In 1927, thousands of dalits marched down the steps of Chavdar (meaning ‘tasty’ in Marathi) water tank in Mahad, Maharashtra, bent down, dipped their hands into the water, and took a drink. For generations in India, though people of all other castes constrictive and even animals could drink from the Chavdar without any objection, dalits were considered too impure to do so. In accordance with the oppressive rules of the caste system, many public spaces such as water bodies like the Chavdar tank and roads were, and still are, out of bounds for the so-called ‘untouchables’. Thus, this act of quenching one’s thirst from the water of Chavdar was a fight for the basic human right to drink water, and more importantly, in the words of the father of the Dalit Movement, Dr. Ambedkar, it was an attempt to reconstruct society on the principles of the French Revolution; the ‘foundational struggle’ of the Dalit Movement towards caste annihilation.
This Satyagraha, this act of non-violent resistance, was met with brutal retaliation from the privileged castes. Not only did they instigate riots in Mahad, but these upper caste Hindus also performed a purification ritual for the water tank since it had now been polluted in their eyes. Panchagavya played a significant role in this. Panchagavya is an ancient concoction prepared by mixing five products of the cow. These five products consist of cow dung, cow urine, milk, curd, and ghee. Also used as an agricultural fertiliser, its primary role is ‘purification and in the expiation of sin’. The Hindu law book, the Manusmriti, written in approximately 1500 B.C, states that panchagavya must be swallowed in case of stealing food, a vehicle etc. And so, as an attempt to purify the water from the polluted touch of dalit hands and mouths and drown the voice of the resistance, 108 large earthen pots of panchagavya were prepared and poured into the tank. Only then did the upper castes drink from the tank again.
Today, 90 years since the Mahad Satyagraha, sharing food and water with a member of another caste is still considered sinful for a staunch Hindu. Everyday acts such as eating and drinking are marked by memories of hunger, thirst, hardship, and shame for many minorities. It is not uncommon to hear stories of dalits being isolated by upper castes at meal times, whether at school or work. The consequences of stepping over these lines can be much worse. Indeed, crimes against dalits such as rape, murder, beatings, and violence related to land matters are committed approximately every 18 minutes.[i]
Despite oppressed communities gaining a stronger voice in politics and social life today, self-proclaimed guardians of Hindu culture continue to dominate the narrative. A relatively recent ban on consuming beef enforced in many parts of the country has allowed ‘cow-protectors’ affiliated with right wing Hindu nationalist ideology to flex their muscles. Known for violently attacking—even killing—those suspected of eating or transporting beef (commonly eaten by non-Hindus), they proudly upload videos on YouTube and other social media platforms of force-feeding concoctions of cow-dung and urine to their victims in an attempt to purify them of their sins. A fitting metaphor for the increasing saffron fascism in the country, despite the proud labels of democracy, secularism, and socialism that it prefers to be associated with.
[i] i http://www.overcomingviolence.org/en/resources/campaigns/women-against-violence/now-we-are-fearless/dalit-fact-sheet.html