Sunday, July 24, 2016

Smruti Koppikar - Dalit anger against the government finds expression in the Ambedkar Bhavan and Una protests // Anand Teltumbde - The Battle Within: Protest over demolition of reveals a divided Dalit community

An estimated one lakh people assembled in central Mumbai, braving the unceasing rain, and marched nearly five kilometres to the famous Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus on Tuesday, turning the magnificent junction into a sea of protestors of the kind not seen before in new-age Mumbai witnessed. The numbers were remarkable enough to rattle the Bharatiya Janata Party-led governments in both Maharashtra and at the Centre

More impressive than the numbers was the coalition of political and social forces that the morcha, or protest march, brought together – Dalits cutting across political factions and loyalties, members of the Left and Left-inspired groups and workers and sympathisers of the Shiv Sena. The leaders of the morcha included Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Dalit leader BR Ambedkar and leader of the Bharatiya Republican Party Mahasangh, Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader and Rajya Sabha member Sitaram Yechury, Jawaharlal Nehru University student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, who rode pillion to reach the venue in time amidst cheers, and Sena spokesperson and Member of Parliament Sanjay Raut.
The unlikely assembly of leaders and the hundreds of thousands of people were out to send a message to the political establishment of the day: The razing of the historic Ambedkar Bhavan in Mumbai’s Dadar had incensed Ambedkarites, followers of the Dalit leader, who saw it as symbolic of the continuing assault on Ambedkar’s ideology by the BJP and allied forces.

Between the lines
The subtext of the morcha was clear too. Coming a few days after Dalit leader Ramdas Athavale had been inducted into the Modi cabinet, ostensibly to win over Dalits in Maharashtra, where municipal elections will be held next year, and Uttar Pradesh, which will be the stage of a hotly contested state election in early 2017. The protestors let Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis know that Dalits would not be fooled by such symbolic gestures, given how the establishment continued its attack on Ambedkar’s legacy.

Ambedkar Bhavan was a modest structure in Mumbai where Ambedkar had conducted his work while in the city, where he would write while not at his large table at home, and it housed a part of his book collection. Besides these, it had the Bharat Bhushan printing press, where he had bought and installed printing machines when established publishers had refused to publish his writings critical of Hinduism. The precinct also had meeting halls and the offices of Prakash Ambedkar’s party.

The 72-year-old Ambedkar Bhavan was owned and managed by the People’s Improvement Trust set up by Ambedkar. It was also the place that the late Dalit student leader Rohith Vemula’s mother and brother hadconverted to Buddhism in April under the guidance of Prakash Ambedkar. And through that, it had come to acquire certain urgency in the prevailing anti-Dalit climate.

During the night of June 25-26, a large group of young men wearing Ambedkar inscribed T-shirts, ostensibly authorised by the trust itself, had razed the Bhavan. In the process, they destroyed many of the original articles there, including the press. It transpired that the trust wanted to redevelop the plot with a 17-storey grand building, to be also called Ambedkar Bhavan. The local police and municipal corporation officials were reportedly unaware of the demolition until after it was over.

Why the demolition mattered
The demolition was clearly planned. The commercial exploitation of the site had trumped the historic significance of the Ambedkar Bhavan. The unwillingness of the state government to protect the legacy structure, especially that of chief minister Fadnavis who had moved fast to inaugurate the memorial to Ambedkar to be built at nearby Indu Mills, will come back to haunt it.

Ratnakar Gaikwad, former chief secretary of Maharashtra and advisor to the trust, defended the demolition. Gaikwad fancies himself as a Dalit leader but he had no authority in the trust that allowed him to order or advise the demolition, according to a Right to Information inquiry. He also happens to be Maharashtra’s information commissioner, a post he was given after retirement. Gaikwad’s stout defence added to the sense of injury that Dalits and Ambedkarites felt.

Prakash Ambedkar and brother Anandraj called for a fitting response to it even as the Fadnavis government dithered and made meaningless noises. The Shiv Sena got involved, its leader Neelam Gorhe made her way through the rubble and said she was pained that the government could not protect and preserve Ambedkar Bhavan though it was spending crores to erect the memorial to him. The Sena, Fadnavis’s ally in government, has taken delight in embarrassing him and the BJP in the last few months.

