The advent of the British in India provided a large employment opportunity in the army for Untouchables across the country. In The Untouchables and Pax Britannia, a tract he wrote in the early 1930s, Ambedkar argued, on the basis of “a good deal of study”, that it was the Untouchables who had helped Britain achieve its “extraordinary” conquest of India, and subsequently “retain” its territories (BAWS 12: 83, 86–87). [Ambedkar did not see the Untouchables’ action as treason. “History,” he wrote, “abounds with illustrations showing how one section of people in a country have shown sympathy with an invader, in the hope that the newcomer will release them from the oppressions of their countrymen” (BAWS 12: 86).]
Apart from Mahars and Paraiyars, the British armies employed Untouchables from Bengal and, after the 1857 revolt, Maazhabi Sikhs from Punjab. At various times, Bhils, Santhals, and people from other Adivasi groups were also recruited. Among all these groups, the Mahars were probably “the most heavily recruited” (Cohen 1969: 455). Victory in a battle in 1818, against a large army of the Brahmin Peshwas, which heralded the end of the Peshwa rule in Pune, is an important part of Mahar historical memory. An obelisk erected at the battleground, in Bhima Koregaon village near Pune, lists 22 Mahar soldiers – identifiable by the suffix -nak – who lost their lives, and is the site of an annual celebratory event of Mahars, as their forefathers were believed to have suffered severe indignities under Peshwa rule.
With scarce cultivable land and employment opportunities, the Konkan was a major recruiting ground for the Bombay Army, the standing army of the Bombay province, a vast administrative unit stretching from present-day Sind in Pakistan to north-western Karnataka. Till 1877, nearly half its infantry, of around 20,000 men, was recruited from the Konkan. Mahars, known in military records as the Parwaris (said to be derived from parwar, the corn remaining on the floor after threshing, which was traditionally claimed by Mahars), formed around a sixth of the recruits, and most of them were from the Ratnagiri district of southern Konkan (Basham 1986: 64-65).
The 1880 gazetteer of the district reported that, including pensioners, there were 2,180 Mahars in the district on the rolls of the Bombay Army (Govt of Bombay 1880: 130). Around 6 per cent of them were retired or serving as officers with the ranks of havildar, jemadar or subhedar, loosely similar to sergeant, lieutenant and captain in the British infantry. [In ascending order, the ranks for Indian recruits in the infantry were as follows: sepoy, lance naik, naik, havildar, havildar major, jemadar, subhedar and subhedar major. For British and other European recruits in the infantry, the ranks (in ascending order) were private, lance corporal, corporal, sergeant, sergeant major, lieutenant, captain and major. All Indians in the British army, including viceroy commissioned officers (VCOs) in the infantry, namely jemadars, subhedars and subhedar majors, were subordinate to the lowest-ranked British officers.] From the population data given in the gazetteer, we can estimate that Mahar families with a military background comprised around a sixth of the total Mahar families in the district.
Ramji Sakpal hailed from Ambadave village in Ratnagiri district, [Both Khairmode and Keer incorrectly named the village “Ambavade”. Ambadave is in Mangaon taluka, about 60 kilometres from the taluka headquarters. An Ambedkar memorial hall and an Ashoka pillar have been constructed in the village.] and was recruited into the 106 Sappers and Miners regiment of the Bombay Army around 1866, when he was about 18 years old.
In the army records, his name was entered as Ramnak Malnak (Basham 1986: 297). A stocky, fair-complexioned sharpshooter with sober habits, he drew the attention of one of his seniors in the regiment, Dharmaji Murbadkar. Murbadkar had an unmarried daughter, Bhimabai, and despite the difference in their ranks, he decided that Ramji would be a good match for her. The wedding was held in 1867 with great pomp at the Murbadkar’s home in Murbad, in Thane district of north Konkan (K 1: 21-22).
