“If you can’t be the master of your landlord, it is alright, Stop being their slaves.” ~ Eknath Awad
The world has seen numerous social movements on a range of issues. The culture of resistance is part of the everyday life of most of the oppressed communities in the world, as is the case in India, where Dalits, poor peasants, Adivasis have been resisting the state for a long time. Many of these struggles and their leaders made important contributions in bringing about systemic changes. Some of these become a part of history, while some remain alive in folklore. In the long list of such names, there comes one leader, Advocate Eknath Awad, who passed away recently, leaving behind an inspiring legacy. He was born in a family which belongs to the lowest of untouchables. Though he fought to free the untouchables throughout his life, he remained an untouchable for the English media, which didn’t even offer him a decent obituary.
Loknayak Adv. Eknathji Awhad addressing people
Advocate Eknathji Awad also known as Jija (a fond reference to Awad which means “the respected”). Awad took Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s message to the villages in rural Marathwada. Marathwada is a drought prone area where the groups of caste Hindu Marathas, Kunbis and Vanjaris participated in attacks on dalits under the leadership of the dominant caste landlords.1 His organization and campaign, Manavi Hakka Abhiyan (Human Rights Campaign) and Rural Development Centre (RDC) were founded in 1985 by Awad, who himself was a victim of caste discrimination, with the desire to eradicate the caste system. RDC was based on the philosophy of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Social Justice, strongly inspired by the Phule-Shahu Ambedkarite Movement.
During my recent visit to Marathwada’s Beed district and the villages around, the first thing that caught my attention was how the Dalits from these villages occupied the grazing land despite the domination of dominant caste landlords. In the course of the meeting, I asked several people, how they had come to occupy the grazing land, right under the nose of dominant caste Hindus? To my astonishment, each of them replied, “It is only because of the speeches delivered by Jija in Marathi”.” Often in his speeches, Awad would say, “Shambhar varsha sheli houn jagnya pekshya, ek diwas wagh houn jaga” (Instead of leading a life like goats for years, let us live like a lion, even if it is possible for just a day), a metaphor even Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar frequently used in his speeches to inspire untouchables, back then.
Eknath Awad’s Childhood and Education
Awad was born in a Mang household in 19562, in a village called Dukdegaon, Dharur taluka, Beed district. There is no documentation of his date of birth. His teacher entered his birth date as 19th Jan 1956. Eknath Awad’s mother’s name was Bhagirathi Bai and father’s name was Dagdu (meaning stone). They spent their life in abject poverty and misery, with even square meals beyond their reach. Awad and his elder sister Kalabai were married at a very young age. True to the then prevalent caste belief – which is mainly enforced on the community by the dominant caste Hindus- his father Dagdu worked as Potraj.3 Witnessing the life of beggary, humiliation and poverty, Awad began to rebel at a very young age. Traditionally, Potraj grew their hair so his father too had dreadlocks. Awad, starting with his father, attacked this caste practice by chopping the dreadlocks of more than a hundred Mang Potrajs, who were traditionally forced to beg. This act did not go well with the community as they believed it was in these dreadlocks that Mariaai resides. His own caste people thus ostracized his family.
Awad’s father encouraged Awad to go to school. He remembered that his father told him to give up the work of performing rituals as a Potraj, but the life of penury was such that he didn’t have any other option at that time. Several Marathi books written on Awad’s life quote his sister Kalabai saying, “I will sell the last utensils in the house, but you should not give up on education, at any cost”. Similarly, his father too had announced, “I will beg, but Eknath will go to school”. Awad was married at the age of eight to Gayabai who was then just five years old. After marriage, Awad’s workload reduced as a child. Eknath’s father Dagdu was the sole earning member of the family, he had also taken a loan from the local moneylender for Eknath’s marriage. Every day his father used to go to perform rituals and to collect alms from nearby villages.
Awad’s school was a cattle shed, where he had to sit away in isolation. Sometimes when there was a delay in releasing the cattle, the class used to take place in the adjacent Hanuman temple.4 In the temple, Awad had to sit on the ground away from the other students. The schoolteacher used to climb down once a day to attend to Awad. After a period of time, Eknath joined another school which was 6 kms away from his village. Eknath used to walk every day to attend school on an empty stomach. His schoolmates used to carry lunch boxes that they shared among themselves in the long recess, while Eknath used to simply keep quiet, sit alone and watch. Only after returning home in the evening, Eknath would get a piece of Bhakar (bread) collected by his father as alms. Eknath moved to another school and took admission in the 8th Standard, which was again 10 kms away from the village. After seeking admission he also got hostel accommodation and regular food by paying Rs. 30/- per year. Since he did not have money to pay for his school and hostel, the young Awad did additional work for the school hostel, like cutting firewood, grinding and pounding grains. Even here, in the class or while serving food, the Dalit students used to sit separately; even water used to be served to them from a distance.
