Dalits, Chowdar Lake & Cow Dung: A Play Re-Imagines Ambedkar’s Mahad March
A scene from a play by Rajesh Talwar re-tells the story of the famous Mahad Satyagraha led by Ambedkar in 1927.
(The following is an edited excerpt from ‘The Boy Who Wrote A Constitution’, a play written by Rajesh Talwar. The playwright weaves together major events from Dr BR Ambedkar's life and intersperses them with scenes in which five children react to his struggles and achievements in terms of their own identities.)
The date is 20 March 1927. The scene is set near a lake. Dr BR Ambedkar had led a march of thousands of Dalits and their sympathisers to the Chowdar Lake. The water of the lake had been used by people of all faiths, but Dalits were forbidden from using it. On the right side of the stage can be seen a large body of water. Standing near the lake is Dr Ambedkar. In front of him are about ten people, five men and five women, who are squatting on the ground. Thousands of people (not visible) are sitting behind these ten people. Included in the ten are Srinivas, a Dalit activist, his wife Gauri, and Dr Solanki, a Dalit leader from Gujarat and a friend of Ambedkar.
The First Dalit to Drink Water From Chowdar Lake
Ambedkar: (addressing the crowd) As you all may know, not long ago, under pressure from us, the Mahad Municipality passed a resolution permitting the use of this water by all communities. I have to say that there were also fair-minded people from other castes and communities who supported our just cause.
(There is clapping)
Ambedkar: Powerful communities here do not wish for us to drink this water. This is the reason we have undertaken today’s long march. Many of you must be tired, and some may be exhausted, but now, we are all here at the location, about to undertake a historic task.
(Loud cheering from the crowd)
Ambedkar: This is a historic moment. As you know, all around us, on this vast land of ours, there are roads, streets and paths where our people are not permitted to walk. There also exist innumerable water bodies, both large and small, that we are not permitted to use for drinking or washing … All of this is set to change now. (looks at Gauri directly) Do you know why we are here today?
Gauri: Yes, Babasaheb, I know.
Ambedkar: Then please stand up and tell everyone the reason.
Gauri stands up proudly and turns to face the audience at an angle where she is simultaneously addressing the crowd as well as Dr Ambedkar.
Gauri: (loudly) We are here with Babasaheb today to end slavery. We are here today to end the oppression of caste. We are here today to break the oppression of our community by the priests.
(Loud clapping and cheering)
Ambedkar: Thank you, dear Gauri. And can you also tell me what I am going to do right now on everyone’s behalf? And what you are all going to do?
Gauri: You are going to drink water from the lake.
Ambedkar: Indeed, with the permission of all the people gathered here today, I am going to be the first Dalit to drink water from the Chowdar Lake after thousands of years.
(Loud clapping and cheering. Gauri sits down.)
Dalit Women and Restriction on Wearing Saree
Ambedkar: Our struggle does not end today, brothers and sisters. We have a plan to destroy all the evil teachings that create division between man and man. One of the books that have targeted our community is the Manusmriti, and we will all gather together once again in a few months from now to burn it!
(Loud clapping and cheering.)
Ambedkar: We will drink water from the Chowdar Lake today, and after that, there is one more thing that all the women who have gathered here today have to do. Let me explain. (pause)
There is no difference between one human being and another, and our women are no different from the women from any other caste. The upper castes in power determined that our people follow certain dress codes so that we may be easily identified.
"Our women were required to dress in such a way that the saree does not completely cover their legs. Today, after we have quenched our thirst with the waters of the lake, dear Gauri will teach the ladies present here how to tie the saree. Gauri has been taught to wear the saree so as to cover the legs by some of our progressive Brahmin sisters."
(looks at Gauri) Gauri, could you please stand up and move back a little so that everyone sees how you are wearing the saree?
(Gauri stands up and moves a little behind so that everyone can have a view of her)
Gauri: It is very simple, my sisters. You will be able to learn the style in a few minutes. You can see how the saree I am wearing covers even the ankles. I will teach ten women and then they can start teaching the others.
(There are sounds of women laughing, and there is clapping.)
A Priest Enters the Scene
Ambedkar: As I said, with your permission, I will be the first to drink water from the lake. After that, I will request the three women seated in the front row to bring their tumblers and also drink from the lake. And after that, the rest can follow.
