Bhikaji Gaikwad, martyr of the Mahad Satyagraha

It has taken me years of reading to understand the organisational genius of Dr. Ambedkar, during his career. Initially, owing to my shallow grasp over the context in which he operated, I was confused by the slow but sure evolution of the political and social platforms that he set up. The Bahishkrit Hitakarani Sabha (1924), for example, counted B.G. Kher amongst its members, a man who would go on to be the Premiere of Bombay Presidency, against whose government Ambedkar’s Independent Labour Party would call a massive strike in 1938. As I continued studying the movement, I realised and came to respect the fact that this evolution was testament to Dr. Ambedkar’s sharp understanding of the political moment in which he found himself, as well as his assessment of the strength and capacity of the fledgling Dalit movement.

Having said that, there remains a persistent gap in information when it comes information about his colleagues — the many impressive Dalit leaders who supported Dr. Ambedkar and helped transform his vision into political action on the ground. Most of the literature in relation to them exists in Marathi, requiring some patience and a lot of dictionary. It was with some joy, then, that I laid my hands on a copy of Gail Omvedt’s ‘Building the Ambedkar Revolution’ (2011), where she puts together an important narrative about the leading organisers of the Dalit struggles in Bombay Presidency that Ambedkar relied on during his career.

Of these many inspiring men (references to women are quite infrequent), one that was most poignant was the story of Bhikaji Sambhaji Gaikwad. Son of the stalwart Dalit leaders Sambhaji Tukaram Gaikwad (also referred to as the first Dadasaheb), Bhikaji was a bold organiser in his own right. A leader of the ‘Kokan Mahar Samaj Sewa Sangh’ (1926), he was involved in gathering support for the Mahad satyagraha. Operating out of an office in the Fort area of Mumbai, the Mahar Sewa Sangh conducted ‘lectures, bhajan sessions and long discussions’.

Bhikaji Sambhaji Gaikwad [source, G. Omvedt, ‘Building the Ambedkar Revolution’ (2011)]

As is well known, the Mahad satyagraha (March, 1927), organised to assert the right of Dalits to access public wells, was a turning point in the long march of the oppressed in India. While the satyagraha action itself was conducted without incident, the activists were attacked by a Hindu mob on their way back from the Chavdar Tank, as well as after their return to their respective villages. In this violence, Bhikaji suffered grievous injuries to his head. Undaunted, he continued to conduct organisational work under the auspices of the Mahar Sewa Sangh, of which he had become the president.

Separately, a committee was formed in Bombay Presidency under O.C.B. Starte, on November 5, 1928, to investigate the social and economic conditions of the Dalit communities in the province. This committee counted amongst its members, Dr. Ambedkar, and Dr. Purushottam Solanki, also a representative of the untouchables. To assist the Starte Committee, Bhikaji Gaikwad toured Kokan, visiting Ratnagiri, Chiplun, Kolaba, Thane and Mumbai. In doing so, he recorded the situation of Dalits in schools, colleges, hostels, other public institutions and public spaces. As Omvedt records, this excessive labour in his already precarious condition caused his injuries to worsen, and Bhikaji passed away on January 5, 1929. Omvedt goes on to record Dr. Ambedkar’s words of grief, at his cremation — ‘Dadasaheb, don’t believe that Bhikaji has gone. Belive that Bhimrao has gone and Bhikaji in my form stands before you!’.

[source, G. Omvedt, ‘Building the Ambedkar Revolution’ (2011)]

Source — All the information in this note is from Omvedt’s ‘Building the Ambedkar Revolution’. I’d request anyone with more information on Bhikaji to reach out, and share the same.