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The Mahad Satyagraha and the Question of ‘Untouchability'

The Mahad Satyagraha was one of the earliest and most significant struggles of the 'untouchables' to gain access to public places.
Statue of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar at Bhadkal Gate, Aurangabad. Photo: Wikimedia commons

“It is not as if drinking the water of the Chavdar lake will make us immortal. We have survived well enough all these days without drinking it. We are not going to the Chavdar lake merely to drink its water. We are going to the lake to assert that we, too, are human beings like others. Clearly, this meeting has been called to set up the norm of equality,” Dr B.R. Ambedkar said during his speech at the Mahad conference on December 25, 1927, 

While addressing people that belonged to the depressed classes, he spoke about the need to assert their identity as human beings and as equals to others, challenging the hierarchical system denying them access to water. Ambedkar was leading the people’s agitation to gain access to the water of the Chavadar tank, a public tank located in Mahad town in Maharashtra’s Raigad district.

Dr Ambedkar’s words in this speech truly depict the nature of their struggle, that went on for 10 years (1927-37), to gain access to the public tank. The Mahad Satyagraha was one of the earliest and most significant struggles of the ‘untouchables’ to gain access to public places. It is not just about the material aspect of the caste system, but also presents a moral critique by challenging the deeply ingrained acceptance of the caste order. To comprehend the significance of this, it is essential to understand the Mahad struggle and how it disrupted the consciousness of society. 

Mahad struggle 

Mahad is a town located in the Raigad district, formerly known as Kolaba, in the North Konkan region of Maharashtra. It was a part of the former capital city of Shivaji’s Maharaj’s Maratha empire and is home to the Raigad Fort which also houses the his samadhi.

During the British rule, the city had a well-developed port along the Savitri river that was used for transportation. The Mahad Municipality was established in the town in 1865, making it part of the significant Municipal governance of British India. The city played an essential role during both the Maratha Empire and the British Empire. Mahad had three water tanks: Cavadar Tale, Viresvar Tale, and Hapus Tale. 

In August 1923, S.K. Bole, a former social reformer, proposed a resolution to provide access to all the watering facilities built using public funding. This includes public schools, courts, offices, dispensaries and dharmasalas (public rest houses) maintained through public funds administered by government-appointed parties or created by statute. The resolution aimed to remove the barriers of casteism that prevented large populations of untouchable groups from accessing essential resources like water. This resolution argued for the civil rights liberties of Dalits in colonial India. In September 1923, following Bole’s resolution, the Bombay government directed all department heads to implement the resolution regarding public utilities and places that were built and maintained using public funds.

As a result, the Mahad Municipal Council opened the town’s tank for the depressed classes. To assert their right to access public resources, Dr Ambedkar and his associates drank from the tank on March 20, 1927, in the presence of a large gathering of people from the depressed classes. In the town, the act of ‘untouchables’ drinking water from a tank caused anger among the dominant caste groups. Upon their return from the tank, thetouchable’ group attacked the ‘untouchables’.

This conflict evolved into a legal battle when the ‘touchable’ group filed a case against Dr Ambedkar and his associates for using the water from the tank. This case lasted for almost ten years, restricting the untouchable group’s access to tank water. Finally, in 1937, the Bombay high court dismissed the plea of the ‘touchable’ Hindu groups that prohibited others’ access to the tank water. 

Muslims and Chavadhar tank

The Chavdhar tank case is often discussed in terms of the struggle betweentouchable’ and ‘untouchable’ groups. However, the ‘touchable’ group is not a homogenous category of Hindu groups. To fully understand the nuances of the case, one needs to look at the legal verdicts. This will help to unpack what constitutes the touchable group in the case. 

The plaintiffs, mainly consisting of the touchable Hindu group, argued that the Chavadhar tank is private and not public property as claimed by Ambedkar and his associates (S.K. Bole resolution applies only to public property, meaning the one maintained on the public funds). Since it is private property, the touchable groups residing near the tanks by right of ownership can prohibit the untouchables from using the tank water. It is interesting to find that the touchable groups include not only Hindus but also some of the Muslim families residing near the tank.

The touchable Hindu confirms that the Muslim families living near the tank have been allowed to use the water for a long time, as Muslims fall under the class of the touchables. However, later, a modification to the position was made by saying that there exist two classes of Muslims: (i) those converted from the touchable Hindus and (ii) those converted from the untouchable Hindus.

The touchable groups have no objection to the first category group using the tank. The Muslim families, just like the touchable groups, also contributed both in terms of money and labour to maintain the tanks. However, the interesting aspect of the usage and maintenance rights of the Muslims does not make them the co-owners, along with the touchable Hindu groups residing near the tank. The right to ownership remains with the touchable Hindu groups, who allow the other touchable groups in the town to access the water.

It was difficult to determine when and how the Muslims acquired the usage rights over a claimed private tank.Simultaneously, the evidence in the form of documents showing the contribution made by the municipality in the maintenance of the tank as long as the council’s formation in 1865.

The court also denied the role of any human agency in the construction of the tank, claiming it was a “natural excavation in the bed of the earth” and, therefore, not claimed to be owned by any particular group in the town. Moreover, the touchable group failed to provide the name of the person who constructed the tank. In light of this evidence, the court rejected the touchable’s plea that Mahad is a private tank, making it accessible to the untouchables. 

Hindu mind and caste disgust 

The story of the Mahad tank struggle sheds light on the inflexibility of the caste system and the mindset of Hindus towards untouchables in our society. It’s worth noting that for the Hindu mindset, one’s social status in the caste hierarchy is more  important than their religion. In other words, if you’re born as an untouchable, changing your faith won’t change your status.

This rigid aspect of the caste system leaves no room for freedom. The caste disgust against untouchables runs deep in the Hindu mind, beyond the material aspect of it. Caste exists in both the past and modern times, and while it has a material aspect in some cases, this isn’t always the case, as seen in the Mahad tank situation. Therefore, according to Ambedkar, the fight for access to water isn’t only about natural resources but about challenging the ingrained caste bias and hatred towards untouchable groups in society. 

The question remains, whether the Mahad struggle and subsequent struggles for access to common resources such as land, forests, and water have disturbed the Hindu mindset enough to initiate a moral transformation towards an egalitarian society. Modern society must answer this question. 

Suhas Bhasme is with the Centre for Water Policy and Governance at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

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