From Mahad in March 1927 to Una in August 2016, little has changed in the way Dalits who challenge the established social order are treated. When they organise, rise in protest and demand their rights, they are subjected to violence, ostracisation and further oppression.

Barely had the Dalit Asmita Yatra from Gujarat’s Ahmedabad to Una concluded in a large rally on August 15 when the backlash began. Dalits faced hostility and violent mobs as they returned to their homes and villages. The rally had been organised to protest the public flogging of four Dalit youth for skinning the carcass of a dead cow in Una on July 11.

After the Una incident, Dalits in the village, to mark their protest, had decided to stop disposing of cow carcasses – a job that caste Hindus largely consider beneath them. "Your mother, you take care of it" became the rallying call for protests by Dalits in the state.

But days after the rally ended, 15-year-old Harsh Parmar from Bhavda village in Ahmedabad district was beaten up because his father, imbibing the spirit of the protest, had refused to dispose of cattle carcasses, news reports said. And on Tuesday, two Dalits were assaulted in Mandala village in Gujarat – again, for refusing to dispose of a cow carcass.

In Una taluka itself, two villages – Samter and Rameshwar Patiya – saw thousands of men assault Dalits and pelt stones at them and the local police.

“According to police, a mob of around 1,000 persons had blocked National Highway 8E at Samter village Monday [August 15] evening when Dalits were returning after participating in Dalit Asmita Yatra in Una town," a report in the Indian Express on August 17 said. "The mob threw stones on police and Dalits, injuring many. Police had first resorted to lathicharge to disperse the rioters and then lobbed teargas shells. But as the clash continued for about three hours, police fired in the air to quell the mobs.”

The fight for water

As an academic and social activist who is now the face of the Dalit uprising in Gujarat, 35-year-old Jignesh Mevani would have anticipated the backlash. He would have found the caution or threat, as the case may be, in the essays that Dalit icon and India’s first law minister Dr BR Ambedkar wrote after the historic agitation in Mahad, Maharashtra, on March 20, 1927.

Mahad town was a robust business centre, headquarters of the erstwhile Kolaba district [now Raigad] of the old Bombay Presidency, and governed by a municipality. The Chawdar Tank was the town’s public source of water, but its sides were embanked and land around it belonged to private owners.

The tank was the only water source in Mahad for travellers, including Dalits, who in Ambedkar’s words had to come to Mahad “for purposes of doing their shopping and also for the purpose of their duty as village servants”. The Dalits, then called Untouchables, were not allowed to touch water from the Chawdar Tank.

The Bombay Legislature had passed a resolution in 1923 which mandated that Untouchables must be allowed to use all public water places, wells, facilities built and maintained out of public funds such as public schools, courts, and dharamshalas. The government of the day accepted the resolution and passed the necessary orders. Consequently, the Mahad municipality too passed a resolution in January 1924, allowing Untouchables to access the Chawdar Tank, among other public places.

However, the ground reality did not match the noble intentions. Like the scourge of manual scavenging, which continues to this day despite it being banned, access to public places, including the Chawdar Tank was not available to Untouchables despite government resolutions. The issue simmered.

At the end of a Conference on Untouchability on March 19 and 20, 1927, one of the organisers lamented how a great sum of money had to be spent to bring water for all there because water from the Chawdar Tank was prohibited to them.

Ambedkar was presiding over the conference. The complaint echoed among the delegates – someone called for Untouchables to exercise their right to water from the Chawdar Tank. And “electrified by this call to arms” as, Ambedkar described it in the essay “The Revolt of the Untouchables”, some 2,500 to 3,000 Untouchables marched in fours to the tank, led by him and his colleagues.

“The procession was a peaceful one and everything passed off quietly,” noted the respected newspaper of the time, The Bombay Chronicle. “Ambedkar took water from the Tank and drank it. The vast multitude of men followed suit.”

The Untouchables then walked back to the conference venue.

The backlash

The rigid social order had been challenged. “Soon the Hindus, realising what had happened, went into frenzy and committed all sorts of atrocities upon the Untouchables who had dared to pollute the water,” wrote Ambedkar of the rowdy and violent action that Untouchables faced two hours after their revolutionary act, in his essay.

Enraged at the defilement of the Chawdar Tank and believing in the rumour that the Untouchables would next walk into the Veereshwar temple, mobs, comprising upper caste Hindus and local rowdies, gathered with sticks and stones, unleashed violence and severely injuring about 20 Untouchables. They destroyed their camp kitchen and the food stored there, assaulted Untouchables of the town in their homes and patrolled the streets to find unsuspecting Untouchable conference delegates.

