Ambedkar’s WAITING FOR A VISA – Six Cases depicting the practice of Untouchability

The so-called untouchables were not considered as full-fledged citizens, and were denied any kind of recognition and rights. It is they, who were supposed to be eternally in wait for visa. I am not sure if Ambedkar coined the title himself, or someone else did, for the autobiography was published by People’s Education Society as a booklet in 1990, through compilation of his writings of the period 1935-40. Maharashtra Education Department republished them in 1993, along with Volume 12 of Ambedkar’s Speeches and Writings. Thereafter, Prof Frances W. Pritchett edited the account to make it suitable for being taught at the Columbia University.  I find it difficult to digest that it is taught in the US, but not in India!

Through six separate incidents covering twenty odd pages, Ambedkar tried to paint a picture of how the untouchables were treated by caste Hindus and other religionists in pre-Independence India. Four of these six incidents occurred to Ambedkar himself, before and after his foreign education. Fear of law might have stamped out the practice of untouchability, but isolated incidents do still get reported, even after 75 years of independence. Casteism is as strong, and institutionalized as ever. A sneak peek into these cases, as listed by Babasaheb, helps us in looking at the malaise through the eyes of a victim, and in understanding a rather strange sort of practice. In his own words,

“It is difficult for them (non-victim and non-perpetrator) to understand how it is possible for a few untouchables to live on the edge of a village consisting of a large number of Hindus; go through the village daily to free it from the most disagreeable of its filth and to carry the errands of all and sundry; collect food at the doors of the Hindus; buy spices and oil at the shops of the Hindu Bania from a distance; regard the village in every way as their home–and yet never touch or be touched by any one belonging to the village.” The author has tried to explain the dehumanizing practice in as simple and honest manner as possible.

In the first chapter, Ambedkar recalled how he and his brothers were denied any kind of help by tongawallas and the station-master at the Masur railway station when they were mere kids, all because of their untouchable status. The boys had taken a train from Satara to Masur, and were to proceed to Koregaon by a cart to spend their vacations with their father. The tongwallas refused to drive the Mahar children to Koregaon for fear of pollution by touch, not even at twice the usual amount of fare. The kids undertook to drive the cart themselves, but once they were some distance away from the railway station, the owner jumped into the cart and took reins in his own hands. There was no pollution when no one was watching! The boys were denied water throughout the journey, and had to sleep on empty stomachs and with parched throats. Remember that these are the reminiscences of a well-dressed, confident nine-year old boy whose father had served as a Subedar in the British Army, and at the time of incident served as a cashier. One can hardly conceive how difficult the life of an uneducated, unaware untouchable would have been.

The second chapter is an account of how Babasaheb failed to find accommodation in Baroda, even while working for the State, after returning from Britain. Hindu sarais summarily refused to accommodate him. Caste Hindus would not rent him their place. He impersonated a Parsi to be able to dwell in a Parsi inn. But soon his cover was blown, and he was forced to vacate the premises. It was then that he learnt that a person who was an untouchable to a Hindu was also an untouchable to a Parsi.

In the third, Ambedkar suffered a tonga-accident because a novice from his community had to drive his cart on way to a public meeting in Chalisgaon, because no caste-Hindu would ‘stoop’ to carry him. He was not aware that the driver was untrained, and could not control the cart at a sharp turn around a culvert. Babasaheb was thrown out of it, was injured and became unconscious. This incident occurred when he was already a Barrister-at-Law!

The fourth incident is related to the use of tank water outside the Daulatabad fort by Ambedkar and his associates, which incensed the Mohammedans so much that they could have been lynched by the mob. Through the recollection of this incident Babasaheb aimed to show how a human who was deemed untouchable by Hindus, was deemed untouchable by Muslims as well.

In the fifth chapter, a doctor refused proper attention to an ailing untouchable woman, who died as a result of the neglect after child birth. Gandhi’s Young India reported the incident in 1929. This showed how caste Hindus preferred being inhuman rather than touching an untouchable. The doctor went to ridiculous extents to avoid touching the patient. He gave his thermometer to a Muslim, who gave it to the patient’s husband, who gave it to his wife, and then returned it by the same process after it had been applied. This is how rituals of caste purity affect(ed) the better judgement of even highly educated professionals.

The sixth chapter narrates the story of an untouchable boy who got placed as a Talati in Borsad taluka, but faced such hostility and misbehaviour that he was forced to quit. Caste Hindus around him took huge offense that an untouchable had dared to sit on the chair and become an official, and hurt his pride at every turn.

B.R. Ambedkar could be devastating with his sparse prose. He never dramatized or embellished his writings. A person of his intellect, in possession of such a powerful account of lived experiences, need not have bothered. His stories tell themselves with brutal honesty, and uncensored horror.  No one exposes the dark underbelly of Hindustan like Ambedkar’s writings and speeches.

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