Mahar Movement was a caste movement which took place in Maharashtra in 1924 under the leadership of Dr B. R. Ambedkar. The Movement stood for the upliftment of the untouchables or depressed classes and brought the untouchable castes onto a single platform. It also conveyed a degree of awareness and unity among lower castes, enabling them to form a separate political party and a system of education, including schools, colleges, and hostels.
Mahar, meaning “original inhabitants of Maharashtra”, was the largest scheduled caste in Maharashtra and neighbouring areas. They were considered an untouchable community from the Gupta period onwards. They mostly speak Marathi, the official language of Maharashtra. Most of the Mahar Community followed Dr B. R. Ambedkar in converting to Buddhism in the twenty century. As of 2017, the Mahar caste was designated as a Scheduled Caste in 16 Indian States.
Under British rule, the Mahars became aware of the scope for political and social advancement. In 1873, Jyotirao Phule, the founder of Satyashodhak Samaj, which aimed to abolish religious slavery, organised Mahars. At that time, Mahars were considered unclean and were not allowed to enter Hindu temples.
In the twenty century, the Mahar gave up their traditional jobs to a large extent in rural Maharashtra and took employment in urban mills, construction sites and railways.
The Mahar Movement prior to B. R. Ambedkar faced difficulties in their activities, especially in conducting meetings, the unfavourable rules of Government, problems with their rights to free expression and so on. However, the untouchable leaders were acutely aware of their actions, and later leaders such as Gopal Baba Walangkar, Kisan Faguji Bansod, Kalicharan Nandagavli, and others laid the groundwork for the untouchables to raise their needs. Untouchables, particularly Mahars, develop a later social front on their own.
Before B. R. Ambedkar’s arrival, the Mahar Movement underwent several stages. Various Maharashtra leaders from different areas attempted to improve Mahar’s situation.
Apart from B. R. Ambedkar, Gopal Baba Walangkar was the first Maharashtra Mahar to fight for their rights. In 1888, G. B. Walangkar began publishing the monthly journal titled “Vital-Vidhvansak” (Destroyer of Brahmanical or Ceremonial Pollution), which was the first to have the untouchable people as its target audience. He also wrote articles for Marathi-language newspapers such as Sudharak and Deenbandhu and educated the public about their rights.
Kisan Faguji Bansod, born in a Mahar family at Mohapa village near Nagpur, was a prominent figure in the Mahar Movement and a supporter of uplifting untouchables within the fold of Hinduism. In 1901, he founded the ” Sanmarg Bodhak Nirashit Samaj”, which urged untouchables to demand education, protests for civil rights and Hindu unity. He was an advocate of education for boys and girls from depressed classes. Therefore, he established Chokhamela Girls’ School in Nagpur. He was also aware of the importance of the press in creating awareness among the untouchable community. He started his own press in 1910 and published the journals Nirashrit Hind Nagarik, Majur Patrika, and Chokhamela. He was one of the secretaries of the All India Depressed Classes Conference held at Nagpur in 1920.
In 1918, Shahu, the ruler of the princely state of Kolhapur, abolished ‘Mahar watan’ and freed the Mahars in his territory from the slavery imposed on them. He also gave them all the human rights and equality that other upper castes enjoys.
In 1919, when the Government of India Act 1919 provided for two representatives of untouchables to be appointed to the legislative council, Gawai and Kalicharan Nandagavli were appointed. In 1920, Kalicharan Nandagavli was also the convenor of the ‘Bhartiya Bahishkrit Parishad‘, chaired by Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur in Nagpur.
In April 1923, Dr B. R. Ambedkar returned to India after completing his studies abroad. By the time he came back, he had equipped himself fully to wage war against the practice of untouchability. He attended several public meetings of untouchables, but he never took an active role in them. While participating in these meetings, he noticed a spirit of militancy was growing among the untouchables.
To bring about a new socio-political awareness among the untouchables, Babasaheb Ambedkar established the “Bahishkrit Hitkarini Sabha” (Outcaste Welfare Association) on 20 July 1924 in Bombay. The members were drawn from the Mahars, Chambhars, and Matangs castes. This Sabha was a central institution for removing the difficulties of the untouchables and placing their grievances before the Government. The founding principles of the Sabha were: “Educate, Organise and Agitate” With the contribution of Ambedkar, the Mahar Movement took a new direction.
In 1924, Babasaheb Ambedkar began Mahar’s Sanskritisation process. But, after realising that the Hindus would not grant equal religious rights to the untouchables, he embarked on a new revolutionary campaign. The problems of the untouchables were centuries old and difficult to overcome. Their entry into the temple was forbidden. They could not draw water from public wells and ponds. Their admission to the school was prohibited.
In 1927, Dr B. R. Ambedkar led a Satyagraha campaign in Mahad. He led the Mahad March at the Chowdar Tank at Colaba near Bombay to give the untouchables the right to draw water from public tanks, where he burnt copies of the ‘Manusmriti’ publically. Ambedkar and a group of protestors drank the water to show their displeasure with untouchability.
The Kalaram Temple Entry Movement led by B. R. Ambedkar in 1930 at Kalaram temple in Nasik is another landmark in the struggle for human rights and social justice. All of these activities forged a bond among the untouchables. They became more aware of their plight, and as a result, their self-esteem and ability to fight back against these exploitations grew among the untouchables in a concerted manner.
The Mahar Movement aimed to oppose Hindu hierarchy and inequality. The Mahars fought against Hindu dominance under the leadership of B. R. Ambedkar, and thousands of them converted to Buddhism. They demanded the same rights as other castes to use public water tanks, enter the temple, and educational and occupational rights. The Movement created a sense of unity among the lower and untouchable castes.