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Mahar Movement

The Mahar movement under the leadership of Ambedkar abandons Hinduism altogether and embraced Buddhism. The Mahars formed an important section of the scheduled castes of Maharashtra (10%) of the population. They served as village watchmen, messengers and removers of cattle carcasses. These services were hereditary and were paid for in kind. They occupied a low position in the caste and occupational hierarchy and as such suffered from many religious, economic, educational and political disabilities. Thus the ideology of the Mahar movement reflects a total rejection of the religion of the caste Hindus, which was identified with hierarchy and inequality. Mahars now belong to a religion that stands for egalitarian values and hence they are superior to the caste Hindus. This is another strategy to gain self-respect and esteem on the one hand and to protest against the religion of the upper castes on the other.

The civil rights ideology based on democracy, motivated the Backward Classes to evolve campaigns to fight for equality in educational, economic and political opportunities. Thus the leaders of the SNDP and the Mahar movement agitated for their basic civil rights. They also incorporated the religious-cultural ideology in this approach in seeking to gain self-respect and honor.

The Dalit Panther movement emerged among the Mahars of Bombay and Pune in 1972.Its spokesmen were Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale and J.V Pawar all eminent literary men. It cashed in on the frustration that the urban youth were experiencing when faced with diverse forms of discrimination against the untouchables and the oppressed. In its ideology class struggle cannot be separated from an anticaste Hindu attitude. Thus the protest ideologies of the Backward Classes movements reveal four organizing principals:

  • Reinterpretation of myths of origin or of one's own religion.
  • Rejection of Hinduism and Aryan religion and culture
  • Civil rights
  • Class conflict

The SNDP movement exemplifies the principle of reinterpretation as a theme of the protest ideology. Sri Narayana Guru Swamy established a set of beliefs, rituals, temples and priests that was parallel to that of the upper castes. The world-view of his reinterpreted Hinduism was both enlightened and simple on the basis of which Izhavas were able to claim a new identity with honour, esteem and self-respect.

Similarly the Ahirs systematically reinterpreted the Yadava myth of origin of their castes in legitimizing their superior status. This was backed by protest against the status that was accorded to them by the dominant groups backed by religion. They not only achieved self-respect and honor but also gained access to the religious goods and services of the twice-born castes that they had long been denied. The new ideology provided the language of protest and aggression against the opposition groups.

New identities are established not only on the basis of a religious-cultural ideology but also on the basis of a secular one with civil rights and class conflict themes. The former when viewed as an attempt to claim equality of status through democratic means is exemplified by many backward classes movements fighting for basic secular rights such as right of admission to schools, right of recruitment to government jobs and right of adult suffrage. These progammes were part of the SNDP and Mahar movements. The leaders of these movements adopted both religious-cultural and civil rights ideology simultaneously in their efforts to attain equality of status with the dominant groups on the ritual and the secular planes.

Among the Backward classes the Dalit panthers adopted the ideology of class conflict and anti caste Hindu feeling. The new identity that emerged based on these two principles enabled the young urban Mahars to attack the upper caste Hindu capitalists. Thus both secular class conflict and religious-cultural principles can be seen as transformations. All these movements arose due to the extreme exploitation of the lower castes by the upper castes and the lower castes were subjected to frequent oppression and exploitation over a period of time.