Thursday, January 16, 2014

Namdeo Dhasal

Namdeo Laxman Dhasal (Marathi: नामदेव लक्ष्मण ढसाळ; February 15, 1949 – January 15, 2014) was a Marathi poet, writer and Human Rights activist from Maharashtra, India.

Noted Marathi poet and one of the founders of the Dalit Panthers, Padma Shri Namdeo Dhasal succumbed to a long-drawn battle against illness including colorectal cancer in the wee hours of Wednesday. He was being treated at the ICU of the Bombay Hospital in south Mumbai. He was 64. The award-winning writer of ‘Golpitha’ — the collection that was named after the prostitution neighbourhood in central Mumbai where he grew up — had a medical history of myasthenia gravis, a rare auto-immune disorder. He had been in and out of hospitals since the diagnosis of cancer. His funeral will be on Thursday afternoon.

“Dhasal shook up the white-collar authors and readers by his own style of writing. He understood the power of literature to raise a voice against atrocities on Dalits. We have lost an aggressive Dalit leader,” said Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. Mr. Dhasal was born on February 15, 1949 in a village in Pune district. His father was a butcher and he grew up in the slums of Kamathipura. While working as a taxi driver, Mr. Dhasal was drawn towards the socialist movement in Mumbai. His first collection of poems ‘Golpitha’ was published in 1973.

He along with others formed a radical organisation called Dalit Panthers on July 9, 1972 inspired by the American 'Black Panthers.’ In 1973-74, the Panthers openly challenged the Shiv Sena in Mumbai, both ideologically and on the streets. The Pathers' Manifesto broadened the definition of the word Dalit. He redefined the term to include all exploited groups, including women, irrespective of their caste, as Dalits. This created discontent within the organisation itself and some Panthers parted ways with Mr. Dhasal, accusing him of propagating a Communist outlook.

Sidelined by the Dalit movement, Mr. Dhasal was welcomed first by the Congress and then by Shiv Sena. He even went on to support the emergency and his poem on Indira Gandhi was published by then Chief Minister Shankarrao Chavan. Though he was never a member of Sena, he regularly contributed to the party’s mouthpiece Samana. Mr. Dhasal was active as a writer till the very end. His last poem - on Nelson Madela - was published on January 11.

Renowned Marathi poet and firebrand activist Namdeo Dhasal passed away in Mumbai on Wednesday after a prolonged illness at the age of 64. Dhasal, who was battling with colorectal cancer, died at the Bombay Hospital. His last rites would be performed on Thursday. Dhasal was one of the founders of the militant Dalit Panther movement which started after the casteist riots in Worli’s BDD chawls in the late ’60s. He was also a pioneer of the Dalit literature movement known for its deep concern for the under-privileged. The Padma Shri awardee also has a medical history of myasthenia gravis which is one of the lesser known auto-immune disorders.
In 2007, actors Amitabh Bachchan and Salman Khan had helped raise funds for Dhasal whose family was on the verge of selling their house to pay his medical bills.

Also a rights activist, Dhasal received the Nehru award for his book ‘Golpitha’. In 2004, he was awarded the prestigious Sahitya Akadami award for his contribution for literature.
Dhasal’s selected poems were translated into English under the title “Namdeo Dhasal: Poet of the Underworld”, Poems 1972-2006.

It’s not for his politics that Namdeo Dhasal will be remembered. Not perhaps even for the Dalit Panthers. He will remembered for his maverick spirit, for the poetry that writer Kiran Nagarkar says “gives it to you in the solar plexus, leaves you unable to breathe”. Dhasal died in Mumbai early on Wednesday morning at the age of 64, losing a long, debilitating struggle with illness. He was fighting colon cancer but also suffered from a rare neuromuscular disease. Speaking on the phone, Kumar Ketkar, the veteran journalist and former editor-in-chief of the Marathi daily Loksatta, said Dhasal was a “complete rebel; he just wanted to be his own self”. Ketkar had known Dhasal from the time the latter was a lodestar of Dalit politics, an uncompromising radical on the verge of founding the Dalit Panthers in 1972, an organization, as is apparent from its name, inspired by the political radicalism of the Black Panthers.

