An extract from the chapter “Mumbai, Me and Dr Ambedkar” from the memoir Water in a Broken Pot by Yogesh Maitreya.
Yogesh Maitreya is a writer, poet, translator and publisher. He is the founder and editor of Panther’s Paw Publication that is dedicated to publishing literature by Dalit-Bahujan writers (in English and as translations from other Indian languages). He is the author of Flowers on the Grave of Caste (2019), a collection of short stories , Singing/Thinking Anti Caste (2021), a book of essays on music and memories, and Ambedkar 2021 (2021), a book of prose poetry.
Water in a Broken Pot, his soon-to-be published memoir, is described by Urvashi Butalia as “Unflinching, unsparing, and yet oddly tender. Maitreya’s deep hurt, soaring anger and luminous love unsettle and force the reader to look themselves in the face.”
In June 2014, when I shifted the subject of my dissertation from ‘A brothel of Nagpur’ to ‘The Ramabai Nagar Massacre of 1997’, I decided to visit Ramabai Nagar, a prominently Dalit–Bahujan locality, located in Ghatkopar East, and asked Jasmine to come along with her camera.
We encountered a huge statue of Dr Ambedkar as we entered Ramabai Nagar. This place was filled with people of many religions and castes. Its streets were busy with hawkers, shops and shoppers. I also saw hoardings of various political parties and groups, even though it was predominantly a Dalit–Bahujan locality. Here, many persons from the same caste were affiliated with various ideologies and political parties and groups. Ramabai Nagar was a fusion of life and philosophy, struggle and survival. This place, as dense with people as it could be, contained a curious charm when it came to transcending the boundaries of caste, religion and language. Hunger, survival and resistance were some of the elements that made the fabric of this locality strong. Ramabai Nagar was a world within Mumbai that was not even present in the dominant literary or cinematic imagination. This world becomes apparent to you only when you connect with the people who made this world possible. I learnt about all this gradually as my conversations with Jayawant Hire (whom I called Jayawant Dada) and Kishor Kardak from Ramabai Nagar developed over the years.
That day, on my first visit, I sought the number of Jayawant Dada from an acquaintance who had been in journalism for a while and knew about this massacre. Jayawant Dada was a thin man, with slightly sunken cheeks and a voice with authority, in which he explained to me not only the history of this massacre but the political history of Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena and many aspects of Ambedkarite politics. He had been a voracious reader from a very young age. He penned a short story collection called Manus (Man) in 1989 and started a periodical called Krantikari Janata (Revolutionary People) in the early 1990s, which was published in Marathi and Urdu simultaneously—the only bilingual periodical of that time. He seemed to have a panoramic view of Ambedkarite politics, politics in Maharashtra and of literature. He was also a man with some incredible tales of oral history that had never reached the pages of books and had therefore remained unknown. Through his words, Mumbai revealed its true face, which had been invisible to me until then. To me, it seemed that he carried the political and cultural history of Dalits and Mumbai at his fingertips. He was a reader of those stories that I was listening to for the first time. These were stories of people I felt I knew, and they too seemed to know me. After meeting Jayawant Dada, I began to see Mumbai through its people.
‘You must meet Kishor Kardak also, he will also tell you many things about the massacre,’ Jayawant Dada told me. Kishor Kardak too was a resident of Ramabai Nagar. As Jayawant Dada, Jasmine and I headed up to meet him through streets dense with people and life, Jasmine continued to capture pictures. Kishor Kardak was an interesting person. His physique was slim, his moustache thick and his voice thicker. Today he is affiliated with a few groups that work at the grassroots level for people. But he had journeyed across many ideologies when he was young. He took us to meet people who were direct victims of the massacre. I talked to them and Jasmine clicked photos. I listened to their stories of horror and how violence and police brutality had devastated their lives after the massacre. There was a silent rage in their eyes that was impossible for me to understand at that moment. I was strangely detached and unmoved. But their stories, their experiences, their frustrations while waiting for justice and never receiving it and their resistance of seventeen years were entering my mind from the back door, into my subconscious. Kishor helped us understand the politics and nuances behind it. I listened to everything he said, silent as though I were a tree which was being axed but could not speak or cry. The story of the Ramabai Nagar massacre was gradually taking root in my mind.
