From Mahad to Mumbai to Hyderabad, the story of India’s caste blues

  • Paramita Ghosh, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Mar 28, 2016 09:31 IST
People paying homage to BR Ambedkar at Chavdar Tank in Mahad, Maharashtra . (Kunal Patil/HT Photo)

If you want a house, you may build one. If you want a new shirt, you’ll buy one. If your child is of school-going age, man, you’ll send him to school. But in the small hillside town of Dasgaon in the Raigad district of Maharashtra, overrun by the British military in the late 19th century, these were bold ideas with threat to life and limb. For a Dalit.

By erecting a single-storey house, Vitthal Hate Joshi, a Mahar, who made his living as a typist, passed into local legend. To his fellow-men, he became ‘Madi-wala Joshi’ -- the man with the single-storey. His relative, Babaji More, was sent to jail on the charge of stealing wood to build it.

His son, Ramchandra Babaji More, born an untouchable and, given up to rebellion, perhaps in the same hour, began sending letters, by the age of 11, to the government to cancel grants to his school for denying him admission for being a Dalit. Till the late Twenties, he worked with BR Ambedkar. By the Thirties, he had joined the undivided Communist Party of India.

Dr Ambedkar (seated fourth from left) with prominent leaders of the first Mahad satyagraha in Bombay, 1927. RB More (circled) of Dasgaon suggested the idea of a conference at Mahad to Ambedkar. From the Thirties, More joined the undivided Communist Party of India. (Photo courtesy: Subodh More)

Surbanana Tipnis, an upper-caste, had been RB More’s classmate. His was a 33-year-old working relationship with Ambedkar, says his grandson Milind Tipnis, 60, a social worker. In spite of being a landlord, he joined the Ambedkar-led anti-landlord (‘Khot’) agitation, the first instance of a successful peasant agitation leading to a law. The Congress opposed the movement due to its Brahmin/landlord base then.

As chairman of the Mahad municipality, Tipnis had adopted a resolution to open all water sources under its jurisdiction to all castes. This became the basis for the decision to launch the Mahad satyagraha.

The municipal council of Mahad chaired by Surbanana Tipnis (above), an upper-caste, passed the resolution to enforce the act. Tipnis was a life-long supporter of Ambedkar. Despite being a landlord (Khot), he was one of the leaders of the anti-landlord (Khoti Agitation) backed by Ambedkar. (Photo courtesy: Mahad -The Making of the first Dalit revolt /Aakar Books (2016))

The significance of this event, which catapulted Ambedkar on to the national stage in the time of Nehru and Gandhi, goes beyond being the first Dalit revolt and their collective assertion for public access to water. It shows that alongside the freedom movement, there were other struggles that would go on to determine the post-Independence history of India.

Mahad is also the chronicle of caste in the country and its clashes and intersections with the struggles and ambitions of the Left --- a story that foretells the still unfolding narrative of the movement around the social boycott and death of the Hyderabad University student Rohith Vemula.

READ: When Ambedkar entered the university curriculum

Filling the vaccum

“The Brahminical parties of the Right, including the Congress, also played a role in what happened after Mahad,” says Subodh More, RB More’s grandson, as one travels with him from Mumbai to Mahad, the road running alongside the tracks of the Konkan Railway. The train passes close to the villages of former Maharashtra chief ministers — Shenvi from where the Shiv Sena’s Manohar Joshi came, and Ambet, home to AR Antulay of the Congress. Work is reportedly on at Panvel, from where the Thackerays emerged, to make it a major rail junction. “Powerful people need to protect their political capital,” says More with a laugh. So far, no one has brought the train closer to Dasgaon or Mahad.

