Interview: Prakash Ambedkar

‘The OBCs will support us’

Print edition : February 02, 2018

Prakash Ambedkar. Photo: S. RAMESH KURUP

Interview with Prakash Ambedkar.

Prakash Ambedkar, president of the Bharip Bahujan Mahasangh and grandson of B.R. Ambedkar, did something out of his usual quiet political character when he called for a bandh on January 3. The bandh call, given because of the violence in Bhima Koregaon, was dramatically successful. It brought life in Mumbai and many parts of urban Maharashtra to a standstill in a manner that has so far been achieved only by the Shiv Sena. The bandh did many things. It reminded politicians and the public that Dalits are a force to be reckoned with. It also reunited Dalits. And perhaps, most crucially, it has brought Prakash Ambedkar back on to the political scene. He has anchored the Dalit community at least temporarily and reasserted himself as a leader.

Speaking of the proliferation of small organisations that feed off the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, Ambedkar says they are tentacles of the politically ambitious RSS and are out to spread their agenda at any cost. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

It was unusual for you to give a call for a bandh. In the past there have been aggravations, but they have been tackled differently—not by a bandh. Did you consider the bandh a success?

With reference to why the bandh was called in the first place, the January 1 function was to pay respects to the soldiers who fought against the Peshwas. It is true the Mahars consisted of a major portion of the army, but there were other community persons too in the army that fought against the Peshwas. The Peshwas were the ultimate form of Manu raj. The atrocity and the oppression under them united the untouchables and a section of the “touchables”. We got in touch with both the sections of society, and they agreed to be part of the function.

Then for no rhyme or reason, they were attacked on the way from Sirur and Chakan. No action was taken by the police or the administration. No medical help was provided. After people returned to their villages and homes, they were asked by relatives, friends and community people why they had been beaten up. When they had no reply, these people vented their anger on the street and on anything they found. Given the gravity of the violence, the Chief Minister called me. We discussed the situation on phone and decided I needed to call all those involved with organising the day’s celebrations and then take a decision. After consultation, I realised that the only way to control the anger was to allow the victims to vent their anger. The only way to achieve this was to channel it in one direction. Therefore, the respective organisations gave a call for a bandh. I am aware that in the past when there were other grave issues like the Riddles issue, I handled it very differently, but this situation demanded a bandh call. [Riddles is a reference to the 1987 project by the Maharashtra government to publish all the writings of B.R. Ambedkar, including an unpublished work called Riddles in Hinduism. In an appendix, Ambedkar criticises the conduct of the heroes in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Groups like the Shiv Sena called for a ban, saying it hurt the religious sentiments of Hindus. The Sena enforced a violent bandh on Bombay that lasted two days.] If it had not been so, I cannot even imagine what would have happened [because the anger of the people was so great.] I lay the blame squarely on the police. It needs to be checked whether a large section of the police force had directly or indirectly helped and conspired in thrashing the participants.

I do not look at the bandh from the political angle. I look at it from the fact that had the bandh not been called, the violence of January 2 would have continued and what the consequences would have been is better to imagine than to experience. Considering that the violence during the bandh on January 3 was negligible compared with that on January 2, it proves that the bandh achieved its objective, and hence I consider it a success.

The public perception of violence and bandhs is associated with goons and, especially, with the Shiv Sena, not with Dalits. From this point of view was the bandh a step back for Dalits, especially considering Ambedkar’s beliefs in constitutional means of protest?

No doubt the Ambedkarite has never resorted to calling for a bandh, but the situation demanded a bandh and hence a bandh call was given. It is not a backward step. The time and the situation demanded action. The right to expression is not defined by the government, so a bandh is also a legitimate way to express oneself.

Does this mark the beginning of a new phase for Dalits in Maharashtra? Is aggression being seen as a means to an end? Do you think this form of protest will be more widely adopted when it comes to resolving Dalit-related issues?

It must be understood that along with the Scheduled Castes, the smaller OBCs also participated in the celebrations at the Bhima Koregaon stambh. The OBC participation was in large numbers because they were asserting themselves, and they also wanted to demonstrate that they belonged to a martial race. The government has not addressed the Dalit concerns of arresting the accused. Nor is there a full condemnation of the attack; there is a strong chance that Dalits and OBCs will not support the ruling parties in the coming elections. As far as Ambedkarites are concerned, they have always been assertive and they will always remain assertive. The OBCs also support other parties [referring to the BJP and Shiv Sena], but this time because of what happened at Bhima Koregaon there is pressure from the masses and the OBCs will support us.

So, would seeing the episode just as a conflict between Dalits and Marathas be simplistic?

Yes. It actually exposes how Hindutva organisations are using others for their own plans and gains. Even the Sambhaji Brigade [a Maratha group] supported the bandh call.

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