“Death is that stone inscription of which the thinker is always afraid.” Namdeo Dhasal, Ode to Dr. Ambedkar, translated by Dilip Chitre
Namdeo Dhasal lived a life that cannot be contained in the polite language of obituaries, a life that revolted against hagiographies, a rebellious life that shunned haloes. In the world of poets, he was beyond mere poetry. As he declared, I am a venereal sore in the private part of language/ The living spirit looking out of hundreds of thousands of sad, pitiful eyes/ has shaken me/ I am broken by the revolt exploding inside me. In the drama of politics, he brought in the poet’s audacity and irreverence.
In 1972, when he co-founded the Dalit Panthers, he was only 23. Burning with the unsullied anger of youth, and reeling under the influence of the Black Panthers, his manifesto believed in direct action, challenged the state apparatus and advocated a militancy in challenging caste that was never before seen in the Indian subcontinent. Even as his radical movement Dalit Panthers altered the face and form of resistance to caste oppression and state violence, Namdeo’s poetry sought to liberate language from the clutches of orthodox and sanitised usage. His seminal collection Golpitha, drawing on his experiences of growing up in Mumbai’s red-light district, shocked the literary world, and scandalised them with its rawness and its rage. Born a Mahar, he did not allow the oppression of untouchability to break him, he broke untouchability, he took upon and wore the label of Dalit with pride, and made it so for millions of people.
His work combined political propaganda and poetry effortlessly as he put forth an unrelenting criticism of an oppressive system that enslaves the Dalit people. As we continue to remain a society where caste rules the roost, the explosive aggression of his words, the aesthetics of violence and street-fighting in his poetic speech, the depiction of filth in all its flamboyance, the amoralism that rejected all established codes and constructs are things for which we will celebrate Namdeo Dhasal.
His irreverence with language also manifested itself in the manner in which he lived — outrageously lumpen, with a stormy personal life that he never bothered to explicate and bizarre political leanings that only grew more controversial over time.
How did such an insurrectionary poet move towards the reactionary right wing? Or, more importantly, why did he make the shift from the plank of negation into the one of incorporation? His support of Indira Gandhi’s emergency, his writing for the Shiv Sena’s mouthpiece, his allegiance to the Hindu right wing are not political moves that I shall ever seek to justify or gloss over. Even Namdeo would not have liked it, as he once wrote: Like a snake, I too shed my skin; this touch of icy water cuts all passion’s cords./ Don’t blow a soothing breath on the surface of water now, or my memoirs will lose their face.
It is a disservice to history to be apologetic instead of acknowledging that in the political game played by the Congress and Shiv Sena, he became a reluctant pawn. It is worth revisiting Namdeo’s journey as a tale of caution for Dalit politics today, especially in gaining understanding of the many problematic issues that come up when pragmatism is valued over and above uncompromising ideology.
And yet, before hurrying into the convenient act of blaming Namdeo for his misdirected political choices, we should perhaps first acknowledge the reality of India’s political system that is content with earning credibility by co-opting prominent Dalit figures and paying lip service to the concept of equality even as it is hard at work to sustain the casteist, Hindu supremacist patriarchal structure by all means possible. Such a fascist tendency feeds its everyday bloodlust by criminalising Dalit militancy, unleashing violence on Dalits and maintaining a smug silence that refuses to acknowledge the state of hatred and oppression visited upon them. Namdeo’s poems disturbed those sanctified tombs of silence. His words were dynamite. It is a consolation that his poetry will outlast his political trajectory. It will be our proud inheritance. It will be hurled at our oppressors. It will always be in use as long as we rage against the caste system. Panthers on the prowl, they will slay every one and everything standing in the way of caste annihilation. In mourning him, we salute the militancy of his exploding, explosive words.