Up against Slavery
1. 1927 opened with a meeting at the Koregaon War Memorial held by the DC. BRA addressed them and said that although hundreds of fighters from their community had fought on the side of the British they ungratefully later dubbed them a non-military community. About this time the Governor of Bombay nominated BRA to the Bombay Legislative Council. The DC Teachers felicitated him on his nomination.
The DC had begun to look up to BRA now. And now we come to a momentous event in the life of BRA, the march to Mahad. Based on resolutions moved by Bole in the Bombay Legislative Council, years 1923 – 1926, the Mahad municipality had thrown open the Chowdar Tank to the Untouchables. However, the resolution was a mere gesture in that the Untouchables had not exercised their right due to the hostility of the caste Hindus. The Kolaba DC decided to hold a conference at Mahad on 19-20/3/1927.
BRA delivered his presidential address. He said that demilitarization was one of the causes of their downfall. Excerpts ‘The military offered us unique opportunities of raising our standard of life & proving our merit & intellect. It is nothing less than a treachery 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 govt was at grips with the French during the Napoleon War’.
‘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 demeanor, re-tone our pronunciations and revitalize our thoughts. It is high time we rooted out from our mind the ideas of highness & lowness among ourselves. We will attain self-elevation only if we learn self-help, regain our self-respect and gain self-knowledge’. He impressed upon them the importance of entering government services & of education.
2. On the first day, a few caste Hindu spokesmen, local + outsiders, made speeches justifying the rights of DC & promised them help. The Subjects Committee, decided after taking the sense of the upper classes who attended the Conference, that the Conference should go in a body to the Chowdar Tank & help the DC to establish their right to take the water.
In pursuance of the resolution of the Mahad Municipality in 1924 throwing open the tank to the DC; BRA & thousands of other delegates began marching towards the tank. BRA took water from the Tank & now drank it, so did his followers. Having done so they returned peacefully to the pandal. Two hours after the event, some evil-minded caste Hindus raised a false rumor that the Untouchables were also planning to enter the temple of Veereshwar. All of orthodox Mahad was up in arms & the whole town at once became a surging mass of rowdies. These men did not field lowered in the scale of life, when Muslims who condemned them as kafirs, broke their idols took water. Their bravadoes died off in their throats when the Christians, who believed the religious truth outside the Bibiblical revelation was a work of the devil, took water from the same tank but when Untouchables who worshipped the same God as they did took water there was a furor.
Enraged at this misconstrued outrage on their religion & at the thought of defilement of the temple of Veereshwar, the caste Hindus dashed into the pandal of the DC. Majority of the delegates had dispersed by then, there was confusion in the pandal. Not knowing what to do delegates – women/children included ran into Muslim houses for shelter. Now the DC were enraged, all set to take revenge but BRA appealed for peace & discipline. Later five caste Hindus were sentenced to four months rigorous imprisonment by the District Magistrate.
3. Thus ended the first big, open Conference of the DC in Maharashtra & their first public attempt to assert their civic rights. It was as significant an event in Indian history as the partition of Bengal, the first bonfire of foreign cloth made by Savarkar & Bose’s war of liberation of 1943. It is very interesting to note that both the Indian political & socio-religious revolution had their origin in Maharashtra.
Now DC applied their mind to self-improvement & self-culture as never before. They realized the importance of organization & active struggle. The struggle of Mahad pushed ahead the destiny of the DC ahead by fifty years. However, offended orthodox Hindus now sharpened the claws of social boycott of the DC. They refused to sell them corn, picked quarrels under any pretext and had a number of them jailed. For months the wave of protest against the unjust, inhuman conduct of the Mahad caste Hindus swept India.
One leader who fearlessly & whole-heartedly supported BRA’s struggle was Savarkar. He said that untouchability must be condemned & abolished. He upheld the satyagraha of the untouchables at Mahad and declared that the pious & bounden duty of the Hindu world at large to restore full human rights to their co-religionists.