Ketkar spoke of a group of young, educated Dalits who were angered by “miserable lives of Dalits in Mumbai chawls despite the work of (B.R.) Ambedkar.” They expressed that anger, that frustration through poetry, through verses given impetus and heat by protest. “Literature first, politics later,” as Ketkar put it, a distinctive but appealing attribute for a political movement.

It’s a background that made Dhasal a darling of the Left, a radical icon. But Dhasal was not an easy man to co-opt. His support for prime minister Indira Gandhi during the Emergency and later for the Shiv Sena—he wrote a column for the Shiv Sena’s newspaper Saamna, and in Anand Patwardhan’s 2011 film Jai Bhim Comrade he is shown sharing a stage with Bal Thackeray—lost him many comrades.

The publisher, S. Anand, said in a phone interview that he would rather “savour (Dhasal’s) poetry than his politics”. In 2007, Anand’s press, Navayana, published a comprehensive anthology of Dhasal’s poetry translated by the poet and critic Dilip Chitre.
Anand quotes the last three lines from Speculations on a Shirt, one of the poems published in that volume, as a way to explain Dhasal’s expansive, contradictory, sometimes ornery character: A human being shouldn’t become so spotless / One should leave a few stains on one’s shirt / One should carry on oneself a little bit of sin. Chitre, who died in 2009, wrote in an essay that his friend Dhasal’s judgement may have been flawed, that his politics “may have been errant”, but that he was “transparent and direct, human and honest”.

Sudheendra Kulkarni pays tribute to friend, poet and Dalit activist Namdeo Dhasal who passed into the ages on Wednesday.

I was woken up early in the morning by an sms beep on my mobile. Unusual for a message to arrive so early, I said to myself. It was from H L Dusadh, a tireless Dalit activist from Delhi and a friend of several years. “Dear sir! yeh message sms karte huye meri ankhon se jhar-jhar ansoo bah rahe hain. pata nahi yah jaan kar aap par kya gujregi. vishv kavi namdeo dhasal nahi rahe. cancer se aakrant dhasal saheb ne adhe ghante pahle, 4.30am, bombay hospital me antim saans li.” (With tears in my eyes, I have to inform you that world poet Namdeo Dhasal is no more. He passed away at Bombay Hospital at 4.30 am).

Only a few weeks ago, Dusadh and I had called on Dhasal at the hospital, where he had been battling cancer for over three months. The news of his demise left me sad. A good human being has left this world. The world of Indian poetry has lost a revolutionary voice that roared for justice and human dignity, and against caste oppression in Hindu society.

And the Dalit movement in Maharashtra and India is today without an honest leader who had been boldly navigating through a terrain of dogma and confusion to explore new ideological intersections.

When I last met this greatest Dalit poet in Marathi, I was both sad and happy. Sad because hospital is not the place where you ever wish to see someone you admire and not the place where you ever expect to see someone who has all his life been a courageous combatant against social inequality and injustice. The founder of Dalit Panthers, he was himself a panther in his poetry and political activism -- hungry for a society without exploitation and injustice. Seeing a person like him, lying in the ICU, was distressing.

But I was also happy because, as soon as he saw me, a smile blossomed on Namdeoji's face, overcoming the pain of cancer treatment and the discomfiture of a nasal catheter. Just a week earlier, he was in a very critical condition. The doctors had given up hope. Yet, to the great relief of his near and dear ones, he recovered enough to welcome visitors with a friendly smile and even engage them in a conversation.

The first thing he asked me was: "How is Atalji?" It moved me deeply. He had great admiration and respect for former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He remembered that when he was similarly hospitalised in Bombay Hospital in 1981, Atalji had visited him and wished him speedy recovery. “Atalji is a rare leader with a large and kind heart, a true poet-leader,” he had told me in one of our meetings last year at his modest home in Andheri.

