Newsletter May-Aug 2002


While the women’s movement has, right from the beginning, asserted our primary identity as women, over the years it has increasingly clear that as women we are also confronted with numerous issues that stem from our class and caste identities, sadly, as a movement, we have failed to address many of these complexities. This has compelled Dalit women to organise on their own. In an attempt to foreground the history of the Dalit women’s struggles, to evacuate the present and address the challenges of the future. Centre for Alternative Dalit Media (CADAM) and The National Federation of Dalit Women organised a 2-Day Conference in New Delhi. The following is a report by Rajni Tilak of CADAM.

Brief History

On 20th March, 1927 more than 2,500 women participated in a massive public rally of more than 10,000 people from all over Maharashtra, under the august leadership of Dr. Ambedkar to launch the movement for the right of Dalit over the Chawdar (meaning tasty) Water Tank in Mahad Municipality in Maharashtra. About fifty women leaders, who were contemporaries of Dr. Ambedkar, were active in the Dalit Movement and were marching together in the struggle.

Although the women’s movement in India in modern times was initiated during the national level campaign against the famous Mathura Rape Case in 1975, the origins date to 1848. That year Jyotiba Phule and his wife Savitri Bai Phule set up the first Indian school for women in Budhwar Peth, Pune. Savitri Bai Phule, by publicly opposing the shaving of the heads of the widows and by providing labour rooms for the vulnerable pregnant widows raised questions on the so-called social security of the widows and challenged the religiosity of the self-appointed religious leaders. The Mahad Movement of the 1920s is a significant chapter of the Indian history when the thousands of Dalit women came out on the streets barefoot, to fight for their right to equality. Unfortunately, women’s participation started decreasing after the passing away of Dr. Ambedkar.


To commemorate the 75th year of the Mahad Revolution, a 2-day Conference was held in New Delhi on 17-18 March, 2002 to focus on the Dalit Women’s Movement and deliberate on the present and future scenarios, in the context of the history of the movement.


In the inaugural address, Urmila Pawar expresses concern over the decreasing leadership and participation of the women in Dalit Movements. In her book, ‘We too have carved history’, she has dwelt upon the articulation of Dalit women activists and the leaders of the Dalit Movements.

The Chief Guest, Bhanwari Devi spoke about her work and experiences as a Sathin worker. She also narrated her experience of facing the wrath while carrying out her duties in support of the government policy of stopping child marriage. She said that she was ‘punished’ for stopping the marriage of a one year old girl child, by being gang-raped by the upper caste community leaders. Till date she has not received any justice from the courts. Commenting on the film ‘Bawandar’ based on her life story, she said that it was a white lie that she has demanded a compensation of rupees two crore from the makers of the film.

Bhanwari Bai, Member, NFDW, Rajasthan gave a heart rending account of the harrowing experiences she underwent while working in the mass movements. To humiliate and break Bhanwari Bai from carrying out her fight for rights, her 12 year old daughter was raped. Not only that, people started serving liquor to the daughter and ‘enjoyed’ watching her actions under its influence and later hit her with stones. One day the girl just disappeared and till today her whereabouts are not known. Bhanwari Bai’s heart aches every time she remembers her child. It is a matter of pride for the people for the Dalit women that women like her are continuing their struggle.


Rama Panchaal (M.P.), Rehana (Saharanpur), Nirmala (Kanpur) spoke in detail about their struggles. Advocate Leela (A.P.) exposing the Karamchedu Struggle told that people would be surprised to know the fact that the Karamchedu Struggle of national fame, was led by Hetuvadalakshmi, a Dalit woman. But the Dalit women are not given the due credit because of the prevalent patriarchal attitude and complete control of men over the Dalit Movement. She cited several examples to substantiate her point. Even today a number of women are active in the Karamchedu Struggle but their presence is not recognised. Well known Dalit writers like Kanwal Bharti and Mohandas Nemishrai also agreed with these views.

Women leaders in Dalit groups can play an effective role in putting pressure on the society for changing the conditions and such attitudes. Focussing on Dalit organisation active in Delhi, Rajni Tilak, Convenor of the Conference, said many of the organisations were established and influenced by Dr. Ambedkar, while others came into existence later. ‘Samata Sainik Dal’, the Scheduled Caste Welfare Association’, Indian Buddhist Mahasabha’, ‘Republican Party’, ‘Sewa Stambh’, four different groups of BAMCEF, etc. Are some of the active Dalit organisations/Groups in Delhi. The presence of women is negligible in these organisations working in social, political and religious fields, and no Dalit women leaders have emerged. The representation of Dalit women in meetings and at the decision-making level is like that of a rubber stamp.

Today all the organisations are ridden with clashes amongst aspiring individuals or small groups within them for control over the organisations for vested interests. Prof. Nalini Som Kunwar, the Chairwoman, delivering the Presidential address summed up the questions raised and dwelt upon the definition of the word ‘Dalit’ which came up repeatedly during the Conference. She also spoke about why women felt the need for their separate groups. She critically spoke about the Dalit Movement and Dalit literary stream. Narrating her experience about the Marathi magazine, ‘Asmitadarsh’, she said, “It was only when we exerted pressure that a special issue of the magazine was devoted to the Dalit Women. It was born to oppose the activities of Brahmanised Dalit Movements. Women held a dignified status during the struggles led by Dr. Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule and Savitri Bai Phule. They publicly opposed hypocrisy, worship, discrimination and superstitious and yet today one can see these very qualities being reflected in the lives of the present day activists. It is only through educating and increasing the participation of women that these movements can be liberated from such hypocrisies”.

The character of Dalit Movements is increasingly becoming Brahmanised and is male dominated which is responsible for the decreasing representation of Dalit women. Dissatisfied with this situation, the Dalit women distanced themselves from these movements. However, the dissatisfaction provoked them to think and led them to turn the tide. Some conscious and sensible women in Southern India, Maharashtra and Delhi have started raising questions in conferences, through their writings, in rallies and meetings. They have also started organising their meetings at national level. Dalit women are now voicing their questions and writing about their issues, history and exploitation. Thus, paving the way for future generations. Women need to come forward for undertaking a critical analysis of the shortcoming/weaknesses of the Dalit Movements and for evolving new leadership. As long as they remain outside, Dalit Movements will lack in democracy, transparency, collective decision-making and gender equilibrium.

A street play on the Mahad Revolution Day, prepared especially for the occasion, was presented by CADAM Natya Manch. The play, prepared by women from various colonies of Delhi, with Prof. Rajender of Nagpur, depicted the historic role of Dr. Ambedkar. Based on a landmark incident, it showed how animals and birds had rights to water that people used, yet human beings considered untouchable did not even have the same right. The play, scripted by Anita Bharti and music by Sanjay, also touched upon the legal battles on the issue.

Before the end of the session, writer Urmila Pawar released the Hindi translation of the historic presidential address given by Dr. Ambedkar, at the time of the Mahad Revolution. The conference ended with a vote of thanks for all the volunteers, activists from women’s movement, other individuals, friends, staff of CADAM and all others who helped in making the conference a successful event.