Poetics of Subalternity:
Remembering Namdeo Laxman Dhasal (1949-2014)
- Arvind Kumar
On the way to the dargah
A leaking sun
Went burning out
Into the night’s embrace
When I was born
On a pavement
In crumpled rags –
And become orphaned –
The one who gave birth to me
Went to our father in heaven
She was tired of the harassing ghosts in the streets
She wanted to wash off the darkness in her sari
And I grew up
Like a human with his fuse blown up
On the shit in the street
Saying, “Give five paisa,
Take five curses”
On the way to the dargah
(Source: Dilip Chitre (2007), Namdeo Dhasal: Poet of the Underworld, Navyana)
I vividly remember that sweaty summer afternoon of 20th June in 2007, when I had the fortunate opportunity to speak to maverick poet and activist Namdeo Dhasal who authored the powerful lines quoted above. I wished to speak to him in connection with my study ‘Caste Violence in Urban Maharashtra: A Study of the 1974 Worli Riots in Mumbai and Dalit Panthers’. He had not been keeping well, and had just been discharged from hospital, and yet readily agreed to meet me at his Andheri residence. When we met, he spent hours sharing his reminiscences about the Worli riots. Having grown up in the grit of a city with a difficult working class history, he was not only an icon for Dalit literature and radical Dalit politics, but for the unequal city itself. This is an attempt to sketch out why…
Romantics / I don’t know why this section is called that…
Namdeo Laxman Dhasal was born on 15 February 1949 in an untouchable Mahar family in a village named Pur Kanesar located near the city of Pune in Maharashtra. His father Laxman Dhasal moved to the city of Mumbai (then Bombay) to earn a living for the family and started working as a porter in a Muslim butcher’s beef shop in central Mumbai. They lived in a shanty called Dhor Chawl (Dhor is one of the scheduled castes in Maharshtra traditionally attached to the occupation of removing animal carcasses) located near Golpitha (‘gol’ means round structure and ‘pitha’ is a ‘country liquor-shop’).
This is why his first literary masterpiece bore the name of the ghetto he grew up in. He began to earn a living as a taxi driver and in his youth took shape in the midst of smugglers, drug peddlers, sex-workers in the neighborhood, which also was home to one of the largest red-light areas of the subcontinent called Kamathipura. It is here that he founded the Tiraskrit Naari Sanghatana (Association of Loathed Women) to work towards the empowerment of sex workers in the face of the onslaught by extortionists and police personnel.
In his early years, Dhasal developed a close association with both the socialist and the communist movement. He became a member and an activist of the Praja Socialist Party and was deeply influenced by Ram Manohar Lohia and Acharya Narendra Dev. Later he came in contact with leaders like S A Dange and several cultural activists of the Communist Party of India (CPI), which at the time had a strong base in central Mumbai especially its outfit called Girni Kamgar Majdoor Union, which worked for the cause of mill workers in the area. He fell in love with Mallika Amar Sheikh, daughter of one Shahir Amar Sheikh, a celebrated folk singer and member of IPTA and CPI. Subsequently he married Mallika, whom he fondly called ‘comrade’ and exchanged the red-salute with her. Dhasal was entirely self taught, and he voraciously read the writings of Marx, Lenin, Mao and, of course, Ambedkar. As that creator of masterpieces who never received any formal education, Dhasal can easily be compared with the likes of Malcolm X, who inspired the Black Panthers, as well as with the Minister of information of the Black Panthers, Elridge Cleaver who also had little formal education and created a literary masterpiece titled Soul on Ice that he penned while he was in prison. Dhasal became the founder of the Dalit Panthers, the name of the new party being clearly inspired by the Black Panthers.
Dhasal was not the first Marathi Dalit poet. There were many who wrote before him but only in received and standard Marathi language, whereas Dhasal challenged the neatness of polite literary registers. He fearlessly brought the language to life as a tool to express anger directed at a deeply unequal society pockmarked by caste and class. He is often referred to as the writer whose poems are full of profanities – but they are equally replete with sudden and moving poetic tenderness, both befitting life as he knew it.
Noted Marathi playwright and critic Vijay Tendulkar compared him with Tukaram, the famous bhakti saint-poet of Maharashtra who lived in the 16th century. Dilip Chitre, himself a Marathi poet and translator, also a close friend of Dhasal, described him as arguably the foremost Marathi poet, as one of the foremost poets of India and as having world stature. Chitre saw Golpitha falling under the tradition of modern urban poetry like Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal and Arthur Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer (Chitre 2007: 28-29).
