Raja Dhale, a Firebrand Anti-Caste Leader Who Rebelled Against the Normative

Dhale, one of the founders of the Dalit Panther movement, was a bold writer and brilliant satirical cartoonist.

It was the 25th year of India’s independence. Even as the nation was in a celebratory mood, Sadhana, a socialist magazine in Pune, decided to take the bold step of publishing an acerbic, three-page essay titled ‘Kala Swatantrya Din (Black Independence Day)’ in its August 15, 1972 edition.

With this piece, writer Raja Dhale, then a 32-year-old firebrand anti-caste activist, poet, author and brilliant satire cartoonist, stirred up a storm among Dalit youth in Mumbai city. He had formally established himself as a formidable ideologue of the newly floated ‘Dalit Panther’ organisation.

Dhale, one of the founding members of the radical Dalit Panther movement, continued his journey as a writer, artist and political thinker throughout his life. On July 16, 2019, he breathed his last. He was 79. He is survived by one daughter, Gatha, who is presently with the Republican Party of India (Athawale)

The beginning of 1970 marked a major landmark in the history of Dalit Bahujan assertion in India, more particularly in Maharashtra. Atrocities against the Dalit community were rising and Dhale was deeply involved in tackling questions around the community’s social and political welfare.

Also read: How the Dalit Panthers Attempted to Break Free of Shackles

Even before the Panther movement sowed its seeds of resistance, Dhale was a well-known figure in student politics. He had migrated to Mumbai from Nandre village of Palus taluka in Sangli district as a young schoolboy, and would always be surrounded by school-going boys and girls from nearby Dalit bastis. Shantaram Pandere, his very young roommate (he was in class eight at that time) at Sidharth hostel near Matunga, recalls the several hours of discussion and planning before Dhale produced a piece rebuking the state.

Pandere, former general secretary of the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh (BBM), continued to work with Dhale for several decades until Dhale decided to quit the BBM and continue on his quest to explore newer meanings of Buddhism and Ambedkarism, Pandere says. “I was still a schoolgoing boy when I first went to jail with Raja bhau in the early ’70s. We were 22 of us kept in Bhoiwada police station. A riot had broken in Worli and Raja bhau was injured badly on his head,” he recalls.

Raja Dhale (centre), along with other members of the Dalit Panther and former Prime Minister V.P. Singh. Courtesy: J.V. Pawar

Dalits had organised and poured on to the streets, seeking answers for atrocities and unemployment that had plagued the community. In response, Hindus and the state reacted violently. Scores of people died and several were injured. “The 1974 Worli riots was a systematic attack on the Dalit Buddhists by their Hindu neighbours and the state,” historian Eleanor Zelliot had written.

The Panther movement was taking the then Congress regime head-on. But scholars observe that these fiery Dalit youth had come together to counter the hooliganism of the Shiv Sena. So, when Dhale wrote Kala Swatantraya Din, the Sena goons were baying for his blood, recalls J.V. Pawar, his longtime associate and also the co-founder of the Dalit Panther movement.

Dhale, an independent thinker, never minced words and called a spade a spade. “In this essay (Kala Swatantraya Din), he had openly challenged Brahmin writers and political thinkers of the city, their irrational class division among the Brahmin-Savarna communities and also had confronted their idea of nationalism and freedom. His essay was provocative and the Dalit masses across the state were inspired to join the movement,” Pandere says.

Also read: Interview: The Name Dalit Panthers Was Synonymous With Justice for the Poor

This essay was the stepping stone for Panther politics, Pandere argues. Dhale had argued that the nation’s flag was inconsequential and could do nothing to protect the dignity and equality of the Dalit community. “It was like a piece of cloth to be shoved up the Savarnas (caste Hindu society’s) ass,” he had thundered in the article.

He, in his usual caustic style, had also attacked Durga Bhagawat, a well-known author and the elected president of the Marathi Sahitya Samelan, for her remarks on prostitution. Prostituted women should continue with the work as they contribute towards maintaining an equilibrium in society, Bhagwat had argued. “Why don’t you or your community people do the work of maintaining this equilibrium?” Dhale had asked.

