Dalit issues

Mahad to Una: 90 years later, little has changed in how Indian society reacts to Dalit uprisings

In 1927, a movement by Untouchables to claim their right to drink water from Chawdar Tank met with violence and oppression – something witnessed in Gujarat too.

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.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

Watch Billions Now

2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

Watch Westworld Now

3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

Watch Big Little Lies Now

4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

Watch The Night Of Now

5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

Watch American Horror Story Now

6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

Watch Empire Now

7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

Watch Modern Family Now

8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

Watch The Deuce Now

9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

Available starting October

10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

Watch Rome Now

For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.