Namdeo Laxman Dhasal, Dalit poet and author, ideologue and founder of the Dalit Panthers Party, died in a hospital early Wednesday after a prolonged illness, an aide said. He was 64 and is survived by his wife Malika Sheikh and a son. He breathed his last around 4 a.m. at Bombay Hospital. Dhasal's body will be kept in Ambedkar College at Wadala in central Mumbai to enable people pay their last respects to the departed leader and the funeral will be held at Dadar crematorium on Thursday afternoon, reported IANS.

Born to a Mahar family on February 15, 1949, in a small village near Pune, Dhasal spent his childhood in abject poverty in Golpitha, a red light area of Mumbai where his father worked in a butcher's shop. Educating himself with great difficulties and against all odds, he founded the Dalit Panther movement with some friends in 1972 - at the age of 23 - inspired by the Black Panther Party founded in the US to spearhead the Black Power Movement.

His famous works are Golpitha, Moorkh Mhataryane, Tujhu Iyatta Kanchi, Khel, Priyadarshini (based on late prime minister Indira Gandhi), novels including Ambedkari Chalwal, Andhale Shatak. Breaking away from normal poetic styles and conventions, Dhasal used words and expressions typical to Dalits. In his maiden collection, Golpitha, he made use of the crude language that is normal in a red light area, shocking many readers.

He was conferred with Maharashtra State Award for Literature, Soviet Land Nehru Award, Padma Shri (1999) and the Sahitya Akademi Golden Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.


Namdeo Dhasal is one of my closest friends. This surprises many people who know him and me because of the controversies that his political activities generate and because they cannot, even by association, connect me with his political stances which have been inconsistent. He was one of the founders of Dalit Panthers in 1972, a militant activist organization, at that time inspired by the Black Panthers in the United States, or so it seemed. In some ways it fitted into the global mosaic of anger, protest, demonstrations, violence, and youthful revolutionary upsurge that swept across France, Germany, parts of Europe, Africa, America, and Asia.

But the Dalit Panthers were rooted in Bombay and were a product of the history of the city and the immigrant Dalit youth who came to it, scarred by the memories of their oppression in their native villages and small towns, and inspired by their late leader Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. After Ambedkar's death in the mid-1950s, his Republican Party of India was in a shambles. Small-time and self-styled Dalit leaders were either seduced by the ruling Indian National Congress or by its political rivals who desperately wooed the votes of the minorities. By 1972, the Shiv Sena had already emerged as a powerful force in Bombay, thanks again to the politics of the ruling Congress party led by Indira Gandhi that had thrust upon the unwilling Marathas a minority Chief Minister in Vasantrao Naik.

Naik was a patron of Thackeray in those days, and so were some big players in business. Following Ambedkar, many Maharashtrian Dalits had quit Hinduism to liberate themselves from a caste-system that stamped them with a lifelong lowly status. They were uncomfortable with any kind of Hindu cultural and political rhetoric. They were looking for a platform in their fight for equality and freedom.

There was an articulate Dalit avant garde that stormed the Marathi literary scene and attracted nation-wide attention. The great fiction-writer Baburao Bagul had already made his mark. Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale, Arjun Dangle, and J.V. Pawar were all young writers who wanted to shake the Marathi literary establishment at its very foundations and had in them the spirit and the talent to do so. They wanted to take their activism beyond literature and culture directly into the political arena. Yet they also knew, from the outset, that as a minority they would only be small-time players in electoral politics or even be made mere stooges. They found guerilla tactics a very attractive weapon in the ethos of the big city where the poorer neighbourhoods were ruled by organized crime and where politicians used the underworld as a source of secret weapons.

Three decades have passed. The Dalit Panthers still survive and Namdeo Dhasal continues to be their leader. But today, Dalit Panthers are allied with the Shiv Sena, once their sworn arch-enemy. The post-Babri Masjid riots in Bombay and the bomb blasts that followed make the 1970s seem remote history. Crime and politics have become more sophisticated and organized, with globalisation investing a new spirit in them, and cell-phones and the internet helping them to refurbish their own self-image.

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