The Panthers growl again: A short memoir of a historic Dalit-Black conference

We wanted to give a radical response to the atrocities that were growing. In a time of no mobile phones and internet, we mobilised people across Maharashtra by the thousands, said JV Pawar, co-founder of Dalit Panthers.
(L to R) Henry Gaddis, Michael ‘Mac’ McCarty, JV Pawar, Jakobi Williams and Bharthi Prabhu at the Dalit Panther-Black Panther conference held at Nanded on May 28 and 29.
(L to R) Henry Gaddis, Michael ‘Mac’ McCarty, JV Pawar, Jakobi Williams and Bharthi Prabhu at the Dalit Panther-Black Panther conference held at Nanded on May 28 and 29.
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“Aiiieee…yiyiyiyiyiyi…aiyeeeiiiiooooo!” Black Panther Michael “Mac” McCarty let out this throaty cry as soon as he got the stage with his comrade Henry Gaddis and the man often referred to as the ‘last panther', JV Pawar, co-founder of the Dalit Panthers. The crowd – mostly young Dalits who had gathered for the first ever conference between the Dalit Panthers of India and Black Panthers of the US at Nanded on May 28 – didn't know what to make of it.

Speculation about what the cry meant became a mini-obsession within the small group with whom I hung out during the two-day conference last weekend: a sociology student, a painter, a PhD scholar and a young journalist. Was that a slogan of the Black Panthers, something they did every time they gathered? Was that from Native American culture? Was it an African war cry? Surely, it has to have some connection to tribal culture? Michael has dreadlocks, could it be something from a Rastafari ritual, we wondered.


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He let out a giant laugh when I finally tracked him down and asked about it. He couldn't believe we’d been silly enough to seek profound meaning from his cry. “It just seemed like the right thing to do,” McCarty shrugged, “Y’know with the language gap and all…I just wanted to do something to show how excited I am to be here and to say that I love you all.”

McCarty got all of that love back, and some more. He couldn't walk a step for the next two days without somebody asking him for a selfie, a chat, a bearhug. As for profundity, he reserved it for the intense video interview he gave TNM with his mate Henry Gaddis in which he spoke about mass incarceration and the dangers before young African American children. When I reported back to the group with news of what “Aiiieee…yiyiyiyiyiyi…aiyeeeiiiiooooo!” meant, the others laughed as the PhD scholar responded sagely, “He is a free soul, not governed by White propriety. The body language of Dalits has been constricted by centuries of Brahminism.”

The beginning of a radical response

Back on-stage, the co-founder of the Dalit Panthers, JV Pawar set the tone for the historic conference during the inaugural session by reminding the audience of the contributions made by the Panthers. “We were active only for three years but we caught the country like wildfire in that time,” he said to rapturous applause, “We rattled the government of Indira Gandhi who was all-powerful at the time.”

He recalled the incident in Brahmangaon village of Parbhani district of Maharashtra in 1972, when two Dalit-Buddhist women were stripped and flogged with branches of the thorny Babool tree for trying to access water from a well, claimed by the local caste Hindus. Pawar said that he and Namdeo Dhasal, the firebrand anti-caste poet, were extremely unhappy with the response of the other Dalit groups of the time which were in talks with the government of the then Chief Minister Vasantrao Naik.

A participant at the conference

“Dhasal and I wanted to give a radical response to the atrocities that were growing. We formed the Dalit Panthers and our first action was to take a rally into Brahmangaon and restore the dignity of the two women who were stripped. In three years, we did what many are not able to do even today. In a time of no mobile phones and internet, we mobilised people across Maharashtra by the thousands. By the time we started our revolution, the Black Panthers of America had mostly been destroyed by the police and the government there. We decided to take their ideology of direct action forward and took power in our own hands without weapons. Ultimately, though, we met a similar end when Indira Gandhi imposed the emergency. But while we lasted, we were like Robinhood style rebels who fought for the people.”

Pawar also spoke about the internal conflicts which contributed to the destruction of the Panthers in the US and in India. “Many people in the movement sold out, many political parties feasted on what was left of the Panthers. These chamchas (stooges) exist even today. They need to be identified and we must be wary of them,” he said and took an oblique dig at Sharad Pawar, whose NCP is part of the ruling coalition in the state, “I may not be rich in terms of money, but my ideology and thoughts are rich. I am the richest Pawar in Maharashtra.” Pawar also gave an exclusive video interview to TNM where he shared many crucial bits of history, including the Dalit Panthers' complicated relationship with the communists.

