Namdeo Dhasal (February 15, 1949-January 15, 2014), Dalit writer, reformist and activist, believed in the power of the written word to bring about social change. By LYLA BAVADAM

IT is not often that the words of political leaders ring true, but when Namdeo Dhasal died on January 15 the outpouring of words from local leaders struck a chord with all those who mourned. Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan called him a “firebrand leader who brought the youth to the Dalit movement”. Even Deputy Chief Minister Ajit Pawar, not known for expressing himself with any degree of clarity, said Dhasal was “a star of the Ambedkarite movement who was lost, though his memory would continue to inspire generations to come”. But if formal words can sum up Namdeo Dhasal’s life, then Governor K. Sankaranarayanan’s are the truest. “Namdeo Dhasal was a respected leader and reformist of our times. He remained an activist all his life and gave voice to the problems of the poor and the oppressed through his writings. His words had the power of conviction to grab the attention of the reader. In his demise, Maharashtra has lost a brave activist and a writer who had genuine concern for the welfare of the poor and the oppressed.”

Dhasal was 64 when he died, taken finally by the colorectal cancer and myasthenia gravis he had been battling for some years. He is survived by his wife, Malika Amar Sheikh, daughter of the poet Amar Sheikh.

Dhasal went by many labels: poet, writer, scholar, activist and founder of the Dalit Panther movement. His life, like his work, was varied and extraordinary. He grew up in grinding poverty. His father came to Mumbai from his native Pur-Kanersar village in Khed taluk. Like many migrants, the Dhasals’ first place of rest in the new city was the least desirable. His farming background held no prospects in the city and the only work he found was with a butcher. The family lived in Dhor chawl (a reference to the cattle that are quartered and slaughtered nearby) in Golpitha, an area in the city’s redlight district. Dhasal was six when his family came to Mumbai.

As a Mahar, the young Dhasal did not have many opportunities in the 1950s and 1960s, but he was not daunted. He absorbed the life in Golpitha unconditionally, learning from the butchers, goons, gangsters, hafta-taking policemen, pimps, sex workers, drug peddlers, drug addicts and every other type of person, whom he later cheerfully referred to as society’s scum, a phrase he happily applied to himself as well. These associations served him well. He saw life through them and they shaped his writing. It is almost as if it was predestined that Dhasal’s experiences would navigate the seamier aspects of life. Even his first job as a taxi driver bolstered these experiences.

In his talks and writings, Dhasal always said that the only constant in his life was literature. He read voraciously, even shocking others in his later years by saying he used to steal books because he could not afford them. He read the writings of B.R. Ambedkar, Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, Ram Manohar Lohia and Gyaneshwari. Explaining this huge literary appetite, he recalled that he had a deep desire to be in the know. It was a desperation not to be left behind while the world moved on. Most comfortable in Marathi, he yearned for all sorts of books, some of which were only available in English. Not one to be deterred, he got friends to translate these for him. Years later, at the height of his political career, he acknowledged that his own political thinking and career were possible only because of the books he had read. Indeed, he paid literature the highest possible tribute when he said social change and revolution were only possible because of literature.

In 1972, he brought out his first book, a volume of poetry called Golpitha, an apt tribute to the area that had nurtured and shaped him. Golpitha was radical. Its raw verse shocked and stunned Marathi readers. Dhasal spoke of what he saw—excreta and urine, venereal disease and leprosy, whoring and base instincts. The words spilled out uncensored and straight from the streets of Kamathipura. It was carnal and menacing. It was poetry unplugged. The average Marathi reader reeled under the onslaught and turned away shocked, repulsed. Literature, to them, could be revolutionary but not explicit in this way. And yet, they were drawn back to his writing later with a fascination.

Publishers, too, turned away, but soon saw the error of their decision when Golpitha came to be hailed as a voice of the marginalised. In one volume, Dhasal had brought two things that society preferred to wear blinkers against—Dalits and life in the redlight areas. More collections of poems followed. Moorkh Mhataryane Dongar Halavale (A Foolish Old Man Who Shook the Mountains), which stemmed from Maoist thinking; Tujhi Iyatta Kanchi? (How Educated Are You?); Khel, an exercise in erotic writing; Priya Darshini, which was about former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi; Mi Marale Suryachya Rathache Sat Ghode (I Killed the Seven Horses of the Sun); and Tujhe Bote Dharoon Mi Chalalo Ahe (I Walk Along Holding Your Finger). He also penned two novels and published the political pamphlets Andhale Shatak (A Century of Blindness) and Ambedkari Chalwal (The Ambedkarite Movement).

The Dalit Panthers

For Dhasal there was no compartmentalisation of life. He did not separate poetry from life or poetry from politics. In fact, Golpitha was brought out in the same year that he founded the Dalit Panthers. Politically speaking, his greatest achievement was founding the Dalit Panthers, the very militant expression of the Dalit movement. The Dalit Panthers borrowed more than just the name from the American Black Panthers. Radical without being jingoistic and political without pandering to politics, the Dalit Panthers marked a fundamental change in Dalit resistance for achieving its goal of human rights. It published pamphlets that were confrontational but not rabble-rousing.

The Panthers set the Dalit community, especially the youth, on fire. Energised as never before, they joined in droves and revelled in the sense of power and togetherness this new movement brought to their identity. It was a revival of the earlier Ambedkar fervour. For Dhasal it was the pinnacle, both politically speaking and as an expression of his personality. His activism rang with an honesty that continues to be associated with him despite the many deviations in his later political career.

But by 1982, a decade after it was formed, it was clear that the Dalit Panthers was no longer a force to be reckoned with. The infighting and lack of ideology that continues to plague the community’s political leaders came to the fore at this time. Dhasal believed that it was time to widen the scope of the battle so that all oppressed and marginalised communities joined the fight together. His comrades wanted to fight exclusively from the Dalit platform.

In his later years, Dhasal became something of a loose cannon. Fed up with the infighting within the Republican Party of India (RPI), he struggled to break loose. And when he did, it was with characteristic high rebellion. In two decades of his public life, he was with the Shiv Sena, the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party combine and the Shiv Sena-Bharatiya Janata Party-RPI combine.

For his detractors who were horrified at his choices, he defended his moves by saying that there was nothing contradictory, that he was doing what was required to take the movement forward and that there were no fixed ways of achieving a goal. There were few who argued with him, knowing that he had always operated as a loner and gone by his own convictions. But the fight took its toll on him. A dependence on alcohol and a tendency to tap friends for funds led him into a new world of isolation. Despite that, he continued to write and to inspire.

Acclaim was never far from Dhasal. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1999. In 2004, the Sahitya Akademi honoured him with a Lifetime Achievement Award. It was the only one the national academy gave during its golden jubilee celebrations. The American Library of Congress has eight of his titles. In 2001, when he made a presentation at the first International Literature Festival in Berlin, he was received ecstatically. And yet, though his works were translated (most effectively by the late Dilip Chitre), Dhasal remained a Maharashtrian poet. This never troubled him. He wrote. He was read. Beyond that nothing was important to him.

His death was a full stop in many ways. It not only closed the door on one of Mumbai’s most perceptive chroniclers but also firmly shut a chapter in the already faltering Dalit movement.

This article was updated on February 6, 2014, giving the correct title, 'Moorkh Mhataryane Dongar Halavale', of Namdeo Dhasal's collection of poems.