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‘Annihilation of Caste’ and the Struggle for Water Equality

  • Published
    2nd Dec, 2022
Context

The journey of the struggle for water equality in India started since a century ago when the resources were distributed based on Caste.

So, let us assess how the struggle has converted to a ‘political issue’ and then a ‘right’, which still influences peoples’ life.

Background:

  • The most organized of the movements occurred in Mahad in 1927. A group led by B.R. Ambedkar tried to gain the right to draw water from a tank in the town.
  • The movement lost but the matter went to court, where a judge decreed that the tank was ‘public property.
  • Since then, Ambedkar’s participation marked a departure in political history.
  • Between the two judgments, case law established that a source belonging to a public body was a public good. These incidents succeeded in making the struggle for equality a political issue.
  • With an elected legislature taking over provincial governments in the interwar period, India could not ignore water equality anymore.
  • Famine relief operations in the late 19th century, following a devastating drought, led to the construction of wells and changed distribution to some extent.
  • Yet, the status-based right was embedded in practices and beliefs that the state could not reach and did not want to touch. The relief operation alone could not weaken the force of custom.

In South India:

  • A 1920s survey reported that ‘untouchability’ was practiced in its most brutal and degrading forms in the Southern city.
  • Most people from the depressed castes had no access to public wells, drinking water ponds, or schools.

Untouchability in India:

  • Untouchability is believed to have been first mentioned in Dharmashastra.
  • According to the Hindu religious text, untouchables were not considered a part of the Varna system. Therefore, they were not treated like the savarnas (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras).
  • The term is most commonly associated with the treatment of the Dalit communities in the Indian subcontinent who were considered "polluting".

Positive outcomes which led to Equality:

  • Between the two judgments of 1914 about Mochi and 1931 about Mahad — case law had established an important principle: A source belonging to a public body (in the 1914 case a temple) was a ‘public good’.
  • Together these incidents succeeded in making the struggle for equality a political issue.
  • The events of 1927, about Mahad, marked a significant departure in Dalit politics and inaugurated urban-centered regional associational forms.
  • The year after the Mahad judgment, Gandhi’s All India Anti-untouchability League was formed.

The journey towards legality:

  • At the time of Indian independence, Dalit activists began calling for separate electorates for untouchables in India to allow fair representation.
  • Officially labeled the Minorities Act, to guarantee representation for Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, and Untouchables in the newly formed Indian government.
  • The Act was supported by British representatives such as Ramsay MacDonald.
  • In 1932, Ambedkar proposed that the untouchables create a separate electorate which ultimately led Gandhi to fast until it was rejected.
  • National leaders such as Gandhi opposed a separation within Hindu society at the time, although he took no exception to the demands of the other minorities.
  • The 1950 national constitution of Indialegally abolished the practice of untouchability. It provided measures for affirmative action in both educational institutions and public services for Dalits and other social groups who lie within the caste system.
  • These are supplemented by official bodies such as the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
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