B. D. Khane
Maharaja was a champion of social justice and equal opportunities for all. He believed in protecting the weak against the strong. The aim of his measures was to raise the lower castes from their abject position in society by employing them and fitting them for hitherto closed avenues of life. For lack of educated men among them he had to content himself by employing them in his household services. He appointed untouchable coach men. The coach men, placed on the coach boxes of State carriages on all occasions, even during his daughter’s marriage, came publicly in association with the upper caste men who had to tolerate their presence and touch on all occasions. In India, since past, it was considered a privilege to serve as an elephant driver. His Highness employed some untouchables in this popularly exalted position. The right to have swords in their belts on public ceremonial occasions was a badge of Kshatriyaship. His Highness gave some of them these swords of honour and allowed them to appear in State functions, like the soldiers and sardars of the warrior class.
Maharaja took various administrative measures with the object of removing the bar of untouchability. The first step was the appointment of the untouchables as Talathis, the new stipendiary village ministers, who were hitherto members of the ‘heaven-born’, Brahmin Community. The untouchable Talathis, thus, appointed became important officers of village. The men who always stood outside the village chavadi were at once lifted up to the side of the headman holding charge of the Revenue Daftar. The change was as sudden as it was dramatic. Preference was given to fit men of the depressed classes over everybody else. They were allowed thence to be promoted according to merits to every department of the State. Some of them were appointed clerks in offices in February 1919.
The Medical Institutions in the State were ordered to treat the depressed class patients on terms of perfect equality with others. Any officer, dresser or nurse who objected to this was asked to resign his or her post. On 15 January, 1919 the Education Department was directed to treat these classes on a similar footing of perfect equality with others. His highness extended to them special representation in the Kolhapur Municipality, which was now reconstituted on a communal basis in 1920-21, and a young man of the Chamar caste soon became the Chairman of the Board. The chief among other measures adopted were: (1) the abolition of untouchability in water-pipes, tanks, wells, in Dharmashalas, hospitals, schools and other public places, (2) Free Boarding House for them at Sontali and the Station Bungalow, (3) abolition of separate schools for the untouchables. (4) The enrolment of several untouchable members as pleaders in the State.
To end the discriminative treatment to the untouchables in the State Departments, Maharaja issued prompt orders to all the authorities directing them to follow his instructions in this respect rigorously. His order of 15th January, 1919 was thus:
“All Officers in the State Revenue, Judicial or General Department must treat the untouchables who have entered the State services with kindness and equality. If any State Officer has any objection to treat the untouchable according to the above order, he will have to give notice of resignation within six weeks from the receipt of this order and resign his post. He will be entitled to no pension. His highness expects every subject of his should be treated like a human being and not like a beast. His Highness wishes and hopes that they will be followed on the Railway Authorities and Government Officers.”
It must specially be noted here that these orders issued by Maharaja faced much opposition both from bureaucracy and from the upper castes. Maharaja himself narrates:
“To my great surprise, I find that the Huzoor Office, has carelessly lost my order dated 15th January, 1919. I really regret that such carelessness should prevail in my Office. Stringent measures would be taken if such mistakes occur again. In the same way, an order dated 1st January, 1919 for the guidance of the Medical Staff was purposely not gazetted. Now both these orders should be published in the next issue of the State Gazette.”
“It has come to the notice of the Huzoor that even in our Educational Bodies the touchables and the untouchables are treated differently and are not allowed to approach the school precincts within the compound of the Educational Institutions. The State quarters of the Educational Bodies are not given to them as if their private property and so they have no right whatever to treat the so-called untouchable human beings so defiantly, but they are expected to give them every consideration. Institutions like educational bodies are meant for poor people and even the poorest untouchable human being has right to be treated on a footing of equality. They pay the taxes. Why should they be illtreated? The Huzoor earnestly hopes that the Educational Private and State Bodies who receive grant-in-aid or other help like buildings, play-grounds etc. should treat untouchables with great respect and kindness than touchables because touchables can make their way in education anyhow, while untouchables are hopelessly helpless.”
“Most certainly everyone from the Principal to the lowest Master will be taken back if the untouchables are not given equal treatment.”
This would indicate that social justice to the lower classes can never be possible without any strong measure of the government. shahu’s earnest desire was that his educational bodies receiving help should follow the good example set by the American Mission Schools in Bangalore etc. where no distinction was made between touchables and untouchables. His order was that any untouchable student learning in any State aided or helped educational institution should be treated respectfully like a gentleman and taken into school rooms. If any man on the State Education Staff has any objection to his doing so he must send this resignation within six weeks from the receipt of the order. The guilty will not be entitled to pension. If the helped or aided Educational Bodies have any objections of course, the Durbar will have to stop the grant-in-aid or help which they are receiving. Play-grounds, houses, and other movable and immovable property which have been given to them by the State will be heavily taxed. If any private Educational Body goes against the wish of the donor, it will be taxed upto 7 on movable or immovable property of the donation of scholarship, will be kept according to the wish of the donor or his heir. Any School Master, however overworked, may be expected to help the untouchable students when they come to the school.