The Dalit Panther movement saw a phenomenal rise. It gathered Dalit-Bahujan communities under one umbrella organisation, but then also disintegrated within a decade. The first phase (between mid-1972 and 1974) saw several agitations, with Dhale, Namdeo Dhasal, J.V. Pawar, Arun Krushnaji Kamble, Arjun Dhangle and several other panthers agitating on the streets almost everyday. The Panthers had their chavanies (branches) across the state. In 1974, the organisation witnessed its first faction, and Dhale was a vocal critic of how the group had changed over time.

The second phase lasted from 1974 to 1977. Then post-1977 phase was marked by the agitation for renaming Marathwada University as Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar University.

Dhale’s friends remember him as a bandkhor (rebel). “He was an active participant of the ‘little magazine movement’ and had named all his magazines uniquely. He was an editor of several magazines in the ’60s and ’70s,” remembers Subodh More, a third-generation Ambedkarite activist.

Pandere says Dhale would try to counter every normative concept, “The word waara, or the air, was flipped to ravaa. He named his magazines Yeru, Atta, Tapasi and Vidroha – all these names were picked up from everyday conversations, ways used to address those neglected and marginalised by the Brahmin-Savarna.”

When Dalit Panther manifesto was written, and it is believed that Dhale was dead against the manifesto, Dhale had asked if this was a jahirnama (manifesto) or a NamaJahir. He has also accused the manifesto of being a Brahmin manifesto, and thought that it was diluted and strayed away from the ethos of the original Panther vision.

J.V. Pawar (left) and Raja Dhale meeting in recent times. Courtesy: J.V. Pawar

Dhale opposed the incorporation of Marxist dogmas in the organisation, which Dhasal supported, leading to a clear split in the organisation. “There was a Dhasal faction and Dhale faction. But this split was only ideological,” says Sunil Dighe, a practicing advocate in the Bombay high court and a co-author of the manifesto Dhale had opposed. Dighe, who went with Dhasal’s faction, says although there were differences in their political opinions, over the years their relationship had relatively improved. “We were cordial and had shared a stage on several occasions,” recalls Dighe.

Dhale was a staunch believer in democratic principles. “So, during the Emergency, when Dhasal decided to support Indira Gandhi, Raja and I opposed this. Although Gandhi was not opposed to the oppressed masses, we could not have sided with a woman who wanted to sabotage the democratic principles of this country,” Pawar says.

Also read: A Peek Into a Dalit Newspaper Supplement That Made Waves 45 Years Ago

After the Panther movement, Dhale, who strongly believed that Buddhism and Ambedkarism were the only ways forward for the community, floated another organisation called ‘Mass Movement’. He continued to look at Ambedkarism through different prisms and remained active in social movements even while continuing with his writings and caricatures.

The man who had founded Dalit Panther, in his later journey, disowned the term “Dalit”. He said, “Dalit is not my identity. I am not a slave. Those who are slaves, psychologically, are never liberated. They are born slaves. But on whose slavery is imposed, he will never rest until liberated.”

His recent writings focused on several indigenous religious and cultural practices. In the past few decades, he had written several essays on the Warkari movement in the state. Pawar says he was in the process of compiling his research in a book form. “The manuscript of his last work must be at his residence. I hope that it will soon be published.”

Prakash Ambedkar along with Raja Dhale and J.V. Pawar at a Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh’s public rally years ago. Courtesy: J.V. Pawar

In the 1990s, when Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s grandson and anti-caste leader Prakash Ambedkar floated the Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangha, Dhale joined the organisation. He fought the 1999 and 2004 parliamentary elections, both on BBM tickets. “However, he had differences of opinion and decided to distance himself from the party,” Pawar says. Pawar, too was a part of the BBM and later went on to join the newly floated Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi (VBA, also founded by Prakash Ambedkar).

“We [Pawar and Dhale] had been great friends and would stay in touch for our research and writings. But he was upset I decided to go with the VBA and had on several occasions prodded me to come with him and try and float a separate party. We are old and we need new leadership, I would tell him,” Pawar says.

“Raja would always say, the two of us are like two birds on one branch, the branch being that of Ambedkarism. Now one of the two birds have flown away. I am left alone.”

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