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Reading 'Bhimayana': Caste, untouchability, and the water crisis

The heart of water is generous and reaches the very roots/ It’s healing touch makes the scabs of a thousand sorrows fall/ What walls, how many walls, can you build around water/ How will you shackle the rushing form of water?

~From Namdeo Dhasal’s “Water” in Golpitha. Translated from Marathi by Dilip Chitre, and taken from Bhimayana.

Water is a natural resource that has historically been a medium of exclusion for Dalits in India. It has been a source of great pain and struggle for them, rather than a life-serving natural resource. For Dalits, access to water is not a given. Their caste location and identity prohibit them from quenching their thirst. The caste system, an inherently discriminatory and exclusionary order, is based on the idea of purity and pollution. It segregates people into caste groups and enforces a hierarchy based on graded inequality. It allows for the inter-generational transfer of social, cultural, and economic capital, and restricts social mobility.

In India, access to water resources is still based on one’s caste and class identity. In several regions, one’s caste/class position, rather than the natural availability of water, determine access to clean water. The Minority Rights Group International has noted that “The denial of access to safe drinking water and sanitation in public spaces is a particularly severe manifestation of discrimination. Dalits in South Asia often face violence from the outset when trying to access the public well or hand pumps.” With the ongoing water crises, these inequalities have become worse. Water sources are publicly owned in India, which means everyone has equal access to them. But, unfortunately, that is not the reality.

In rural India, upper-caste groups impose their dominance and establish their monopoly over public water sources like hand pumps and wells. Dalits are often disentitled and not allowed to use water sources located in upper-caste localities. If persons from lower-caste groups try to use these public facilities, they are met with physical violence by the upper-castes. The latter continue to hold on to their power and dominance through physical force and community networks. State machinery too is apathetic to the plight of Dalits in the villages; positions of power are occupied by upper-caste people who turn a blind eye to the injustices and atrocities committed by people belonging to their caste group. The Dalit community often lives in ghettos and hamlets, at the outskirts of the main town, excluded from the larger community. The handpumps and wells in their localities run dry for months on end. To use water, they have to travel to other villages and draw water from the wells located in Dalit communities. Suspicious of the lower-castes, the upper-caste people employ henchmen with laathis to guard their wells and handpumps.

Bhimayana, a graphic novel by Vyama et al. loosely based on B.R. Ambedkar’s life story, humanizes and visualizes his experience with untouchability. This graphic novel portrays Ambedkar and his experience with Caste in a whimsical and poignant way. The novel begins with a narration of Ambedkar’s first encounter with untouchability. The first chapter titled ‘Water’ explores how something as fundamental as water is denied to Dalits. Young Bhim is denied water by his school peon because of his caste. The peon is worried that Bhim’s touch would pollute the hand pump. The accompanying visual is that of a saddened handpump, which sheds a tear at the denial of water. The young boy Bhim is shown with his hands out, pleading for water. This figure of a pensive pleading boy represents the inhumanity of the caste system that would deny a child something as basic as water. Ambedkar’s thirst is symbolized in the form of a fish, which is imposed upon Bhim’s physiology, as he pleads “Sir may I drink some water?”

As Ambedkar’s thirst grows, the size of the fish increases. The imagery used in this chapter is that of thirst and barrenness. Colors like orange, yellow, and brown are frequently used to signify how “the whole village turns into a desert” when Ambedkar tries to satisfy his thirst.

The accompanying visual is of animals drinking water from the pond while young Bhim looks on, baffled at the hypocrisy of the caste system that allows even animals to drink from the pond, but not a Dalit. Juxtaposed against this semi-fictional narrative are newspaper reports of caste atrocities. Headlines splash across the page and force the readers to acknowledge the inhumanity of untouchability. These newspaper clippings also push the readers to confront the fact that caste is not a thing of the past, rather an immediate issue situated in our reality.

One of the most impactful images is that of Ambedkar giving a speech at Mahad and his words acting as water sprinklers rejuvenating and educating his followers. The Mahad Satyagraha was a historic moment when Ambedkar, on March 20, 1927, led thousands of Dalits to the Chavdar tank in Mahad, Maharashtra to draw water from it. In 1923, the Bombay Legislative Council had sanctioned that untouchables should be allowed to use all public water bodies built with public funds. The Mahad Municipal corporation had also observed this decision, however, this sanction remained restricted to paper until Ambedkar and his followers went to drink water from this tank. Through this revolutionary movement, Ambedkar tried to reclaim those spaces which had been inaccessible to him and Dalits. At Mahad, Ambedkar said, “We are going to the tank to assert that we too are humans.” In retaliation to this, the upper-caste Hindus spread a false rumor that the Dalits were planning on entering the Veereshwar temple, which led to riots. Several Dalits were brutally attacked and many got severely injured. The Brahmins decided to “purify” the Chavdar tank which the Dalits had “polluted” by simply drinking water from the tank. Ambedkar was so repulsed by this, that he led the second Mahad Satyagraha on 25th December 1927. He and his followers burned a copy of the Manusmriti at the same spot. For Ambedkar, this gesture of defiance was similar to the burning of the foreign cloth by the ‘swadeshi nationalists’ to challenge colonial exploitation.

The chapter closes with one of the most telling visuals in the book. A water body in the shape of a fish spans across the page with Ambedkar’s face superimposed on its head. The upper-caste Hindus and the Dalits seem to be in a tug-of-war over the fish. The fish represents water for the community, but Dalits can’t access that because they are untouchables. The whole visual represents Dalits’ struggle to gain access to water sources with Ambedkar’s guidance.

The Mahad Satyagraha was representative of the Dalits’ struggle to access water. Integral to this movement was the assertion of Dalit rights; to use water from public water bodies that had been denied to them. This was also a struggle against the tyranny of the upper-castes and an act of defiance against untouchability. Irrespective of the many laws that are enshrined in the Constitution, the ghost of caste continues to linger. Every day, newspapers are filled with headlines about caste atrocities and cases of untouchability and discrimination.

Today, with the ongoing climate crisis, caste and class inequalities have become glaringly obvious. India continues to battle with issues that Ambedkar tried to rectify centuries ago. He sought to build an equal society, but it seems that we are stuck in a time warp because we continue to fight with age-old traditions; rationalizing antiquated, archaic ideas instead of collectively eradicating the caste system. The struggle for access to water is inextricably tied with the struggle for power and privilege. The ongoing water crisis that the country is facing has no bedfellow and affects everyone. However, it does so unequally. The climate crisis reinforces long-established inequalities of caste, class, and gender. Solutions to the water crisis must take into cognizance the structural inequalities present in Indian society. In the time of a crisis, it is the marginal communities who are the most vulnerable to danger. Devoid of basic human rights and essential resources, these groups are left to fend for themselves. Their social and economic disabilities become more pronounced during a crisis. Upper-castes can afford to buy private tankers and bottles. But, who will fight for the lower castes who continue to be denied basic human rights?


This Night Owl Original has been authored by Chinmayee Babbal. Chinmayee is a student of English Literature at St. Stephen’s College. A hoarder of books, poetry, and music, she is an avid reader and an occasional writer.


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