In spite of all the sufferings and everyday humiliation, Awad passed his matriculation in 1974 and wanted to seriously concentrate on studying further. But there were no colleges in the village, nor did they have any money. He enrolled his name in a college which was located in a nearby town. Apprehensive of the life her son would lead in a city, Bhagirathi Bai remained anxious. Her anxiety got the better of her and she began getting sick. During this period, Awad’s first baby girl was born. Because of his aged father, sick mother and newly born daughter, he had more responsibilities on his shoulder. Awad’s education and his family’s sustenance happened majorly because of the meagre Government of India scholarship money that he was receiving. He would send half the amount to his family for their household expenses etc., and the balance he would use for his daily needs. His mother was getting increasingly ill. Her last few months were spent in the government hospital at Beed. The family, in its acute poverty, could not provide for good health care and she eventually succumbed to her illness. The family had to carry the dead body in a state transport bus as they could not afford an ambulance. After the last rites were performed on the third day, Awad appeared for his final examination and cleared his BA.
Awad and His Activism
At a very young age, Awad was exposed to Ambedkarite, Phule and Marxist literature. He was highly influenced by Ambedkar and Phule. That was also the time when Marathwada was burning because of the Namantar (renaming) struggle.5 The movement had unleashed violence against Dalits (largely against Mahars and Mangs) across Marathwada. The violence had its worst affect on more than 1,200 villages and on 25,000 people in Marathwada’s Aurangabad, Nanded, Parbhani, and Beed district. The violence took many forms – right from killing of dalits, molestation, rape of Dalit women, burning of their houses, pillaging Dalit-wadas rendering them homeless, shutting the dalits out of the village, poisoning and polluting their wells and drinking water, killing their cattle, refusal to give them work. Because of the terror, many had to flee into the forests or to cities like Pune and Mumbai and neighbouring states, and begin their life from scratch.
Namantar movement created many activists like Eknath Awad, who at that time was pursuing his studies in Beed. He finished his Bachelor of Arts (BA) and went to Ambajogai to pursue his Masters of Arts (M.A). By that time, Awad had already joined the Dalit Panthers. The anti-agitation against the Namantar was at its peak in Marathwada. His college was shut down by caste Hindu goons. Awad motivated other fellow Dalit students and activists and forced the college administration to keep the college open. This instilled fear in the minds of the caste Hindus who were forcefully shutting down colleges. The conditions in the villages were getting worse every day, injustice and outrage in the villages was rampant, the labour and wages swindled by the moneylenders was simply being watched by the villagers without any questioning. Some Dalits were resisting but without any support. Awad also joined those who were resisting. He was at the forefront of many of the agitations. Vengeful dominant caste moneylenders who were against the agitations started threatening to kill Awad. Along with another socialist activist Baba Adhav, Awad travelled a great deal and joined the ‘ek gaon ek panawatha’ (‘one village, one water source’) movement. On his visits to villages, he observed that the atrocities against the Mahars and Mangs were at its peak. Awad travelled across the State and attended to the affected. He gave them moral and emotional strength.
After the completion of his Masters in Social Work, Awad joined Vivek Pandit’s Shramjeevi Sanghatana in Vasai taluka of Thane district and began working on the issue of bonded labour. Most bonded labourers there were Adivasis, belonging largely to Katkaris, Kolis, Aagree, Vaiti, Aagree Patil and Warli tribes. He organized these Adivasis to fight against issues like land grabbing by their masters, their harvested crops and profit cornered by the corporations in the name of Adivasis. With a forceful agitation, about 500 bonded laborers were released from the clutches of their masters.
Later Awad joined Church’s Auxiliary for Social Action (CASA), and began working in his own hometown. He realized that even within his community, a large number of people lived as bonded labourers. Slavery was widely prevalent even though there existed a law against it. Many people from the Mang and some from the Mahar community still worked as slaves in the fields of upper castes, for meager amounts, a practice that continued over generations. His work started from a small village, Mazalgaon, in Beed, by addressing the issues of bonded laborers. After his grassroots work in the villages, Awad managed to free thousands of families in the Beed district from the hideous nature of bonded slavery. But very soon he realized that bonded labour is also related to other adversities like displacement and landlessness; most of these issues had reciprocal connections to each other. Landlessness coupled with lawlessness pushed these communities outside their villages towards towns. Most of them migrated to other villages and worked in the sugarcane fields or moved to cities where, for survival, they took up odd jobs at construction sites. These migrations had a serious impact on their lives, especially on the education of their children.
