Mahad, a small town in the Konkan region of Maharashtra, occupies a special place in the memory and folklore of the Dalit struggle. It was in this small town, 90 years ago, that the then untouchable community raised the banner of struggle against upper caste dominance and chicanery. The celebratory din over Dr BR Ambedkar’s 125th birth anniversary have brought forth fresh and welcome additions to Ambedkar scholarship. Anand Teltumbde’s Mahad is one such valuable addition to the growing literature on Ambedkar. The book presents the reader with a well archived historical account of the first struggle by Dalits that threw a political and intellectual challenge to the upper castes.
The work deals with the famous conference held in the small town of Mahad in 1927, followed by a satyagraha offered by the Dalits — both under the leadership of Ambedkar. The book under review is valuable for four reasons: it systematically presents the reader with the broader historical and social context of caste and the origins of pre-Ambedkar political struggles over caste inequality; for the first time, it gives a detailed account of the Mahad conferences which undeniably occupy a central position in the history of Dalit mobilisation; it also contains a translation of an account of the Mahad struggle penned by a local worker who took the initiative in planning the Mahad conference and persuaded Ambedkar to preside over it; and above all, this book becomes valuable because of the long theoretical discussion by Teltumbde situating the Mahad struggle in the context of larger questions of Ambedkarite politics and ideas.
Teltumbde’s account, for the first time, brings to the English language reader many extracts from Marathi newspapers of that era, including many from Ambedkar’s Bahishkrit Bharat; it richly uses government records to situate developments and also brings forth a detailed account originally written in Marathi by Comrade More, the organiser of the first conference. It is notable that More, who was from an “untouchable” background, later joined the Communist trade union movement and yet remained an Ambedkarite. The painstakingly presented appendices along with the rich sources that the book relies on makes this book a first rate researched account of the moment the Dalit movement began.
The outline of this struggle is probably oft-mentioned. The present account holds many implicit clues to the shaping of Ambedkar’s leadership in those early years — Ambedkar, after all, was only in his mid-thirties when he took on orthodoxy and began to shape an argument against Hindu philosophy. The “Bole resolution” (named after the member who proposed it in the Bombay legislature in 1923) had already called for the opening of public places and public water reservoirs to untouchables and a subsequent resolution of the Mahad municipality declaring that the local tank would be accessible to all — including untouchables — constituted the backdrop for the first conference in March 1927. The first Mahad conference ended with an impromptu decision to actually go to the tank and access drinking water from it. This act of defying caste orthodoxy was punished by the upper castes by indulging in typical tactics of rumour mongering (that untouchables were about to enter a temple), stone pelting and assaults on a few leaders and participants.
That reaction prompted Ambedkar to announce his resolve to continue the struggle. The second Mahad conference in December that year became much more historic because of the decision to burn the Manusmriti. This symbolic gesture was important not just because of its novelty and the courage it called for but because it signalled, in embryonic form, Ambedkar’s later argument in Annihilation of Caste: that it is the mind that has been enslaved by the pretentions of philosophy of the dharmashastras and both the oppressed and the oppressor need to address that mental slavery. But most importantly, the second conference was critical in the shaping of the Dalit struggle under Ambedkar’s leadership and for the emergence of the contours of Babasaheb’s approach to issues of rights, dignity and Hindu religious orthodoxy. While a court case and persuasion by the administration dissuaded Ambedkar from actually offering a satyagraha, more than 3,000 followers had registered themselves for satyagraha and agreed to court arrest if needed.
The two conferences at Mahad in the year 1927, thus, practically changed the paradigm through which the issue of untouchability was perceived till then. The Mahad conferences are significant for the shift in the emphasis — from requesting something from the government and expecting to change the attitude of the upper castes, the focus now shifted to self-assertion. The contents of the “revolt” also made a significant shift towards civil rights and the right to dignity. Teltumbde goes into a detailed discussion of the many similarities and differences that the Mahad conferences had with the French National Assembly — a comparison that Ambedkar himself had dwelled upon, at length.
Above all, the two conferences squarely wrested the initiative of anti-untouchability efforts away from caste Hindu reformers. As Ambedkar mentioned during the preparations for the second conference, the caste Hindus were welcome to join the struggle, but it would be a struggle by the untouchables themselves because it was now going to be a struggle for rights and dignity. These values can be realised only when the sufferers — the oppressed — fight for their rights and dignity. As Ambedkar said in the Bahishkrut Bharat (April 22, 1927): “So long as we believed that untouchability is a stigma on Hinduism, we left the task of its removal to you (caste Hindus)”.
Mahad changed that. Next month, Ambedkar wrote, “We value human dignity, not Hindu religion…” (Bahishkrit Bharat, May 20, 1927). Clearly, a new ideology of emancipation and annihilation of caste had begun to take shape.
Book name – Mahad: The Making of the First Dalit Revolt
Author – Anand Teltumbde
Publisher – Aakar
Pages – 389
Price- ` 995