Subodh More, a third-generation Communist activist, in front of the school in Dasgaon named after his grandfather Comrade RB More. Being a Dalit and a Communist has meant that RB More’s contribution has perhaps been sidelined from all sides. (Kunal Patil / HT Photo)

Reports of caste harassment also abound in the region. In Kurvada village, 30 km from Mahad, the tradition of maintaining separate wells continues; human execrement has been thrown into the wells of Dalits. In Hathkale village, Dalits are allowed to take water from an upper-caste well with a caveat – “You don’t touch the well’, upper-caste women say. ‘We will draw the water,” says Chanderakant Gaikwad, an activist. “They still hesitate to call us to their weddings and funerals. When they do, the seating is separate.”

The discrimination is systemic. Ambavade, Ambedkar’s own village, en route Mahad, lacks basic infrastructure – it has no hospital, no chemist shop, and till recently, it had no school. In 2016, the predominantly-Dalit village quietly put aside its reservations when Vikhu Idhate, an RSS activist started, a private school, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Vidyamandir, on two-and-a-half acres of land here.

Watch | The story behind Ambedkar’s water satyagraha

“We told them we don’t want any RSS activities here. No parallel camps, no shakha,” says Sudam Sakpal, 80, as if to pre-empt an enquiry into the irony of a Hindutva-oriented education in the village of a leader who attacked Brahmanism, the caste system on which Hindu society rests, and converted to Buddhism with more than three lakh followers in 1956, 29 years after Mahad.

“The current debates over threat to land, forest and water passing over into the hands of a few now seem like poetic justice,” says Mumbai-based sociologist and Ambedkar scholar Ramesh Kamble. “People now understand what Mahad meant, what it feels like to be denied the claim to basic resources as a necessary condition to being human.”

BJP MP Amar Sable, a Scheduled Caste leader of the Matang community, adopted Ambvade this year. Anna Bhau Sathe, the Communist folk-poet, also a Matang, has also been appropriated as a singer solely of the Samyukt Maharashtra movement, which birthed the Shiv Sena.

Poet Namdeo Dhasal was a founder member of the Dalit Panthers (1972). “He was a defiant voice of the urban ghettos, a rebellious intruder in the world of letters and yet carried an anguish of wounded existence - as if beneath the apparent solemn, grave expression on his face, he carried deep within him, the enigma of being trapped perennially in caste and untouchability,” writes sociologist Ramesh Kamble. A bitter critic of the Shiv Sena, Dhasal joined the Sena in 2012. (Sahapedia)

The vacuum left by the Bombay Communists, former allies of the four socio-political outfits Ambedkar founded or inspired -- the Independent Labour Party (ILP, 1936), the Scheduled Caste Federation (SCF, 1942), the Republican Party of India (RPI, 1952), and the the Dalit Panthers (1972) -- has been filled.

A possible meeting

The Konkan belt is a land of missed opportunities on all sides. For Ambedkar, the Mahad experience underlined the deep divide between the Dalits and the non-Dalits. “The ILP was founded to fight the 1937 elections and the inspiration behind it was the Fabian party of the same name in England,” says Anand Teltumbde, author of a new book on Mahad. Ambedkar’s non-Dalit comrades like Tipnis and Anantrao Chitre could not be part of the SCF. “There is a reason to believe that he was not happy with purely caste-based politics and yearned to revert to the ILP’s class politics,” he adds. But there were few takers.

In an echo of what Rohith Vemula had possibly been raising within the SFI, the student wing of the CPI(M), before he left it to found the Ambedkar Students Association, RB More (centre) asked of his party in the Fifties what it had done to eradicate caste consciousness among the working class:“We have led many class battles in the past. We have also built many class organisations. Then why have we not yet succeeded in bringing about class solidarity among untouchables and caste Hindu workers on political problems?” (Photo courtesy: Subodh More)

Is the situation any different now?

Subodh More, a third-generation Communist, is understandably low-key about the questions his Gorky-reading grandfather, who also celebrated Ambedkar Jayanti, had raised inside the Communist Party. Does he raise these questions himself? “I am with the party’s cultural front,” he says in response.