Mahars of the infantry regiments were posted in cantonments at Satara, Belgaum, Pune, Gwalior, Mhow near Indore, and Rawalpindi. There are records of them fighting in the Third Anglo-Maratha War (1817-19), Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848-49) and the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1878-80 (Basham 1986: 37). But on Ramji’s postings, there is little information. Khairmode only mentions that Ramji was with his family in Rawalpindi in 1879, and in the Mhow cantonment [A common belief that Mhow is an acronym for “military headquarters for war” has no basis. The cantonment town was renamed as Dr Ambedkar Nagar in 2003.] from 1888 till his retirement from the 107th Pioneers regiment as a subhedar in 1893 (K 1: 29, 33).
Like other Indian soldiers, Mahars in the army got lower pay and poorer housing compared to Europeans. They were also asked to do menial jobs and could not rise to the position of commanding officers (Basham 1986: 103). In 1881, a sepoy, the lowest-ranked Indian recruit in the infantry, got a salary of seven rupees a month; a subhedar, who attained that rank only after around twenty years of service, got one hundred rupees per month. In comparison, cotton mills in Mumbai, which also attracted a large number of labourers from the Konkan, paid salaries ranging from five to fifty rupees a month. At the lowest level, salaries in the army were around the same as salaries in the mills (Basham 1986: 115). However, army men got benefits in the form of free housing and medical care, subsidised clothing and food, and pension after retirement. Untouchables in the Bombay Army also enjoyed a liberating privilege – the Army gave more importance to the rank than the caste of its recruits (Mason 1974/2004: 125). Speaking about this in March 1927, at a historic gathering of Mahars in Mahad, a central town in the Konkan, Ambedkar said:
“Only when the British stepped into this country did the Untouchables get a chance to raise their heads. Using this opportunity, they demonstrated how strong and bright they were...Due to employment in the army, the Untouchable class that once eked out a living as servants acquired authority and exercised power over others. It would be fair to say that due to employment in the army, a revolution took place in the structure of Hindu society. The very Mahars and Chambhars who would not be touched by Marathas and others, who had to salute Marathas and others, for otherwise the latter would feel insulted – those very Mahars and Chambhars received the salute from Maratha soldiers that was due for the rank of subhedar. If these subhedars accosted them, the other soldiers did not dare look up. Untouchables had never before acquired so much authority in any province of the country. (BAWS 18-1: 35-36)”
Mahar and Chambhar soldiers gained another important benefit. Like other Indian soldiers of the
Bombay Army, they received a basic modern education, which included lessons in arithmetic,
geography and history (Basham 1986: 143-44). All regiments had schools and some, like the Sappers
and Miners, had English-medium schools. At least till 1866, school education was not compulsory in
the army, but it was easily available in the regiments, at a nominal cost. No one was denied admission
on the basis of caste, and family members, including females, could get admission. Till the mid-
19nth century, the regimental schools for natives were run informally, and the teachers were
usually civilian Brahmins. From the late 1850s, the schools came to be run along the lines of schools in
European regiments, with enlisted men of non-commissioned ranks as schoolmasters.
A class of native schoolmasters was created by selecting a few men from each regiment for training in a military school in Pune. One of the selected men was Ramji Sakpal, and he became the headmaster of the school in Mhow (Basham 1986: 148). As a result of this experience, Ambedkar recalled, Ramji developed “a liking and zeal for education” (K 1: 26).
The zeal impacted Ramji’s children to varying degrees. There were 14 in all, of whom seven died at an early age. The others, in order of birth, were Balaram, Ganga, Ramabai, Anandrao, Manjula, Tulsa, and Bhimrao (K 1: 28). According to Ambedkar, all the children were taught to read and write (26). But the four girls were married off at a young age, and probably did not complete school education. Of the sons, Balaram did not go to high school and Anandrao dropped out of high school to start working and support the family (29, 59). Only the last-born, Bhimrao, had uninterrupted schooling followed by higher education.
In 1892, Mahar employment in the army came to an end, due to a combination of factors (Basham 1986: 74-87). Racial theories explaining innate characteristics of human beings had gained ground in the second half of the nineteenth century and were used for a variety of purposes, including moral justifications of European imperialism and slavery in America.
