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Mangoo Ram was born on January 14, 1886 , in village Mugowal, Hoshiarpur district, where this father,Harman Dass, had left the traditional Chamar caste occupation of training and preparing hides and attempting to sell tanned hides commercially. Mangoo Ram’s mother, Atri, died when Mangoo Ram was three, so the father began to depend heavily on his sons – Mangoo and an older and a younger brother for assistance. Because the leather trade required some facility in English, Mangoo Ram’s father was forced to rely on literate members of upper castes to read sales orders and other instructions to him. In payment for their reading instructions for an hour, he would have to do a day of crude labour. For that reason, Mangoo Ram’s father was eager to have his son receive an early education.
When Mangoo Ram was seven, he was taught by a village Sadhu (Saint) and soon after attended a variety of schools in the Mugowal area (Tehsil Mahilpur of district Hoshiarpur). He also attended school in a village near Dehra Dun , where his older brother has settled. In most of the schools, Mangoo Ram was the only Scheduled Caste student. He sat at the back of the class, or even in a separate room, and listed through the open door. When he attended high school in Bajwara, he was forced to stay outside the building and listen to the classes through the windows. Once when he came inside during a heaving hailstorm, the Braham teacher beat him and put all the classroom furniture, which he had “polluted” by his presence, outside in the rain to be literally and ritually washed clean. Nonetheless, Mangoo Ram was a good student: he placed third in his class in primary school. But whereas the other good students were encouraged to become patwaris (village record-keeper) or to seek higher education, Mango Ram was encouraged to leave school and help his father at a more proper “Chamar task”. In 1905, he did quit school; he married, and for three years helped his father develop their leather trade into a thriving business.
In 1909 America as in the air. Scores of upper caste farmers from Mangoo Ram’s area of Hoshiarpur had gone to the United States , and those who had not gone were talking about it. Mangoo Ram decided to go also. He persuaded his father that it would be good for the business – he would send money back from America – and his father responded by giving him some savings from the family business. Amid assurances from some of the local Zamindars (“landowners”) and two Chamar friends set off for the new world.2
Today’s Dalit History month post is on the Adi-movements of the 1920’s. For Dalit history, ‘Adi’ ideologies are highly significant as they bear testament to our earliest assertion of equal rights, humanity and citizenship on level with other castes.
By the late 19th century, leaders like the social reformer Jyotirao Phule, had created a powerful anti-caste space, upholding non-Brahmanical thought and presenting the dream of a new egalitarian value system on which to model society on. Soon after, the early 20th century saw several archaeological discoveries being made in Mohenjodaro and Harappa in the North, pointing to the existence of an unexpectedly ancient civilization that was likely much older than Aryan migrations. These discoveries struck a profound chord with Dalits all over the subcontinent, who immediately began to identify as an indigenous population who were conquered and subsequently oppressed by an alien religion. Although, the evidence for Aryan conquests remains contested, these interpretation was so compelling that such “Adi” (Ancient/Old/Original) movements sprung up all over the nation completely independently of each other.
The names of these movements are telling – Ad-Dharm in Punjab, Adi-Hindu in U.P. and Hyderabad, Adi-Dravida, Adi-Andhra and Adi-Karnataka in South India – all indicating a common claim to nativity and original inhabitation.
The provocative effects of the Adi-movements are best illustrated by an early Maharashtrian pre-Ambedkar Dalit leader, Kisan Faguji Bansode, who warned his caste-Hindu friends in 1909, stating: “The Aryans – your ancestors – conquered us and gave us unbearable harassment. At that time we were your conquest, you treated us worse than slaves and subjected us to any torture you wanted. But now we are no longer your subjects, we have no service relationship with you, we are not your slaves or serfs… We have had enough of the harassment and torture of the Hindus.”