Panthers’ shared story of surveillance and assasination

Henry Gaddis along with McCarty was part of the powerful Illinois chapter of the Panthers whose founder Fred Hampton was assassinated during a police raid at his residence at the age of 21. Gaddis was also focused on the aspect of ‘sabotage’ that has defined much of the Panthers’ existence. The two organisations which focused on militant self-defence were ruthlessly hunted down by the police and their leaders faced many assasination bids by white and Hindu supremacist groups. The Dalit Panthers, for instance, fought pitched street battles with Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena.

Gaddis opened with, “Enemies of the struggle, raise your hands, we know you are here and watching us." With that he instantly drew attention to the surveillance that the Panthers were subjected to throughout their existence. “You can execute a freedom fighter, you cannot execute freedom. You can murder a revolutionary but you cannot murder revolution,” Gaddis said, as McCarty joined chorus for these lines that were penned by Fred Hampton, and the crowd responded enthusiastically. “From America to Nicaragua, the Black Panthers became the very antithesis of western imperialism and colonialism.”

Gaddis said that the American people are caught between the "duopoly of the Democrats and Republicans" who he described as representatives of large corporate interests. “One is a party of fools and the other represents unmitigated evil. Like Virat Kohli, the politicians too should wear the logos of their sponsors,” he said. He later participated in an exclusive panel discussion hosted by TNM, where he elaborated on some of these concerns.

Sharing lesser known insights about the Black Panthers, African American historian and Associate Professor, Jakobi Williams, from the Indiana University in Bloomington, said that there was more to the Panthers than radical self-defence. He stressed on the need to revive landmark social programs of the Black Panthers which focussed on education, nutrition, legal-aid, medical-aid, and Black-owned cooperatives and businesses.

Education is the bedrock of anti-caste movement

Echoing a similar sentiment, Indira Pawar, who co-founded the powerful Phule Ambedkar Students’ Association (PASA) in Maharashtra in the late-1990s, said, “Our movement needs to move from being focussed on individual leaders and instead focus on preserving our thought and ideology.” She said that education needs to be the bedrock of the anti-caste movement. “This new generation of educated Dalits needs to be strengthened, their higher education needs to be our prime focus.”

She lashed out at the New Education Policy (NEP) of the BJP government at the centre and said that it was a project to create foot-soldiers for large industries. “The focus is not on intellectual growth but on skill development and vocational courses. They are trying to create workers, not scholars and intellectuals. Our emancipation is dependent on the growth of new ideas in the social and cultural domain. These ideas threaten the state which is focussed on providing manpower to their patron industries.”

Rahul Sonpimple, the PhD scholar who cofounded the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students' Association (BAPSA), the first anti-caste students union to contest the JNU elections, spoke about the need for internal democracy within Dalit organisations.

"The Republican Party of India (RPI) founded by Ambedkar declined because of infighting between different personality cults. They were replaced by the Dalit Panthers who also broke up as its powerful leaders pulled in opposite directions. Then came Kanshiram and the BAMCEF (All India Backward Class and Minority Communities Employees Forum). It was the largest Dalit-led, cadre-based formation the country had seen up until that point. But then Kanshiram broke away to form the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). And today the BSP too, is in decline," he said.

Staging from the play Blue Cap by Rahul Jondhale

Paraphrasing from Ambedkar's magnum opus 'Annihilation of Caste', Sonpimple argued that anti-caste movements tend to lose their radical edge in the hustle-bustle of politics. "Our focus must be first and foremost on the social program. And as a working-class community, we should be able to take a lead on labour issues and matters of economic policy."

He pointed out that the earliest labour unions in South Asia were formed by Dalits and not communists and said, "The economic agenda has become a silent element of the anti-caste Ambedkarite movement. This has to once again be brought to the centre of the agenda." He also invoked the contribution of the 19th century anti-caste educationist Savitribai Phule and said, "We need to build autonomous educational institutions and trade unions like BAMCEF, otherwise we will never be able to have the critical mass needed to eventually impact social and political change."

Sydney Paige Patterson, an African American PhD scholar researching Black and Dalit political movements, spoke about the attempts by BR Ambedkar to establish solidarities with the Black movement in the 1940s by contacting WEB Du Bois, the top black intellectual and activist of his time.