Social legislations have many enemies in India even today. Maharaja knowing it well introduced rigour in the measures against untouchability. His order issued on 18th January, 1919 to medical staff in the State Hospital to put an end to the discriminative was:
“It has come to the notice His Highness that even in our charitable hospitals, the touchables and untouchables are treated differently and are not allowed to approach the Residential State quarters within the compound. These quarters are not given to them as their sanitaries and so they have no right whatever to treat an untouchable human being so differently, but they are expected to give him every due consideration. Charitable Institutions are meant for poor people and even the poorest untouchable human being has a right to be treated on a footing of equality. His highness earnestly hopes that his medical staff will follow the good example set by foreigners. Especially untouchable, when he goes to the Residential Quarter should be treated respectfully like a gentleman, taken into the house, examined carefully and then sent to the hospital for treatment and not turned him out like animal or beast. If any man on the medical staff has any objection to his doing so he must send in his resignation within six weeks from the receipt of this order. He will, of course, be expected to attend to the suffering of a poor patient first. this rule is applicable to the whole medical staff from the highest official down to the Hospital now in service or employed hereafter should be furnished with a copy of this order and also a copy of this should be hung up in the office of the Hospital for permanent guidance.”
In order to do away with the practice of untouchability, at least, in public places like public wells, river sides, temples etc., he passed an order on 6th September, 1919 to the effect that:
“Untouchability is not to be observed in places such as public buildings sanatoriums, rest house, Government boarding houses, public wells and river sides. Just as Dr. Vail and Dr Wanless of American Mission treat everyone equally in their public building and at public wells, we should also discard differences in the treatment of the untouchables. In the event of failure to do so the village officers (Patil and Talathi) will be held responsible.”
Shri Shahu took another revolutionary step in abolishing the forced labour by law. He issued the following order on 3rd May, 1920 in this respect.
Expect the royal family members and for office work no other should extract forced labour (Veth Veral) from Mahar, Mang etc. for their personal purposes. Even the higher officials such as State Diwan, State Regent or Administrators, are not allowed to make use of forced labour from these backward peoples for any purpose other than official work. If any Patil unduly took the service of Veth Veral from any Mahar against this order, his Watan would be attached. If anybody forced any Mango to the work of twisting a rope or any Nada free of any wage, he would be ‘Subject to severe punishment’.”
His another order was:
“Those Mahars who have converted their Inam lands into Rayatwa, they should be exempted from the service of Veth Veral. The people such as Taral, chasti are not to be subjected to forced labour. If anyone engaged these people to Veth Veral by any means of force, he would be terminated from the Government service without pension and if the person is Watandar his Watan would be attached. this intimation should be forwarded to every Gaon kamagar for further action.”
We must note that the act of abolition of forced labour on all-India level had to wait up to 1975, the years in which the Government of India did it away by law. The orders of Shahu were not merely glittering generalities of a showy nature. they were the result of an urge of a genuine friend of the suffering humanity in India. the orders were strictly enforced during his life time. His Highness declared that the payment of balute to all Watandars including the Joshis was unnecessary and that if any service was required form them, the State would remunerate them in cash. The Mahars, however, were excluded from this order of 22nd February, 1918 presumable, because he hoped to protect these helpless creatures. By his order of June 25, 1918 he declared that the Ryots had no right to impose their services on Mahars and that the rent free lands that Mahars held may be treated as Rayatawa of assessed lands: On March 3, 1919 a further step was taken by promulgating a fine up to Rs. 100 or imprisonment up to four days as a punishment upon those attempting to outcaste people who employed men other than the now-defunct Balutdars. the final step was taken on 28th March, 1919 by an order declaring that the Ryots need not pay the mahars any Balute as the latter were thence forth free from liability to compulsory service. this was his act of abolition of Mahar Watan. We must note that the Mahars of post Shahu age agitated constantly for the abolition of their Watan, which had been the cause of their age old slavery, under Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. They succeeded in their attempt in the year 1960 when the Maharashtra legislative Assemble, under pressure from the Mahars, adopted the bill of abolishing Mahar Watan.
The system of daily roll call or hajeri of all men who were called the criminal classes, was also put an end to on 31st August, 1918, making exception in the case of convicted persons, who could free themselves from the daily roll call only by proving five years of good conduct, after the expiry of their term of imprisonment. By the way of his order dated 1st July, 1920, Maharaja appointed sixteen Mahars from Kesabe Karveer in the Police Gates in the Karveer city. The sixteen persons thus appointed were to serve the Kolhapur Durbar and also the Huzoor himself, Aaisaheb Maharaja (Laxmibai) and Yuvaraj. In time of necessity they were also to serve at the temple of Goddess Mahalaxmi of Karveer. The work was to carry Government message and despatches (Tapal). Except this, they were not bound to any service or obligations. The fact notable was that the State Officials from Diwan to village Patil had no right to put them to any low menial labour. If any need arose for such low work as removal of dead animals or debris or dung, the officials and the persons of higher castes should employ on payment any person who might be a Hindu, Musalman, Brahmin, Mahar, Maratha, Jain Lingayat for such work. This experiment was his considered attempt to free the lower castes from their traditionally low professions for which the upper castes had a nausea. His was a right step in the right direction as one of the reasons of the low position of the lower castes was their traditionally inherited professions such as enumerated above. his following expression shows how his love and sympathy for the low castes exceeded a;; boundaries of human limitations in India:
“Right from the days of the birth of villages and cities Mahars have been serving upper castes and Governments honestly and faithfully. But so far, nobody has tried to show them the way of progress. They have been confined to thralldom and low position by assigning filthy menial and dirty work to them. they have been suffering all this very loyally and faithfully. We must know that after all they are human beings. this being the fact, it becomes our sacred duty to treat them as human beings and educate them, to relieve them from serfdom in his period where man is making advances towards progress.”
[An excerpt from the book ‘Chhatrapati Shahu’s Crusade Against Untouchability’ by B. D. Khane; published by Critial Quest]
Transcribed by Surekha Bedide.