This acute denial of access to common resources continues today… countrywide. In fact, the assertion of a right to life of equality has made Dalits even more susceptible to brute violence as a complicit state simply looks on. In terms of fair access, re-distribution and equality other categories of Indians have joined Dalits as victims of targeted brutality and hate. Notably Indian Muslims and Christians.
In 1927, in rural Maharashtra, the denial of access continued despite the Bombay legislative council passing a resolution in August 1923, years before, making resources, especially water to be freely available to all. The Chavdar Tale Satyagraha, 94 years ago today has entered protest folklore in Maharashtra and is also known as Mahadcha Mukti Sangram (Mahad’s Liberation Struggle) and Mahadchee Samajik Kranti (Mahad’s Social Revolution). India’s government institutions observe March 20 as Social Empowerment Day. Tragically, despite the history and the date India continues on a path of collusive denial.
21st century India remains cruel to her most oppressed sections, the state is often a silent onlooked, complicit in violence unleashed when rights are asserted and dignity fought hard for. Gujarat, hailed as a model state for a certain kind of development, saw the brute murder of Amrabhai Boricha, a 50-year-old activist, who was attacked with spears, iron pipes and swords till he died in Sanodar village, while a policeman silently watched No action to date has been taken against the policeman for this brutal attack that was carried out by Kshatriyas of the village, right in front of his daughter’s eyes. This was 18 days ago.
The present central government has admitted to parliament (Rajya Sabha, March 17) that in 2019 and 2018 respectively, there were 2,369 and 2,067 registered rape cases against women of the Scheduled Castes! Bad or worse, under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act, 2012, that deals with penalising perpetrators for sexual crimes against children, 2019 reported 1,117 cases and 2018 reported 869 cases against Dalit children.
Adivasi women and girls fared no better: registered rape case against women and children of the Scheduled Tribes for the last two years, 2019 saw 714 cases against women and 396 cases against children. In 2018, as many as 609 women registered rape complaints, whereas 399 cases were registered by minors. In this bleak scenario, Rajasthan reported the highest number of cases against Dalit women (491) and Madhya Pradesh reported the highest number of cases against Dalit minors (214). Shockingly, Madhya Pradesh also recorded the maximum number of cases against Scheduled Tribe women and children with 219 and 139 cases, respectively.
Apart from violent crimes, many parts of India still follow the caste practice of not allowing Dalits to access handpumps, tube-wells, etc located in areas dominated by the more privileged castes One such area is Bundelkhand, which is constantly hit by water scarcity. Water tankers are not sent to Dalit villages, Dalits are not even allowed to touch functional water pumps and have to walk multiple kilometres just to get water.
A report by India Today in 2019 revealed how some of these water pumps in rural India are guarded by lathi-wielding men. When someone was asked why this protection of tubewells from people who need it, the answer was: “This is to prevent the theft of water. Unknown people (read Dalits) come here to steal water and we cannot afford this because there is already a water shortage.”
What is the mindset that treats the drinking of water, a common resource as theft? The recent case of the young Muslim child beaten for drinking water from a temple in Ghaziabad is another case in point. Justifying the brutal beating up of the young boy, the logic used by the temple priest was that Muslims are not allowed entry into temples and, therefore his drinking of water is ‘theft.’
Denying water to the oppressed classes is a caste Hindu practice that continues, and is one of the most prevalent forms of othering that still exists. As we pay tribute to the Chavdar Tale (pond/tank) satyagraha, the words of Babasaheb in the lead up to the protest remain prescient: “The Untouchables, either for purposes of doing their shopping and also for the purpose of their duty as village servants, had to come to Mahad to deliver to the taluka officer either the correspondence sent by village officials or to pay Government revenue collected by village officials. The Chawdar tank was the only public tank from which an outsider could get water. But the Untouchables were not allowed to take water from this tank. The only source of water for the Untouchables was the well in the Untouchables quarters in the town of Mahad. This well was at some distance from the centre of the town. It was quite choked on account of its neglect by the Municipality”
(“The Revolt of the Untouchables”, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Vol 5).
That day 94 years ago, was preceded by a conference organised by Depressed classes on the issue of Civil Rights and Babasaheb Ambedkar was the chief guest and guide of the event (March 19-20). Mahad, a town in Konkan, was selected for the event because it had a nucleus of support from ‘caste hindus’. These included A.V.Chitre, an activist, GN Sahasrabudhe of the Social Service League and Surendranath Tipnis who was then president of the Mahad municipality. Babsaheb was felicitated. Over 2,500 delegates participated in it. The conference decided to start a Satyagrah led by Baba Saheb Ambedkar and drink water at the Chavdar Talab. This was a historic moment. Dr Ambedkar and the other Satyagrahis defied all the public pressure and reached the Chavadar Talab, drank water and got ‘implemented’ the resolution passed by the Bombay Legislative Assembly. Ambedkar also made a statement addressing the Dalit women during the Satyagraha. He asked them to abandon all old customs that provided recognisable markers of untouchability and asked them to wear saris like the privileged caste women. (Before that time, the Dalit women were not allowed to drape saris completely).
The 1920s had myriad instances of caste Hindus defying the bonds of despicable and exclusionary caste practice and speaking against both untouchability, deprivation and denial. The Manusmriti Dahan (burning of the Manu Smriti) was undertaken by both Sahasrabudhe and Ambedkar on December 25 of the same year. Ten years later, in December 1937, the Bombay High Court ruled that untouchables have the right to use water from the tank!
The India of today does not merely turn its eyes and ears away from instances of violent caste exclusion. Today’s privileged elite, disengaged with the realities of millions of Indians do not care to identify themselves with any symbolic protest for a more dignified or egalitarian society. So many comparative examples come to mind.
In 2020, USA broke out in outraged protest when a brutal killing of a Black man by a police officer leading to weeks and weeks of protests. This was in a country maimed by the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak where the protesters were overwhelmingly white. Or take yesterday when the president of the USA, Joe Biden ordered the US flag to be flown at half-mast due to the brute killings of Asians in Atlanta. India, ruled by a militarist and supremacist ideology today scoffs at the more modern parametres of equality and dignity. Tragically, the tricolour is also sought to be appropriated by those who have no regard for either the Constitution, Babasaheb, Social Justice or Empowerment.
An Ode then to the Mahad Satyagraha….
Flyer published before Mahad Satyagraha in 1927