Newsletter Jan – Apr 2007

Excerpts from an oral history documentation project in Maharashtra

- Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon

The men in the movement began writing, and a new literature of ‘Untouchables’, of the downtrodden, was born. But the women, who took active part in the struggle in large numbers, did not come as freely to the pen. As a result, although the history of the struggles of India’s ‘Untouchable’ castes came more and more into focus, their women were only acknowledged as footnotes, with little appreciation of the unique context of their social awakening as women.

Well-known Dalit activists, writers and poets from Maharashtra, Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon, talked to many women activists of Dr. Ambedkar’s time about their experiences in the struggles, the hardships they faced, the ordeals of maintaining the fragile roles of wife and mother, the effect of the movement on their lives and their perceptions of the problems of women. Here is some of what they heard.

Shantabai Sarode of Nagpur. Reputed to have been a wrestler, a murderer and a gaolbird.

“What’s to tell about my education? In those days high caste daughters used to sit inside the school room, and us low caste girls outside in the dirt to hear whatever we could catch of the teaching. So we’d get bored and wander off into the woods.

My father ran a gymnasium. In the afternoons we used to put the babies to bed and go and exercise. I was nine or ten then. I enjoyed the martial training in the gym and I was a good learner; I became good enough to wrestle with men.

When, tired of all the grief and humiliation of being a Hindu, Dr. Baba saheb Ambedkar adopted Buddhism in 1956 we were taken into the faith, too, with millions of his people. But the high caste folk in villages ostracised us, took our jobs away, harassed us over water. Like in Khankhed (a village in central India), our people were not to touch the well. The high castes would draw water for them once in a while, and they had to wait for hours for it. When we went there, as soon as I touched the draw rope of the well, they started - ‘Who are you?’ ‘I’m a low caste woman’ - I said. ‘What did you come here for?’ ‘As midwife for the landlord’s daughter, what do you think?’ - I said. When they heard that I had made the well unclean, a score of them came with weapons. I warned them - ‘Look, you touch me and I’ll kill at least a few of you.’ Finally more of our workers came, we held a big meeting, the police came, a lot of paper was shuffled, and the well was made over to us. They wrote my name on the tall stone there.

In August 1987 in Jalgao district the Shiv Sena collected a couple of hundred people and attacked our folk. They chopped off a man’s arms and legs and threw him in the fire and burnt him alive. Some threescore Buddhist houses were razed. Did king Shivaji teach such doings? These pimps, they are shameless. In September 1987, the big city newspapers printed the story of how, in Belgao, the Hindus made five of our folk eat shit for stealing fodder; and a crowd of three-four hundred gathered to watch this inhumanity. I sometimes wonder if we live in independent India or under the English still. It is forty years now (since independence), but the oppression hasn’t stopped, and my gorge rises to think of it. We demonstrated on the streets in Nagpur in August about these things, and took a deputation of seven-eight people to the government to ask for investigation and justice. I will fight for my people to the day I die.”

Geetabai Pawar of Pune. She was in her seventies when interviewed - bent, asthmatic and toothless; but she spoke with measured, faultless enunciation. She stayed in the school building of a well-known institution for women.

“I passed my school finals in 1932 and went to Solapur for two years of training as a nurse. Then my father fell ill, so I came back to Pune. A friend’s husband found me a teacher’s job as well as a place to stay here. This is where I completed my four-year training course as a teacher.”

In 1932 I started a women’s circle with a couple of friends. In the Untouchable ghettoes in and around Pune, we started talking about Dr. Ambedkar’s ideas; simple ones - ‘Let’s educate our children, let’s keep our homes clean’. Eventually we had women’s circles in almost every locality, with support from the activist men. I loved meetings and speeches. Once the reformer Vitthal Ramji Shinde had come to preside over an annual school gathering of ours. Some of the boys made speeches. Shinde wanted the girls to speak too, but no one would dare. Finally he offered a prize of one rupee for any girl who would give a speech. A Parsi (Zoroastrian) woman, Alubai Driver, sitting by me said - ‘Go up there and speak. Make us women proud.’ I shot up onto the stage and spoke and spoke, something to do with the grace of the home I think, but I’m not sure I knew what I was saying. There was a lot of applause, though, and Shinde praised me and gave me the rupee. He used to organise community games and dinners, and I started going to those along with his family. Everyone ate the food I brought even though I was an Untouchable. Things like these and Dr. Ambedkar’s speeches influenced me enormously.

