Print edition : August 19, 2016

Prakash Ambedkar of the Bharatiya Republican Party Mahasangh, Sitaram Yechury of the CPI(M) and other leaders at the rally to protest against the demolition of Ambedkar Bhavan in Mumbai on July 19. Photo: Vivek Bendre

The demolition of Ambedkar Bhavan galvanises anti-BJP groups and Dalits to regroup politically.

ON July 19, a rally of an estimated 50,000 people brought a large part of south and central Mumbai to a standstill. Marching in relentless rain for about 5 km, they assembled at Azad Maidan. The morcha was remarkable for its sheer numbers and assorted participants. It was a boiling pot of all political factions of Dalits, the Left, Left-inspired groups, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen and, amazingly, the Shiv Sena. Among the notable leaders of the rally were Bharatiya Republican Party Mahasangh leader and Dr B.R. Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, Shiv Sena Member of Parliament Sanjay Raut, Sena legislator Neelam Gorhe and Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar. If the sheer numbers were not impressive enough, this unlikely combination of leaders was enough to draw attention to the rally.

On June 25, Ambedkar Bhavan in central Mumbai’s Dadar was demolished apparently because it was in a dilapidated condition. It was demolished in the early hours of the morning ostensibly because the area is a marketplace and gets crowded during the day. Both Prakash Ambedkar and his brother Anandraj say no notice had been given. Immediately after its demolition, a first information report (FIR) was filed by Prakash Ambedkar against former Indian Administrative Service officer and State Information Commissioner Ratnakar Gaikwad and Madhukar Kamble, trustee of the People’s Improvement Trust (PIT), an organisation founded by Dr Ambedkar and his family. Both, the Ambedkars and the PIT, had offices in the building.

With its historical value, the building was, in a sense, a nerve centre of Dalit politics. It was where Dr Ambedkar’s Buddhist Society of India was started. It housed the society’s records, handwritten manuscripts and the old Bharat Bhushan printing press dating back to 1947 where several of Dr Ambedkar’s books had been printed. Ambedkar Bhavan’s most recent association with the past was when the mother of the late Rohith Vemula (the Hyderabad University PhD scholar and Dalit student leader who committed suicide) converted to Buddhism under the guidance of Prakash Ambedkar.

While the Ambedkar brothers say they had no demolition notice from the municipality, there was a clear plan to rebuild a 17-storey building at the same site and continue the work of the original Ambedkar Bhavan. A ground-breaking ceremony had already been performed in April on the birth anniversary of Ambedkar under the auspices of Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis.

Though the July 19 rally was a protest against the demolition, there have been rumblings amidst Dalits for quite a while about the continuing anti-Dalit attitudes. When a Maratha girl was raped and murdered recently in Ahmednagar district, three Dalit boys were arrested for the crime. Congress MLA Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, who is from Ahmednagar and a Maratha himself, was up in arms calling for capital punishment for the accused. While there is no defence for the crime, the point here is that when the ghastly triple murder of a Dalit family occurred in Khairlanji in 2006, there was no immediate call for capital punishment for those criminals from any party.

Similarly, over the last few years there have been smaller and less public instances of honour killings across the State for Dalits marrying from other castes—a fact pervasive enough for a popular Marathi film to have been made on the issue. There was also the incident in Una village in Gujarat in July when self-appointed gau rakshaks stripped, tied and flogged Dalit tanners for skinning the carcasses of dead cows.

There is a feeling among Dalits of being marginalised despite their best efforts and the knowledge that though they are a politically charged community they are headless. Their most prominent leader, Ramdas Athavale, had been recently inducted into the Narendra Modi Cabinet, seemingly to win over Maharashtra’s Dalits before the 2017 municipal elections in the State as well as the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh. Dalits saw this co-opting of a Dalit leader for what it was. It did not change their opinion of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a party whose silvery speech regarding Dalits is quite opposed to its actions. Thus, the rally was one way of Dalits showing their scorn for the BJP’s simplistic gesture.

At the level of the State’s leadership, the morcha was a worrisome thing for Fadnavis. As Modi’s blue-eyed boy, he is obliged to keep his State not just in working order but definitely free of anti-BJP sentiments. The July 19 morcha did exactly the opposite. The coming together of political forces as diverse as the Left, the Sena and Dalits, though not a direct threat, would certainly have made Fadnavis sit up and take notice. To make matters worse for him, the monsoon session of the State legislature was in progress and the opposition was exploiting the morcha issue. He attempted some damage control by immediately announcing an inquiry into the demolition and offering to fund reconstruction.

If anything was achieved by the demolition of Ambedkar Bhavan, it was that it united anti-BJP forces—even if temporarily.

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