Excerpt from Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar’s writings ‘Essays on Untouchables and Untouchability’, Chapter 2, titled – ‘The Revolt of the Untouchables
The movement of the Untouchables against the injustice of the Hindu Social Order has a long history behind it, especially in Maharashtra. This history falls into two stages. The first stage was marked by petitions and protests. The second stage is marked by the open revolt in the form of direct action against the Hindu Established Order. This change of attitude was due to two circumstances. In the first place, it was due to the realisation that the petitions and protests had failed to move the Hindus. In the second place, Governments had declared that all public utilities and public institutions are open to all citizens including the Untouchables. The right to wear any kind of clothes or ornaments are some of the rights which the British Indian Law gives to the Untouchables along with the rest. To these were added the rights to the use of public utilities and institutions, such as wells, schools, buses, trams. Railways, Public offices, etc., were now put beyond the pale of doubt. But owing to the opposition of the Hindus the Untouchables cannot make any use of them. It is to meet the situation, the Untouchables decided to change the methods and to direct action to redress their wrongs. This change took place about 1920.
Read also – 20th March in Dalit History – Mahad Satyagraha
Of such attempts at direct action, only few can be mentioned so as to give an idea of the revolt of the Untouchables against the Hindu Social Order. Of the attempts made to vindicate the right to use the public roads, it is enough to mention one, most noteworthy attempt in this behalf was that made by the Untouchables of Travancore State in 1924 to obtain the use of the roads which skirted the temple at Vaikorn. These roads were public roads maintained by the State for the use of everybody, but on account of their proximity to the temple building, the Untouchables were not allowed to use certain sections, which skirted the temple too closely. Ultimately as a result of Satyagraha, the temple compound was enlarged and the road was realigned so that there the Untouchables even if they used it were no longer within the polluting distance of the temple.
Of the attempts made to vindicate the right to take water from the public watering places, it is enough to mention the case of the Chawdar Tank.
This Chawdar Tank is situated in the town of Mahad in the Kolaba District of Bombay Presidency. The tank is a vast expanse of water mainly fed by the rains and a few natural springs. The sides of the tank are embanked. Around the tank, there are small strips of land on all sides belonging to private individuals. Beyond this strip of land lies the Municipal road which surrounds the tank and beyond the road are houses owned by the Touchables. The tank lies in the heart of the Hindu quarters and is surrounded by Hindu residence.
This tank is an old one and no one knows who built it or when it was built. But in 1869 when a Municipality was established by the Government for the town of Mahad, it was handed over to the Municipality by the Government and has since then been treated as a Municipal i.e., public tank.
Mahad is a business centre. It is also the headquarters of a taluk. 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 Chawdar 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 centre of the town. It was quite choked on account of its neglect by the Municipality.
The Untouchables, therefore, were suffering a great hardship in the matter of water. This continued till matters got going. In 1923 the Legislative Council of Bombay passed a resolution to the effect that the Untouchable classes be allowed to use all public watering places, wells, Dharmashalas which are built and maintained out of public funds, or are administered by bodies appointed by Government or created by Statutes as well as public schools, courts, offices and dispensaries. The government accepted the resolution and issued the following orders:
“In pursuance of the foregoing Council Resolution, the Government of Bombay are pleased to direct that all heads of offices should give effect to the resolution so far as it related to the public places, institutions belonging to and maintained by Government. The Collectors should be requested to advise the local bodies in their jurisdiction to consider the desirability of accepting the recommendations made in the Resolution.” In accordance with this order of the Government, the Collector of Kolaba forwarded a copy thereof to the Mahad Municipality for consideration. The Mahad Municipality passed a resolution on 5th January 1924 to the effect that the Municipality had no objection to allowing the Untouchables to use the tank. Soon after this resolution was passed there was held at Mahad, a Conference of Untouchables of the Kolaba District over which I presided. The Conference met for two days, the 18th and 20th March 1927. This was the first Conference of the Untouchables held in the Kolaba District. Over 2,500 Untouchables attended the Conference and there was great enthusiasm. On the first day of the Conference, I delivered my presidential address, in which I exhorted them to fight for their rights, give up their dirty and vicious habits and rise to full manhood. Thereafter high caste Hindus who were present and, who held out that they were the friends of the Untouchables, addressed the gathering and told the Untouchables to be bold and exercise the right that is given to them by law. With this, the proceedings of the first day were closed. The subject committee met at night to consider the resolution to be moved in the open conference the next day. In the Subject Committee, attention was drawn to some people to the fact that there was great difficulty at Mahad for the Untouchables in the matter of obtaining water for drinking purposes, and that this difficulty was felt particularly by the members of the Reception Committee of the Conference which had to spend Rs. 15 an enormous amount to employ caste Hindus to dole out water in sufficient quantity to satisfy the needs of those who had attended the Conference.
