The firebrand Marathi poet-writer and leader of the Dalit Panthers movement succumbed to a long-drawn battle against illness

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.

“His political journey was a disaster. But we cannot deny his contribution as a poet,” said Subodh More, his associate from 70s, who also said that Mr. Dhasal was bitter about Indian Communists.

He always preferred to be called as a poet of ‘container carriers.’ “I am giving my political poems in the hands of working class. Shouldn’t I hope that the downtrodden arise with renewed rage after reading my poem? Words are like bullets and not a pistol used in Diwali. They should be aimed at right place and used for friends,” he wrote as an introduction to one of his poem collections.

Mr. Dhasal’s incisive poetry and equally sharp prose encompassed a wide range of voices from Mumbai’s underbelly. He wrote about the sexually-exploited, the ugly and savage, the criminal and the nefarious. He shred to pieces religious beliefs but underlying it all were cries of pain. His work earned him the Padma Shri Award and the Sahitya Akademi’s Lifetime Achievement Award. In his “Man You Should Explode” — from the Golpitha collection — Mr. Dhasal shredded elitist notions of religion, philosophy and civilization, envisaging instead a world for all humanity.

Eminent poet and close friend Dilip Chitre who called him the poet of the Underworld wrote the introduction to Golpitha. In an essay, Chitre wrote that that the work occupied "a position equal to that of T.S. Eliot's 'The Waste Land' not only in Marathi but in pan-Indian poetry and it could have been written only by a Dalit."