Ambedkar Jayanti: How Mahad Satyagraha Emerged as ‘Foundational Event’ of Dalit Movement

It was the occasion when the Dalit community for the first time showed its determination to reject and oppose the caste system and stand up for their human rights.
Right to Access Public Water, 1927
Right to Access Public Water,

Describing Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar in a sentence or paragraph is not easy. His life is full of several milestones. He was the first Dalit student to attend Elphinstone College in Bombay. After receiving a Baroda State Scholarship, he attended Columbia University and then London School of Economics. 

He served as the first law minister of independent India and chaired the committee, which drafted the country’s constitution. He was a political philosopher, economist and lawyer who authored multiple books and delivered innumerable lectures.

However, Babasaheb’s greatest achievement was to energize the Dalit emancipation movement. He is recognized for having sparked the Dalit consciousness, which fueled the group’s ascent to political prominence. Under Ambedkar’s leadership, the Mahad Satyagraha of 1927 marked the beginning of a significant collective protest by the so-called “untouchables”.

As the nation remembers the father of the constitution on his 133rd anniversary, let’s revisit the Mahad Satyagraha — one of the turning points of his remarkable life.

Background of the Satyagraha

August 1923 witnessed a series of incidents that led to the beginning of the Mahad Satyagraha. Social reformer Rao Bahadur S K Bole moved a resolution that was passed by the Bombay Legislative Council — demanding that “the untouchable classes be allowed to use public schools, courts, offices and dispensaries as well as public water sources, wells and dharamshalas which are built and maintained out of public funds or administered by bodies appointed by the government or created by statute”.

The decision was reluctantly adopted by the Bombay government the following month, and instructions were given for its execution. But in reality, things continued as they always had: Hindus of the higher castes would not permit their “lower” castes to use public water supplies.

According to academic and civil rights activist Anand Teltumbde’s book titled ‘Mahad: The Making of the First Dalit Revolt’ (2016), Ramchandra Babaji More, a Dalit political leader from Mahad, then asked Ambedkar to preside over a conference of the untouchables in Konkan.

Ambedkar was assisting Dalits in their struggle against the social evil of untouchability at that time through the Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabha, an organization he had established in 1924.

More’s proposal was accepted by Dr Ambedkar, who then got involved in organizing the conference’s arrangements. It was scheduled to take place on March 19 and 20, 1927, in Mahad town, Konkan (now in the Raigad district of Maharashtra). 

He spoke to local Dalit leaders, emphasised the need to start “a wave of awakening” among Konkan’s “lower” castes and gave other organisers instructions on how to hold meetings in order to spread the word about the conference.

The volunteers collected wheat and rice to feed the attendees at Mahad, in addition to collecting Rs 3 from each of the 40 villages. Almost two months were spent in preparation for the conference. 

Historian Swapna H. Samel wrote in her paper ‘Mahad Chavadar Tank Satyagraha of 1927: Beginning of Dalit Liberation Under B R Ambedkar’ that workers and leaders personally met with marginalised classes and explained to them the significance of the conference.

Approximately 2,500 delegates, workers and leaders of deprived communities from almost all the districts of Maharashtra and Gujarat, including boys of 15 to old men of 70 attended the Mahad Satyagraha, which Samel describes as a “conference” rather than a satyagraha. On the first day of the conference, progressive non-Dalit leaders also attended and spoke to the attendees, discussing the civil rights of the marginalised and promising to support them in their struggle.

“I feel that until we get to eat these pieces of stale bread, our condition may continue to remain the same,” Ambedkar said in his speech, adding, “no one will choose the new road as long as the old one remains. We have lost our dignity because we have stuck to the outdated route. You should consider how far you want to travel down that route”.

“I want to underline in particular that we all need to work toward awakening our people more quickly. This conference is taking place here only now. You should never let the fire of awakening douse.”

Following the day’s events, it was decided to put the resolution into effect the following morning by marching to the nearby Chavadar Tank, from where the untouchable communities were not permitted to draw water — though it wasn’t what the organizers had originally planned to do. Dr Ambedkar, the other organizers and the attendees walked and drew water from the tank. 

On March 20, Teltumbde wrote, “They began chanting triumph to equality — ‘Shivaji Maharaj Ki Jai’ (victory to Shivaji Maharaj) and ‘Mahatma Gandhi Ki Jai’ (victory to Mahatma Gandhi) as they marched in a lengthy procession through the Mahad marketplace with the strictest discipline. When they came to a stop at the Chavadar Tank, they followed Dr Ambedkar inside, where he scooped up water with his cupped hands. ‘Har Har Mahadev’ (victory to Lord Mahadev), they all yelled, and they drank it.”

Shortly after the meeting ended, a local temple priest went around the town — accusing Dalits of attempting to enter the temple and requesting assistance from the people to stop them. This led to a brawl in which, according to Teltumbde, “20 people were seriously injured and 60-70 people, including three-four women”.

According to Teltumbde, “upper” caste Hindus purified the tank by “emptying out 108 earthen pots full of gomutra (cow’s urine) into it”.

Dr Ambedkar, however, was unfazed by the criticism. To demonstrate the resolve of the Dalit community, he announced another conference — this time on a much larger scale — to be held at the same location on December 26, 1927. He deliberately referred to it as a Satyagraha this time again.

On December 12, a few “upper” caste Hindus filed a lawsuit against Dr Ambedkar and his supporters — arguing that the tank belonged to a private individual. After two days, Babasaheb and the other Dalits were not allowed to go to the tank or take water from it until the court issued an interim injunction.

Mahad Satyagraha of December 1927

The participants and organizers were not deterred by the court’s injunction. “The villagers decided to attend the conference with the resolve of do or die. Nearly 4,000 satyagrahis from every hamlet gathered in Mahad,” according to Samel. 

When Ambedkar arrived on December 24 to take part in the conference, the police informed him about the lawsuit and requested that he call off the satyagraha.

In the days that followed, discussions took place over whether or not to carry on with the satyagraha given the altered situation. On Dr Ambedkar’s recommendation, the satyagraha was put on hold — even though the majority of people wanted it to continue. In addition, no water was taken out of the Chavadar Tank, unlike the previous occasion.

According to Teltumbde, the fundamental contention presented by Babasaheb Ambedkar prior to the conference was that their fight was against the Hindu caste; the goal of showcasing their solidarity and resolve had been achieved; and if they pursued the satyagraha against the court’s order, they would be in direct conflict with the government — which they ill-finned, especially after the district magistrate had assured them of his support.

However, the satyagraha did not end in vain. Dr Ambedkar and his supporters burnt the Manusmriti. It was a symbolic gesture but a powerful repudiation of the caste system.

A copy of the Manusmriti was put on the pier in a specially dug trench in front of the pendal and ceremoniously burned by the “untouchable” hermits at 9 pm, wrote Samel. The Hindu community was rocked by the burning of the Manu rules, and the “untouchables” were overwhelmed.

Importance of the Mahad Satyagraha

The Mahad Satyagraha is regarded as the Dalit movement’s “foundational event”. For the first time, the community as a whole showed its determination to oppose the caste system and stand out for their human rights. Anti-caste demonstrations had occurred before to the satyagraha as well, but they were isolated and infrequent.

“They lacked elements of organization and the charismatic leadership of Dr Ambedkar, and it was the main difference between (the) Mahad (Satyagraha) and them,” wrote Teltumbde.

Future movements against the caste system and its practices were to be organised using the Mahad Satyagraha as a model. It was a turning event in Dr Ambedkar’s political career that propelled him to the forefront of the nation’s disadvantaged and impoverished sections.

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