In the British Indian Army, an influential section of officers argued that recruitment should be restricted to a few “martial races” such as Sikhs, Gurkhas, Rajputs, Dogras, Garhwalis, Jats, Pashtuns, Punjabi Muslims, and Marathas. Perhaps not coincidentally, most of these “races” lived along border areas, and were in relatively small numbers to foment a widespread rebellion against British rule in India. Also not coincidentally, those marked out as martial races corresponded with the Kshatriyas in the Indian caste system.
This stemmed from the British government’s desire, after the 1857 rebellion, to placate native elites by not interfering in their religious beliefs. Whatever the principal cause, the theory of martial-races framed the army’s new recruitment policy, and Mahars and all other Untouchables across India were excluded.
On completion of 25 years of service, Mahars were ordered to apply for a pension and leave. Ramji had to quit in 1893, and chose to settle around 50 kilometres from Ambadave, in a colony set up by some Mahar and Chambhar pensioners in Dapoli, a small town in Ratnagiri district, where a military camp of the East India Company had been located (K 1: 38).
Ambedkar was born before the family moved to Dapoli, and according to him, all that could be said definitively about his birth was that he was born in Mhow, that the birth took place at noon, that he was a large baby and was born under the mool nakshatra, the 19th “lunar mansion” in Indian astrology, which is associated with adverse effects on parents (BAWS 18-3: 399-400). [Efforts to locate the house in which Ambedkar was born and convert it into a memorial began in the early 1970s but bore fruit only after more than three decades. A memorial in the form of a stupa was inaugurated in Dr Ambedkar Nagar (Mhow) by the BJP leader LK Advani on April 14, 2008.]
In a letter he wrote in early 1948 to Sharda Kabir (who married him in April 1948 and changed her name to Savita Ambedkar), he disclosed that he had consulted different astrologers to find out his exact birth date, and they all gave him different answers (S Ambedkar 2013: 112). In some official documents sourced by Vijay Surwade, his year of birth is shown as 1892 or 1893 (personal communication, December 20, 2021). The commonly accepted date of birth, April 14, 1891, is the one found by Khairmode in Ambedkar’s school and college records (K 1: 50).
Ambedkar was a toddler when Ramji left the army, but the latter’s experience of serving in the army, which was shared by many other people known to the family, had an abiding effect on his son’s personality. Apart from a lifelong commitment to education, Ambedkar developed an interest in the Indian Army and the armed defence of the country. In the early part of his public life, he referred frequently to the Mahars’ military background and described them as a “warrior clan” (Keer 1954/2002:128).
In 1927, he visited the memorial erected at Bhima Koregaon near Pune (Mankar 2009/2013: 45). When open recruitment to the army was introduced during World War II, he urged Mahars to enlist in large numbers (SM: 237-38), and successfully lobbied for the establishment of a Mahar regiment. Underlying these stands was a clear view on the choice between violence and non violence, which he spelt out in one of his first writings in English.
The army connection also had some direct effects on the movement he led. Mahar pensioners played an important role in the organisation of two historic events at Mahad in 1927, which brought Ambedkar into the limelight.
Before the second event, a volunteers’ “protection force” was organised by retired army men. That group was a precursor to the Samata Sainik Dal (Corps of Soldiers for Equality), a body given military-style training to ensure smooth conduct of Ambedkar’s mass events without hindrances from Caste Hindus. Some actions undertaken by the army pensioners settled in Dapoli also had lasting effects on Ambedkar in an indirect way.
Army service brought about many changes in the pensioners’ outlook. The setting up of a separate settlement at Dapoli, away from villages dominated by Caste Hindus – a theme Ambedkar was to pursue briefly in the 1940s – was one example. Mahar and Chambhar pensioners choosing to live together in one colony was another. A third example, with more lasting implications, was the Dapoli pensioners’ insistence that their children should get admission in the local government school.
