And the Dalit Panther Roared Again: A Dreamer’s Portrait of the Anti-Caste Movement in India

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Drawing from a historic solidarity encounter between members of the Black Panther Party and the Dalit Panthers in 2022, Siddhesh Gautam introduces the figures and key moments of the anti-caste movement in India.

Illustration of a panther and red letters in the Marahi language against a dark blue background.
Dalit Panthers poster for the Dalit Panther Golden Jubilee Celebrations held at Nanded, Maharashtra on May 28-29, 2022. Artwork by Siddhesh Gautam.

Between May 28 and 29 2022, I had the privilege of attending a historic conference in Nanded, Maharashtra. It brought together leaders of the Black Panther Party in the U.S. and former members of the Dalit Panthers of India. Even before entering the venue, we could see photographs, illustrations, and quotes from social reformers and revolutionaries such as Dr Ambedkar, Savitribai Phule, Huey P. Newton, Malcolm X, and Angela Davis adorning the streets. I could easily locate some of my artworks as well near the old auditorium, which was overwhelmed by these iconographies.

The auditorium remained full during the two-day event. The program began with Bhim Geet (songs about Dr Ambedkar and the annihilation of caste), and also included live anti-caste rap performances by young artists like Mahi, Vipin Tatad, and Swadesi Movement. Right opposite the auditorium, an art exhibition brought to life events in the quest for social justice—especially those pertaining to historically marginalized communities—that remained mostly undocumented or unphotographed. Some of the exhibited artists were Shrujana Shridhar, Ajinkya, Sunil Abhiman Awachar, and myself. 

At the event, former female members of the Dalit Panthers shared their experiences of brutal police violence and their resistance in the 1970s. Black Panther icons such as Henry “Poison” Gaddis and Michael D. McCarty from the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party in the U.S. had come to express their solidarity with the Dalit Panthers. “Poison” served on the Chicago Central Staff and later held the rank of lieutenant on the field cadre. Michael D. McCarty joined the Black Panther Party as part of the education cadre in 1968. He left the party after the assassination of Fred Hampton (then deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party and chair of the Illinois chapter) and joined the U.S. army in 1972 to avoid being a target of the FBI. They were accompanied by Sydney Paige, a young scholar from the United States. 

Dalit Panther icons such as JV Pawar and Indira Athawale were also present, sharing their experiences from India. JV Pawar, a poet and novelist co-founded the Dalit Panthers and served as its general secretary. Pawar is a living legend, a literary giant; with over forty books published, he has captured a mass readership and been an integral part of events, conflicts, and triumphs of the anti-caste movement in India. Indira Athawale is an iconic academician, thinker and anti-caste champion. She experienced and participated in the Dalit Panthers Movement very closely. It was for the first time that the “Panthers” had come together on Indian soil, JV Pawar emotionally explained during his speech.

Every moment I spent at this celebration was a blast of inspiration for me as an artist and a dreamer. The Black Panthers introduced radical self-defense and a new vocabulary of self-respect. It wasn’t just two days of serious discussions, but an exciting confluence of ideas across two continents. It was for the first time that I saw the Black Panthers chanting “Jai Bhim,” the most popular slogan of the anti-caste movement in India, and the anti-caste crusaders chanting “Power to the people!” and singing Bob Marley’s “Get up stand up.” I have been creating art centering the Dalit Panthers for many years now, but this celebration was my first introduction to the real Panthers, outside books, pamphlets, and a few photographs scattered across various social media platforms.