Dhasal’s second collection of poems titled Moorkha Mhataryane Dongar Halavile (The Stupid Old Man moved the Mountain) was published in 1975. This is a collection of his political poems. He wrote this collection when he was reading a lot of Marxist literature and realized the limitations of bourgeois political parties. Dhasal never separated his poetics from his politics; he conceded that both are inseparable from each other and politics always was part of his poetry. This collection has one of his famous poems ‘Song of the Dog and the Republic’. But Priyadarshini, a long poem that he wrote in praise of Indira Gandhi was published in 1976 by the then Congress Chief Minister of Maharashtra Shankarrao Chavan and in return more than 300 criminal cases charged on Dalit Panthers activists were withdrawn by the government. Dhasal’s defence of Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi came as surprise to both his friends and foes.
But true to his political spirit he did not make a permanent compromise with Indira’s false rhetoric of ‘garibi-hatao’. In 1981 came his next collection of poems titled Tujhi Yatta Konchi, (What is Your Grade?) which chronicled celebrated poems like ‘Hunger’ and ‘Ode to Dr. Ambedkar: Equality for All or Death to India’ and ‘Sweet Baby Poverty’. Another collection of Dhasal’s poems titled Khel (Play, 1983) has many romantic and satirical poems. The disdain the content of another collection is evident from the very title, Gandu Bagicha (Arsefucker’s Park, 1986). In this collection, the poem called ‘New Delhi, 1985’ brilliantly mocks the celebration of Republic Day at India Gate in New Delhi.
Dhasal’s disillusionment with Dalit politics in Maharashtra took many turns but his final rightward shift and that too coming close to Shiv-Sena against which he fought on the streets during the Worli riots of 1974 came as a rude shock to both his Dalit and leftist friends. Though he contributed occasionally to the Sena mouthpiece Samna, he never spared the divisive and fascist tendencies of the right-wingers and his politics is amply reflected in the collection Ya Sattet Jeev Ramat Nahi (The Soul Doesn’t Find Peace in This Regime, 1995). One of Dhasal’s poems in this collection clearly demonstrates his secular and humanitarian spirit as well as his vengeance against the fascist forces:
Concomitantly: December 6
…Who are these people – my own, my countrymen?
Usurpers of yore who seized my country
These are their rites, their ritual chants
God or religion?
Yesterday they murdered Gandhi
Now they want to put the whole nation to death
How many stories of alien invaders shall I tell them?
My original ancestors were dark Dravidian non-Aryans
Followed by Scythians, Huns, Kushans, Turks, Iranians and Afghans
Then white soldiers in uniform and the Firangs
Mixture of races and castes
The soil of this country never practiced untouchability…
…today is the day of your remembrance
Whether you like it or not
Let me too raise my hand to commit violence
Perhaps these usurpers’ heads can be brought back to sense
If they are hit hard…
(Source: Dilip Chitre (2007), Namdeo Dhasal: Poet of the Underworld, Navyana)
Mee Marale Sooryachya Rathache Ghode Saat, (I Slew the Seven Horses of the Chariot of the Sun, 2005) is a collection of his philosophical and emotional poems and Tujhe Bot Dharoon Chalalo Ahe Me (Holding Your Finger, I Walk On, 2006) is a collection dealing with poems he wrote for and dedicated to Babasaheb Ambedkar. In his writings on Dalit consciousness, Dhasal always feared the pitfalls of identity politics and worked towards a synthesis between Ambedkarism and Marxism. His novel in Marathi titled Ambedkari Chalval (1981) reflected upon Dr Ambedkar’s critical engagement with the socialist and communist movement of his times.
Dhasal regarded Baburam Bagul as the foremost literary master whose Jevha Me Jaat Chorli Hoti (When I had concealed my Caste) and Maran Swasta Hot Ahe (Death is Becoming Cheaper) became masterpieces of modern Dalit literature. Bagul was the first Marathi Dalit writer who introduced the note of class-consciousness in Dalit literature apart from highlighting the pain of the Dalit masses.
Namdeo Dhasal’s romance with politics also started quite early in his life. He played a key role in conceptualizing the Dalit Panther Party that was formed on 9th July 1973 in Bombay along with his poet and activist friends like Raja Dhale, J. V. Pawar, Arjun Dangle, Avinash Mahatekar and others. They were the first generation of English-educated Dalits, aware of their constitutional rights and civil liberties. There is no denying the fact that these enthusiastic young leaders were inspired by Black literature and the Black Panther Party in the US, which was fighting against the racial police brutalities in the black ghettos across American urban centres.