Next day on the 20th, the Conference met about 9 in the morning. The resolutions agreed upon in the Subject Committee were moved and passed by the Conference. It took about three hours in all. In the end one of my co-workers in moving a vote of thanks to the President and others who had helped to make the Conference a success referred to the question of the difficulty in the matter of getting water and exhorted the Untouchables present to go to the tank and exercise their right to take water from Chawdar tank, especially as the Municipality had by resolution declared it open to the Untouchables and that their Hindu friends were ready to help them. The Hindus who had exhorted them to be bold and begin fearlessly to exercise their rights, instantly realised that this was a bombshell and immediately ran away. But the effect upon the Untouchables was very different. They were electrified by this call to arms. To a man, they rose and the body of 2,500 Untouchables led by me and my co-workers marched in a procession through the main streets. The news spread like wildfire while crowds thronged the streets to witness it.
The Hindu inhabitants of the town saw the scene. They were taken by storm. They stood aghast witnessing this scene which they had never seen before. For the moment they seemed to be stunned and paralysed. The procession in form of fours marched past and went to the Chawdar tank, and the Untouchables for the first time drank the water. Soon the Hindus, realising what had happened, went into the frenzy and committed all sorts of atrocities upon the Untouchables who had dared to pollute the water. These atrocities will be narrated in their proper places.
The assault committed by the Hindus on the Untouchables at Mahad when they entered the Chawdar tank was undoubtedly a challenge to the Untouchables. The Untouchables, on the other hand, were determined not to be satisfied with merely exercising their right but to see it established. They naturally felt that they must take up the challenge thrown at them by the Hindus. Accordingly, a second Conference of the Untouchables was called. The Untouchables were told that they must come fully prepared for all eventualities for Satyagraha (i.e., for civil disobedience and even for going to gaol).
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. The District Magistrate refused and said that the tank was a public tank open to all citizens and he could not by law prevent the Untouchables from taking water therefrom. He advised them to go to a Court of law and get their right of exclusive user established. The dates fixed for the Conference were 25th, 26th, 27th of December 1927. As these dates drew near, and as they heard that the Untouchables were quite in earnest, and knowing that the District Magistrate had refused to come to their rescue, they did the only thing that was open to them, namely, to get their right to exclude the Untouchables from a public tank established by law. Accordingly, 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. 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.’ On the same day on which the suit was filed, the plaintiffs applied to the Court for a temporary injunction against the defendants restraining them from going to the tank and taking water therefrom pending the decision of the suit. The judge holding that it was a fit case, granted a temporary injunction against me and the other defendants on the 14th December 1927.
The temporary injunction issued by the Judge was sent to Bombay and was served upon me two or three days before the Conferences actually met. There was no time to have a consultation and no time to postpone the Conference either. I decided to leave the matter to the Conference to decide.
The Conference was called with the specific object of establishing the right to take water from the tank, which was challenged by the Hindus last time. The District Magistrate had left the way open. But here was a Judge who had issued an order banning such action. Naturally, when the Conference met, the first question it was called on to consider was whether to disobey the order of injunction issued by the Court and enter the tank. The District Magistrate who had been favourable to the Untouchables now took a different view. He explained his view very clearly to the Conference, which he came and addressed personally. He said that if the Civil Court had not issued an injunction, he would have helped the Untouchables in their attempt to enter the tank as against the caste Hindus, but that as the Sub-Judge had issued his order, his position had become different. He could not allow the Untouchables to go to the tank because such an act would amount indirectly to help them to break the order of His Majesty’s Court with impunity. He, therefore, felt bound to issue an order prohibiting the Untouchables, should they insist on going to the tank notwithstanding the injunction not because he wanted to favour the Hindus but because he was bound to maintain the dignity of the Civil Court by seeing to it that its order was respected.
The Conference took what the Collector had said into its consideration and also the reaction of the Hindus to the attempt of the Untouchables going to the tank in defiance of the order of the Court, which they had obtained. In the end, the Conference came to the conclusion that it was better and safer for them to follow the law and see how far it helped them to secure their rights. It was therefore decided to suspend civil disobedience of the order of the Judge till the final decision of the suit.
The occasion for civil disobedience never came because the Untouchables won the suit and the Hindus lost it. One of the principal reasons which led the Untouchables to follow the law and suspend civil disobedience was that they wanted to have a judicial pronouncement on the issue whether the custom of untouchability can be recognised by the Court of law as valid. The rule of law is that a custom to be valid must be immemorial, must be certain and must not be opposed to morality or public policy. The Untouchables’ view is that it is a custom which is opposed to morality and public policy. But it is no use unless it is declared to be so by a judicial tribunal. Such a decision declaring the invalidity of the custom of untouchability would be of great value to the Untouchables in their fight for civil rights because it would seem illegal to import untouchability in civic matters. The victory of the Untouchables in the Chawdar tank dispute was very great. But it was disappointing in one way that the Bombay High Court did not decide the issue whether the custom of untouchability was valid or not. They decided the case against the Hindus on the ground that they failed to prove that the custom alleged by them in respect of the tank was not immemorial. They held that the custom itself was not proved. The tank became open to the Untouchables. But the Untouchables cannot be said to have gained their point. The main issue was whether the custom of untouchability was a legal custom. Unfortunately, the High Court avoided giving judgement on that issue. The Untouchables had to continue their struggle.