977 — less than five years after it was founded.

These questions are expected to be at the centre of the table during the two-day conference in Nanded, which is set to feature many young Dalit leaders who represent a spectrum of views on the Caste question.

Rahul Pradhan, the Maharashtra chief of the Bhim Army and main organiser of the Nanded conference, sees himself and the organisation he now leads as the natural legatees of the Panthers’ tradition. Born in a family of Dalit Panther activists, Pradhan has been the face of many militant agitations. He played a key part in the Rohith Vemula, Bhima Koregaon and Una movements.

In this interview to TNM’s Executive Editor, Sudipto Mondal, Pradhan shares some interesting Panthers anecdotes from his childhood and says there is more 'ideological clarity' in the anti-caste movement today.


Red flag or Blue flag, Dhamma Chakra or the hammer-and-sickle; Jai Bhim or Laal Salaam, caste or class. Does the question that confounded and ultimately dismembered the Dalit Panthers continue to be relevant today?

I believe that the question of Left or Ambedkarite was resolved at the time of the Dalit Panthers’ dissolution itself. You see, what happened is, the job of drafting the Dalit Panthers' manifesto was taken up by the poet Namdeo Dhasal.

Now, it was well known that Dhasal was somebody who had greater communist leanings. Expectedly, there was a clear imprint of that ideology in the manifesto he submitted. My father, SM Pradhan, who was at the time one of the top Panthers in the Marathwada region, immediately raised an alarm saying the Dalit Panthers manifesto by Dhasal looked like the communist manifesto. Under his guidance, a rejoinder to the manifesto called ‘Naama ya Jahirnama’ was released in the form of booklets which were widely read and discussed across the state.

As we know, these things finally led to the dissolution of the party as there could be no compromise with communism. My father and other leaders then went on to form the Bharatiya Dalit Panthers which had a clear Buddhist-Ambedkarite ideological line. So, to that extent, I do consider the question of red and blue settled.

Importantly, I feel that there is greater maturity and intellectual resources in the anti-caste movement today. You see, the people who were behind the formation of the Dalit Panthers were from the first generation of literate Dalits in post independent India. Today, we have a large number of extremely learned Dalit intellectuals who are globally placed and have a deeper understanding of various ideologies.

There was a time when Ambedkar was not given his due as a thinker, on the same plane as Karl Marx, by upper-caste academics from the Left tradition in Indian universities. But Ambedkar’s voluminous writing is today a subject of much excitement among researchers and scholars across the world. In the days of the Panthers, the Ambedkarite thought and movement was only in its early stages. Our movement is far more advanced today, we are still growing rapidly, critical theories are being freshly derived from Ambedkar’s writings.

People on the Left, on the other hand, have run out of ideas. They are experimenting with a hotchpotch mix of class and caste based politics and they have lost all ideological clarity. It is because of the power of ideas that the Ambedkarite movement has generated in the last two decades that the Left is confused and looking for a new approach. They have now also started invoking Ambedkar and started forming units of Dalits and Adivasis.

These are also dangerous times because Left organisations are trying to infiltrate and hijack anti-caste movements. People may still say that there are a few ideas from the Left which could be relevant in the anti-caste context. I fail to see what those ideas are.

If those ideas relate to issues of labour, economic policy and workers’ rights, then the Ambedkarite ideology is theoretically sound on those questions too. As Ambedkar said, 'caste is not division of labour it is the division of labourers.' The Left is incapable of grasping this nuance.

Our intellectuals are today in a position to debate these things with any top Left intellectual. You can already see that in the top social sciences universities of India and the world, Ambedkarite thinkers are creating a new discourse which has the Left in retreat.

In fact, we have presented a more graded sociological understanding of labour relations compared to the Left, which is still unable to look beyond the wage question. Our is a movement of toiling castes that is led by the toiling castes; theirs is supposedly a working class movement but is led by the bourgeois.

We do not really need Marx or Mao (Tse Tung). I think it is time Marxists started reading about what Ambedkar had to say on Capital, labour, the market and economic policy.

You are in the Bhim Army and one can instantly see how your organisation might find inspiration in the Panthers. What part of their history interests you the most?

In some ways, it is deja vu, as though history is repeating itself. There has been an increase in organised violence and atrocities against Blacks as well as Dalits. The activists who are fighting back are being countered with enormous use of force by the state, irrespective of which party is in power. This is not just about the Bhim Army but about a generation of young and educated Blacks and Dalits from university campuses suddenly coming of age as a political force.

