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

On 20 March 1927, a large number of Dalits led by Ambedkar drank water from the Chawdar Tank and asserted their rights. The upper castes then found a rumour as an excuse to attack the Dalits, who heeded Ambedkar's appeal for peace and discipline and did not retaliate

Mahad Satyagraha anniversary: 20 March 1927

(Excerpts from Dhananjay Keer’s Dr Ambedkar: Life and Mission as found in Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches, Vol 17, Part 1, pp 3-8) 

The Sun of self-respect had now arisen in the sky and the clouds of oppression had begun to flit away. The Depressed Classes began to look up. And we now come to a momentous event in the life of Dr B. R. Ambedkar. That event was a march on Mahad. This had its origin in the important resolution of the Bombay Legislative Council moved by S. K. Bole and adopted by the Bombay Government. In pursuance of the Bole resolution passed in 1923 and reaffirmed with a slight change in 1926, the Mahad Municipality had thrown open the Chawdar Tank to the Untouchables. However, the resolution of the Municipality remained a mere gesture in that the Untouchables had not exercised their right owing to the hostility of the caste Hindus.

It was, therefore, decided by the Kolaba District Depressed Classes to hold a Conference at Mahad on March 19 and 20, 1927. The leaders of the Conference had notified Dr Ambedkar the date of the Conference in the first week of the previous month. Arrangements for the Conference were made with care by Surendranath Tipnis, Subhedar Savadkar and Anantrao Chitre. For the past two months workers and leaders had trodden hills and dales in the vicinity and had roused the Depressed Classes to the importance of the Conference. As a result, boys of 15 to old men of 70 from far and near plodded distances of over hundred miles with bundles containing pieces of bread hanging from their shoulders and reached Mahad. About ten thousand delegates, workers and leaders of the Depressed Classes from almost all the districts of Maharashtra and Gujarat attended the Conference.

Every care had been taken, every convenience was provided, and every means was adopted to make the Conference a success. Water worth Rs 40 was purchased from the Caste Hindus to satisfy the needs of the Conference, for water was not available to the Untouchables at the place of the Conference.

Dr Ambedkar rose to deliver his presidential address to the half-clad, embarrassed, earnest men and women and began it in his simple, short and forceful sentences. With a strange agitation in his voice he described the conditions of Dapoli where he had received the first rudiments of education and said that one was attracted to the place where one passed one’s childhood and the beautiful scenery surrounding it deepened one’s love for such a place. He recalled the days of his childhood and said: “There was a time when we, who are condemned as Untouchables, were much advanced, much ahead in education compared with communities other than the advanced classes. This part of the country was then pulsating with the action and authority of our people.”

With great earnestness he then delivered a message to his people which echoed throughout the hills, dales and villages of Maharashtra. Declaring that the demilitarisation was one of the causes of their downfall, he said: “The military offered us unique opportunities of raising our standard of life and proving our merit and intellect, courage and brilliance as army officers. In those days Untouchables could also be headmasters of military schools and compulsory primary education in the military camps was very effective and wholesome.” 

“It is nothing less than a betrayal and a treachery,” he went on, “on the part of the British to have closed the doors of the army to the Untouchables who had helped them establish the Indian Empire while their home Government was at grips with the French during the Napoleonic War.”

Then in an inspiring tone he said: “No lasting progress can be achieved unless we put ourselves through a three-fold process of purification. We must improve the general tone of our demeanour, re-tone our pronunciations and revitalise our thoughts. I, therefore, ask you now to take a vow from this moment to renounce eating carrion. It is high time that we rooted out from our mind the ideas of highness and lowness among ourselves. Make an unflinching resolve not to eat the thrown-out crumbs. We will attain self-elevation only if we learn self-help, regain our self-respect, and gain self-knowledge.” He further urged his people to agitate against the Government ban on their entry into the Army, Navy and Police, and impressed upon them the importance of entering Government services and of education. Turning to the question of Mahars, he tweaked their self-respect by telling them that it was utterly disgraceful to sell their human rights for a few crumbs of bread, and appealed to them fervently to do away with the humiliating, enslaving traditions, to abandon their Vatans and seek forest lands for agricultural pursuits. In conclusion, in a moving tone he said: “There will be no difference between parents and animals if they will not desire to see their children in a better position than their own.”

The Conference passed resolutions on important subjects. By one resolution the Conference appealed to the Caste Hindus to help the Untouchables secure their civic rights, to employ them in services, offer food to Untouchable students, and bury their dead animals themselves. Lastly, it appealed to Government to prohibit the Untouchables by special laws from eating carrion, enforce prohibition, provide them with free and compulsory primary education, give aid to the Depressed Classes hostels and make the ‘Bole Resolution’ a living reality by enjoining upon the local bodies, if necessary, to proclaim section 144 of Indian Criminal Procedure Code at their places, for its enforcement.

On the first day, a few caste Hindu spokesmen, local as well as outsiders, made speeches justifying the rights of the Depressed Classes and promised them help. The Subjects Committee, which met that night, decided, after taking the sense of the leaders of the upper classes who attended the Conference, that the Conference should go in a body to the Chawdar Tank and help the Depressed Classes to establish their right to take water. Next morning the Conference called upon two caste Hindu spokesmen to support the resolution regarding the duties and responsibilities of the Caste Hindus. Excluding the clause regarding inter-caste marriage, they both supported the resolution.

