Taste of life: How this community dinner gave orthodox Maharashtra a wake-up call
The day was May 10 and the year 1928. The residents of Gaekwadwada (now known as Kesariwada) in Narayan peth, the Tilaks, had woken up quite early in the morning to prepare for a special feast. Some 200 guests of different castes and religions were invited for dinner. Shridhar Balwant Tilak, son of Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, was the host and he himself was overseeing the arrangements. Considering that this was the first time such a “sahabhojan” (community dinner) was being arranged in Gaekwadwada, known to be the headquarters of orthodox Maharashtra, Shridharpant wanted the event to be a success.
The occasion had another significance. It was also the first time that one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century and one of the tallest leaders in India, who also happened to be Shridharpant’s close friend, was coming over for dinner. In fact, he was the guest of honour. His name was Dr Bhimrao, alias Babasaheb Ambedkar.
Shridharpant had been in awe of Ambedkar’s philosophy and social reforms since 1925. They would regularly meet and communicate with each other and discuss methods to get rid of upper-caste hegemony. Shridharpant not only wanted social equality, but also aimed to end malpractices like child marriages and the tonsuring of widows. Two of his strongest and closest supporters in this journey were Prabodhankar Keshav Seetaram Thackeray and Babasaheb Ambedkar.
In 1927, during the Mahad Satyagraha, also known as Chavdar Tale Satyagraha, Ambedkar established Samaaj Samata Sangh, an organisation meant for “upper caste” allies of the Dalit movement. In April 1928, Shridharpant started a branch of the said organisation in Gaekwadwada in Pune. This was a scandalous move and created a furore in the conservative circles of Pune.
Especially agitated were the trustees of the Kesari Trust. NC Kelkar and GV Ketkar could not digest the liberal approach of Shridharpant and his brother Rambhau. These disciples of Lokmanya Tilak did not want the bastion of orthodoxy encroached on by “those influenced by the philosophy of Agarkar and Ambedkar”.
They launched a systematic attack against the Tilak brothers. Rumors were circulated. The brothers were threatened with legal action. The trustees were already engaged in a legal battle with the Tilak brothers over the ownership of the newspapers “Kesari” and “Maharatta”. Several well-wishers advised Shridharpant to renounce the progressive line of thought and strike a deal with the trustees to gain a role in the running of the newspapers. He firmly refused. He was opposed to untouchability and the Chaturvarnya system and had no intention of compromising on his ideals. So despite several warnings from his detractors, he went ahead with his plan to host a sahabhojan in the presence of Ambedkar.
Food was always used as a tool of humiliation for Dalits. Dalit narratives are replete with stories of being unable to eat with upper castes, of being refused food or being given, at best, leftovers which would be dropped into their hands from above; of going thirsty until someone could be found to pour water into their cupped hands. They were almost never allowed to use common wells or tanks in villages and cities.
Ambedkar too experienced this. He would go thirsty in school if a peon was not present to pour water in his cupped hands. When a young Ambedkar was asked to solve a numerical on the blackboard, students ran to collect their lunchboxes placed behind the board, claiming his touch would pollute the blackboard and their food.
After returning from Columbia, Ambedkar had come to live in Vadodara where he had to work to fulfil his scholarship contract. But, his caste proved an obstacle in him finding a place to eat and live in the city. No inn and boarding house would allow him on their premises. An influential king like Maharaja Sayajirao was helpless in this matter. He asked a dejected Ambedkar to return to Bombay.
That is why, sahabhojan was increasingly being used as a tool to break the taboos surrounding food and caste. People from various castes and religions would come together and share food. This movement was largely opposed by the majority of population, but was being consistently endorsed by liberals and rationalists like Shridharpant Tilak.
On May 10, 1928, when the trustees realised that all their attempts to thwart the sahabhojan had failed, they switched off the power supply to Gaekwadwada, just before Ambedkar was about to arrive. A small pandemonium broke out.
Shridharpant immediately took charge of the situation and requested his friends to bring lanterns and lamps from their homes.
In a few minutes, Gaekwadwada was lit up with hundreds of lamps and lanterns. Ambedkar arrived, met his friend. The sahabhojan went on quite peacefully after that.
But, orthodox society in Pune did not let Shridharpant work in peace. The legal battle over the ownership of the newspapers and the harassment at the hands of the conservatives because of his liberal and rational thoughts proved too much for him to tolerate. He died by suicide the same year. His suicide note was addressed to his dear friend Ambedkar. He wished him all the luck in his fight to end untouchability and discrimination.
Ambedkar later wrote – “If anyone who is worthy of the title Lokamanya, it is Shridharpant Tilak.”