Formation of Rural Development Centre (RDC) and Manavi Hakka Abhiyan (Human Rights Campaign)
When Awad realized the problem of bonded labour and its interconnectedness with other problems and that most Dalits were living in stark poverty for whom the issues of human rights was not of utmost concern, he felt that tackling just the issues of human rights was not adequate. Those issues needed to be complemented with income generational programmes through other development projects. So, he established Rural Development Centre (RDC) in 1985 with the vision of ensuring basic rights of dalits enshrined in our Constitution. The development projects had limited reach, for larger outreach among Dalits, it needed further collaboration with the Government. Awad thought that any sort of lobbying with the officials would be only effective if it was supported by people’s opinion and support of mass mobilization through large movement.
On 10th December 1990, the movement Manvi Hakka Abhiyan, also known as Campaign for Human Rights Campaign (CHR), was born. It was inspired by the struggles of Dr. Ambedkar, Jyotirao Phule, Annabhau Sathe, Shahu Maharaj, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. CHR was a joint effort of several NGOs of Maharashtra, who were against the evil practice of caste based bonded labour. The beginning of the organisation also has historical significance as the day is celebrated as ‘International Human Rights Day’. On Dec 17th, 1990, in the presence of retired judge of Supreme Court, Hon. Mr. P. N. Bhagwati, activists of HRC took oath to finish untouchability and fight for social justice.
When CHR started working, they observed that many dalits were caught up in caste and economic bondage; they were not allowed to do anything other than the caste-assigned work, i.e. no right to leave the work or choose any other work, no right to be paid the remuneration. Everything was assigned by the master, just that here the slave was dalit and the master an upper caste feudal landlord. There was lack of education among dalits, they were living lives of penury and utmost misery. Whenever they took any loan from any upper caste lender, dalits would end up being trapped in economic bondage forever. In every dalit family there was one individual who was a ‘bonded labourer’. Awad came back to fight, with full force, against the age-old system which he had individually disowned during his childhood. Due to CHR’s intervention, the dalits slowly started asserting, started questioning the age-old system. But the upper caste people were not ready to give up their hegemony: the more you assert the more atrocities they inflicted on you. In this struggle, many times activists and villagers got beaten up and even had to go to prison on the charge of disturbing the peace of the village.
CHR began by working on eliminating caste based bonded labour and social discrimination. Then, they further broadened the vision and worked to ensure how barren land could be legalized and the titles be transferred in the name of Dalits. Then, they worked towards gender justice and extended it to reducing violence against women. Though CHR comprised of different organisations, yet it served more as a campaign than a typical NGO. Whenever the activists came across any incident of injustice they immediately plunged into action. Once the issue was highlighted and its reach was expanded, then the local administration was forced to act. Because of Awad’s way of working, he made many enemies. Awad was attacked twice by upper caste goons, but he was saved both times. The campaign which initially started working in Beed district was spreading all over Marathwada, they eventually had strong presence in more than eight districts and a thousand villages along with various towns and cities of Maharashtra.
Awad consolidated his community to work on freeing and occupying the grazing land for dalits. Every village where Awad worked had chilling tales to tell. It is similar to the Brazilian landless workers movement known as Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra (MST).7 More than 24607 dalit families have submitted grazing land ownership claims from 1100 villages. Awad managed to free 70,000 hectares of grazing land which earlier was either barren or usurped by the dominant castes in the village. Though, there is no reference that Awad had any connection with the Brazilian movement, but it is interesting to see the parallel between these two huge movements which have influenced many lives. In India, however, it goes unnoticed.
RDC along with CHR worked simultaneously with the community and had major interventions. It started the community-based micro-finance institutions to strengthen the self-help groups of marginalized dalit women, working on the issue of gender justice and sensitization on the issues of domestic violence; legal support to the dalit victims of atrocities. In the field of child rights, through Samaj Shala (Community school), they worked on access to quality education, by ownership and participation of community, to the underprivileged, deprived children and to create a safe and conducive environment for their development, specifically for girl children.
Marathwada is a water-parched dry region with people, mostly dalits, facing acute shortage of water. The problem is so grave that people from outside Marathwada refuse to have their daughters married to any man there. RDC took up the issue of water harvesting in villages and helped many Dalits. They constructed public wells, undertook projects of water conservation, along with overall village development. Plenty of water is available now in these villages, the hills are lush green after canals were made in the pasture land. Awad would spend time meeting villagers and raise awareness against the age-old superstitions. Traditional festivals like the offering of buffalos and many other such practices were discontinued because of his radical intervention. He would sit for hours to resolve the domestic issues of villages and he was able to resolve many domestic violence cases in a matter of minutes. The rest of his work focused mainly on conscientizing Mangs and Mahars. Many of his fellow activists also converted to Buddhism.
