‘Women are the Backbone of the Ambedkarite Movement’: Samata Sainik Dal
by Daisy K
On 8 November 2006, a group of women marched into the Maharashtra State Administrative Headquarters to demand the state, media and general public pay attention to the brutal murder and assault on a Dalit family at Khairlanji. These women were members of the Samata Sainik Dal.
Equality or “Samata” has always been a core ideal of the Ambedkarite movement. It was during the 1920s when the anti-caste movement was gaining momentum across India, that Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar felt the particular need to establish an organisation of volunteers to safeguard human rights amongst the Depressed Classes. As a result of that, the Samata Sainik Dal or the SSD, (translating to “Soldiers for Equality”) first established in 1926–27. Today, the SSD has thousands of members across India including women who have dedicated their lives towards following the ideals of “Samata” SSD is one of the oldest social organisations established by Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar and has played a significant role in the Ambedkarite movement. SSD’s main motto has foremost been “to protect human rights by professing not only social equality but political and economic equality.”
In the 1920s Congress workers were infamous for attacking and disturbing other political organising. These and other caste Hindu retaliations, made Dr. Ambedkar feel that the Dalit community needed to have its own volunteers to counter and defend against such arm-twisting tactics. One example of the obstructive strategies employed was a Sabha (meeting) was held by Congress members near the Ambedkar’s residence in Mumbai to display their objection of his participation in the Roundtable Conferences in London where constitutional reforms for India were being discussed. It was widely felt by everyone in Congress, from leaders to members, that the need to speak about Independence from white colonials trumped the need to speak about “internal issues” like caste.
In his speech given in Nagpur on 20 July 1942 addressing the SSD members, Babasaheb discussed why he thought of establishing SSD and how such intimidation of the community was to be faced. He stated,
“Although I am a firm believer in non-violence I make a distinction between non-violence and weakness. Weakness is to make oneself vulnerable, and I do not think that is a good virtue.”
In 1927, Babasaheb had planned a protest against the caste Hindu ban on Untouchables, drinking, collecting or even touching the water at Chavdar Lake. This “ban” by caste Hindus was followed even four years after Bombay Legislative Council had passed a resolution in 1923 mandating the usage of water in public places by Untouchables. This protest was called the Mahad Satyagraha.
Official formation and preparation of Samata Sainik Dal was completed preceding the march to Chavdar lake as Babasaheb has predicted that they would be met with staunch opposition and even possible violence by caste Hindus.
Post the formation 20th March 1927 Ambedkar marched to Chavdar Lake in Maharashtra to assert the right to usage of public resources like water by all, including the so-called Untouchables. He was accompanied by thousands of people including thousands of women who had joined from far-flung villages in Maharashtra to participate in this act of protest.
Finally, at the Chavdar Lake, Babasaheb called for a historic meeting of women he spoke and encouraged them to join to fight the evils of the caste system. This sentiment and thoughts of Dr. Ambedkar still resonate with the women almost a century later. 92 years later, the Samata Sainik Dal still plays an active role in the anti-caste movement and has over 5000 members in Mumbai alone.
Today, the women of Samata Sainik Dal still remember Babasaheb’s messages to women and have kept the organisation going strong. As part of Dalit History Month, we meet with Asmita Abhyankar. Asmita Abhyankar who grew up in Mumbai was greatly influenced by her father who worked at the General Post Office in Mumbai was an active member of BAMCEF (The All India Backward And Minority Communities Employees Federation) and an associate of BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) leader Kanshiram. Witnessing her father’s lifelong dedication to the Dalit movement in Maharashtra led Asmita to join the SSD.
Asmita says, “ Women have been part of SSD since its establishment, during that time activists working in the Ambedkarite movement appealed people to join in large numbers, slowly every small village had their own SSD units, and women especially joined in large numbers”. The very first women wing of SSD was established in Mumbai by the daughter of Dadasaheb Paradkar, then a close aide of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. Initially, only the women from the family had joined, but slowly the unit grew with many women joining the unit across Mumbai.
