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Ambedkar’s Mahad Satyagraha: An Assertion Of Human Rights Never Seen Before

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The caste system pervades every aspect of Indian life, with many rules enforced by Upper-Caste society to humiliate, hurt, and dehumanize Dalits and Bahujan. One such pervasive practice that was practised widely in colonial India was having different wells for Savarnas and different wells for Dalits.

Most often Dalit women are not allowed to take water from a common well, instead having to go further to find water. Representative image credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Babasaheb’s Satyagraha was an assertion of human rights that Mahad had never seen before.

Denying water to the oppressed classes is a Manuvaadi practice that continues,

The Mahad Satyagraha was a sign of protest, led by Babasaheb BR Ambedkar on the 20th of March 1927, to fight against this casteist discrimination. 

How Did The Mahad Satyagraha Happen?

On August 4th, 1923, The Bombay Legislative Council had adopted a resolution which stated that “untouchable classes” should be allowed to “use all public water places, wells, and dharmshalas which are built and maintained out of public funds or administered by bodies appointed by the government or created by statute, as well as public schools, courts, offices, and dispensaries.” 

Mahad Municipality had also affirmed this resolution the next year, but it was only on paper and not followed until Ambedkar’s Satyagraha in 1927. Ambedkar had come to Mahad on the invitation of RB More to preside over a 2-day conference on march 19-20 1927 in Mahad to raise awareness about Dalit civil rights.

During this very conference, it was decided that the delegates and Babasaheb would march to the Chavdar tank which the UC’s did not allow Dalits to use and establish their legal and moral right by drinking from it. According to Babasaheb in his “The Revolt Of The Untouchables”, he says:

The Untouchables, either for purposes of doing their shopping and also for the purpose of their duty as village servants, had to come to Mahad to deliver to the taluka officer either the correspondence sent by village officials or to pay Government revenue collected by village officials. The Chavdar tank was the only public tank from which an outsider could get water.

But the Untouchables were not allowed to take water from this tank. The only source of water for the Untouchables was the well in the Untouchables quarters in the town of Mahad. This well was at some distance from the center of the town. It was quite choked on account of its neglect by the Municipality.”

The Mahad Satyagraha was then carried out on March 20, when Babasaheb and a procession of 2500 people drank from the Chavdar tank and returned to the conference. After this revolutionary act, the caste Hindus attacked the pandal and the delegates. They also sent messages out to attack the delegates when they reach their homes and villages, after which more assaults followed.

The Manuvaadis also carried out a purity ritual to undo the “desecration” of the act. This did not deter Babasaheb from coming to Mahad, in the same year on December  25th, Ambedkar led the Manusmriti Dahan Divas, where everyone burnt the Manusmriti in the Mahad constituency.

The act of burning the Manusmriti still remains an act of protest to this day.

The Relevance Of Mahad Satyagraha And Continuing Its Legacy

While the Mahad satyagraha won’t be found in the same textbooks as those with savarna movements, it is a revolutionary movement not just to drink water, but for the human rights of a class that has been historically oppressed and disenfranchised in India.

However, many parts of India still follow the Manuvaadi practice of not allowing Dalits to access handpumps, tube-wells, etc in Upper-caste areas. One such area is Bundelkhand, which is constantly hit by water scarcity. For Dalits, this water scarcity meets the intersection of caste discrimination.

Water tankers are not sent to Dalit villages, Dalits are not even allowed to touch functional water pumps and have to walk multiple kilometres just to get water.

In a report by India Today in 2019, these pumps are guarded by lathi-wielding men. When someone was asked why this protection of tubewells from people who need it, the answer was:

This is to prevent the theft of water. Unknown people (read Dalits) come here to steal water and we cannot afford this because there is already a water shortage.

The recent case of the Muslim child beaten for drinking water from a temple in Ghaziabad, where the logic for not allowing Muslims inside given by the temple authorities were unfounded fears of “theft.”

Denying water to the oppressed classes is a Manuvaadi practice that continues, and is one of the most prevalent forms of othering that still exists. As Manu’s principles of exclusion and upper-caste supremacy find a resurgence in BJP’s India, it is important to look back at Babasaheb’s Satyagraha and understand the need to fight India from becoming Manu’s India.

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