On the face of it, Muhammad Ali was a black American of African origin from a remote land far away from India. But in his own way, his dogged spirit in fighting white domination by making a mark in a sport known for aggression symbolised a spirit that rubbed off on India – in its own special way.
There are photographs doing the rounds on social media of his meetings with the late Tamil Nadu chief minister M. G. Ramachandran (MGR) and Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan. But the boxer’s significance runs deeper in India’s popular culture and politics because he was an inspiration to India’s Dalits — officially called Scheduled Castes — who identify with the African Americans of the US.
While Mahatma Gandhi inspired US civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr, in a way the honour was returned to India from the US by a group that inspired the Dalits — the former “untouchables” whom Gandhi used to call Harijans, or children of God.
Muhammad Ali is in many ways considered an inspiration for the Black Panther Party, a radical group that believed in using smart, bold words to assert the black identity in America and combine it with self-defence tactics. Gun-toting Black Panther leaders who talked big gave confidence in the US to blacks a century after Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery because in day-to-day life, the blacks faced discrimination and fear, much like the Dalits who face discrimination and violence at the hands of some upper castes in India even today.
Some radical Dalits formed the Dalit Panther socio-political movement along the lines of the Black Panther Party and pioneered Dalit Power as a radical idea in India. Dalits were inspired earlier by moderate reformist Bhim Rao Ambedkar, a key architect of the Indian Constitution, but the Dalit Panthers represented a radical, stylish, arty spirit that appealed to younger Dalits.
Dalit Panthers have inspired Tamil Nadu’s Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), literally, the Liberation Panthers Party. Led by Thol Thirumavalavan, the VCK was part of the defeated People Welfare Front (PWF) in the recent elections.
Lok Janshakti Party leader Ram Vilas Paswan has had his own outfit called Dalit Sena, at least one of whose leaders used to sport an Afro hairdo. In ideas, style and visuals, Muhammad Ali has crept into India’s fashion and politics. That is how pop icons influence politics.