By a resolution of the board of directors of the East India Company passed in 1854, the government was to “take active measures” to provide education to “the great mass of the people”. Though not in so many words, the resolution laid down a policy of mass education as a state responsibility. However, the implementation of the policy was weak, particularly with respect to Untouchable children. According to official data cited by Ambedkar, in a memorandum submitted in 1928, the total number of “low caste Hindu” children in schools in the Bombay province in 1881-82 was only 2,862, or less than 1 per cent of the total children of that category. In high schools and colleges, there were no Untouchable students at all (BAWS 2: 416).
Some demands to enrol Untouchable children in schools had been made (Paik 2014: Ch.1), but were not successful due to stiff resistance from Caste Hindus and unwillingness of British officials to support the Untouchables’ demand. Nevertheless, Mahar and Chambhar pensioners in Dapoli demanded the admission of their children to a primary school receiving government grants as a matter of right, and they did so with great persistence.
In July 1892, they submitted a letter to the Dapoli municipality, seeking admission for 14 children – ten Mahar and four Chambhar – in its primary school. The municipality replied that the demand could not be met as parents of other students would withdraw their children from the school. It was however ready to open a separate class for Untouchables if the pensioners collected 25 students. Rejecting this offer, the pensioners submitted another letter in September 1892 and received a similar reply. In November 1892, they appealed to the British assistant collector, who assured them that suitable arrangements would be made, but no action was taken. The pensioners then appealed to the district collector in January 1893, and received a reply from the municipality that their children could be admitted if they paid for the expansion of the school verandah, where the children could be seated.
The pensioners agreed, a plan was prepared, but the construction did not happen. The pensioners again submitted a letter to the assistant collector in November 1893. When no response was received, in February 1894 they wrote to MJ Nugent, the revenue commissioner of the division, urging him to “issue such orders” he may “deem necessary in order to quickly put within our reach that which we so much desire”. One the signatories of that letter, in clear English, was “Pensioner Subedar Ramnak Malnac” – most likely Ramji Sakpal (Constable 2000: 405; Basham 1986: 170-72, 309).
Uncharacteristically for a British official, Nugent took the side of the pensioners and confronted Vishnu Hari Barve, the Brahmin president of the municipality. Barve suggested that seating Untouchables in the existing verandah of the school was a good way of educating them without antagonising Caste Hindus. The verandah compromise had been introduced in many other schools in the Konkan, Barve pointed out. Nugent did not accept Barve’s solution.
The verandah in the Dapoli school was at a lower level and separated from the classroom by a low wall. Children who sat in the verandah would neither be able to see nor hear what was going on in the classroom, and would be “effectually cut off from the classes to which they were supposed to belong”, Nugent said (Basham 1986: 311-14). He was supported by the director of public instruction, KM Chatfield. Barve was given an ultimatum, and Untouchable children were finally allowed to sit in the classroom along with other children, albeit at a distance of three to four feet (Constable 2000: 411).
The qualified success achieved by the pensioners was limited to the primary school in Dapoli. At all other places in the Konkan, and in many other districts of the Bombay province, Untouchable children had to sit outside the class in a verandah. Nevertheless, the pensioners’ effort was significant. Unlike the majority of Untouchables in the province, they had demanded their rights. They had fearlessly – and non-violently – approached British authorities. Unmindful of opposition from Caste Hindus, they had refused to give up after their initial attempts were met with failure. They had worked their way up to the relevant, highest level of governance, and used the English language at that level. Underlying all their efforts was the notion that the British government could – and had to – play the role of an impartial arbiter.
These elements of the pensioners’ strategy were reflected in their next effort, which had long-term consequences. In April 1895, under the banner of a voluntary organisation called Anarya Dosh Pariharak Mandali (Non-Aryan Association for the Removal of Wrongs), they submitted a petition to the commander-in-chief of the Bombay Army, demanding re-enlistment of Mahars in the army. In the subsequent decade, more petitions were submitted by Mahars from different parts of the province (Basham 1986: Appendix F). That is, much before Ambedkar’s entry into public life, some Mahars had developed the skills to organise themselves and petition the British government for the redressal of grievances.