It reminds me of the stories I had heard as a child about the days when Raja Dhale, JV Pawar, Namdeo Dhasal, Arjun Dangle, Arun Kamble and my father used to meet and discuss political strategies in the Siddharth Vihar hostel of the Ambedkar College in Wadala, Mumbai. This was the group that discovered the legendary copy of the Time Magazine about the Black Panthers. The ideas they read about set their minds and the anti-caste movement on fire.

Those were the days when endless atrocities were being committed by the upper castes in Maharashtra who resented the small gains in education and employment that Dalits had made. Let’s also not forget that the time when the Dalit Panthers were at their peak was also when Indira Gandhi, backed by a section of Indian communists, was at the peak of her powers. The emergency was declared a few years after the Panthers were formed. There were heavy reprisals and Panther leaders were hunted down mercilessly by the Congress regime of the time.

In fact, the attacks from the state machinery, which tried to brand the Panthers as a violent/extremist organisation, was also one of the reasons for the dissolution of the organisation. When we speak about the Emergency, we often forget that Dalit activists, particularly the Panthers, were some of the prime targets of that regime.

We are seeing a similar situation today when it comes to the struggles by Blacks in the US and Dalits here. In both countries, the governments have reacted violently to this organising. It is because they know that these movements threaten to fundamentally alter the status quo.

Look at how the police and intelligence agencies have responded to the Rohith Vemula movement, the Bhim Army, the Bhima Koregaon movement, and the Una agitation. It is proof of the fact that the anti-caste movement poses the most serious threat to Hindutva mobilisation.   

I feel that the Bhim Army is an updated version of the ideology that gave birth to the Panthers. Under the leadership of Chandrashekhar Azad we are able to see the same kind of excitement in the people as I saw as a little boy in the 1970s.

In the days of my father, Panthers fans used to come to meetings by walking several kilometres from the villages. Today, with social media our message is reaching a much larger audience. We are known all over the country and in a short span of time we have been able to spread pan-India.

This conference you are organising in Nanded is eight hours by road from the nearest airport — an unlikely venue for an international conference, don't you think?

I thought it would be a great idea to get people from America and from big cities in India to see how people’s movements are built in places without roads and airports. You would have heard about Nagpur, Pune, Aurangabad and Mumbai but do you know about the contribution of Nanded in the anti-caste politics of Maharashtra?

When Babasaheb Ambedkar converted to Buddhism and launched the Republican Party of India in place of the All India Scheduled Caste Federation, Nanded gave the party its first Member of Parliament: Harihar Rao Sonule.

Nanded is a place where Dalits have traditionally been well organised and extremely politically aware. The largest rallies of the Dalit Panthers in those years actually happened in Nanded. Even when rallies happened in Mumbai, Dalits from Nanded formed the largest contingents. This is a place where every Dalit woman and child knows the ideology of Ambedkar-Phule-Buddha.

After the Dalit Panthers phase, when the Namantar Andolan started in 1978 to rename the Marathwada university as BR Ambedkar University, Nanded became a major centre of political activity for Navayana Buddhists and Ambedkarites.

The Namantar Andolan resulted in major losses for the Dalits of Nanded and many were killed in police and upper caste attacks. I want you media people to cover this conference and tell the world about people from Nanded who were martyred during the Namantar Andolan such as Gotham Whagmare, Janardhan Mawade, and Kochiram Kamble, who was beheaded by an upper caste mob for participating in the movement.

Nanded, because of its remoteness, never gets mentioned for anti-caste activism the same way Mumbai and Nagpur do. There aren't many books or research papers on the anti caste politics of this region. This conference is a good way to start the change.

Speaking of research, a lot of original literature and archival material about the Ambedkarite movement in Maharashtra has literally been stolen by unscrupulous scholars. On one side, there is a dearth of writing on Dalit history, on the other side there is a new scramble for Dalit archives. This material has become very valuable for people studying political science, sociology, labour and gender in the South Asian context.

You won't believe how many of these university professor or PhD researcher types have stolen material from my father. They would come home, spot an interesting letter or pamphlet and just vanish with them. They would say they are borrowing it for a few days but we would never see the material again.

When my father died, within a few days I started getting calls from such people asking for some document or the other. Back then, I was still young and did not understand this game of stealing our historical records. I was naive and thought, ‘Well, this is all just gathering dust. If somebody takes this and publishes this, at least people will come to know about the contribution of my father and the other panthers.’ What it actually did is make our history somebody else’s copyrighted property.