The caste Hindus of Mahad conducted a purification ceremony of the Chowdar Tank. Few caste leaders like Bapurao Joshi stood the wrath of the orthodox for years supported the DC while others helplessly simmered at the perverse attitude of the orthodox.
4. BRA had now to face a flood of criticism. So he felt the need for a mouthpiece as never before. He started his fortnightly Marathi paper, Bahishkrit Bharat in 1927. Justifying the need for a mouthpiece for the DC, BRA said that in the ensuing political reforms, which he expected to be affected by 1930, if the Untouchables failed to secure representation in proportion to their population, they would be doomed. To guard against this the DC need to be kept fully informed about the happenings in the land & their grievances, views / reactions must be placed before before Govt & people. Through the paper he said that temples & watercourses should be open to the Untouchables because they were Hindus.
Some people criticized BRA by saying that people were not prepared for the radical change of society as advocated by him. BRA threw back the argument at them by asking why they clamored for independence when the people as a whole neither deserved nor were prepared for it. One in a hundred, he said, understood the significance of national independence & even then Tilak rose for their deliverance. They criticized BRA because he drove the Untouchables to adopt a militant policy. If Tilak were born an untouchable he would not have said ‘Swaraj is my birthright’ but he would have said ‘Annihilation of Untouchability is my birth right’. BRA’s reading of Tilak is unchallengeable. A man of Tilak’s cast, volcanic force, iron will would have surely applied his brains to shell the strongholds of orthodoxy had he been born an Untouchable. ‘Lost rights are never regained’, said BRA, ‘by begging and by appeals to the conscious of the usurpers, but by relentless struggle’. ‘Goats are used for sacrificial offerings and not lions,’ he concluded.
5. The proceedings of the new Legislative Council commended in February 1927. In his maiden speech BRA pointed out that out of its total revenue of 15.5 crores, about 9.9 crores was being levied by the Executive without the consent of the Council. BRA also explained how the difference in the method of levying land revenue & income-tax worsened the lot of the poor farmer who was required to pay the tax at the same rate whether he was a owner of one acre of land or a Jagirdar, whether there was a failure or abundance of crops. Said he ‘holders of income below a certain minimum are exempt from levy. But under the land revenue the tax is collected from everyone rich or poor’. He raised a number of other issues relating to prohibition, education etc. Inspite of being BRA’s first speech it was impressive, illuminating and stimulating.
On prohibition he said, ‘I feel Sir, the success of prohibition entirely depends upon the financial solution of the question, upon how we will manage to make good the loss we are bound to incur as a result of our new excise policy’. True & practical observations! On Education he appealed to the Govt to give favored treatment to the backward classes.
6. Just then Maharashtra was celebrating the tercentenary birthday of Shivaji in 1927. BRA was invited to preside over a meeting at Badlapur near Bombay. Cordially received by a Brahmin host, BRA ably & vigorously dwelt upon Shivaji’s different facets of life such as his achievements, character & policy. Then he asked his 5,000 strong audiences to think over the causes that led to the downfall of the empire founded to the invidious inequality in the social field & to the hatred for the Peshwa rule.
In the third week of July 1927, BRA addressed an important meeting in Poona. A part of the meeting was the refutal by BRA of charged leveled against him of partiality. He sought to dispel such claims by detailing upon his work in the hostels at Nasik & Jalgaon, which were open to all Untouchable students. He asked the Chamars why they did not send able representatives to the Legislative Council to defend their interests. He said that he was willing to give his place to the worthiest leader from their community of one came forward to serve the cause. He warned them not to be stooges in the hands of interested groups. Nothing could be achieved said he if they did not adopt an aggressive attitude and prove by their thought, words & deeds that they would not now tolerate insult & disabilities any further. He urged the DC to wrest the right of drinking water in public places & force their entry into public temples.
In the Council, with regard to the Composition of the Senate, he supported the view that the Backward & Depressed Classes should have representation on the Senate of Bombay University. Besides showing interest in the major legislation affecting the whole Province, BRA was very watchful about the welfare of the DC. Even at the news of the faintest injustice done to them he took up cudgels on their behalf.