In that respect, they matched the political acumen of Brahmins and elite Muslims, and were far ahead of other Untouchable groups in the Bombay province. A crucial difference, however, was that the Mahar petitions received little visibility or attention from the government.
Until Ambedkar entered public life, Untouchables of the Bombay province did not have an effective voice. Ramji was probably associated with the 1895 petition. In his speech on MG Ranade (1941), Ambedkar said that while going through his father’s papers he had found a copy of the petition, and on enquiring, learnt that it was drafted by Ranade (BAWS 1: 211).
The latter claim seems implausible, as Ranade was a mild-mannered Brahmin and the petition was severely critical of his caste. The founder of the Anarya Dosh Pariharak Mandali was Gopalbaba Walangkar, a former army man from Mahad who had settled in Dapoli. During his army service, he had been posted in Pune for some years, and had come in contact with Jotirao Phule. Walangkar became a member of Phule’s Satyashodhak Samaj (Truth-Seekers’ Society), a social reform body with radical views on caste and the Hindu religion. After retirement in 1886, Walangkar became an activist who contributed frequently to periodicals, and toured districts performing kirtans (musical narrations) to raise awareness against the ill-treatment of Untouchables.
A prolific writer, Walangkar was most likely the author of the 1895 petition, which reflected the theory of Brahmin dominance put forward in 1873 by Phule in Slavery (2012: 35-37) – that the ancestors of Brahmins had come from outside India and turned its original inhabitants, Shudras and Atishudras, into slaves by depriving them of knowledge. To ‘eternally perpetuate’ their dominance, the Brahmins “composed several treatises which they claimed to have obtained directly from God”. They thus managed to convince the vanquished people that “their slavery was justified even in the eyes of God”. In the same vein, Walangkar’s petition argued that all “so-called high castes” were of foreign origin, and had used religious sanctions to tyrannise the original, non-Aryan inhabitants of the country (Basham 1986: 315-21).
The matter in square parentheses is from the footnotes to the chapter in A Part Apart: The Life and Thought of BR Ambedkar.
Key to Abbreviations
BAWS – Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, multiple volumes.
K – Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar by CB Khairmode, multiple volumes
SM – Source Material on Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and the Movement of the Untouchables, Volume 1
- Ambedkar, Savita. 2013. Dr Ambedkaranchya Sahvaasaat (In Dr Ambedkar’s Company). Compiled and edited by Vijay Surwade. Revised edition. Kalyan (Thane): Tathagat Prakashan.
- Basham, Ardythe. 1986. “Army service and social mobility: The Mahars of Bombay Presidency, with comparisons with the Bene Israel and Black Americans.” PhD diss. University of British Columbia: Vancouver.
- Cohen, Stephen P. 1969. “The untouchable soldier: Caste, politics, and the Indian Army.” The Journal of Asian Studies, 28(3): 453–68.
- Constable, Philip. 2000. “Sitting on the school verandah: The ideology and practice of ‘Untouchable’ educational protest in late nineteenth-century Western India.” The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 37(4): 383–422.
- Government of Bombay. 1880. Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency, Vol. X, Ratnagiri and Savantvadi. Bombay: Government Central Press.
- Mason, Philip. 1974/2004. A Matter of Honour: An Account of the Indian Army, Its Officers and Men. Dehradun: Natraj Publishers.
- Paik, Shailaja. 2014. Dalit Women’s Education in Modern India: Double Discrimination. New York: Routledge.
- Phule, Jotirao. 2012. Slavery. Translated by Maya Pandit. In GP Deshpande, ed., Selected Writings of Jotirao Phule. New Delhi: LeftWord Books. Original book published 1873.
Excerpted with permission from A Part Apart: The Life and Thought of BR Ambedkar, Ashok Gopal, Navayana.
Photographs not to be reproduced or shared anywhere without permission from the publishers. We are in an agreement with – and in debt to – Vijay Surwade, the archivist from Kalyan, for these.