From ‘Sunday Times’, March 9, 1952
WHERE WEARING A SHIRT IS AN OFFENCE
Woes of Harijans in S. India A Social Worker’s Experience
(By Swami Anand Thirth, Regional Officer, All India Harijan Sevak Sangh)
It is sad to notice that the various civil disabilities of Harijans still continue to exist in our villages in spite of the Civil Disabilities Removal Act which came into force about five years ago. It is now 9 months since the All India Harijan Sevak Sangh started its intensive work for the removal of social disabilities of Harijans in Melur Taluk in Madurai district. Several disabilities of Harijans regarding tea shops, barber saloons, wells, tanks, chavadies, etc., have been brought to light during this period. In some places it is the Village Munsifs who were expected to give wide publicity to the Act and enforce it, that are very reactionary forces standing in the way of the poor Harijans exercising their elementary rights. A few instances are cited below to show how deep-rooted is the prejudice against the Harijans in our society. In Parli near Natham, a Harijan youth who refused to take tea in a coconut shell and desired to be served in the glass tumbler was kicked and shoed on the head by a caste Hindu who was subsequently convicted and fined only Rs. 10 by the Sub-Magistrate, Melur. At Melavalvoo, when I went to a tea shop with two Harijan boys, a group of people threatened to assault me and drove away the boys. A glass tumbler was wantonly broken by the tea shopkeeper and they all demanded that I must pay for it on penalty of being thrashed. I, however, took shelter in an Elementary School nearby and the crowd disappeared only on the intervention of the President of the Panchayat Board.
At Kelavalvoo, the Harijans take water from a dirty pond in which men bathe and cattle are washed. The Harijans were encouraged to go to the public Oorani (protected water tank), but they were abused and threatened by the caste Hindus so that they dare not take water from the Oorani. There is a Police Station at Kelavalvoo, but the police here are indifferent towards the disabilities of the Harijans. In Attukulam the caste Hindus put night-soil in the public well because they could not physically obstruct the Harijans who took water from it under our directions. In Ettimangalam, the caste Hindus destroyed the paddy seedlings raised by some Harijans in Government poromboke and because the Harijans had got into the chavadi during a public meeting held in the village. No action was taken by the police on the complaint given by the poor Harijans.
In Tiruvadur when we directed Harijans to take water from the Oorani, a caste Hindu youth assaulted a pregnant Harijan woman and broke her pot as well. The caste Hindu was charged by the police and convicted by the Sub-Magistrate to pay a fine of only Rs. 15 and thereafter the Harijans are freely taking water from this Oorani. In Kottagudi, a village barber, who refused hair-cut to a Harijan boy was charged by the police and convicted by the Sub-Magistrate. But thereafter, the Harijans were summoned by the caste Hindus to the chavadi and warned that in case they sought the service of this barber, a collective fine would be imposed on them.
In Kidaripatti, the Harijans are not allowed to take the corpse through the public foot path and they are also not permitted to ride on cycle through the village streets. A case regarding the alleged obstruction of a Harijan from riding on cycle is pending trial in the Sub-Magistrate’s Court, Melur.
In Nundi kovilpatti, only three furlongs from the Taluk Office, Melur, the Harijans were taking drinking water from a dirty channel because they had no access to the Oorani. Two complaints were given to the police regarding this and now the caste Hindus dare not obstruct the Harijans.
In Thekkitheru, when the Harijans sat on the Manthai chavadi during a public meeting held at the chavadi, pebbles were thrown at them till they quitted the place out of fear.
In Navinipatti about two miles from Melur, the village Munsif himself is alleged to have taken objection to the Harijans wearing decent dress on Pongal festival day and made two Harijan youths to remove their shirts and upper cloth. The youths were made to do Kumbidal (full prostration on the ground) and go away in loin-cloth only.
The most painful oppression has been in Mankulam, about ten miles from Mathurai city, where the village Munsif took a hostile attitude. Two Harijan youths went to tea shop and as they were denied admission, they complained to the police. For this, one of them was tied to a pillar and mercilessly beaten by a caste Hindu boy under instructions from the elders. Another Harijan was assaulted with a knife by a servant of the village Munsif. The Harijans were socially boycotted and denied labour because they took water from the public Oorani. The shopkeepers refused to sell provisions to them and they were put to starvation for two days. The situation improved only after the intervention of the Revenue Divisional Officer. Recently, two Harijans and myself were brutally attacked by a band of caste Hindus and beaten with firewood cudgels for having bathed in the tank and gone into a coffee club in front of the chavadi. We were admitted and treated in the Government Hospital in Mathurai. I sustained a fracture in the right foot due to which I cannot use the right leg and walk. Sixteen persons including the village Munsif have been charged by the police for rioting. Some Congress-men are, however, trying for a compromise because some of their relations are involved in this. These friends are also known to have approached the authorities in this connection. Mahatmaji had desired us to consider the Harijans as blood brothers, but alas ! blood is thicker than water. One feels so dejected and disheartened at the attitude of the caste Hindus towards the Harijans in spite of the great sacrifices of Mahatmaji, who won Swaraj for us and desired us to concede freedom to these down-trodden people as well. The Revenue and police authorities can do a lot to remove the disabilities of the Harijans. Mahatmaji’s son Manilal is offering satyagraha in South Africa for the civil disabilities of Indians. But we are denying similar liberties to the Harijans whom Mahatmaji owned as his kith and kin. Let the caste Hindus and Congressmen who adore Mahatmaji remember that his spirit will not rest in peace till the curse of untouchability is wiped out, root and branch, from the nook and corner of our land. The Government must realise the deed for greater efforts to remove this bane from our society.