‘We too have made history’

 ‘Aamihi Itihas Ghadavla’ by Meenakshi Moon is an important work documenting through detailed interviews the history and struggles of women in the early untouchable liberation movement. The following is an excerpt from the foreword written in English to the book published some decades ago in Marathi.

The story of women’s participation in the Untouchable movement is an interesting one. To trace the early activ
 ism of Untouchable women one has to go back to the beginning of the twentieth century. In the following decades women’s activities developed from mere participation as beneficiaries, or as audience, to the shouldering of significant responsibility in various fields of activity in the Ambedkar movement.

In the first decade of the twentieth century we find Shivram Janaba Kamble taking up the mission of removing the stigma of prostitution from the face of the Untouchables. In 1908, through his magazine Somvanshi Mitra, he wrote articles asking his community to accept in marriage the hands of women who had been thrown into the degrading profession of prostitution through the practice of giving girls to Hindu temples as devadasis (slaves of the God).

Besides writing articles, Kamble conducted various meetings to awaken and enlighten people and appealed to them to abandon the practice of offering girls to the god and goddess of Jejuri known as Khandoba and Yellamama.
Kamble’s efforts yielded positive results. One devadasi named Shivubai responded to the call and wrote a very long letter explaining the miserable life of the wretched women and offering herself in marriage to any willing person. In response to her call, published by Kamble in his magazine, one of his associates, Ganpatrao Hanmantrao Gaikwad, agreed to marry Shivubai. Accordingly the marriage was solemnised and was given wide publicity. 

Not only did Kamble encourage such marriages but he also saw to it that these women got respect and dignity in society. His propaganda against the devadasi system was so effective that in the year 1909 not a single girl was offered to Khandoba as a devadasi. It was also found that other slave girls of the God (prostitutes) were accepted by the young boys of the Untouchable community as their wives.

The early movement of Untouchables in Maharashtra also led to increasing participation by women in conferences. A Nagpur woman, a nurse, described her experiences of untouchability to the All India women’s conference of 1920. Other women were brought before audiences either to welcome the guest speakers in conferences or to sing the welcome songs in  meetings.

The movement begun by Dr. Ambedkar generated an even more enthusiastic participation. Dr. Ambedkar organised several conferences of the Untouchables. He saw to it that women’s conferences were held simultaneously with those for men. By 1930 women had become so conscious that they started conducting their own meetings and conferences independently.

In Mahad in 1927, during the historic satyagraha movement to claim the right of Untouchables to take water from the public tank, Dalit women not only participated in the procession with Dr. Ambedkar but also participated in the deliberations of the subject committee meetings in passing resolutions about the claim for equal human rights.
In the Nashik satyagraha, started by Ambedkar in 1930 for the right of Untouchables to enter Hindu temples, several hundred women conducted sit–in agitations in front of the temple and courted arrest. Every batch of volunteers consisted of some women. Some of the women still alive have been interviewed during this research. This satyagraha was carried on until 1935, when, on October 13, Dr. Ambedkar declared at Yeola (near Nashik) that he had been born a Hindu but would not die a Hindu. In the Yeola conference Dr. Ambedkar announced that this satyagraha was terminated as the heart of the Hindu was not likely to change. He also said that his objective was to organise and to awaken the Untouchables themselves.

During this period, women conducted meetings to support separate electorates for the Untouchables and passed resolutions accordingly. In May 1936 the women held an independent conference along with one for women in Bombay to support Dr. Ambedkar’s declaration of intent to convert to a non–Hindu religion. The speeches of women, reported exhaustively in Janata weekly, show that women were very frank in stating that they wanted a religion that would recognise their freedom, dignity and equal status with men. They expressed confidence that Dr. Ambedkar would not drag them into a religion where women would have to wear the burkha or live in purdah.

The resolutions passed by women in various conferences demanded:
1)  Free and compulsory education for girls;
2)  Women’s representation in state legislative assemblies, local bodies etc … ;
3)  Training for self-protection of Untouchable women, such as wielding of sticks or karate;
4)  Starting a women’s wing in the Samta  Sainik Dal (Equality Volunteer Corps);
5)  Prohibiting child marriages. 

Efforts were made by all Ambedkarite workers to encourage women’s education. The research revealed that the first girl’s school in the Untouchable community was srtarted by Kalicharan Nanda-gawali, who later became the Untouchable representative from Gondia to the Central Provinces legislative council during the 1920s. Similar schools were started in the Konkan region and at a few other places. In 1924 in Nagpur the first woman to start a girls school was Jaibai Chaudhari, who herself secured an education against heavy odds and against the wishes of her husband. She was encouraged and helped in her work by a Christian nun. Other women social workers started independent hostels exclusively for girls during the 1930s.

The political movement begun by Dr. Ambedkar brought forth the political ambition of Untouchable women. Women conducted conferences and passed resolutions to support the Independent Labour Party and later the Scheduled Castes Federation programmes. 

Describing the 1942 conference of women in Nagpur, held at the same time as the meeting of the Scheduled Castes Federation, Dr. Ambedkar said, “The presence of women at the conference in their thousands was a sight for the gods to witness. Their dress, their cleanliness and the confidence brought delight to my heart”. Similar conferences of women of great magnitude were organised at Kanpur (1944), Bombay (1945) and Calcutta (1946).
At all these conferences, women leaders, viz. Minambal Shivraj from Madras, Sulochana Dongre of Amravati, Shantabai Dani and several other women addressed the meetings. Radhabai Kamble, a worker in a cotton mill, had come up as a labour leader in the Ambedkarite movement in the 1920s. She gave evidence before the Royal Commission of Labour in 1929. The Untouchable women also joined political agitations courted arrest and underwent jailed during the Scheduled Castes Federation’s 1946 satyagraha in the state assemblies. From all this it will be clear that women had made great strides in achieving political consciousness.