But this will not happen anymore, not in today’s time. We have internationally recognised scholars in our community who know the value of our intellectual produce and know how to represent our people’s heritage on the international stage.

This is why I am very excited that the Harvard educated scholar Suraj Yengde is part of this conference and delivering the keynote lecture. Like me, Suraj is also a Panther cub from Nanded; his parents too were in the Ambedkarite movement. We have had many exciting discussions about how to archive our Marathwada history and present it to the world as a shining example of revolutionary grassroots mobilisation.

There are so many stories here that people outside need to know. The leadership of Dalit women in this region, the fights they launched during the Namantar Andolan is the stuff of movies. My grandmother, for instance, barged into the Parliament building in Delhi during Namantar. Her photo appeared in the Times of India. Those women are still around, still providing leadership, holding the community together during times of agitations and turmoil. I want their histories to be recorded properly; they should get the recognition they deserve.

Since you bring up women, I notice that your list of speakers at the Nanded conference does not have many women.

We do have Indira Athawale, she is one of the main speakers and she is not just a token but a powerful Dalit leader. In the 1970s, she was one of the most prominent leaders of the PASA (Phule Ambedkar Students Association) in Maharashtra. Under her leadership, the PASA was at one point more powerful and larger than the Left-wing Students Federation of India (SFI) which had far greater resources and a national party at its disposal. She also worked closely with Raja Dhale during several militant agitations.

But yes, I too am disappointed with the fact that there aren't many women on the panel. We had invited a few Dalit women leaders from campuses but they could not make it. Yes, this is on our mind, and particularly in my own political life I am committed to building female leadership.

But at the same time, I want to counter the impression that women are missing from Ambedkarite organising. It is quite the opposite at least in Maharashtra. Women have played a key role throughout the agitations I grew up witnessing. I told you about my grandmother, you know, she was the president of a unit of the Dalit Panthers.

I want you to visit Nanded, I will take you to meet all the women who were part of the movement in the 1970s and are still active. They are still turning up for agitations, still singing revolutionary songs, still leading and preparing future generations of anti-caste warriors. Just like many other aspects, the participation of women in the movement hasn't been recorded properly. It doesn't mean they weren't part of it or weren't in leadership roles. There are district and state level Dalit women leaders in Marathwada who are also daily wage workers.

What is happening in Maharashtra with the Maha Vikas Aghadi government which claims to be secular and pro-Dalit? You had many police cases filed against you when the BJP was in power. Has the present government softened things? What happened to the Bhima Koregaon cases?

See, that’s the thing about life as a Dalit activist — no mainstream political party can tolerate us. The Ambedkarite movement is a threat to every political party. In this government, there is a lot of invocation of Ambedkar and Phule, but on the ground we are being sabotaged at every step.

Efforts by Dalit Ambedkarites to organise are still being targeted by both government agencies as well as caste Hindu groups. Our people are still struggling to get FIRs registered in police stations when atrocities are committed against them. The accused are alerted when our people file atrocity cases and we are in-turn booked in false cases, accusing us of outraging upper-caste women, or stealing and dacoity.

As you know, we have been organising with gusto in the state since 2016 but the pandemic caused a disruption. This is when the upper castes across Maharashtra took the chance to hit back. Dalit labourers who were returning from cities were attacked under the cover of lockdown. The excuse of the pandemic was also used to socially segregate Dalits who were returning to the villages. Our people were at the mercy of the state machinery, the police, and also the upper caste elites, for our very survival.

Coming to the Bhima Koregaon case, there has been no let-up in the pressure from the police. The case against me is still pending. There are some 8,000 Dalit youngsters who were booked by the police at the instance of the then BJP government.

At least in my case, I was at the site of the agitation, I was one of the leaders and speakers. I did give a speech saying that Dalits would have to take law into their own hands if the police did not protect us. This can be interpreted in any way and we will see the matter in court.

But if you look at the thousands of Dalits who have been booked, many of them had no connection to the Bhima Koregaon movement. Young Dalits were just randomly picked up from the streets, from homes and booked in cases. This is what you call collective punishment. This is a way to show that all Dalits will be punished if some speak up.

There is also an attempt by the police to brand radical Ambedkarites as Maoists. This would have been laughable considering how far we are from that ideology, but for the fact that the police are serious and bent on proving that we are extremists.

Read other interviews by Sudipto Mondal

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