This blog post is from the first half of Essay on Untouchables 3: Politics.
From Millions to Fractions
Untouchability is not a legal term. It is also not determined by physical features. It is a social concept that ostracizes a group. Dalits, the group that suffers from untouchability, have accrued disadvantage through generations. Birth determines untouchability. The condition can’t be changed.
Ambedkar lists the number of Dalits (Untouchables) in India as 50 million. The figure came from the 1931 census. The Indian government conducts a census every ten years.
There was no mention of caste in the first Indian Census of 1881. There was an attempt to add a caste question to the 1891 census, but the effort failed. The census of 1901 was the first successful attempt to add a question on untouchability. That year an untouchable was defined as one that most of the native people believe is untouchable. In 1911, there was a ten-question test to determine if one was a Dalit or part of the depressed classes. The questions involved if one eats beef or receives religious directive from a Brahmin. Many opposed the test on the basis that it perpetuates the idea of caste. The opposition did not win, and the question was on the 1921 census. Finally, the 1931 census confirmed there were 50 million Dalits or one-fifth of the population.
The number of Dalits became vital after the formation of the Simon Commission. The group was formed to study and determine how best to rule India. One of the efforts they were undertaking was increasing the political power of Dalits through a reserved electorate. A reserved electorate would allow Dalits to vote for a select number of seats. The electorate and the candidates would all be from the Dalit Community.
The Lothian Committee in 1932 also attempted to win Dalits an appropriate amount of political representation. The effort to increase Dalit political power was opposed by various provincial committees that tried to make the case that untouchability no longer existed. The provincial committees believed the British wanted to reduce Hindu political power by splitting their share in government between touchables and untouchables.
There were also factions of Indian society that could benefit from an electoral reservation for Dalits. The first group is the economically underprivileged of India referred to as Backward Classes. They wanted to join the reserved electorate for Dalits. If this were to happen, the reserved voters would have more people from the Backward Classes than Dailts watering down the Dalit vote. Dalits would have supported a Backward Class reservation from the portion allotted to Hindus but not their own. The Backward Classes insisted on getting a reservation from the Dalits. When the Dalits refused, the Backward Classes joined the Hindus in their denial of untouchability.
The second faction that could benefit from an electoral reservation for Dalits, is Muslims. If the Hindu electorate split between Dalits and Hindus the relative power of Muslims increases. Muslims did not support the electoral reservation because they were pushing to have a larger representation in Parliament than their number in the population, which is called weightage. Hindus would only agree to weightage if they had an overwhelming amount of power in Parliament, and giving more power to the Muslims would not upset their majority. Seeding power would be beneficial to Hindus if it prevents the Muslims from splitting into their own country. The second reason Muslims opposed having a reserved electorate for Dalits is that many Dalit Muslims would leave the Muslim political contention to join with other Dalits. Indian Muslims still practiced caste, just not as severely as Hindus. The following quote from Ambedkar can be found in this essay:
Although Islam is the one religion which can transcend race and colour and unite diverse people into a compact brotherhood, yet Islam in India has not succeeded in uprooting caste from among the Indian Musalmans (Muslims).
Misinformation hampered future efforts to account for Dalits. Hindus began telling Dalits that the government planned to institutionalize untouchability. Dalits were afraid to register as such, thinking they would never be able to pass as a caste Hindu. Dalits would often attempt to pass as caste Hindu to avoid discrimination.
Ambedkar reiterates the need for Dalits to agitate at the end of this essay. If no one speaks out, there will be no way to increase Dalit political power.
The Revolt of Untouchables
Dalit resistance came in two stages. Before 1920, Dalits concentrated on protesting and petitioning the government. After 1920, Dalits realized that petitioning the government had little success. Also, the national government declared that all public utilities and institutions were open to all citizens regardless of caste. Dalits moved toward Civil Disobedience and Direct Action.
One of the first civil disobedience campaigns was getting the ability to use roads near a temple called Vaikom in Travancore state. The campaign forced the government to move the road far enough away from the temple to allow Dalits to travel on it without polluting the temple.
