The Dalit Mahila Federation of 1942: Women in Ambedkarite Movement

Image courtesy: Feminism in India

Originally published in Marathi in 1989, ‘We Also Made History: Women in Ambedkarite Movement’ details the history of women participation in B. R. Ambedkar’s Dalit movement for the first time.

 

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The chairperson of the Welcome Committee, Mrs. Keertibai Dongre, said in her speech:

I thank you and welcome all of you for having come here from different parts of the country, even though this is wartime. When our men folk are fighting for our rights we should not remain behind. Even if we are still far from the path chalked out for us by our leader Dr. Ambedkar, those of our sisters who can lead the way should now be ready to do this work.

Although women have to do the housework, they should not get tied up in it. Like the men, we too are eager for independence, in fact that is our right and we should struggle to the utmost and make efforts to gain it. Those who are burned by suffering need independence. It is the duty of all of us to help our men in fighting for our rights. 

In these Central Provinces, the proportion of educated women is very small. It is our duty to instil an urge for schooling among them. At the same time, we must be prepared, with the help of our ignorant sisters, to fight for the rights of untouchables under the guidance of our leader Babasaheb Ambedkar, and even to sacrifice our lives if need be. “In the Chavdar Tank and the Kalaram Temple satyagrahas, women from far-off provinces like Hyderabad took part. The activities of Geetabai Gaikwad are beyond description. Let us be inspired by her; let us follow her path in order to gain our rights. 

To end our backwardness we must work in an organised struggle, and for this a central organisation with branches in all provinces is essential.

After this the General Secretary, Mrs. Indirabai Patil, said in her speech,

We women are far behind the men in education. If we do not go with the men and help them in their activities, we will become a hindrance in their progress. So we must fight for women’s education.

The world is changing fast. If we are to survive, we too must change with it. We have a twofold responsibility: to help the men and also to reform the women in education and other matters. Since the Hindu religion has corrupted our minds, we think that our duty is only to bow down before our husbands and look after the kitchen and the children. To remove these Hindu religious thoughts of slavery from the minds of our sisters is the huge task before us.

After these two speeches, Jaibai Choudhuri proposed the name of Sulochanabai Dongre for the post of president of the Parishad. Radhabai Kamble seconded the proposal. After this, the new and old members together elected the president. 

Also read: Liberating the Voices of Dalit Women

Sulochanabai Dongre/Image courtesy: The Better India

In her presidential address Sulochanabai Dongre said,

Earlier we had no leader, but now we are fortunate to have Dr. Ambedkar as our leader. He is willing to move heaven and earth to destroy the monster of untouchability. It is our duty to help him in this difficult task.

In the matter of education we are still very backward. The girl of today is the mother of tomorrow. She who rocks the cradle liberates the world. So it is important to educate the girls. The girls must know how to bring up children. If there is no education, one’s virtues and talents cannot be developed. In matters of religion we must try and go beyond Hinduism. 

“Our women must be represented in every district and tehsil local board. Among the 20 legislative representatives many are uneducated men. If some of these seats had been given to our educated women, our situation could have been improved.

After this she described the conditions of the illiterate women and women workers, and gave suggestions on several issues: that women, in certain situations, should have the right of divorce; that polygamy should be outlawed; that dalit women should accept family planning (contraception); that women’s hostels should be started all over for untouchable women, etc. 

After this some important resolutions were passed. It is clear from the resolutions passed at this Conference how progressive the views of Babasaheb Ambedkar and his women followers were. This conference made the far-sighted demand that the government should enact a law granting the right of divorce to husbands and wives and put a legal ban on polygamy. A resolution to the effect that workers and working women should get 21 days’ casual leave, one month’s privilege leave, and compensation in case of injury, and that a pension of at least Rs. 15 per month should be paid after 20 years of service, was sent to the Viceroy through the Minister of Labour. Later Ambedkar legally implemented these demands when he became Labour Minister. Another resolution demanded that only women should be appointed as supervisors over women workers in the mills. Other resolutions passed in this Women’s Conference were that in order to promote women’s education, the provincial governments should build 100 women’s hostels at district places, at state expense, that untouchable girls students should be given scholarships for secondary and higher secondary schooling, and that primary education should be made compulsory.

Also read: #JusticeforSnehlata: Dalit Girl Burnt Alive by ‘Upper’ Caste Men in Andhra Pradesh

The novel content of the resolutions passed by the women, and their presence in such large numbers, made Babasaheb extremely happy. He was also happy to see these educated, committed, and conscious women expressing their views lucidly and confidently at the meeting.

Image courtesy: The Better India

On this occasion Babasaheb made a speech praising all the women present and encouraging them. He said,

I am aware that if the women become conscious they can bring about very great progress in untouchable society. I believe that there should be an organised association of women. They have a great duty in removing the vices of society; I can say this from my experience. When I took up activity for untouchable society, I resolved that the women must be led forward as well as the men. That is why women’s conferences are held alongside our conferences. I measure the progress made by untouchable society by seeing how much progress our women have made. Seeing the presence of women in huge numbers at this conference, I am certain and also I am happy that we have made progress…

 Learn to live in cleanliness, stay away from all bad habits and vices. Give education to your children; create a sense of ambition in them. Instil in their minds the feeling that they will become great. Do not press them to marry until they have attained the capacity to bear the responsibility that comes with marriage. Those who marry should remember that it is wrong to produce many children. Even if no facilities are available to you, mothers and fathers have a responsibility to keep their children in a good condition. Every girl who marries must be ready to stand by her husband’s party. Not as his slave but in a relation of equality, as his friend. If you behave according to this advice you will lift up not only yourselves but dalit society as well, and increase respect for yourselves and for the community.

Babasaheb was not content with speaking thus about the women’s presence at the conference and their progress. In a letter dated 3rd August 1942 to G.T.Meshram, chairman of the Welcome Committee of the All-India Depressed Classes Conference, he makes the following remarks about the Dalit Mahila Parishad:

It was the women’s conference that made a great impression on me. I am biased towards the women and I would like them to participate more and more in social activity. The presence of women in thousands at the conference was such a wonderful sight that the gods themselves would want to see it. My heart was especially gladdened to see their dress, their neatness, and the confidence with which they carried themselves at the conference.

Babasaheb’s delighted remarks were justified. The women of the executive committee present at the conference were all very capable and they had been engaged in social activity for several years. These women were conscious that their community must move forward on the path of progress; that they must make a place for themselves in the educational, social, economic and political spheres. Besides showing their eagerness to work under Babasaheb’s leadership, the women had individually acquired a sense of self-respect and self-confidence.

Also read: “Sexual Assault on Dalit women rooted in Land”- WSS

 In 1942, the movement of dalit women acquired a tremendous vigour and independent meetings of dalit women began to take place all over Maharashtra. After the Workers’ and Peasants’ Federation was formed in 1942, a meeting of the Federation was held in Nagpur. Shantabai Dani was elected President of the party’s Nasik district branch. 

Shantabai Dani/Image courtesy: Lokmat

After this, other conferences of the Peasants’ and Workers’ Federation were held on a large scale every year. The Congress Party was in power and so there was no lack of funds to hold conferences. But it was the poor who collected funds paisa by paisa so that the conferences of the Dalit Federation could be held. People would tie up their bhakris and walk miles to be present at the conferences so that they could hear Babasaheb’s speeches. The second conference of the Dalit Federation was held in Kanpur in 1944. Here too, a separate women’s conference was held and resolutions passed as in Nagpur.

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This is an excerpt from the book We Also Made History: Women in Ambedkarite Movement , published by Zuban Books. The excerpt has been re-published here with the permission of the publisher.

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