(Ambedkar bends down with a small tumbler in his hand to take some water, but before he can do so, two men dash across the stage. One of them is a Hindu priest with white markings across his forehead and the other person is a muscular man wielding a stick.)
Priest: Stop, stop! I command you to stop! You cannot drink water from this lake.
Ambedkar: (smiles wryly) There are several thousand people present here for this precise purpose. Do you really think you can stop us?
Muscleman: You are not permitted to use this water.
Ambedkar: Go to the Municipality and check the resolution that has been passed. We have the legal right to use this water.
Priest: You may have legal rights but they are not worth the paper they are written on. It is a custom from time immemorial that you and your people are not allowed to use this water.
(There are noisy rumblings in the crowd. Ambedkar attempts to placate the people.)
Ambedkar: We are gathered here today only for the purpose of ending such evil and cruel customs. If you continue to misbehave and insult us, I cannot say what will happen! For your own safety, I suggest you leave. Either leave or sit down.
(The priest and the stick-wielding man look taken aback. More rumblings in the crowd.)
Ambedkar: (in a loud voice) I said to you: Either leave or sit down.
Priest: (to the man with the stick) Sit down! Sit down! Before anything untoward happens to us.
(The priest and the muscleman sit down quickly.)
Purifying a Lake With ... Cow Dung
Muscleman: But Panditji, if they (points at the crowd) drink from the lake, then we will not be able to drink the same water. The water would have become polluted, would it not?
Priest: I discussed this matter with other learned pandits earlier in the day. Now that such a crowd is here and they are all going to drink from the lake, we cannot stop them. But once they leave, we will make sure this does not happen again.
Muscleman: But the water will still be polluted.
Priest: We can do a cleansing or a purification ceremony.
Muscleman: Is that possible?
Priest: Of course!
Muscleman: How will you carry out this cleansing, Panditji?
Priest: It’s simple enough. We have to use cow dung and cow urine. With that, we can purify the site, and once that is done, we can start to use the water once again. And we will take measures to ensure that these people cannot use this water again!
Muscleman: But this is such a large lake?! Will a small quantity of cow dung and urine suffice?
Priest: A good question indeed. We will not use a little bit of those purifying materials but large quantities. One hundred and eight pots containing a mixture of cow dung and urine shall be poured into the lake!
Muscleman: Why one hundred and eight pots, Panditji?
Priest: It’s an auspicious number, that’s why.
(There is loud sniggering upon hearing this conversation)
Gauri: You will not purify the lake by adding dung and urine. You will pollute it instead!
Dalit Man in Front: Why don’t you slap some of that cow dung on your face as well?
A Peaceful Satyagraha
Dalit Woman in Front: You cannot stop us. No one can stop us. This is only the beginning. All over the country, age-old restrictions will start to be removed. Just wait and see.
Voice From the Back: Let’s teach these persons a lesson here and now!
More Voices: Yes, let’s do that!
Ambedkar: (to the priest and man with lathi) If you provoke us any further, I cannot guarantee what will happen next. (loudly) Will you leave?
(The priest and man with lathi get up fearfully and quickly exit the stage. Upon their departure, there is clapping and some jeering.)
Ambedkar: Thank you for your patience. We have carried out a peaceful march and it was important for it to be peaceful throughout.
Dalit Man in Front: It was because of you, Babasaheb, that we held ourselves back.
Ambedkar: You did well to restrain yourself. (pause)
We must stand on our feet and fight as best as we can for our rights without any violence. So, let’s carry on our agitation and organise ourselves. Power and prestige will come to us through struggle. And in the end, we shall be victorious.
Ambedkar: My throat is parched. Now, I will drink some water.
(Ambedkar goes to the foot of the lake, dips his tumbler and drinks a full glass of water. Loud cheering follows.)
Ambedkar: (to the women) Please, if the three ladies could now come forward and drink water.
(Three women, including Gauri, step forward, dip their tumblers into the water and start to drink from the lake. Further clapping and loud cheering. The rest of the gathering, too, approaches the lake to drink from it.)
SCENE 11 ENDS.
(The above is a book excerpt. Paragraph breaks and subheadings have been added by The Quint for the readers' ease)
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