The research shows that women were also interested in reforming the marriage system. Untouchable society already permitted divorce, remarriage and widow marriage, but the women in the movement brought several further reforms to the marriage system. They opposed child marriage. They tried to eliminate unnecessary rituals in marriage. They even adopted marriages through advertisement, which was not acceptable then, even among higher classes. Even marriages among different Untouchable sub-castes were welcomed. Such reforms were often ahead of the higher castes. 

The research has also documented the change that has occurred among women since the great conversion to Buddhism in 1956. Normally it is believed that women are mostly conservative in cultural matters and not amenable to change, but Dalit women accepted the progressive religion. They have given up old customs, rites and rituals, visits to Hindu pilgrimage sites, fasting on various Hindu festivals, etc. The women have also adopted the Buddhist form of worship and way of life which is based on morality, wisdom and compassion. 
The conversion has changed their outlook about caste so much that the new generation of Buddhists hardly knows its sub–caste, and many inter–caste marriages have been welcomed in the Buddhist faith. Formerly girls were given contemptuous names which indicated their low position and caste. Now the Buddhist women name their daughters after great women in Buddhist history.

A Note on the Research Process. The research on this project included locating and reviewing various newspapers published within the Untouchable community during the last hundred years. These include Dhnyan-prakash, Bahishkrit Bharat, Janata, Somvanshi Mitra, etc. In addition to these, some scholarly publications by eminent writers, census and other relevant reports, rare booklets, leaflets and similar material have been explored.

The major portion of the research involved interviews of approximately sixty women who were connected with the Ambedkarite movement. Some information has been obtained from the relatives of deceased participants in the movement. This information was collected from various places in Maharashtra and also from Delhi. The research as a whole throws a flood of light on various activities of women which were hitherto unknown. As far as we know, nobody  so far has dealt with this subject. We interviewed women participants in the Ambedkar movement in order to understand what role they played in the movement; what sort of experiences they had in the field as well as in the family, as mother, wife and daughter; what was the effect on their lives, of Ambedkar’s movement and speeches; what difference was there was between a common housewife and a Dalit woman social worker; how far these women are aware of continuing atrocities on women and similar issues.

We travelled throughout Maharashtra and contacted women workers in Bombay, Pune, Satara, Nagpur, and Nasik and some in the countryside. We also visited Delhi. Sometimes we could give them advance notice, but most of the time we had to take them by surprise. Several times we had to remain without food and water, but when we reached somebody’s house we were showered with warm hospitality and love.

At some places we were told that a particular woman was an active worker, but on verification or after a personal meeting the woman would be frank in saying that she was not the woman we wanted. Another thing we noticed was their willingness to help us learn about other women. Thus, by lighting one candle from another, the picture of the Ambedkarite movement became clearer and clearer.

Most of the women we met are illiterate, but some are teachers, some are writers, and three or four are Buddhist nuns. A couple of these women are legislators and some are in local bodies. Most of these women are poor, but some have attained financial security. Most of the women active in the movement were born in social workers’ families, or were given in marriage into such families. Some lived in neighbourhoods where social activities were going on and became involved.

For all of them, Dr. Ambedkar’s words and movement had an inspiring effect on their minds. Even the participants in the movement who were illiterate subscribed to Ambedkar’s journals, e.g., Mooknayak, Bahishkrit Bharat, Janata, Prabuddha Bharat, to keep these publications alive. It was heartening to see that women contributed even from their own meagre income to almost every activity that was going on in the movement. They paid four annas or eight annas when their daily wages were hardly a rupee. (There are sixteen annas in a rupee). These contributions were very significant in the movement.

While joining the processions, satyagrahas, etc., these women had to entrust their children and family responsibilities to a neighbour or to a close relatives like a mother or daughter. Occasionally some of them had co–operation from their husbands, but some of them had to face brutal beatings at their husband’s hands. Some women courted arrest along with men in satyagrahas. At such times, some of them took their infant babies with them to jail and some carried all their belongings, including chickens. Those who left their nursing babies at home complained of breast pains in jail. In order to facilitate social work a few women underwent family planning operations while a few brought home a second wife for the husband.

We have noticed that these women who were once meek and shy are now self – reliant and dare–devil. Taking into consideration the extremely backward social atmosphere, the achievements of these women were most commendable. Schools, hostels and orphanages for girls were started by women like Jaibai Chaudhari and Deshbhratar in the Nagpur area. Radhabai Kamble shouldered leadership in the labour movement. Sakhubai Mohite and Suman Bandisode were among several women who led organisations and participated in movements such as the struggle to rename Marathwada University, extend (affirmative action) reservations to Buddhists and provide land to landless labourers.

Women also continue to be interested in political work. The Republican Party, founded by Ambedkar in 1958, was split into several groups after his death. The women we met are working through these groups but are not happy with these divisions. They believe that the whole Dalit leadership should unite and work as a whole and take the chariot of Ambedkar’s work ahead. 

Archived from Communalism Combat, May 2001 Year 8  No. 69, Cover Story 3



Related Articles