Monday, February 25, 2008

In person

A Tonga Ride and Dignity
Dr. B.R. Ambedkar

The year was 1929. The Bombay Government had appointed a Committee to investigate the grievances of the untouchables. I was appointed a member of the community. The Committee had to tour all over the province to investigate into the allegations of injustice, oppression and tyranny. The Committee split up. I and another member were assigned the two districts of Khandesh. My colleague and myself, after finishing our work, parted company. He went to see some Hindu saint. I left by train to go to Bombay. At Chalisgaon, I got down to go to a village on the Dhulia line to investigate a case of social boycott which had been declared by the caste Hindus against the untouchables of that village. The untouchables of Chalisgaon came to the station and requested me to stay for the night with them. My original plan was to go straight to Bombay after investigating the case of social boycott. But as they were keen, I agreed to stay overnight. I boarded the train for Dhulia to go to the village, went there and informed myself of the situation prevailing in the village, and returned by the next train to Chalisgaon.

I found the untouchables of Chalisgaon waiting for me at the station. I was garlanded. The Maharwada, the quarters of the untouchables, is about two miles from the railway station and one has to cross a river on where there is a culvert to reach it. There were many horse carriages at the station plying for hire. The Maharwada was also within walking distance from the station. I expected immediately to be taken to the Maharwada. But there was no movement in that direction and I could not understand why I was kept waiting. After an hour or so a tonga was brought close to the platform and I got in. The driver and I were the only two occupants of the tonga. Others went on foot by a short-cut. The tonga had not gone 200 paces when there would have been a collision with a motor car. I was surprised that the driver who was paid for hire every day should have been so inexperienced. The accident was averted only because, on the loud shout of the policeman, the driver of the car pulled it back.

We somehow came to the culvert on the river. On it there were no walls as there was on a bridge. There was only a row of stones fixed at a distance of five or ten feet. It was paved with stones. The culvert on the river was at right angles to the road we were coming by. A sharp turn has to be taken to come to the culvert from the road. Near the very first side-stone of the culvert, the horse, instead of going straight, took a turn and bolted. The wheel of the tonga struck against the side-stone so forcibly that I was bodily lifted up and thrown down on the stone pavement of the culvert, and the horse and the carriage fell down from the culvert into the river. So heavy was the fall that I lay down senseless. The Maharwada was just on the other bank of the river. The men who had come to greet me at the station had reached there ahead of me. I was lifted and taken to the Maharwada amidst theories and lamentations of the men, women and children. As a result of this, I received several injuries. My leg was fractured and I was disabled for several days. I could not understand how all this happened. The tongas pass and repass the culvert every day and never has a driver failed to take the tonga safely over the culvert.

On enquiry, I was told the real facts. The delay at the railway station was due to the fact that the tongawalas were not prepared to drive the tonga with a passenger who was an untouchable. It was beneath their dignity. The Mahars could not tolerate that I should walk to their quarters. It was not in keeping with their sense of my dignity. A compromise was therefore arrived at. That compromise was to this effect: the owner of the tonga would give the tonga on hire but not drive. The Mahars may take the tonga but find someone to drive it. The Mahars thought this to be a happy solution. But they evidently forgot that the safety of the passenger was more important than the maintenance of his dignity. If they had thought of this, they would have considered whether they could get a driver who could safely conduct me to my destination. As a matter of fact, none of them could drive because it was not their trade. They therefore asked someone from amongst themselves to drive. The man took the reins in his hands and started thinking there was nothing to it. But as he got on, he felt his responsibility and became so nervous that he gave up all attempt to control. To save my dignity, the Mahars of Chalisgaon had put my very life in jeopardy. It is then I learnt that a Hindu tongawala, no better than a menial, has a dignity by which he can look upon himself as a person who is superior to all untouchables even though he may be a Barrister-at-law.

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