The Dalit Black Panther Movement


By Janelle Oswald

The catchphrase ‘Black Is Beautiful’ coined in the 1960’s during the American civil right movement by members of the Black Panthers has been revived and has now become a popular slogan by the Indian marginalised tribal group known as Dalits or Untouchables living in India.

This growing phenomenon of black power in India may come as a surprise to many due to the fact that very few people realise that outside of Africa, India holds the second largest black population in the world.

Formally known as Eastern Ethiopia, India has had a black past since 2200 BC and beyond which was inhabited by the Dravidians who erected a powerful civilization known as the Indus Valley

The term “Dravidian,” encompasses both an ethnic group and a linguistic group.  The ethnic group is characterised by straight to wavy hair textures, combined with Africoid physical features.  In reference to this Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop stated that:

“There are two well-defined Black races: one has a black skin and woolly hair; the other also has black skin, often exceptionally black, with straight hair, aquiline nose, thin lips, an acute cheekbone angle. We find a prototype of this race in India: the Dravidian.  It is also known that certain Nubians likewise belong to the same Negro type.”

The decline and fall of the Indus Valley civilization has been linked to several factors, but the most important were the increasingly frequent incursions of white people known in history as Aryans - violent Indo-European tribes initially from central Eurasia and later Iran.

The Aryans were not necessarily superior warriors to the blacks but they were aggressive, developed sophisticated military technologies and glorified military virtues.  After hundreds of years of intense martial conflict the Aryans succeeded in conquering most of northern India and as a result, created a rigid, caste-segmented social order with the masses of conquered blacks reduced to slaves by their white conquerors throughout the vanquished territories.

The masses of conquered blacks living in India were regarded as “untruth” by their white invaders and this stigma still prevails today.  The Aryans claimed to have emerged from the mouth of God while the blacks, on the other hand, were said to have emerged from the feet of God. 

Servitude to whites became the basis of the lives of all blacks for generation after generation after generation and this legacy is still alive and kicking today.  With the passage of time, this brutally harsh, colour-oriented, racially-based caste system became the foundation of the religion that is now practiced throughout all India.  This is the religion known as Hinduism.

To be born a Hindu in India is to enter one of the world’s longest surviving forms of social stratification - the caste system.

Branded as impure from the moment of birth, one out of six Indians lives and suffers at the bottom of the Hindu caste system with the greatest victims of Hinduism being the Untouchables and the most substantial percentage of all the black people of Asia can be identified among India’s 160 million Untouchables - Dalits number more than the combined populations of England, France, Belgium and Spain.

The basis status of Untouchables has changed little since ancient time due to the belief of Karma and rebirth. Indians believe that a person is born Untouchables because of the accumulation of sins in their previous life. Hindu texts describe these people as foul and loathsome, and any physical contact with them was regarded as polluting.

Untouchables are forced to live in slum settlements on the outskirts of Hindu communities.  During certain periods in Indian history Untouchables were only allowed to enter the adjoining Hindu communities at night.  Even the Untouchables’ shadows were considered polluting, and they were required to beat drums and make loud noises to announce their approach. 

Customarily Untouchables had to attach brooms to their backs to erase any evidence of their presence.  Cups were tied around their necks to capture any spittle that might escape their lips and contaminate roads and streets.  Their meals were taken from broken dishes.  Their clothing was taking from corpses.  They were forbidden to learn to read and write, and were prohibited from listening to any of the traditional Hindu texts.

Still in 2009 Untouchables are denied access to public wells.  They cannot use ornaments and are not allowed to enter Hindu temples.  The primary work of Untouchables included scavenging and street sweeping, emptying toilets, the public execution of criminals, the disposal of dead animals and human corpses, and the clean-up of cremation grounds.  The daily life of the Untouchable is filled with degradation, deprivation and humiliation. They are consistently shunned, insulted, made to eat and drink from separate utensils in public places, and, in extreme but not uncommon cases, are raped, burned, lynched, and gunned down.

Untouchables are not allowed to wear shoes, ride bicycles, use umbrellas or hold their heads up while walking in the street.

No longer willing to accept the racist treatment carried out by caste Hindus, the Untouchables are demonstrating a rapidly expanding awareness of their African ancestry and their relationship to the struggle of black people throughout the world.  Studying the civil rights movement in America, the Untouchables have now formed their own constitutional rights group.  In April 1972 the Dalit Panther Party was formed in Bombay, India, which takes its pride and inspiration directly from the Black Panther Party of America and is a vibrant positive movement for all Dalits.

With black power spreading across India and the slogan ‘Black Is Beautiful’ being chanted across the land, the Untouchables are now rebuking India’s racist past and Aryan identity viewing Independence Day as a day of mourning rather than an anniversary of celebration.

Mirroring the Black Panthers of America that were notorious for creating their own press, The Untouchables have formed their own publication known as the Dalit Voice - the major English journal of the Black Untouchables.

V.T. Rajshekar a Dalit journalist penned an article entitled the African Presence in Early Asia stating: 

“The African-Americans also must know that their liberation struggle cannot be complete as long as their own blood-brothers and sisters living in far off Asia are suffering.  It is true that African-Americans are also suffering, but our people here today are where African-Americans were two hundred years ago.

African-American leaders can give our struggle tremendous support by bringing forth knowledge of the existence of such a huge chunk of Asian Blacks to the notice of both the American Black masses and the Black masses who dwell within the African continent itself.”

Like all things born out of oppression, the Dalit Voice challenges the mainstream Indian press that ignores the plight of the original inhabitants and also aims to represent the entire deprived dehumanized castes of India. Learning that they are not alone in their struggle for political and social justice, the Dalits are uniting across India educating their fellow ‘brothas’ and ’sistas’ not only that ‘Black Is Beautiful’ but most importantly letting each other know that they had a powerful past and without their existence India would not be what it is today.