A lot has been said about the barbaric incident of a Muslim boy being brutally beaten and denied water to drink at a temple complex near Ghaziabad. Many people expressed shock and sorrow and rightly expressed solidarity with the boy. Many said that their ‘Hinduism’ does not reflect this and that they are ashamed of the incident. Many apologised that their idea of India was not this where an innocent boy is denied the right to drink water. All those who condemned the incident and expressed solidarity with the victim deserve kudos but the issue should not be seen in isolation and thought of an individual. I say, it is a culture that we are part of and feel proud of. Water has been used as a discriminatory practice in India for centuries. Dalits have been denied it in the villages. It is not that simple as we assume.
Just a year back when I was travelling to a village which had Mushahars on one side and Bansfods on the other, there was a water war between the two communities. The Bansfor families blamed that the Mushahars treat them as untouchable and do not allow them to fetch water from their hand pump. I decided to have a first hand experience and said to the Bansfod man who was quite old that I dont trust what they are saying. I felt that both these communities are extremely marginalised and isolated within the periphery of the Scheduled Castes in Uttar Pradesh. So, the old man took me towards the Mushahar location which was just the other side of the 6 ft road. A mushahar woman was using the hand pump
Dont you allow Bansfors to fetch water from this Hand Pump ?
No, it is not true, we give them water, she says.
Bansfor man intervene abusively : Do you allow us to fetch water ourselves ?
She does not allow us to fetch water. She will pour it from her bucket.
Why don’t you allow them to fetch their water ? You are neighbours ?
How can we allow them to touch our hand pump. They are ‘chhot jaat’, she says. The Bansfors, according to Mushahars, are a lower caste and hence they can’t take their water.
Soon others gather there and communities get divided on their line. We request the local administration and they help in getting a Hand pump at Bansfor Basti.
What I am saying here is that Water is a source of untouchability even today and even among castes who are considered as Untouchable. Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar emphasised and explained it beautifully when he said that India is a ‘graded’ system which provides ‘ascending order of reverence and descending order of contempt’.
Let us not forget the history of water as a fundamental right was created by Baba Saheb Ambedkar on March 20th, 1927 at the famous Chavdar Pond, Mahad, Bombay Province that time. How barbaric were the brahmanical upper castes that they resisted Dalits drinking water from that pond which they felt was their sole ‘domain’. Laws passed by the government does not matter unless there is a will to implement them. British realised this and hence made many political decisions related to rights of the untouchables, much to the discomfort and outrage of the savarnas those times. On August 4th, 1923, Bombay Legislative Council passed a resolution allowing the depressed classes and untouchables to access water to drink from the Chavdar Talab in Mahad which was part of Bombay Province at that point of time. Unfortunately nothing happened. There was no will to implement this law at the ground level. The Talab or Pond was located in the heart of the city and any one coming from village to the Mahad Taluka for official work or shopping purposes needed to drink water from this but it was forbidden for the untouchables. Dr Ambedkar actually narrate this beautifully :
“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 Revolt of the Untouchables”, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Vol 5).
On march 19-20, 1927 there was a conference organised by Depressed classes on the issue of Civil Rights and Baba Saheb Ambedkar was the chief guest and guide of the event. Over 2,500 delegates participated in it. The conference decided to start a Satyagrah led by Baba Saheb Ambedkar and drink water at the Chavdar Talab. This was a historic moment. Dr Ambedkar and the other Satyagrahis defied all the public pressure and reached the Chavadar Talab, drank water and got ‘implemented’ the resolution passed by the Bombay Legislative Assembly. Can you imagine a public protest to do so. How did the public react to this ? Well, the rumour brigade was active then that time which spread the rumour that the Satyagrahis at Mahad are now planning to enter the temple and the caste forces then decided to retaliate. The Conference ground was attacked and many people got injured. Intimidation happened. They purified the Chavdar Tank again by performing puja, using ‘cow dung’ as well as ‘gaumutra’.
One has to understand the whole dynamics of the fight against irrationality and inhuman practice. The fight for Mahad’s water rights led by Dr Ambedkar had great values of like minded people supporting. Frankly, the Mahad municipality which declared public places opened for the Dalits and depressed classes was under the leadership of Mr Surendranath Tipnis, a Maratha. It is he who invited Baba Saheb Ambedkar to address the people in Mahad. There were other speakers too and notable among them A V Chitre and G.N.Shahasrabuddhe, a chitpawan brahmin. All these gentlemen remained with Dr Ambedkar in his fight against caste system and irrationality.
Dr Ambedkar decided to take fight against this and hence he planned another conference at Mahad on 26th and 27th, December 1927. Cases were filed against him and he was not allowed public space to hold the conference. Finally, he could do it at an individual’s place who offered him there. On December 25th, 1927, Manusmiriti was burnt at Mahad by the followers of Dr Ambedkar led by G N Shahsrabuddhe.
The dirty reality of Indian caste order is that it resisted with full throat the entry of Dalits in the temples and their right to drink water from public places. Even after the assembly passed resolution or municipality paving the way to access the water rights, the caste forces remained determined not to allow this to happen. They used all the tricks right from public dominance, economic boycott to legal challenge but finally lost the battle at the Bombay High Court in 1937 which upheld the BLC resolution and allowed all public places open to depressed classes.
It is important for all of us that in this fight against discrimination the battle remain incomplete unless the forces which enjoyed the fruits of power too feel that something is wrong. Dr Ambedkar was fighting against Brahmanical forces on purely ideological grounds and it was good that some of his most important associates happened to be born in those communities who discriminated.
Let us remember this history of the Mahad Movement. It was a much powerful movement that created history but unfortunately we remember Dandi March of Gandhi but not the Mahad Satyagrah that gave Dalits a definite direction to fight for their rights both legally as well as politically. The modus operandi of the caste forces is same despite the fact that Dalits have now been given right to water yet water still remain an instrument of discrimination in our society.
Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social activist. Twitter @freetohumanity