In pursuance of the resolution of the Mahad Municipality which in 1924 had declared to have thrown open its Tank to the Depressed Classes, it was now decided to take water from the Tank and establish the right of the Untouchables. The delegates accordingly began to march peacefully in a body to the Chawdar Tank to assert their right of taking water from the Tank. And now the momentous event, great in its magnitude and far-reaching in its consequences, was taking place. Anti-slavery, anti-caste, anti-priest. Dr Ambedkar, who represented the awakened spirit of the Untouchable Hindus, was marching towards the Tank from which the Muslims and Christians took water along with the so-called touchable Hindus, but from which the Untouchable Hindus who worshipped the Hindu Gods, stuck to the same Hindu religion through ages past, were, although their throats parched with thirst, not allowed to take even a drop of water.

An installation art showing Ambedkar drinking water from the Chawdar Tank

Thus, led for the first time in their history by a great leader of their own, the Untouchables were marching to vindicate their rights. They all displayed discipline, energy and enthusiasm. The march wended its way through the streets of Mahad and terminated at the Chawdar Tank. Dr Ambedkar himself was now standing on the verge of the Tank. Enlightened among the enlightened, the equal of any erudite man on earth, a Hindu of noble aspirations, yet unable even to take water from a public watercourse or to read in a public library in Hindustan, the land of his birth and faith, was now defying the arrogance of the tyrants, exposing the baseness of a people who boasted that their religion treated even animals with forbearance, but who treated their co-religionists worse than cats and dogs.

Dr Ambedkar took water from the Tank and drank it. The vast multitude of men followed suit and vindicated their right. The processionists then returned peacefully to the pandal.

Two hours after this event, some evil-minded caste Hindus raised a false rumour that the Untouchables were also planning to enter the temple of Veereshwar. At this a large crowd of riffraff armed with bamboo sticks collected at street corners. All orthodox Mahad was up in arms and the whole town at once became a surging mass of rowdies. They said that their religion was in danger, and strangely enough they clamoured that their God, too, was in danger of being polluted! Their hearts fluttered, their hands shivered, and their faces were ablaze with anger at this humiliating challenge.

Enraged at this misconstrued outrage on their religion and at the thought of defilement of the temple of Veereshwar, the caste Hindus dashed into the pandal of the Depressed Classes Conference. Many of the delegates were at that time scattered in small groups in the city. Some were busy packing and a few were taking their meals before dispersing for their villages. The majority of the delegates had by now left the town. The rowdies pounced upon the delegates in the pandal, knocked down their food in the dust, pounded the utensils and belaboured some before they knew what had happened. There was utter confusion in the pandal. Until now the orthodox had lost their conscience. They now showed signs of losing their senses!

Untouchable children, women and delegates, who were strolling in the streets of Mahad, were frightened at the sudden sweep of this event. Stray individuals amongst them were beaten. They had to run into Muslim houses for shelter. The local Mamlatdar and the Police Inspector, who failed to check the rowdies, saw Dr Ambedkar in this matter at 4 o’clock in the evening at the Travellers Bungalow where Dr Ambedkar and his party were staying during the days of the Conference. “You control others, I will control my people,” said Dr Ambedkar to the officers, and he hurried to the scene with two or three of his lieutenants. In the street a batch of rowdies mobbed him, but he calmly tried to soothe them by telling them that there was no desire nor any plan on their part to enter the temple. He went ahead, saw things for himself and returned to the Bungalow. Up to this moment about twenty persons from the Untouchables were seriously wounded. A doctor was sent for. He came. He jeered at them for their “ill-timed” adventure and dressed their wounds!

The rowdies then began patrolling the main streets and assaulting members of the Depressed Classes who were in stray batches on the way to their villages. But the most reprehensible part of their conduct was that they sent messages to their henchmen to punish the delegates of the Conference in their respective villages. In obedience to this mandate assaults were committed on a number of Mahar men and women either before or after they had reached their villages.

Meanwhile, this news of the brutal attack on the delegates spread like wildfire. When Dr Ambedkar returned to the bungalow, he saw about a hundred men impatiently awaiting his orders, their eyes literally blazing with fire and their hands itching for retaliation and revenge. Their leader, however, appealed for peace and discipline. There was hushed silence for a while. A word of provocation from Dr Ambedkar would have turned Mahad into a pool of blood and destruction. The number of delegates still lingering in the town, in the pandal and in the Bungalow together could have easily outnumbered the hooligans and battered down their skulls. Hundreds among the Untouchables were men who had seen, fought, and moved actively in the theatres and battles of the First World War.

But discipline was wonderfully maintained at the behest of their leader. They set their faces against the aggressors. Their struggle was non-violent and constitutional. They did not dream of breaking the law. Thus a more serious riot was averted. At nightfall all the delegates left for their respective villages. Dr Ambedkar with his lieutenant, Anantrao Chitre, left the bungalow as it was booked by a Government Officer from that evening, and took up his residence in the police station rooms. He completed his inquiry into the riot and returned to Bombay on 23rd March.

Policemen appeared on the scene after the storm was over. They arrested some of the orthodox rowdies as trespassers. … five … were, afterwards on June 6,1927, sentenced by the District Magistrate to four months’ rigorous imprisonment. Dr Ambedkar was not far from truth when he remarked that had not the chief officers in the District been non-Hindus, justice would not have been administered impartially to the Untouchables. Under Peshwa rule, he said, he would have been trampled to death by an elephant. And it was the Peshwa rule under which Untouchables were not allowed to enter the city of Poona during certain hours by day-time, and when they were admitted at other times they had to walk in the city with earthen pots hanging from their necks to spit into.”

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About The Author

Dhananjay Keer

Dhananjay Keer (1913-1984) is the author of Ambedkar’s biography, ‘Dr Ambedkar: Life and Mission’

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