The second great campaign was formed to grant Dalits access to Chawdar (Chavdar) Water Tank, located in Mahad, Bombay, in 1927. This tank is reserved as a reservoir for caste Hindus in the city. No one knows who originally built it, but it was declared public property in 1869. Dalits would frequently come to Mahad to shop and conduct other business. They would have to bring water from a well from a neighboring Dalit town or pay a caste Hindu to fetch water. In 1924, the city of Mahad adopted the laws allowing all citizens access to public facilities or institutions, including the water tank. However, the threat of caste Hindus violence kept Dalits away from the water tank.
Ambedkar organized a conference in Mahad in March of 1927 to discuss and organize Dalit rights. On the first day of the conference, the 2,500 people in attendance felt frustrated in their ability to access water. Only Hindus could retrieve water from the tank, and they charged a premium price. On the second day of the conference, Ambedkar decides to take matters into his own hands.
After a rousing speech, Ambedkar entreats the participants in the conference to take water from the Chawadar Water Tank. The Dalits were energized, and all went with Ambedkar to the tank. This mass protest caused the Hindus to gather paralyzed with shock at first. Then the Hindus unleashed terror on the Dalits that participated in the protest.
After the protest, the Dalits realized what they were up against and decided to double down. A second conference was called for December 25th -27th, 1927. At the same time, the Hindus chose to fight back by petitioning the local Magistrate to forbid Dalits from using the water tank.
The Magistrate refused because the Hindus never proved that they had exclusive use of the tank. The Hindus then went to state court to establish their exclusive right to use the water tank. Ambedkar and a group of Dalits contested. At the beginning of the trial, the Hindus ask the court to issue a restraining order on Ambedkar to prevent him from returning to the tank. Ambedkar received the order days before the December conference.
With the trial in recess, Ambedkar leads the December Mahad Conference. On the first day, he decides to have a public demonstration of the injustices of the caste system. He burned a copy of Manusmirti, the religious book that codifies the caste system. Ambedkarites still commemorate the Burning of Manusmirti as a holiday.
The next order of business was deciding if they would disobey the restraining order and drink from the water tank in protest. The Magistrate communicated he would uphold the state-mandated restraining order. After careful deliberation, the group decided to comply with the restraining order to give themselves the best chance of winning the court case. It turns out that it was a good decision. Ambedkar won the court case, and Dalits were allowed to drink from the Chawdar Water Tank. Ambedkar cautioned over celebration as Dalits needed to continue fighting to prevent untouchability from being recognized nationally.
The December Mahad Conference went on to express the vision of the Ambedkar movement. The conference created a manifesto that declared equality is the birthright of all Indians. No one had a right to remove that equality without due process of law. The law was created to secure this equality and must be respected by all people. The caste system, as detailed in Manusmirti was explicitly created to disadvantage Dalits. Those in this conference vow to oppose all literature, modern or ancient, that promotes the caste system. Those in the conference also vow not to do the jobs mandated by their caste. Specifically transporting dead animals and cleaning homes of the dead.
Ambedkar makes sure to attack the idea that Dalits brought scorn onto themselves by eating the dead animals they transport. Many attempts to claim the Hindus repulsion at Dalits were justified because the practice of eating rotten meat is disgusting. Ambedkar reminds the audience that Dalits would only eat rotten meat if they had no other options. The cruelty of the caste system prevents Dalits from finding any other work. Also, the law mandates they participate in scavenging to keep the only housing they were allowed to live in. Legally mandated work for no money is no better than slavery.
The Dalits must be strong to not do the work their caste mandates. The civil disobedience Ambedkar prescribes would serve two functions. The first is to increase self-esteem and self-respect. The second is to strike a blow against the Hindu Social Order. The current oppression only last because Dalits comply.
Held At Bay
Hindus view the advancement of Dalits as a personal attack. As the situation stands now, the Touchables are above the Untouchables. They are not one people. They are people from two different nations. By resisting caste, the Dalit seeks to elevate himself and the perceived expense of the Touchables. The Touchables will use any means necessary to maintain the status quo.
One example of this ruthlessness of caste Hindu oppression was in the immediate aftermath of the Chawadar Water Tank demonstration. It began with the Dalits exercising their right to tank water for the city reservoir during the Mahad Conference. Once the caste Hindus in the area saw the demonstration, a rumor began that the Dalits would soon enter the temple. Two hours after the water tank rally, the conference members were having a community dinner. A mob of Hindus attacked the Dalits with sticks. Many of the Dalit leaders kept their brothers from fighting back, stopping a much larger riot.