In an echo of what Vemula had possibly been raising within the SFI, the student wing of the CPI(M), before he left it to found the Ambedkar Students’ Association, RB More asked of his party in the Fifties: “We have led many class battles in the past. We have also built many class organisations. Then why have we not yet succeeded in bringing about class solidarity among untouchables and caste Hindu workers on political problems? The reason is obvious. We have not even recognised the necessity of fighting caste Hindu consciousness of the caste Hindu proletariat. A caste Hindu worker still thinks that he is a Maratha Brahmin first and a worker afterwards. Caste consciousness is more powerful than class consciousness.… I do not want to waste any time in stating as to what we have done about this problem. An objective self-critical review will tell us that we have not done anything at all.”

“Grandfather said the Communists didn’t understand Ambedkar. And vice-versa,” says Subodh. “They are now making that effort,” he says. “AISF’s Kanhaiya [an upper-caste Bhumihar] talks of Ambedkar even though he is not of Ambedkar’s caste.”

JNU student’s union president Kanhaiya Kumar alongwith other student representatives in Hyderabad. “Kanhaiya [an upper-caste Bhumihar with the AISF] talks of Ambedkar even though he is not of Ambedkar’s caste,” says More. (PTI)

Dual inheritance

The keepers of RB More’s own legacy in and outside his party, however, may be few. More’s commitment to Communism meant he was not a reference point for people of his own caste, many of whom were Ambedkarites.

“There were frequent clashes between the SCF, which later dissolved into the RPI, with the Communists even if the two clashing groups were of the same caste because they had the same support base. In the Fifties, Hari Yadav of the Communist Party was beaten up and tied to a pole…. Grandfather met Ambedkar about this…. There’s a family joke. Grandfather, we like to say, never came out of the underground, even when he was overground,” says Subodh.

In More’s recounting, one also detects a nostalgia for the militancy and direct call to action of the Dalit Panthers whose meetings he would attend as a 14-year-old. He never missed a Namdeo Dhasal public meeting, he says. Dhasal, the poet of Bombay’s underbelly, was one of the founders of the Panthers.

“Dhasal talked like a lumpen but the street understood,” says More. “In a Worli chawl, he called the saffron flag of the Shiv Sena, ‘Hanuman’s langot ’ (loin cloth). People threw soda bottles…. The Panthers could have countered the rise of the Sena.” In 2012, Dhasal joined the Shiv Sena-BJP-RPI combine, in a turner former comrades term “opportunistic.” “He was pushed into a corner in his own party for being pro-Communist but he lacked the ideological commitment to be one. His sudden rise to fame - he was certainly a first-rate poet -- had also got to him. He wanted to be with those who could give him power,” says More.

Milind Tipnis and Subodh More at Govind Niwas, Mahad (Kunal Patil / HT Photo)

Tipnis’s grandson is better off. Unlike More, he has no conflicts to battle. His demands are simple. He would like Govind Niwas, his 100- year-old ancestral home, where the “confidential meeting of Mahad and the decision to drink the water from the Chavdar tank” happened, a place in official history. He wouldn’t mind a memorial. Tipnis was in his 20s when his grandfather died. “The lessons he gave us were Babasaheb’s lessons. When I meet someone, I never ask his caste.”

As we take our leave, he stops us one last time. He needs to fill a gap in the Mahad story, he says. “On March 20, 1927, after the event, Ambedkar returned to the Dak bungalow. And 400 people came to burn down Govind Niwas. ‘If you hold your life dear, go back’, grandfather (Surbanana Tipnis ) shouted from the terrace.” The mob didn’t budge. “It was then that grandfather took out his pistol and asked his servant to fire in the air….” says Milind Tipnis.

An interview with Anand Teltumbde, writer and civil rights activist with CPDR, Mumbai, Anand Teltumbde, a professor with IIT Kharagpur, has written over 18 books, including the critically acclaimed “Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop,” on class and caste struggles. ‘Mahad: The Making of the First Dalit Revolt’ is his latest book. He is married to BR Ambedkar’s grand-daughter, Rama.

Author Anand Teltumbde

Q: In your book you have talked of the first Mahad satyagraha in terms of a ‘conference’, not a satyagraha.

