The Mahad satyagraha was a landmark event in the history of human rights struggles and in particular, for the struggles of India’s oppressed castes for civic rights. At least in its immediate context, the Mahad satyagraha was about Dalits making a claim to the water in the Chaudar tank of Mahad, a village in the Raigarh district of Maharashtra.
The story as it is told often begins with a resolution moved by Sitaram Keshav Bole in the Bombay legislative council in 1923. His proposal to allow Dalits to access all public water facilities in the province of Bombay, was passed.
These seeds fell on very fertile ground. The region of coastal Maharashtra and the Raigarh district in particular, already had a history of anti-caste ideas.
This is evident from the childhood and early life of one of the key personalities through whom we can approach the Mahad satyagraha - RB More, one of its main organisers and a founder of the Mahar Samaj Sewa Sangh.
In 1926, the SK Bole resolution of 1923 was affirmed by the Mahad municipality. It decided to throw open the Chowdar Tank to the Dalits. But, to quote from Dhananjay Keer’s biography of Ambedkar, "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."
By the mid-1920s, BR Ambedkar, who had returned to India following his studies, had already made very public arguments for the creation of separate electorates for oppressed minority communities. In March 1924, he convened the meeting that established the Bahishkrit Hitkarni Sabha with the motto, "Educate, Agitate and Organise".
Thousands of people from across Maharashtra and Gujarat arrived in Mahad for the conference on March 19, 1927. Among other matters, the Conference, which came to be known as the first Mahad conference, appealed to the government to make the SK Bole resolution a reality, if necessary, by providing a protective legal environment for its enforcement. At the tank, Ambedkar took water, followed, in defiance of the oppressive caste system, by a large number of people. Two hours later, there was violent reprisal from the upper caste Hindus of Mahad. Many Dalits sought shelter in the homes of Muslims. Several days later, the orthodox Hindus of Mahad conducted a purification ceremony at the tank and declared the water once again fit for consumption by the upper castes.
The question of Dalit access to water was discussed all across Maharashtra and a decision was taken to have a second conference at Mahad in December. Around this time, the upper caste Hindus of Mahad filed a suit to declare the tank as private property. In the courts, Ambedkar was enthusiastic about using the Mahad case to set a precedent on the question of access to public resources and public spaces.
At Mahad on the morning of December 24, the District Magistrate asked Ambedkar to postpone the satyagraha but Ambedkar wanted to at least address the conference. During the speech, he said, "This Conference has been called to inaugurate an era of equality in this land" and drew parallels with the French revolution. That night, a copy of the Manusmriti was placed on a pyre and burnt.
RB More came to be known as Comrade RB More, and was a senior Indian communist leader at the time of his death in 1972. His life almost represents a bridge between the Marxist and Ambedkarite politics of Maharashtra.
In this episode of the Nagrik Podcast, we will learn about the political space from which the Mahad satyagraha emerged, and the organisational work of BR Ambedkar, RB More, and their colleagues through the Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabha, the Mahad Samaj Sewa Sangh, and their several publications, and also the legal and political strategies that Ambedkar pursued during this time.
To help us understand the colonial state's mediation of conflicting claims and the role of anti-caste thought in the making of Dalit claims to public resources and public spaces, we will listen to Ramesh Kamble, Rohit De, and Anupama Rao. Ramesh Kamble is a professor of sociology at Mumbai University. Rohit De is a historian of South Asia and the author of People’s Constitution: Law and Everyday Life in the Indian Republic. Anupama Rao is a historian and the author of The Caste Question, published in 2009 by the University of California Press. Thenmozhi Soundararajan, a co-founder of Equality Labs, will help us understand the continuing significance of the Mahad satyagraha for anti-caste struggle today. Finally, Subodh More, a Mumbai-based activist, will give us a glimpse into the early life of his grandfather, RB More.
Anupama Rao, The Caste Question - Dalits and the Politics of Modern India, (Cambridge University Press, 2009)
Satyendra More, Subodh More, “Comrade RB More - A Red Star in a Blue Sky”, Communists Against Caste
“An Interview with Subodh More”, School of Media and Cultural Studies
Yashwant Zagade, “How Dalit-'Lower Caste' Unity Laid the Foundation for the Ambedkarite Movement”, The Wire
Anupama Rao, “Dalit Communist RB More’s memoir presents the kind of history that governments like to erase today”, Scroll
“Rohit De - The Global History of Rebellious Lawyering”, Yale University
Rohit De, "Lawyering as Politics: The Legal Practice of Dr. Ambedkar, Bar-at-Law"