ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Transcending Caste Barriers

Building the Ambedkar Revolution: Sambhaji Tukaram Gaikwad and the Kokan Dalits by Gail Omvedt (Mumbai: Bhashya Prakashan), 2011; pp 156, Rs 300.

BOOK REVIEW

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Transcending Caste Barriers

Susan Abraham

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-“celebrations” only go to strengthen the bind of caste – to celebrate certain aspects of the subordinate castes while ensuring that they remain just that – subordinate.

Sambhaji Tukaram Gaikwad, respect

T
he book is a tribute to stalwarts such as Sambhaji Tukaram Gaikwad (the title is misleading as the book is not entirely about him), Govind Adrekar, Shivram Jadhav, Rewaji Buwa Dolas, Gopal Baba Walangkar, Ganpat Mahadev Jadhav (popularly known as Madke Buwa), Ramchandra Babaji More and Yashwantrao Ambedkar (Bhaiyasaheb). They were the backbone of the various anti-caste movements led by B R Ambedkar, the more prominent being the Mahad and burning of Manusmriti movements. They were among the main organisers who mobilised the victims of the caste hierarchy, now called dalits, who followed Ambedkar in the various anti-caste agitations of the Kokan (Konkan) region in western M aharashtra, the main focus of this book.

History of Kokan Mahars

Though born at a military encampment in Mhow, Madhya Pradesh as his father Ramji Sakpal was a soldier in the British army, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s family hailed from Kokan, his father being from Ambawade in Ratnagiri district.

Building the Ambedkar Revolution: Sambhaji Tukaram Gaikwad and the Kokan Dalits by Gail Omvedt (Mumbai: Bhashya Prakashan), 2011; pp 156, Rs 300.

The first chapter draws on the history of the Kokan Mahars as being the original inhabitants of the region. Prior to the arrival of the British in India, the Kokan region was predominantly affected by landlordism, with the Chitpavans or Kokanastha brahmin castes being the dominant landlord class. Caste was deep-rooted among the cultivating castes as well, mainly the Kunbis and Marathas.

With the advent of British colonialism, depressed castes such as Mahars began cultivating as small-scale agricultural tenants. They were easily absorbed into the British army as soldiers, cooks and butlers. This was the single most facilitating factor leading to social mobility among the depressed castes. After an army stint, they would settle in towns and cities. It is not clear why the book delves on the great Mahar tradition when Ambedkar himself rejected the idea of sub-identities within the “Depressed Castes”. Ultimately such

december 24, 2011

fully called Dadasaheb by Ambedkar and the generation of activists from the Kokan was a leading organiser of the Mahad Satyagraha of 1927 and chairman of the reception committee for the meeting that called for the “satyagraha”. He moved to Bombay after losing his land in his village. Here, he worked as a mechanic and earned a generous salary of Rs 400 per month. He belonged to the trio of Govind Adrekar and Shivram Jadhav, the first a havaldar in the military who later became a contractor in the public works department (PWD), while the latter was a successful business entrepreneur. Angered by the practice of untouchability by tonga drivers and hotel owners, Jadhav started his own tonga service and a chain of tea shops to cater exclusively to the so-called “untouchable communities”. This section of the book gives an idea of the ferment brewing at the time against the pernicious caste system and the lively dynamism of these leaders.

Preachers of Equality

The influence of the Varkari movement which centred around the worship of Vithal in Pandharpur from the 12th century

vol xlvi no 52

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Economic & Political Weekly

BOOK REVIEW

onwards and which truly transcended caste barriers by preaching equality, intercaste dining and freedom from the rituals imposed by the priestly castes is clear from the accounts of most of the contemporaries of Gaikwad discussed in the book.

One such leading personality from the Kokan was Rewaji Buwa Dolas who came to Bombay to work in the textile mills and became active in the bhajan mandals of the Varkaris singing for 12 hours at a stretch at times. Dolas played a leading role in organising a meeting of sants, sadhus, naths and bhairagis, various categories of holy men from the dalit communities for a conference in Bombay in May 1936 where Ambedkar for the first time publicly stated that the various attempts for removing untouchability and caste oppression from within the Hindu community had failed to receive a fitting response and, therefore, conversion to a more egalitarian religion was their only hope.

Community stalwarts like Gopal Baba Walangkar, Madke Buwa and Ramchandra More have entire chapters devoted to them. Walangkar’s importance is emphasised as the author of the first petition to the commander-in-chief of the Bombay Presidency of the Indian Army under British rule, in which he makes a reasoned and impassioned plea for the continued inclusion of lower castes in the army as they had been prior to the upper castes usurping their position. The introductory chapter “The Kokan and Its Mahars” has more information – that Walangkar was an active associate of Phule’s Satyashodak Samaj while in the army. Prior to drafting the petition, in 1888, he had written a polemical text Vinanti Patra, which was an extensive critique of the caste system.

The petition dated 1 July 1894 (at Appendix I to the book) is from Anarya Doshpariharak Mandali (the Society to Remove the Subordination of Non-Aryans) which was founded by Walgankar. The terms used are intelligent and astute. The depressed castes are referred to as “low- considered people”. The high castes are described as people of low origin who appropriated unto themselves high status only because of their ritual bathing, fraudulent thinking, practices regarding eating and drinking. There is another interesting description of high caste Hindus as “caste-proud” and Muslims as “religion-proud” communities. The petition enjoins the government to mix casteproud people with low-considered people so that their “caste-proud superiority will be humbled and their urge to win the rule will be destroyed”. In the book’s introductory chapter it says that the petition was submitted to the British army chief, while the chapter on Walgankar states that it was not. The same chapter on Walangkar wrongly attributes his understanding and efforts to be Mahar-centric whereas the word “Mahar” does not even once in the petition.

Conclusions

Apart from sketches on important figures in the anti-caste struggles of western Maharashtra, the Mahad Satyagraha in 1927, the symbolic burning of the Manusmriti at the second Mahad Conference in December of the same year, the successful mobilisation of not only the dalit masses, but also of the more enlightened anti-caste supporters from the “forward” castes behind Ambedkar’s visionary leadership are discussed in separate chapters. Two more chapters are devoted to Ambedkar’s dynamism in attempting to bring about laws for the upliftment of the “backward” castes from within the legislative council to which he was a nominated member.

The book has an uneven format because there is no apparent order or sequence in the way the chapters are arranged. For instance, the life of Sambhaji Gaikwad is discussed in two chapters – Chapters 2 and 7 – but why it is so is not clear. The life stories of the various dalit movement leaders are to be found in Chapter Two and Chapters Eight to Eleven. Appendix I and II are in the middle of the book. There are also too many typographical errors and the book lacks a good editor’s hand.

Nevertheless, the book is valuable for a number of reasons. It gives a historical context to the numerous representatives of the struggles we identify Ambedkar with. It highlights the contributions of so many forgotten heroes of the anti-caste struggles in western Maharashtra. Last but not least, the book gives a glimpse of the true democrat that Ambedkar was in keeping his fingers on the pulse of the p eople with the help of stalwarts such as Sambhaji Gaikwad on the one hand, and on the other, relying on mass mobilisation for all his campaigns to demolish the pernicious caste system.

Email: susangita50@gmail.com

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