Seat gone, Athawale now plans to revive former militant outfit

With his constituency lost to delimitation, a jittery Lok Sabha MP and Dalit leader Ramdas Athawale—who controls the largest faction of the Republican Party of India (RPI)—has decided to revive his erstwhile militant youth organisation, the Bharatiya Dalit Panther (BDP).

A meeting to work out ways to revive the BDP was held in Chembur on October 15. Athawale addressed the well-attended gathering of youths and advocated the need to revive the outfit. Earlier, reacting to the court verdict on the Khairlanji massacre, the MP had warned that the Panthers would have to be revived if injustice on Dalits continued.

Though the specifics of the revival are being worked out, it has been decided to re-open BDP's chhawnis (camps)—similar to the Shiv Sena shakhas. With Athawale still allied to the NCP, the outfit's youngsters are likely to be used by Sharad Pawar to counter the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in the run-up to the general elections.

The BDP was an offshoot of the Dalit Panthers (DP). As the DP split over several ideological and personal issues, several factions came into existence. The BDP came into prominence during the "Namantar" movement—to demand the renaming of the Marathwada University after Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. In 1978, casteist riots broke out in the state, mainly in Marathwada, as the Shiv Sena and "upper" castes opposed the move to rename the University. During the riots and arson, members of the BDP rushed to the affected areas to provide protection to Dalits. Athawale, subsequently, emerged as its leader and was picked up by Pawar, who renamed the university 16 years after becoming the chief minister.

Athawale and his lieutenants, who were militant in the 1970s, are now nearing their 50s and the revival of BDP would ensure some young blood at their disposal. The RPI(A) has no youth wing like other parties. Given his knack of remembering at least a dozen faces by name in most villages of the state and identifying them publicly, Athawale is popular among Dalit activists—who know that he would rush to their help when required. However, Athawale's strong bonding with Pawar has been the main hurdle in uniting all RPI factions, as other leaders have asked him to break ties with the NCP as a pre-condition.

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