Love for Gayabai
Awad is loved not only by his community but also by activists across castes and religions. His wife Gayabai too, also known as Jiji, supported and stood by Jija throughout his journey. Then an uneducated woman, she was elected as a Sabhapati (district council head) of the district. Married at a very young age, Jiji got busy in her domestic life after the birth of three children. One day when she visited the hospital to undergo tubectomy, the doctor asked her to sign the papers. Awad intervened and said she knows how to sign but is shy. This was a lie. Jiji did not know how to read and write. The fact that Awad had to lie for his wife moved her. “On returning home, I took it on myself to learn to sign my name and then slowly learned alphabets. Eventually I learnt to read and write. Later I could teach my children. They were not aware that I was an illiterate woman,” Gayabai recalls. Gayabai was a Zilha Parishad (district council) member for nearly two and half years. She was also elected as a Samaj Kalyan Sabhapati. “I worked independently unlike other women who get elected as a proxy representation to their husband,” recalls an emotional Gayabai.
Jija’s sudden death has shattered many in the movement. Young minds who were influenced by his work say their hopes are crushed with their leader gone. To offer their condolences on the day of Awad’s cremation many activists converted to Buddhism. They have much hope from Jija’s son Milind Awad, who is known as Nana among the villagers. Nana is a professor at India’s most prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). He says “the movement will go on, like it had been so far, leaders are made because of circumstances and strong zeal and vision, we can’t expect Jija to come back, but we can surely take his vision ahead”. The organisation has a vision and people and activists are committed to change the system of caste and establish Ambedkarite and Buddhist ideals which Awad had worked for throughout his life. Awad was the only person in Maharashtra, who with the help of civil society organisations, ran a strong human rights campaign and successfully tried to establish democratic ideals enshrined in our Constitution. His contribution in the movement will be remembered for ages and he will always be an inspiration for the activists and the dalit movement.
People Gathered to Pay their last tribute to Loknayak Adv Eknathji Awhad at Majalgaon
. Marathas are numerically stronger in Marathwada. Vanjaris are another community which is numerically stronger in some villages of Beed where they claim similar stature to Marathas and Kunbis. According to Waghmore (2013) the valorization and repulsion of Marathas to Kunbis, Vanjaris and several others lower castes makes them one of the most dominant castes in Marathwada (Waghmore, 2013)
. British branded Mangs as a criminal community in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Assam and Kashmir. Mang caste has to perform ascribed duties as bonded labourers, weaving and providing rope, cords, brooms, disposal of cow dung, providing cow dung to wash floors, cleaning, informing the administration about deaths, cleaning bunds and washing clothes, sowing and protecting crops. These jobs were assigned to Mang caste as per the traditional caste system. Mangs are also known as Matang (this community was included in the Scheduled Caste list in 1961)
. With long dreadlocks, vermillion smeared on forehead with multi-colored cloth around his waist, and a whip in his hand, he would travel from one village to another, begging for grains. Sometimes a woman beating drums accompanies Potraj, while he dances and whips himself to show his full devotion to goddess Mariaai. In many villages Mariaai’s temple is located towards the outer borders where the untouchables live in their “Dalit Wada”. Under this superstitious belief system, Potraj were devotees of goddess Mariaai. It is believed that belief is that Mariaai, through Potraj, reaches out to her devotees and provides for solutions to their problems. Goddess Mariaai is also a tutelary deity for untouchable castes, as many from the Mahars and Mang caste worship Mariaai
. Hanuman is a monkey deity portrayed in Valmiki Ramayana, for being as courageous and powerful and for remaining faithful and doing selfless service to Rama.
. Please read Atyachar Virodhi Samiti. (1979). The Marathwada Riots: A Report. Economic & Political Weekly, XIV(19). Retrieved from:
. Dalit Panthers was a revolutionary organisation founded in 1970s by educated Dalit youths from the slums of Mumbai, largely Mahars (ex-untouchable caste). Dalit Panthers were against the social, economic and political oppression on dalits despite the legal abolition of untouchability. The name of the organisation was inspired by the Black Panthers movement in the United States. According to Murugkar (1991), the significant contribution of the movement was the revolutionary literature produced in the forms of poetry, short stories, plays which were critical of the Hindu social order and caste system. It was attacking Brahmin cultural dominance; this literature, later referred to as Dalit literature, acquired a respected place in Marathi literature which was earlier dominated by Brahmins.
. Please check the website for more information http://www.mstbrazil.org/content/history-mst
Awad, E. (n.d.). Reveille For Human Rights (A Story of Awareness Building & Social Action of Campaign For Human Rights). Rural Development Center
Gaikwad, B. S (2006). Vadalatil Nikhara (Marathi) (2nd ed.). Beed: Manvi Hakka Abhiyan.
Waghmore, S. (2013). Civility against Caste: Dalit Politics and Citizenship in Western India. New Delhi: SAGE Publications India Pvt Ltd
Nilesh Kumar is a PhD Research Scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences interested in documenting dalit histories and narratives.