In Maharashtra caste atrocities were at their peak in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. The toothless Untouchability (Offence) Act of 1955 miserably failed in treating these atrocities as crimes. ‘Self Defense’ against such atrocities was a rallying point and an inherent strategy for initial mobilization for the party. The period of the emergence of Dalit Panthers was of course the period when events of great historical significance were taking place across the globe – the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement in the US, the black movement, the women’s movement and the revolutionary Left movement. These movements were all a part of the new global reality which the Panthers in particular and the Dalit movement in general drew inspiration from (Omvedt 2006: 76).
In the absence of a definite, clear-cut political ideology, Ambedkar’s ideology initially served the Panthers’ needs. The leaders, however, were conscious of the lack of a coherent ideology and eventually developed their own road-map and published it in the form of a manifesto, a year after the organization was formally established. While the Panthers continued to draw inspiration from B R Ambedkar, an attempt was made in the manifesto to formulate an ideology that drew inspiration from Marxism, in order to give the movement a radical orientation.
The party’s ideology or guiding sentiment was thus distinctly different from the bourgeois-liberal and parliamentarian platform of the Republican Party of India (RPI was announced by Ambedkar but the party came into existence posthumously). The party manifesto broadened the definition of the term ‘Dalit’. It redefined this term to include exploited masses, including women irrespective of their specific caste identity to make this subaltern category more robust.
‘Dalit’ was applicable to scheduled castes and tribes, neo-Buddhists, economically backward workers, poor landless peasants, women, and all others who faced exploitation. The party manifesto described landlords, capitalists, moneylenders and their agents and the government which supported these elements as the sworn enemies of the Panthers. It identified all those forces which fought against caste and class oppression as the Panthers’ friends. The manifesto also highlighted the burning problems of the Dalits such as lack of food, water, shelter, jobs and land, and their highly unequal social status. The Panthers diagnosed the problem as essentially one related to economic and political power. And what it had pledged to fight for is clearly reflected in the manifesto:
We will build the organization of workers, Dalits, landless, poor peasants through all city factories, in all villages. We will hit back against all injustice perpetrated on Dalits. We will well and truly destroy the caste and varna system that thrives on the people’s misery, which exploits the people and liberate the Dalits. The present legal system and state have turned all our dreams to dust. To eradicate all the injustice against the Dalits, they must themselves become rulers. This is people’s democracy. Sympathizers and members of the Dalit Panthers, be ready for the final struggle of the Dalits (Dalit Panther Manifesto, 1973).
The Dalit Panthers were a predominantly urban phenomenon that integrated both Marxist (in the traditional economic sense) and cultural struggle within their ideological armour. Also, though they might have borrowed heavily from Marxist terminology—an inclination that was shared by the Black Panthers in the USA—their strategies were more ambivalent and differed substantially from orthodox Marxist principles of class struggle.
The run-up to the events that led to the riots in BDD Chawls of Worli also reflected this ambivalence. The riots had started during the midterm poll in the central Bombay parliamentary elections. The panthers had given a call to boycott the election. It was during the riots on the issue of extending support to the CPI that differences started emerging between two camps headed by Namdeo Dhasal and Raja Dhale respectively. Dhasal was accused of propagating the communist ideology and was expelled from the same party he was founder member of.
In many ways, the Worli riots provided the impetus that the Dalit Panthers needed to gain popularity. However, they also acted as the wedge that splintered the party in several factions. Soon after the ouster of Dhasal from the Dalit Panther Party, it further fragmented into various factions, one important faction was led by Arun Kamble. Though the Panthers gathered another lease of life during the Marathwada riots, which occurred during the renaming of the Marathawada University as B R Ambedkar University, the party became largely ineffective.
Dhasal escaped several murderous attacks, as well as a cold blooded attempt on his life. But his disillusionment with politics and continuous ill health did not curb his passion for giving voice to the subaltern. Finally, even the elite establishment conferred on him the Padmashri (1999) and the Sahitya Akademi Lifetime Achievement Award (2004) for his literary achievements. Dhasal finally lost his battle against the killer colorectal cancer in Mumbai on 15 January 2014 leaving behind a rich legacy of the radical poetics of subalternity.