On 11 July 1997, people from Ramabai Nagar woke up to witness the desecration of Dr Ambedkar’s bust. It had been garlanded with shoes and chappals. Dr Ambedkar’s bust and statue has been a source of liberation for Dalits and Buddhists across the world. Dalits as a community had been erased, caricatured or vulgarized in the national literary or cinematic imagination. Dr Ambedkar’s statue as a symbol plays an instrumental role in rejecting all these Brahminical practices, because it affirms and projects the aspirations of Dalits for intellectual life and the quest for democracy. If this very source of aspiration is desecrated, then it is a direct humiliation of those who witness the liberation that Dr Ambedkar’s statue as imagery and symbolism brought in their lives.
In 1997, when the people of Ramabai Nagar witnessed this humiliation, it enraged them. Not that they were not aware of the hate upper castes had reserved for them, but the desecration of Dr Ambedkar’s statue meant an attack on the collective consciousness of the community and on all those who strive for democratic society amidst the brutality and sickness of caste. Seeing this desecration, people gathered around the statue and then went to the police station but returned hopeless. As they mobilized on the highway in front of Ramabai Nagar to protest, police vans came within a few minutes. Before people could even sense what was happening, the police opened fire. Shocked by the noise of bullets, people started running back to their homes. Police chased them inside the locality. Eleven people died in the police firing, including a small boy, whose skull was cracked open by a bullet. Twenty-six people were injured. In 2014, even after seventeen years, neither the then police sub-inspector Manohar Kadam, who had ordered the firing, was punished, nor was the person(s) who had desecrated Dr Ambedkar’s bust caught.
Several times, I asked Jayawant Dada and Kishor about this, the stories that were entangled within this massacre, the politics behind it and about justice. And each time I was redirected to the reality: If you are a Dalit and demand justice, you’ll most likely receive a bullet or further humiliation. Yet, people like Jayawant Dada or Kishor, whose lives revolved around Dr Ambedkar and his vision, tirelessly work, write or speak against injustice everyday. Consider the level of tolerance and persistence a Dalit requires in order to live, survive, resist and aspire for democratic life in such a society. Could people who have internalized victimhood possibly do this? Does this not require sheer courage to seek light amidst the complete darkness around you? But academic institutions in India either ignore such stories of resilience or slyly hide them from public view.
“ ... the desecration of Dr Ambedkar’s statue meant an attack on the collective consciousness of the community and on all those who strive for democratic society amidst the brutality and sickness of caste. ”
Many times, when I went back to the hostel after meeting Jayawant Dada and Kishor, I couldn’t help thinking: School has failed me. College had alienated me from my history. And the elite institution in which I was studying had made a victim out of me and always thrust me into a darkness of being. They did not dare to see the light inside me, the light which could be a source of hope for others. A Dalit is rarely recognized as a mind in Brahminical institutions, be it school, college, university or in social space. And that is why his anger is relevant. This anger is rarely, if ever, perceived in a positive light in universities. All they seek in our lives are problems and suffering. All they talk about is the ‘failure’ of the anti-caste movement. Not that there have been no failures. But since they have never been a part of our lives, they are utterly blind to anything about us, whether failure or success. Their caste is the blindfold on their eyes. But whatever the reasons they claim about the failure of our movement, I see failures in not being able to produce stories (not of one kind but of many kinds) of each of our generations. One generation is alienated from another in the absence of stories. And in an absence of stories between generations, there grows confusion, political and historical. Black writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her TED talk, once famously said: ‘The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’ This is what I strongly felt whenever I encountered Savarna narratives about Dalit lives.
Listening to the stories of the Ramabai Nagar massacre for the first time from its victims, Jayawant Dada and Kishor, I thought I was listening to them as an outsider. After all, I went there with the purpose of researching that violent episode. But I was wrong. I did not know that pain, whether it is yours or others’, when listened to with a purpose of understanding it, becomes a part of you that unravels the enigma of life. Sometimes, it goes into the bloodstream. Sometimes, it becomes a dream we had never anticipated, and it haunts us. And sometimes, it helps you know who you are. That night Jasmine and I went to Colaba, and we drank. Then we went to her flat. I was feeling empty inside. I drank, but my emotions were forming around what I had heard from the victims of the Ramabai Nagar massacre—their silent eyes, their disappointed yet firm faces, their incredible level of patience and the utopian belief in justice that some of them held.
Where was I in everything, as someone who was as vulnerable as them in different times and at different places? Was I ethically eligible to research their stories without fully knowing and asserting who I was?
Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India. Water in a Broken Pot by Yogesh Maitreya will be available on April 17, 2023.