The Bombay Chronicle observed:

“The Depressed Classes (Untouchables) assembled vastly out-numbered the Upper Classes. But as the object of their leaders was to do everything in a non-violent and absolutely constitutional manner…It speaks a great deal in favour of the Depressed Classes that although the provocation given to them was immense they kept their self-control...The most reprehensible part of the conduct of the Upper Caste Hindus in Mahad and Kolaba District was that messages were sent immediately to the different villages asking the upper class people there to punish the delegates of the Conference as soon as they returned to their respective villages… assaults were committed on a number of Mahars returning from the Conference either before or after they reached their villages where the Depressed Classes have the disadvantage of being overwhelmingly out-numbered by the Upper Caste Hindus”.

History repeats

The violence in Mahad has inescapable similarities with the assaults on the agitating Dalits in Una.

After the July 11 flogging of Dalit youth, a video of which went viral thanks to the spread of the mobile phone, there were massive protests across Gujarat against self-styled cow-protection vigilantes. Vehicles were set on fire, roads and highways were blocked, and dozens of Dalits attempted suicide as a form of suicide – one of whom later succumbed.

At the Una rally, a passionate Mevani asked the protesting Dalits if they wanted to continue skinning dead cattle and disposing off carcasses; they cried out “no” in unison, said eye-witnesses. Mevani urged them to demand five acres of land for a family from the government and start cultivation, instead of continuing the traditional occupations of Dalits.

Dalits were not a major electoral force in Gujarat but the chain of events since the Una flogging have unleashed energy and brought about an awakening, which the established Hindu society and politics will have to deal with, remarked Prakash Ambedkar, Ambedkar’s grandson and a prominent Dalit leader in Maharashtra. “The message is that we won’t do the ‘dirty’ jobs anymore; we won’t be punished for both disposing off and not disposing off carcasses,” he said.

90 years and not much to show for it

Back in Mahad in March 1927, Ambedkar declared that the assaults on Untouchables were to be read as a challenge and it was time that the Untouchables responded with action. Accordingly, a second Conference on Untouchability was scheduled in the town in December that year. The Chawdar Tank issue had become a rally point.

“The Hindus, when they came to know of this, applied to the District Magistrate of Kolaba for issuing an order under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code against the Untouchables, prohibiting them from entering the Chawdar Tank and polluting its water,” wrote Ambedkar. The district magistrate refused, saying that the Chawdar Tank was public and open to all citizens and advised the upper caste Hindus to approach a court.

“Nine Hindus drawn from different castes joined as Plaintiffs in filing on 12th December 1927 a suit No. 405 of 1927 as representatives of the Hindus, in the Court of Sub-Judge of Mahad,” Ambedkar wrote. “I and four others were made defendants as representing the Untouchables. The suit was for obtaining a declaration ‘that the said Chawdar tank is of the nature of private property of the Touchable classes only and that the Untouchable classes have no right to go to that tank nor take water therefrom and also for obtaining a perpetual injunction restraining the defendants from doing any of those acts.’ They also sought a temporary injunction against me.”

In December 1927, during the second conference, delegates decided not to run afoul of law in order to establish their right to draw water from the Tank; they decided to wait for the court’s judgment. Eventually, the court ruled in their favour and against the Hindus. But Ambedkar was disappointed that the court did not decide whether the custom of untouchability was valid or not. For that, there had to be a political agitation.

And what happened to the Chawdar Tank after March 20, 1927? The upper caste Hindus met at the Veereshwar temple to consider its purification. “Accordingly, water in 108 earthen pots was taken out from the tank,” The Bombay Chronicle reported. “These pots full of curd, cow-dung, milk and cow-urine were dipped in the tank in the midst of air-rending Mantras uttered by Brahmin priests…It was then declared that water was purified for use of the caste Hindus”.

This motivated Ambedkar to write in May 1927 in his newspaper Bahishkrit Bharat: “We value human dignity, not Hindu religion…” The Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabha, established in 1924, would challenge at multiple levels the stigma attached to being an Untouchable and facilitate a movement to demand rights and dignity for them.

Ninety years later, Jignesh Mevani, Prakash Ambedkar and other Dalit leaders believe that such a movement is still needed for Dalits to live with dignity. Just as surely, the counterattacks on Dalits who demand their rights continue.