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



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.

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Leaders and members of the Dalit Panthers and the Black Panther Party (from left to right, JV Pawar, Michael McCarty, Bharthi Prabhu, Jakobi Williams, and Henry Gaddis) sharing stage at the Dalit Panther Golden Jubilee Celebrations. Photo by Siddhesh Gautam (2022).

The “Panthers” of India hailed from Dalit community, a term first popularly used by Jotiba Phule, social reformer and anti-caste champion from the late 19th century.

The word “Dalit” translates to “broken” or “scattered.” It is a collection of castes that have been ostracized for centuries and treated as “untouchables” until 1950, after which the Constitution of India came into place and legally prohibited untouchability. However, seventy-two years later, Dalit people are still killed and discriminated against every day. Caste system is a social order in Hinduism based on birth, and on the Subcontinent, it has embedded itself across almost all major religions. Importantly, caste violence far exceeds (both ways) the British colonial timeline on the Subcontinent.

In the 1970s, the Dalit Panthers weren’t the first to draw similarities between Dalits of India and Black people in the United States. The parallels between the caste system in India and racism in the U.S. were first observed by Jotiba Phule as early as 1873. Along with his partner (in work and in life) Savitribai Phule, he challenged India’s caste system and worked for the education of the marginalized castes. Jotiba, in his 1873 book Gulamgiri (Slavery), expressed, “in an earnest desire that my countrymen may take Black people of the U.S. example as their guide in the emancipation of their Sudra Brethren (oppressed caste brothers) from the trammels of Brahmin (oppressor caste) thralldom.” Their work was carried forward by Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, who is revered as “Babasaheb” (“Father” in Hindi and Marathi) by the oppressed castes. Dr Ambedkar struggled to receive education, and despite all odds, he became one of the most notable scholars, political leaders, lawyers, researchers, social reformers, and global thinkers, as well as the chief architect of the Constitution of India.

Owing to his global exposure, Dr Ambedkar was able to understand and study various cultures along with his professional courses. His correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois in July 1946 consisted of an enquiry about the National Negro Congress’s petition to the UN, which attempted to secure minority rights through the UN Council. Dr Ambedkar explained that he had been a student of the African-American struggle, and that there is so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables in India and of the position of the Black people in the U.S. that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary. In a letter dated July 31, 1946, Du Bois responded by telling Dr Ambedkar that he was familiar with his name and that he had every sympathy with the Untouchables of India.

While various laws were passed since the early 1950s, Dalits, as former Untouchables in India, and Black people in the U.S. continued to face oppression in their daily lives, as suggested by the brutal events that unfolded day after day. This motivated some to seek a new direction in arming themselves in order to access their right to the dignity and respect denied to them by their oppressors. 

The 1960s in India saw a new wave of educated youth from Dalit community, who thrived on poetry, prose, and art as a passive means of getting their message across. Raja Dhale, one of the founding members of the Dalit Panthers wrote in his poem Eka Panther Che Manogat:

Each man is the last one. 
If he sees that clearly,
why should he not fight each battle
as if it is the last one
I don’t understand it—because the end is decided.
Either the battle will come to an end
Or we will die. 
If death is certain, why shouldn’t 
the battle for equality be certain?

It was uncommon for anyone not to know that the media was dominated by brahmins who are considered the highest in the caste system. The caste system is an extension of the varna system of Hinduism that describes the creation of the world from the sacrifice of a cosmic man, from whose mouth, arms, thighs, and feet emerge the four classes, or varnas, of society. From the mouth came the brahmins, who are considered to be at the top of this hierarchy. From the arms emerged the kshatriyas, who are considered warriors and second in the hierarchy. From the thighs came the vaishyas, who are considered to be the trading class. And from the feet emerged the shudras, who are considered servants of the above three varnas. Outside these four classifications come Untouchables or Dalits who are considered as the lowest, and in fact, external to the varna system. With time, these varnas became castes, which divided humans even further into thousands of castes. Brahmins benefited the most from the caste system as they considered themselves at the top, and exploitation of the oppressed was seen as their divine right. The educated Dalits affirmed their cause through the power of the pen. With their awakened sense of consciousness, they entered the literary realm, which was primarily dominated by oppressor caste Hindus and their supposedly sophisticated writings. This young generation or the new Dalit intelligentsia wanted to articulate themselves in their own words and in their own style, without a sense of borrowedness.

For the Panthers, Dalit meant members of Scheduled Castes and Tribes (constitutional terms for Dalits and Indigenous peoples of India), Neo-Buddhists (Dalits who converted to Buddhism after Dr Ambedkar led a mass conversion of Dalits in 1956 to break away from the chains of caste system in Hinduism), the working class, the landless and poor farmers, women across caste and class lines, and all those who are being exploited politically, weakened economically, and neglected in the name of religion. The inspiration for the Dalit Panthers came when a group of young writers and activists from Dalit communities encountered a copy of the Time Magazine that featured the Black Panthers in the U.S.

Many of the Black and Dalit Panthers did not make it past their youth as they fell to callous reprisals from white and Hindu supremacists backed by the police and governments of the two large states.

But their ideas changed the course of anti-caste and anti-racism movements in their countries and globally. It is with that momentum that today the word “Dalit” has been made globally recognizable as a term of self-identification for communities considered “untouchable.” 

People who founded the Dalit Panthers in 1972 experimented with an ideology that was a mix of Ambedkarite Buddhism and Marxism, associated with the Black Panthers’ praxis of militancy and self-defense. Such a mix confused more traditional anti-caste organizations 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? These questions were extensively discussed during the two-day conference in Nanded, which featured many young Dalit leaders who represent a spectrum of views on the caste question.

In the 1990s, a pool of young Dalit students started to enrol themselves at premier arts and design institutions. They are now composing music and producing videos, making films, graphic novels, running and developing applications and websites, curating exhibitions in India and other countries, speaking about their work at national and international platforms, publishing their works globally, leading as entrepreneurs, and innovating design… In most cases, it is a very lonely journey for each artist. Most of us art practitioners are limited to our caste or the Dalit identity by oppressor castes. It is still hard to find platforms to publish and exhibit our work, and due to a lack of financial and social capital, it is also almost impossible to create our own platforms. Moreover, the messages of hate that we get for our work only worsen our mental health. 

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Life size portraits of Savitribai Phule, Jyotiba Phule, Shahuji Maharaj, Periyar E V Ramasamy, and Dr B R Ambedkar at the Dalit Panthers Golden Jubilee Celebrations. Photo by Siddhesh Gautam (2022).

Nanded, on the other hand, felt like hope. I could see and meet various artists and dreamers from my community producing work, which is not just a job, but also a step towards the anti-caste revolution. It is time that the Panthers roar. The historic visit to Nanded for the conference gave me new directions and inspiration to rethink my work and words. For years I have been creating work on my own, but it was there that I realized that I have a whole community to support me: I do not have to fight this battle on my own. Since then I have decided to live a little more, to fight a little more, and to roar a little more. ■