In early-20th-century Mahad, upper castes sought to ‘privatize’ the public Chawdar Tank

This rings a bell today with the increasing resistance to making public institutions more representative and privatization of government-owned companies picking up pace. The upper castes seem to be comfortable with public institutions as long as these institutions are their preserve but abhor the idea of the masses – Shudras and the Atishudras – staking a claim

The Mahad Satyagraha has come to be attributed to one day, one act. The day was 20 March 1927 – when thousands of Dalits led by Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar who were participating in a conference walked to the Chawdar Tank in Mahad and drank its water. This town lies in Maharashtra’s Raigad district today. But this was just the first battle, although the foundational, crucial one at that. The victory came when the Bombay High Court bench of a British judge and a Parsi judge dismissed the appeal of the upper-caste, self-proclaimed owners of the tank after a decade-long saga inside and outside the court. 

The judgment given on 17 March 1937 by the Bombay High Court described the location of the Chawdar tank thus: “The Chawdar Tank is a small lake or large pool; between four and five acres in extent, on the outskirts of the town. It is surrounded on all sides by municipal roads beyond which are houses occupied by caste Hindus (and a very few Mohamedans), and the owners of these houses also own in many cases strips of land on the edge of the tank, ghats or flights of steps to get to the water and the masonry embankments along the sides. There are no houses of ‘Untouchables’ anywhere near … It is in fact admitted that the latter [‘Untouchables’] never used it, before the year 1927, when a campaign against the doctrines of ‘Untouchability’ was carried out by defendant No 1 [Ambedkar], and some of the ‘Untouchables’ went and drank water as a protest.”

The drinking of the water from the tank by the Untouchables was an act of social disobedience, not an act of civil disobedience. For the Bombay Legislative Council had passed a resolution on 4 August 1923 opening government-funded and publicly funded spaces, facilities and institutions such as courts, offices, schools, hospitals, parks, roads, Dharmshalas, waiting rooms, railway coaches, and water sources to the Untouchable community. On 11 September 1923, the Bombay provincial government directed all its departments to implement the resolution. In adherence to this order, the Mahad municipality had thrown open the Chawdar tank, on the outskirts of the Mahad town, to the Untouchables.

The march to the tank and the drinking of the water went on peacefully. But little did they know that behind the scenes the upper castes were seething at the laws of Manusmriti being broken. In an age without the mobile phone and social media, it took them merely two hours to spread the rumour that the Untouchables were planning to enter the local Veereshwar temple and to get all the caste Hindus worked up. Just as the participants of the conference were packing up to leave, they were attacked. Some twenty of them sustained injuries. The police filed cases against the caste Hindus and on 6 June 1927 the District Magistrate handed down a four-month sentence to five of them.

The upper castes refused to back down. They performed ritual purification of the tank, draining the water, and pouring cow urine, cow dung and curd amid a chanting of mantras. Then the Mahad Municipality revoked its 1924 resolution allowing the Untouchables access to the Chawdar tank. Hurt by these actions, Ambedkar and the Untouchables met on a few occasions in Bombay and passed a resolution to hold a Satyagraha on December 25-26 and reassert their right to drink water from the Chawdar Tank. 

A depiction of Dr Ambedkar and others drinking from the Chawdar Tank; and a protest against the undermining of reservations

The upper castes moved the local court challenging the Untouchables’ defiance on 12 December 1927 and sought an interim injunction against the use of the tank by the Untouchables. Two days later, the sub-judge G.V. Vaidya granted the interim injunction noting the applicants have filed a suit for obtaining a declaration that “the 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 … Hundreds of years since the tank has been in the exclusive enjoyment of the touchable classes only … a number of persons of the Untouchable classes led by Defendant, all of a sudden entered the tank, washed their hands and faces with the water and thus contaminated it, that in consequence of this contamination the touchable classes could not take water from the tank for over 24/25 hours i.e. until the water was purified, at a great cost, by performing ceremonies laid down by the Hindu Shastras, that great hardship was thus caused to the touchable classes.”

As proof of their ownership, the upper castes produced a letter from the municipality asking one of them to repair an embankment he had built for the tank in front of his house and a deed dividing an embankment between members of a family.

The December 25-26 conference went ahead as planned on a piece of land owned by a Muslim because no Hindu would let his land to be used for the purpose. Ambedkar spoke at the conference and his Brahmin friend G.N. Sahastrabuddhe read out portions of Manusmriti regarding treatment of the Shudras. Then, in disgust, the participants burnt the Manusmriti. The following day, the British district collector paid a visit. Expressing the government’s commitment to granting the Untouchables their rights, he requested Ambedkar and the Dalits to postpone the Satyagraha until after the interim injunction was cancelled by the court. Ambedkar agreed, and later that day, the participants marched to the tank but only went around it and returned to the venue of the conference.

Also Read: Mahad Satyagraha: ‘Dr Ambedkar took water from the Tank and drank it’

The same sub-judge revoked the interim injunction in February 1928. Slabs bearing inscriptions that said the tank was a Municipal property had been discovered. Three years later in 1931, another sub-judge V.R. Saraf dismissed the case of the upper castes claiming ownership of the Chawdar Tank and their entitlement as exclusive users and ruled in favour of the Untouchables. After appeals in the district court, the matter reached the Bombay High Court in 1933. Upholding the Mahad court verdict, the High Court dismissed the appeal in 1937.

It is noteworthy that in between 1927 and 1937, Ambedkar participated in the Round Table conferences, made a case to the British for a separate electorate for the Untouchables before being compelled to sign the Poona Pact and wrote the ‘Annihilation of Caste’. 

But also noteworthy is how the upper castes pursued in the courts the matter of the water tank being a private property and their entitlement to its exclusive use based on a immemorial custom, for a decade. On their second argument of ‘immemorial custom’, the High Court said “it is doubtful whether any attempt would be made to secure exclusive use of the water until such time as the tank came to be surrounded by the houses of the caste Hindus.” This rings a bell today with the increasing resistance to making public institutions more representative and privatization of government-owned companies picking up pace. The upper castes seem to be comfortable with government-run institutions as long as these institutions are their preserve but abhor the idea of the masses – Shudras and the Atishudras – staking a claim. The public educational institutions had just started becoming more inclusive and the public sector units (PSUs) and government departments seemed destined to achieve social justice in the workplaces. But no, that can’t go on any longer!


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