After the conference ended, Hindus from Mahad sent messages to government officials from the districts where conference delegates lived. Hindus assaulted many of the conference delegates on the way home or once they returned home.
Another example of oppression happened in Dholka Talvka, Bombay when Dalits attempted to integrate a school. Many of the Hindu parents did not want their children sitting with Dalits. They pulled their children from school. The tension from the integration efforts led a Brahmin to attack a Dalit. The Dalit men of the community protested at the police station to ensure something would be done. When the men were away, Hindus attacked the Dalit section of town. The Hindu mob included women. There was also another force of Hindus waiting to ambush the men after their demonstration at the police station. The ambush plan was thwarted, but Dalits still sought redress for the attack on their women and children. To further frustrate the Dalit’s effort, the Hindus poured kerosene in the Dalit well. The Dalits only had this one water source.
The Dalits appealed to Gandhi through Harijan Seva Sangh, Gandhi’s organization that promoted Dalit Civil Rights. They did nothing. Not only did they do nothing, they forced the Dalits to remove their complaint from the Magistrate and promised them no harm would come to them. Dalits had no way of enforcing Gandhi’s promise.
After reflecting on the incidents detailed above, one must wonder why Dalits are always on the bottom of the hierarchy. Ambedkar proposes a few reasons. They are a minority and scattered throughout the country. Also, the idea of caste has infected the mind of Dalits. Even within the Dalit community, there is a Caste hierarchy. There needs to be a common ethos to unite Dalits.
One example of a minority community with a unifying ethos is the Muslims. When a Muslim was attacked, the group unites in retribution. Much of the reason Hindus treat Muslims better is fear of a blood feud starting between Hindus and Muslims. The idea of a unifying ethos does not stop and India’s border. Muslims from other countries would not be afraid to defend their brothers in the subcontinent.
One way Hindus can exact revenge on Dalits is through violence. If the Dalits go to the police, the police rarely act. Most of the police are caste Hindus themselves. Even if they investigate the infraction, it is rare other caste Hindus would testify against their own.
However, the much more effective form of Hindu reprisal is the social boycott. Dalits own minimal economic infrastructure and depend on Hindus for employment and commerce. If a Dalit is seen at a protest, he can be fired. If he is not fired, Hindus could refuse to sell him goods. Both firing someone from a job or refusing to sell products to Dalits is legal. The only recourse for Dalits is political action.
Their Wishes Are Laws Unto Us
When Hindus are asked why they oppose the advancement of Dalits, they don’t reply with how it physically harms them. Hindus respond that it is an offense to their Dharma. Dharma means the privileges, duties, and obligations of a man as a member of the Hindu community, caste, and age group. Manusmirti sets each person in their station in life, responsibility, and benefits. A Smriti is a religious holy book for Hindus. They have several, but of all of them, Manusmirti is the most prominent and influential.
Manusmirti codifies who is inside and outside the social order, called Chaturvarna. Chatuvarna is a hierarchy with the Priest class at the top and the Menial class at the bottom. Those outside of Chaturvarna are called Bahayas, excluded. The denotation of Bahayas is the Western equivalent of being a non-citizen. Bahayas were never meant to have rights under the social order.
Bahayas are the present-day untouchables. To illustrate how the denotation of outsider plays out in current times, Ambedkar uses the example of the Balais. Balais is a sub-group of the Untouchables. The local caste Hindus attempted to force the Balais to confirm to caste rule. The Balais refused and the Hindus retaliated. Balais were not allowed to get water from village wells or cross land owned by Caste Hindus. Not being allowed to cross land owned by Hindus put some Balais cattle farmers out of business because the property of Caste Hindus surrounded their land. These draconian laws force Balais to leave local municipalities they had occupied for centuries.
It is important to remember at the time of the persecution of the Balais there was no legal enforcement of the Caste System. Ambedkar illustrates how custom could be more powerful than the law. Every social group has habits in how they act, feel, and value various things. Even when a new individual joins the group, they are pressured into conformance. Challenging the group norm could lead the new entrant to become an outsider himself.
To counter the power of Chaturvarna propagated by custom, laws must be passed to destroy the Caste System actively. As one can see, the Protestant Reformation would not have been successful without laws separating church and state. Laws were also needed to make the state superior to the church. Without an active degradation of church authority, it would have regained its place as the supreme authority.