“We are not going to the Chavadar Tank to merely drink its water. We are going to the Tank to assert that we too are human beings like others. It must be clear that this meeting has been called to set up the norm of equality.”
—B.R. Ambedkar in 1927, at Mahad
Leading some 3,000 ‘untouchables’ to the Chavdar Tale (or lake) in Mahad, Raigadh district, on March 19, 1927, B.R. Ambedkar struck a powerful blow against Hindu casteism. In a stirring speech he said, “I feel no parallel to this can be found in the history of India. If we seek for another meeting in the past to equal this, we shall have to go to the history of France—the revolutionary French National Assembly convened in 1789 that set new principles for the organisation of society.” The Dalit movement considers the Mahad protest its ‘Declaration of Independence’.
It’s a story that plays out even today, in many subtle and, more often, utterly crude ways. The law declares equality for all, but in practice, the oppressed face brutal violence when they seek what is legally decreed. The Bombay Legislative Council had in 1923 resolved that people from all castes could use public amenities, including tanks, maintained by the government. The Mahad municipality too agreed to enforce it, but ran into protests from the upper castes. To wrest what was being unfairly denied, Ambedkar led the Dalits to drink from the lake.
Trouble broke out soon after. Rumours were spread that the ‘untouchables’ were also planning to enter the Vishweshwara temple and pollute it. Upper caste mobs ran riot, beating up Dalits and ransacking their homes. Grain stocks in Dalit homes were soiled or laid waste. Many Dalits sheltered in Muslim homes, and Ambedkar was forced to spend the night in a government guest house. In June the same year, five upper caste Hindus were sentenced by the (colonial) district magistrate to four months’ rigorous imprisonment. Ambedkar remarked, “Had the chief officers in the district been Hindus, justice would have been denied. Under Brahmin Peshwa rule, I would have been trampled to death by an elephant.”
The Brahmins of Mahad decided to ‘purify’ the ‘polluted’ lake by pouring into it 108 pots of panchakarma—cowdung, cow urine, milk, ghee and curds—amid Vedic chanting. The Dalits hit on December 25, with 10,000 protesters joining in the Second Mahad Satyagraha: they burnt a copy of the Manusmriti after one of Ambedkar’s Brahmin friends, G.N. Sahastrabuddhe, read portions from it that prescribe the treatment to be meted out to Shudras. Ambedkar compared the burning to the burning of foreign cloth under the swadeshi movement. He said, “The satyagraha movement started by Gandhi was backed by the people as it was against foreign domination. Our struggle is against the mass of caste Hindus and naturally we have little support from outside.”
One must note, however, that the Mahad satyagraha wasn’t planned or initiated by Ambedkar himself. It took four years of planning and happened under the banner of the Kolaba District Depressed Classes Conference. In 1924, Ambedkar, who had founded the Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha, was approached by Ramchandra Babaji More, a 21-year-old student, who had organised a strike demanding that the Mahad municipality restore the rights of ‘untouchables’ to drink water, requested him to preside over a conference there. More had the support of some progressive non-Dalits. For example, Surbanana Tipnis, of the Chandrasenia Kayastha Prabhu community and a classmate of More, was the chairman of the Mahad municipal corporation and presided over its decision to accept the legislative council’s resolution.
The seeds of Dalit emancipation, though, had already been sown in the region. Dasgaon, hardly 10 km from Mahad, was a hamlet and port on the Gandhari river where British soldiers would disembark on their journey from Bombay to Dapoli. With Mahars and other ‘untouchables’ being recruited into the army, the region was teeming with ex-army men, who set up schools for Dalit children, brought in telegraph lines and so on. These groups had risen in income and education, but still could not get a drink of water at the Mahad market. Ambedkar’s protest changed that.
But old prejudices, now coloured by the present-day political mood, are asserting themselves. In March this year, on the 89th anniversary of the Mahad satyagraha, history was turned on its head when the local Shiv Sena MLA, Bharatseth Gogawale allegedly oversaw a puja and purification ceremony at the lake. Ishwar Mahadik, a near-sighted, greying sweeper-cum-chowkidar at the Ambedkar memorial overlooking the lake, saw some people carrying puja paraphernalia going down the steps at the lake with a Brahmin in tow. With gardener Sunil Kamble, he went and asked them to halt, saying puja or putting flowers in the lake was not permitted. But the men pulled rank and said they were from Sena MLA Gogawale’s office and that it was government business. The duo reported the matter to their superiors. Word spread of Gogawale having had a purification ritual. Coming in the wake of clashes in Pune colleges between Ambedkarites and the Hindutva brigade over the JNU imbroglio, the issue snowballed. Opposition MLAs blocked Assembly proceedings and raised slogans of ‘Jai Bhim’ when the BJP-led state government tried to charge them with sedition.
Gogawale’s office said “no purification was done”; it was only a worship of the water. Not buying that, a 2,000-strong group marched to the lake in protest and conducted a mock funeral. The protesters included members of the Republican Party of India (Athavale), which is in fact an electoral ally of the Sena-BJP and was instrumental in getting Gogawale elected against Congressman Manik Jagtap.
Mohan Khambe, leader of district RPI(A), has dismissed claims of an innocent puja as part of the CM’s jal abhiyaan awareness campaign. “The government resolution (GR) on the abhiyaan says nothing about doing puja. It’s a campaign to spread awareness about saving water. What was the need for such a ritual? If it was just a move to pay respects to the lake, why didn’t he invite the Buddhist priests from the Bouddhwada next to the lake? Why a Brahmin priest? He put in cow dung, betel leaves and other things exactly the way it is prescribed for purification in Hindu scriptures.”
The Chavdar lake may have history behind it but today it does not have enough water for Mahad’s teeming population. It has become a site of pilgrimage for Dalits. Individuals are allowed to drink from the lake and fill water in bottles. At a time when, emboldened by Modi’s rise, the Hindu right wing is trying to spread its roots in the Konkan with outfits like Sanatan Sanstha and Hindu Janjagruti Samiti, we may take solace in the words of the late poet Namdeo Dhasal:
The heart of water is generous and it reaches
the very roots,
Its healing touch makes the scabs of a thousand sorrows fall.
What walls, how many walls, can you build around water?
How will you shackle the rushing form of water?
- Musical Note Ambedkar loved to play the violin, was fond of dogs, and had a fine collection of pens, suits and walking sticks
- Forever Writing He died in Delhi, three days after completing his book, The Buddha and His Dhamma
Siddharthya Swapan Roy, An engineer by training, Roy is a freelance journalist