Sunday, September 03, 2006

Namdeo Dhasal and the Fall of the Dalit Panther Movement

While I write this at night
it's three o' clock
Though I want to have a drink
I don't feel like drinking.
Only I want to sleep peacefully
And tomorrow morning see no varnas
- Namdeo Dhasal

Namdeo Dhasal now makes news only for moving further away from the cause he stood for, that is for moving away from Marxism to the Shiv Sena and now to the Sangh Parivar's fountainhead- the RSS- organizations that he had once bitterly opposed.

But once Namdeo Dhasal had founded the Dalit Black Panthers movement in 1972, and heralded the era of Dalit poetry, though the term Dalit Poetry had existed since 1958.

Anand Teltumbde places his poetry in the context of his times (the early seventies):
The times were just ripe for the protest movement of dalits to germinate.... The most notable example of this protest came in light in the form of Golpitha- a collection of poems by Namdeo Dhasal. Golpitha - name of a red-light district in Mumbai, depicted the tough life of a dalit there and is considered as Dhasal's most stellar work. People were shocked by the raw energy exuded by each of its word entirely unfamiliar to the established literary circles. They had never seen quite like it before. Its proletarian lingo, iconoclastic imagery, defiant idiom and terrible anger shook the establishment to its very foundation. A spate of poetry followed
Dhasal's poetry is powerful and poignant, and very raw.

Dhasal's poetry is shocking to those who have not experienced the excruciating circumstances of caste exploitation:
In one of his poems Dhasal describes how caste society and male domination deformed his mother, making her into a "machinery for the production of worms." Identifying with her spiritual butchery at the hands of a bigoted society, he tells her, "Just as I have been stripped bare, so have you." This identification with his mother, however, doesn't lead him to inner healing; instead, it hardens him and gives his despair an unpredictable edge. With a baiting bitterness, he asks her, "On the day you cut my umbilical cord, why didn't you slash my throat with your fingernail?" He then proceeds to rail at her some more, accusingly but also as an act of self-mutilating triumph over any possibility of romanticization --

You didn't even moo once from the depths.
You didn't stir the sky with a shrill cry.
The earth didn't crack.
How easily you lived, wrapped in rhinoceros hide.
In What More Than This Can Be, he wrote:
I am a common man of this contemporary history
I have put down the head guard out of self-humility
I wish to embrace deeply my innermost being
That will end up the essence,
Do not shed the innocent skin of this grammar
After all this heinous world belongs to human beings
Power is not in words but in the desire
This fever-stricken, exaggerated pretention
Will bother the deep relations
Clear away the self-chosen inhuman path
Seasons come and go
Who are you waiting for?
Dhasal has since then moved across the political spectrum from Leftist leanings to now sharing the stage with RSS leaders. It is a left handed tribute to the Dalit Panthers' movement that even the Shiv Sena, once a backward caste outfit opposed to the Dalit cause, now allies with one or the other splinter groups. Ram Puniyani explains the phenomemon well:
Dalit panthers came up as the most promising organisation for dalit rights and their path was that of alliance with the other oppressed sections of society. They broadened the definition of dalits to include workers, minorities, adivasis and women. This indicated the line of allaince to be followed. This last concerted effort fell to pieces with different leaders of dalit movement getting co-opted by one or the other political power or personality.
Though Dhasal now has his own convoluted explanation:
"But Dalits have come into political power in some places," Namdeo said. "They are accused of corruption, but they learned it from the Brahmins who ruled before them. The reservations do not work as they now stand. I believe that our people will start to make more demands and the Hindus will be forced to submit to them."
Dilip Chitre considers him to be one of the towering poets of the 20th century:
Namdeo is a big poet in the sense Whitman, Mayakovsky and Neruda are big. But unlike them, his poetry contains large chunks of a real and dirty world peopled by have-nots and their slang. Henry Miller once said, “I am not creating values; I defecate and nourish.” Namdeo did precisely this for Marathi poetry. He restored its soil-cycle by feeding it the very excrement and garbage that could fertilise it for the future.
The interview with Namdeo Dhasal alone makes VS Naipaul's India: A Million Mutinies Now worth a read.

Poetry is politics, he once stated. Undoubtedly, his current politics will not cast a shadow on his poetry and Dhasal's poetry will live long after his current politics is dead.

More on Namdeo Dhasal, his poetry and his political drift from Marxism to the Sangh Parivar.

Picture: Dalit poet and leader Namdeo Dhasal shakes hands with RSS chief K Sudarshan at a book release function in New Delhi on Wednesday (Acknowledgement: ToI)

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Jack Stephens said...

Wow, that is truly sad to see someone of such stature to be moving further from a just and righteous cause that he helped create. I'm definitely coming to your blogsite more often to learn about India and whatever else you have to say.

Anonymous said...


I think this is really welcome development

Belated realisation on part of Dhasal that Marxism is the worst manifestation of neo-brahminism

Working in tandem with Hindu forces (despite having few lumpen elemnts and many bigoted elments in their ranks,they do solid work with poor/ tribals/marginalised)is better than wasting precious time in attending seminars/talks shows and other form of pseudo-intellectual exercises organised by rich commies /pinkos/useul idiots

bhupinder singh said...

Jack: Thanks for your comment and hope to see you here more often !

Anonymous: I understand the thrust of your comment, though I do not agree with it. As a theory to understand social and classs discrepancies, Marxism remains a powerful tool. For all their work among the tribals and other sections, Hindutva ultimately is a movement for the upper castes (in essence it's agenda is as much casteist as communal).

This doesn't absolve the Left of its inability to understand and address the Dalit/caste question, and to a large extent you are correct that they represent neo- Brahmanism.

Perhaps the only ones on the Left who have provided a space for Dalit activists are the Naxalites.

Alok said...

thanks for all the links. I didn't know about it at all though I had heard of him. I am also amused by the ignorance of the anonymous commenter above.

you have got a great blog here. Will come here more often. thanks!

bhupinder singh said...

Thanks for your comment, Alok. Do keep coming back !

Polaris said...

I do remember reading about Dhasal in India, A Million Mutinies Now, and I agree that it was the most interesting part of that book. Did you know that Dhasal's poetry has been compared to T.S. Elliot's The Waste Land?

I didn't know about this shift in his political loyalties. I should follow local politics more.


Its great to read about "Panthe Namdeo". I still hear from senior members of my society the stories of how panthers like Namdeo dhasal, ramdas Athavale, Bhai Sangare fought for the right and dignity of our society. I feel a proud to declare that i come from same society.

bhupinder said...

I am sure you have a lot to be proud of, especially the initial years of the Dalit Panthers are deeply inspiring.

Incidentally, this is my old blog, you may like to read the one at its new location