The Mahar folk embraced Buddhism and made quick progress under Dr. Ambedkar’s leadership. We didn’t have such a great leader in the Matang caste and as a result haven’t done so well, a state that has saddened me greatly over the years.”

Vimal Rokde. We met her in her house in central Bombay. When we interviewed her she was in her seventies and had distinguished looks of a retired professor; she also spoke like one.

“I haven’t had much schooling, you know. My mother died when I was four, and my father was in the army. So my education didn’t amount to anything much.

I married the son of an old activist. So I was encouraged in my activism by my in-laws too. I contested the state elections without success in 1968. When we worked in the towns of western India spreading the word of Buddhism, people used to stone our meetings. I remember in Nanded, a newly converted fruit vendor was told to move off by the Brahmins. When he refused, they beat him up with shoes; the poor man came bleeding to our meeting. We took him to the police and they warned off the Brahmins.

Baba Saheb had taught us to be clean and neatly dressed. I took such advice to heart. I had taught my husband to cook if it ever became necessary; when I was menstruating or ill, for example. That helped a lot. A lot of the credit for my being an activist goes to him.”

Laxmibai Kakade. A fair, slight woman in her seventies with hazel eyes had a quaint trick of wagging a finger when she talked.

“I had heard of Dr. Ambedkar ever since childhood, we used to celebrate his birthday even then.

After I was married, we had a neighbour who used to talk a lot about Babasaheb. All this made me want to do something.

I realised that if I wanted to work actively in the movement I had to have spare time from the children and the kitchen. So after two children I had a birth control operation done. Cooking was the one thing I couldn’t avoid. I could stop the children coming, but I couldn’t get away from the stove. I persisted in my activism, though. I studied and taught in the adult literacy programmes. I helped organise women’s marches demanding a united state of Maharashtra. I was part of the efforts to unite the Republican Party. We met Indira Gandhi to ask for educational concessions for neo- Buddhist students. I helped in the rehabilitation of the dam disaster victims of Pune, and I was on the reconciliation committee after the communal riots in Pune in 1965.

I really liked listening to speeches. My mother-in-law used to object to this. She would dump all the children on me and say: ‘Here, if you must go, take these with you.’ So I would take all the kids with me. I used to take all the food and water they would need packed with me. I thrashed them when they fought, stuffed their mouths when they started bawling, sat them on a hole in the dirt when they wanted to shit. But as much as I could, I would listen to the speeches. 

Our society is riddled with factions, and I don’t think selfless activists can survive. I lived off my husband while I worked for the community, but today I feel that my work has not really been appreciated.”

Ramabai Gaikwad. A simple woman, mother of ten children, who strived for active participation in the struggle.

“My father was the village crier. He had a bit of land from the village that he tilled. My older sister was married to Dada Saheb Gaikwad. I was married to his younger brother. Dada Saheb Gaikwad was in Baba Saheb Ambedkar’s inner circle, like his right hand.

Around the time of the struggle for temple entry at Nashik our house was overflowing with workers. Feeding everyone almost broke our backs. But all around the talk was of entering the temple. We were going into the temple. We would see the Lord, too. It was such happiness just to hear that.

The Lord’s chariot festival was on the day of the dark moon. Our people went there to pull the chariot with Baba Saheb. There was a riot that day; they wouldn’t even let us touch the chariot. We women kept hearing bits and pieces of all this. The police arrested those of us who entered the temple. The men folk got three months in gaol, the women two. We illiterate housewives wanted to do something. So we made up songs mocking the district collector, the temple folk, the religion. Baba Saheb and Dada Saheb were very dear to each other then, and we made songs about that too.

The shopkeepers of the village harassed us a lot because we took part in the demonstrations. We couldn’t get salt, even, in the shops around. We had to go a long way off and wait for market day. They even refused us water. They always mixed mud or cow dung into the water hole just before we came for water. They would trail animal hides in the river upstream from the watering point and spoil the water. Finally we managed to buy a well in the village from an upper caste man, and they harassed him as well.

Source: Annual ‘Stree Uvach’ (‘Woman Said’), published by Stree Uvach, Bombay, India, 8 March 1988, pp. 102-110. Originally titled Women in the Struggle of India’s ‘Untouchable Castes’.