Impact Of Dalit Panthers On Indian Politics
The Dalit Panthers implemented its politics in their very administrative structure itself.
In the early 1980s, two events—the publication of a book and the formation of a social movement—took place by coincidence at the same time in Tamil Nadu. A collection of African writings, titled Araikkul Vantha Africa Vaanam (The African Sky that Entered the Room), translated by Indhiran, appeared in 1982. The same year, the Tamil Nadu wing of Dalit Panthers of India (DPI), headed by Savita Ambedkar, was founded in Madurai. The common links between these two literary and political events are Maharashtra and the term ‘Panthers’.
Although Indhiran was familiar with African writings even when he was in Chennai, this collection appeared after his association with the Dalit Panthers in Aurangabad, Maharashtra, where he worked as a bank officer.
The Dalit movement of Maharashtra, influenced by the African-American party, had borrowed the term ‘Panthers’ from them. Though both Afro-American and Maharashtra Dalit literature had influenced Tamil Dalit literature from the beginning, it was the Maharashtra DPI that influenced the Tamil Dalit politics after the 1980s.
P Malaichamy, the first organiser of the Tamil Nadu DPI, had once been a member of the youth wing of Dravidar Kazhagam. P Thangarasu, another volunteer of the Dravidar Kazhagam, used to come to Madurai to take part in the meetings organised by Malaichami. Their common affiliation with the Dravidar Kazhagam cemented their friendship.
Later, when Thangarasu moved to Dharavi, Mumbai, for work, along with one Nellai Alan, their association with the DPI-Maharashtra, in turn, helped Malaichami, who was in Madurai, get acquainted with the movement.
Other events that took place in Tamil Nadu at that time strengthened the connection between the DPI of Mumbai and Tamil Nadu Dalit politics. The 1978 Villupuram atrocity, which took 13 lives and the killing of five Dalits by dominant castes in Unjanai, coupled with the Islamic conversion of Dalits in Meenatchipuram in Tirunelveli district, had opened up debates on Dalit issues.
By this time, the Dravidian parties had gradually marginalised their anti-caste rhetoric. It is in this context that we trace Malaichami’s shift from the Dravidian movement to DPI. After meeting the activists of the DPI during his visit to Mumbai, Malaichami planned to launch the Tamil Nadu DPI. It was the first organisation in Tamil Nadu that bore the term ‘Dalit’ in its name. It also became the first movement in southern Tamil Nadu to follow the ideology of Dr Ambedkar.
The Dalit Panthers implemented its politics in their very administrative structure itself. The appointment of chief executives was from the three largest Dalit sects in Tamil Nadu. Malaichamy, the organiser, D David, the president, and Sengottayan, the secretary, belonged to three different Dalit groups.
The DPI In Tamil Nadu Entered Electoral Politics In 1999. Today, It Has Become A Significant Force In State Elections. There Are Now Two MPs And Four MLAs From The Party.
Although the preliminary works of the movement began in the August of 1982, the conference held on September 19, 1983 marked its formal inception. Ambedkar, then in charge of the national DPI, Ramadas Athawale, the General Secretary, Tamil Dalit leader V Balasundaram, journalist V D Rajasekar and Union minister Dalit Ezhilmalai participated in the conference.
The DPI consisted of many educated people who were employed in the government sector. It was led by Malaichamy and David, both lawyers, and Sengottayan, an engineer. Joseph Xavier (a professor), Oorkavalan (an engineer), M Subramaniyam (a doctor) and Samathuvam (a teacher) were very active and served as the backbone of the movement.
The DPI thus established itself as a social movement and framed its activities around the legal rights and opportunities of Dalits, focusing specifically on Dalit issues in and around Madurai.
However, since its inception, the Tamil Nadu-DPI remained a political movement with no ties to literature. Dalit Viduthalai (Dalit Liberation) was the lone monthly magazine running since 1986 with Devakottai M Subramaniyam as its chief editor. It contained only political news.
Three protest marches sharpened the politics of the DPI. In 1982, Manikkapatti Kaatturaja, 22, was brutally hacked to death by members of a dominant caste. Many Dalit organisations, unified under the leadership of the DPI, staged a huge protest rally towards the District Collectorate to condemn this murder.
In 1987, a youth named Kandhan was killed in Vanji, near Melur, Madurai. The DPI organised a huge protest on October 28, 1987. It was the first time that such a protest march was organised in Melur, an intensely caste-rooted place.
In 1988, when Melavasal Bakkiyam, a member of the DPI, was killed, an unprecedented all-Dalit protest rally was organised in Madurai.
Besides DPI, there were other Dalit movements in Tamil Nadu in the 1980s. For the first time, an integrated Dalit movement called SCAM (Scheduled Caste Liberation Movement) was founded. L Elayaperumal, who had just quit the Indian National Congress, and the leaders of the Indian Republic Party—A Sakthidasan, Dr A Chepen and V Balasundaram, who had quit DMK and started the “Ambedkar Makkal Iyakkam”, conjointly ran the SCAM.
On the other hand, Dalit liberation movements based on Dalit theology were formed in Madurai and a Left organisation named “India Makkal Iyakkam” (Indian People’s Party) took up the Dalit cause. Activists like P Chandrabose emerged from that wave. It was in this context that the DPI focused on Ambedkar’s ideology. The DPI of Tamil Nadu started functioning independently without direct connection with DPI-Maharashtra, and Malaichami remained the movement’s unifying identity.
It was during that time that Thol. Thirumavalavan arrived in Madurai as a Government Forensic Officer from Chennai. He had already made an acquaintance with Malaichamy’s elder brother, Vijayan, in Chennai, and was introduced to Malaichami by Vijayan. He became known as a dynamic speaker through his participation in various meetings organised by the DPI. With the sudden demise of Malaichami on September 14, 1989, Thirumavalavan was elected as the leader of the party.
As an admirer of Tamil nationalism, Thirumavalavan became popular for his eloquent Tamil speeches and his poetry. With the eruption of ethnic violence against Sri Lankan Tamils in Jaffna, the issue of Tamil identity gained popularity among the youth from the 1980s, and Thirumavalavan was greatly inspired by this wave.
Dalit politics and Tamil identity reached a point of ideological convergence with Thirumavalavan’s entry into the DPI. Striking parallels could be seen between the name Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Dalit Panthers. Thirumavalavan gained popularity for his staunch support of the Liberation Tigers. Once he took up the leadership of the DPI, in 1990, he borrowed ‘Liberation’ from the LTTE and ‘Panthers’ from the DPI and coined a new name for the party—Liberation Panthers. However, in English, the party was still referred to as DPI.
The DPI followed the policy of electoral boycott from the beginning and remained a mass movement that sought to condemn caste, communal and state violence. It later became a political party and entered electoral politics in 1999. Today, the party has become a significant force in the state election. There are now two MPs and four MLAs from the party. Although the movement had no direct connections with the literary sphere, Tamil Dalit writers are supportive of the movement. After 2006, the name DPI was altogether dropped and the party has been running under the name of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK).
One may wonder if today’s VCK youth would be aware of the party’s inception from the Black Panthers party of the African-Americans and the Dalit Panthers party of Maharashtra. Yet, even today, whenever the party makes compromises for elections, comments like, “it’s high time for DPI kind of politics” and “we are of the DPI kind” are heard widely. This reminds us, once again, of the real spirit of the DPI movement.
(Translated from Tamil by Vikrama Chandra Mouriyar)
(This appeared in the print as ‘Panthers in Politics’)
Stalin Rajangam is a historian working on Tamil culture, Dalit History and Tamil Buddhism
Courtesy : Outlook India
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