She said that Du Bois was very conscious about building solidarities with other oppressed communities and referred to his attempts at building pan-African solidarities. “He held conferences from Algeria to London and these interactions gave birth to new networks and ideologies.” She said that not just Ambedkar, but Phule too understood the need to invoke larger solidarities with other enslaved populations when he wrote ‘Ghulamgiri’ which compares the situation of Dalits with African slaves.

“What does it mean to be a problem?”

Patterson spoke about the struggle of Black feminists within formations like the Panthers and said that they had to fight being ignored and had to create their own space in the larger fight against racism. Throwing up the rhetorical question “what does it mean to be a problem”, she said that both Blacks and Dalits are prisoners of a narrative which prevents the communities from shaping their image on their own terms. She said that the Panthers movement was the “most visible celebration” of the shared history between African Americans and Dalits. “This consciousness broke national borders. It showed that borders don't matter to the oppressed. I find it remarkable that the 10-point program of the Black Panthers is so similar to the Dalit Panthers. You see a great emphasis on things such as police brutality, land rights, human rights, education and food.”

Sydney and Rahul are also scheduled to participate in a panel discussion hosted by TNM where they will share their impressions of the Nanded conference as well as reflect on the sudden coming together of the Black Lives Matter and Dalit Lives Matter movements during the 2015-16 uprisings in the US and India.

Delivering the keynote, one of the main organisers of the conference, author and scholar Dr Suraj Yengde called for “sibling solidarity” between Blacks and Dalits. “When George Floyd was killed by the police, we felt like one of our own had been slain. The same way, there is a need to cultivate responses from the African American community for atrocities on Dalits.” He said that the Dalit-led Ambedkarite movement has been expanding its global vision in the last few years. He pointed to the conference in October 2018 in Japan between the Buraku community there, which is considered untouchable, and the delegates from the Ambedkar International Mission (AIM). Among the things discussed at the summit was the possibility of joint lobbying by socially excluded groups on international forums such as the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

Black Panther Dalit Panther conference as a part of this larger vision

“We have extended solidarity to the victims of the Shinto dynasty in Japan, the Roma in Europe, and the African American community. All those who have experienced inter-generational oppression need to come together in the form of a global alliance,” he said. Describing the Black Panther Dalit Panther conference as a part of this larger vision, he also announced that Part-2 of the same event will be held in Columbia University New York in December this year. Dr. Yegde also announced that an archive of Dalit histories will be built in Nanded which is his hometown.

An air of nostalgia hung heavy on the event as people rued the fact that the Panthers were no longer around. Even as some speakers made calls for a revival of the Panthers, a man from Tamil Nadu reminded the gathering that the Panthers are still alive and kicking in Dravidian land: the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), also called the Liberation Panthers Party, founded by Thol Thirumavalavan in 1982, which is part of the DMK-led ruling coalition.

Bharthi Prabhu, who leads the VCK’s students wing the Revolutionary Students Front (RSF), said, “If the Dalit Panthers were inspired by the Black Panthers, the VCK was inspired by the Dalit Panthers.” He said that the RSF started organising graduation ceremonies for Dalits across Tamil Nadu in which African students were also invited. This, he said, was directly inspired by the Black graduation ceremonies conducted by the Panthers in the US. “We conducted Da-Africa football tournaments every year between Dalits teams and teams of students from countries such as Nigeria and Ghana who are studying in Tamil Nadu.”

He said that the Panthers in TN are also working very hard to build cultural coalitions between African and Dalit students in the state through music and dance. “We need to build coalitions on the ground at a practical level. It will have an international impact.” He also announced that plans are on to conduct a Black-Dalit graduation ceremony in Nagpur, Maharashtra, the heartland of the Ambedkarite-Buddhist movement. “Tamil and Marathi organisations will collaborate for this,” he said.

Prabhu said that there was an organic connection between the ‘Black is beautiful' consciousness among African Americans and the Blue colour that unites Dalits in India. Slipping into a metaphor, he said, “Black and blue are the order of nature. Black represents one half, the earth, and Blue represents the other half, the sky. Black is our roots, Blue is our future.”

With inputs from Sushmit Panzade and Rahul Bhise.

(Sudipto Mondal is the Executive Editor at The News Minute. Sushmit Panzade is an anti-caste writer and Rahul Bhise is an independent journalist.)

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