SSD members, especially the women, had the major responsibility of creating awareness about the human rights laws, government schemes, amendments, developments, Right to Information applications and many other issues. Asmita recalls that as a young and new member of SSD, how they travelled to the rural hinterlands of Maharashtra, conducting camps creating awareness about issues related to atrocities against the community. The women from SSD were also trained in self-defence, which they, in turn, teach to women, across ages, in their various camps.
Women and men have a dignified look assigned to them at the SSD. “Initially the uniform of SSD was red in colour, later it was changed to a full khaki (brown) uniform for men. Women would wear white saree with a blue border or alternatively khaki pants and a white shirt as well, depending on the occasion. We also wear a blue cap and a lathi as part of our uniform”, Asmita says proudly. The flag of the SSD is blue depicting the sun and SSD written in bold. The sun indicates the values of freedom, equality, brotherhood and mindfulness.
SSD is divided into different units like women’s’, students’ units and within these, there are also designated volunteers who undertake leadership on specific issues like economics, education, jobs, atrocities, RTE (Right to Education) and RTI (Right to Information). All the people from various units are trained by senior SSD members and experts. Currently, Asmita is part of the education unit and helps out students from the community regarding issues related to higher education and scholarships.
Over her 20 years of service in SSD, Asmita particularly vividly recalls the time when the Khairlanji Atrocity took place in Maharashtra in 2006 where four members of Bhotmange family were brutally attacked and murdered by caste Hindus. Asmita had felt deeply upset after hearing the news regarding the atrocity. Days had passed but the government had refused to take note of the brutal atrocity. She says, “I thought we needed to do something, that time Nagpur was burning with the after effects of Khairlanji, but in Mumbai there was nothing, we need to bring the attention of the people at the centre to this atrocity”.
Just a few days after the atrocity, Asmita contacted her friends and decided to meet up outside Mantralaya, the administrative headquarters of the state government of Maharashtra.
Asmita recalls it was just like any other day, she prepared lunch at home and then she few of her friends took a local train till Mantralaya. Asmita and twelve of her friends all women belonging to the SSD branch across Mumbai and many others stormed the Cabinet Meeting in Mantralaya demanding action against the culprits who were part of atrocities committed at Khairlanji.
Asmita recalls, “The first thing we did once we entered Mantralaya was to wave the Panchsheel flag in front of everyone! We did not care what was going to happen, whether the police will open fire or anything.
The security people asked us why are so many women entering at once? We told them you never ask the men then why are you asking us? Once we entered we refused to leave, one police officer caught my hairs and tried to drag me out of the Mantralaya, but I resisted and came back, but we had all right to protest”. Asmita and her other friends were detained at the station later on and cases were filed against them. Asmita was beaten up by the police and suffered fractured in her back.
“ I told the police “put me in jail but I will not go to the hospital”. Our sheer will power was due to our training given in SSD to fight against inequality. The next day the government tried to label us as Naxalites!”.
The mainstream media only reported about how the security at the Mantralaya was “breached” by “a group of women”.
After Asmita and her friends were detained, the people from the Ambedkarite movement contributed to funding the money for bail. “When we were let out on bail there were thousands of people who gathered at Azad Maidan to greet us from all over Maharashtra! We did not realise that we had done something big, it was during the hearing that someone showed me a picture of us in the paper”. That was when they realised the impact they had.
Many years ago, Asmita has a Masters in Sociology graduate and also has a B.Ed gave up her job as a lecturer, and now dedicates her full-time towards SSD. Many others, like Asmita, still continue to work and follow the path set by Babasaheb Ambedkar. She says,
“That time there was no media or anything, but I feel why the Ambedkarite movement has been able to sustain itself because people accepted rationality is required for progress. In fact, that is how women could step out and participate in large numbers. Women have been the biggest contributors to the Ambedkarite movement. If my mother wouldn’t have supported my father it wouldn’t have been possible for my father to work in the movement. I say women are the backbone of the Ambedkarite movement. If there were no women supporting, this movement would not have been possible!”.
Daisy K is a PhD student at Tata Institute Of Social Sciences in Mumbai. She has edited the book — ‘Ambedkarite Movement After Ambedkar’, and is also a freelance photographer and a journalist writing for Twocircles.net. You can find her instagram @daisysaysthat and write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org