A: The first conference that took place on 19-20 March, 1927, was not a satyagraha. It was just a Depressed Class Conference. From all accounts, including that of Comrade RB More’s, it does not appear to be pre-planned. Its objective was to awaken the Dalits to their civil rights. In my opinion, there was another objective that Dr Ambedkar had in mind, which was to sensitize the caste Hindus about the injustice being suffered by the Dalits, so that they would be prepared to undertake reforms in the Hindu society. As regards the first, it was a huge success inasmuch as Mahad surely electrified the Dalits and paved the way for their future struggle. But it certainly failed to sensitise caste Hindus and also to establish the Dalit civil rights. As a matter of fact, these rights were granted them by law; it was a question of establishing them, which did not happen.

Q: Did the Mahad experience influence the kind of institutions Ambedkar built – for example the Independent Labour Party, the Scheduled Caste Federation and the Republican Party – all of which were dissolved, either by him or, with time?

A: The Mahad experience actually disillusioned Ambedkar about the possibility of internal reform of Hindu society. He turned his sight towards politics. I don’t think his foundation of the political parties had much to do with the Mahad experience. If at all, the Mahad experience taught him how deep drawn was the divide between the Dalits and the non-Dalits.

The entire post-Mahad decade marks a radical phase of Ambedkar’s. The communal stance of politics that precipitated in Cripps Mission report of February 1942 impelled him to dissolve the ILP and start the SCF. For the most part of the SCF, he had been a member of the viceroy’s executive council. There is a reason to believe that he was not happy with purely caste-based politics and yearned to revert to the ILP’s class politics. He fancied bringing all non-Congress and non-Communist politicians under the banner of a ‘Republican Party of India’, which, however, did not happen during his life time.

Q: Dalits in rural areas still face caste oppression and violence. Travelling through Mahad, many said even if they oppose it, they stop short of taking a militant stand. Did Ambedkar’s emphasis on non-violence by virtue of being a Buddhist responsible for this?

A: Yes. Practically not much has changed on the ground. There is certainly a cultural awakening among Dalits because of the Ambedkarite movement, including conversion to Buddhism. The caste oppression and violence continues in a significant degree as survey after survey has revealed, and increasing statistics of atrocities tell us. One scarcely finds Dalits resisting them. Their resistance is largely confined to cultural expression like poetry. It could be attributed to the tone set in Mahad conference not to resort to violence in any case. Later, the emergence of the middle class among Dalits further reinforced this tendency. And still later, Ambedkar’s exhortation to them to shun agitational method and follow the constitutional path steeled it.

As I argued in the book, if the Dalits had retaliated to the attack of the caste Hindus on March 20, the history of the Dalit movement, and thereby that of the country would have been different.

Q: You have stated the problem in Dalit struggles today can be traced to Mahad. Please elaborate.

A: Both the conferences (March and December) in Mahad provided ample opportunities to Dalits to demonstrate their determination to secure their rights. It could be only done by squarely facing the adversarial challenge posed by the caste Hindus. In the first conference, it could certainly have been through physical retaliation to the cowardly attack by the caste Hindus. In the second conference, it could have been through going ahead with the satyagraha, whatever the consequence. The passivity of the Dalit movement can surely be attributed to this tone-setting struggle at Mahad.

Q: What do you think was the stumbling block in Ambedkar’s understanding of Marxism, and Marxists’ failure to detect the radical potential of Ambedkar’s social programme?

A: The way Ambedkar spoke about Marxism from time to time smacks of the influence of John Dewey, who apart from being one of the pioneers of pragmatism was a prominent American Fabian. Ambedkar’s entire intellectual upbringing in Columbia and later in the London School of Economics, the institute founded by the Fabians, largely reflect a Fabian reading of Marxism. It must be said to his credit, however, that he was ready to strike alliance with the Communists but there the Brahmanical attitude of the Bombay communists played a huge role in alienating him. Thus, both at the level of theory as well as practice, he remained away from Marxism.

At the Chavdar Tank, Mahad (HT Photo)

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