The anti-Dalit narrative
As the anger against the demolition of the Ambedkar Bhavan gathered force, Ramdas Athavale was sworn into Modi’s cabinet during an expansion earlier this month. It fanned the flames. Here was a Dalit leader who should have been condemning the BJP governments in the state and Centre, or better still, should have prevented the demolition. Instead, he was supping with the government.

Around this time, the incident in Una, Gujarat, occurred where a group of self-styled so-called gau rakshaks, or self-styled cow protection vigilantes, publicly flogged four Dalit leather tanners for skinning the carcasses of dead cows on July 11. Dalit activists in Gujarat said such cow vigilantism had become common. The incident has led to an unprecedented Dalit uprising in the state.
In Maharashtra, there were recorded cases of honour killings and caste atrocities in the last couple of years. A small-budget film made on the issue, Sairat, in which the young Dalit man and his Maratha caste lady love were killed by her family, had turned out to be a roaring success.

In the months post the death of Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad who had killed himself on January 17 to protest alleged discrimination by university officials against Dalit students, the news media regularly told stories of caste atrocities and assaults on Dalits across the country. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had muddied the waters calling for a review of reservations and then backtracking.

The dominant narrative, therefore, was that in the era of BJP majority governments, with or without their sanction, anti-Dalit and Hindu fundamentalist groups were training their guns on Dalits. And the gains – however limited and debatable – of the last few decades were being threatened. It did not take much effort for Prakash and brother Anandraj Ambedkar to mobilise one of the largest morchas in Mumbai in the last five years. “I was articulating what we [Ambedkarites] were all feeling,” Prakash Ambedkar said. He has asked volunteers to do shram-daan, or voluntary labour, to rebuild the Ambedkar Bhavan later this month.

The unlikely assembly
The strength and tone of the morcha, and the coalition of leaders it brought together, made such an impact that Fadnavis announced the very next day in the state legislature that there would be an inquiry into the demolition and that his government would fund the reconstruction if the Ambedkar family agreed to accept the government’s gesture. Fadnavis also told the state legislature that an inquiry had been initiated into Gaikwad’s role.

Fadnavis was bothered about the signals that the morcha sent out not only in Maharashtra but nationally, especially in Uttar Pradesh, at a time that the BJP leadership wants to impress Dalits for their electoral worth. The young first-time chief minister has been Modi’s and Shah’s poster-boy chief minister. He could not afford to rile the Central leadership, especially at a time when the party was orchestrating to send the correct positive signals. The aftermath of Vemula’s suicide lingered, the Una incident was an embarrassment to the party, and this mammoth morcha had the ability to take down Fadnavis’s stock with the BJP leadership.

The massive morcha led to political alignments that neither Fadnavis nor his leaders could have expected. It united the anti-BJP forces – and included its ally, the Shiv Sena on its side for what it was worth. What other issues such as the untrammelled price rise and the series of corruption charges against Fadnavis’ council of ministers had not managed to achieve, the razing of Ambedkar Bhavan had: it had brought the opposition parties together and allowed them to challenge the BJP government in one voice.

At the morcha, when Kanhaiya Kumar worked the crowd against the government with his speech and the famous “azaadi” chant, the anti-establishment symbolism of his persona as the young man who challenged the Prime Minister, effortlessly carried over. The Ambedkar Bhavan was “emerging as an anti-BJP space” and the government could not tolerate it, he pointed out.All this sent out unflattering signals about Fadnavis’ own political assessment in Maharashtra…iead more:

Anand Teltumbde - The Battle Within: Protest over demolition of reveals a divided Dalit community
The massive turnout on July 19 to protest the demolition of the iconic Ambedkar Bhavan, associated with Babasaheb Ambedkar, in Dadar, Mumbai has finally shown the prowess of the Dalit masses to the upper class of the Dalits that overtly or covertly supported the demolition and also to the ruling dispensation that has fraudulently sheltered them. Braving the monsoon downpour, people filled the space between Byculla and Mumbai CST, choking that part of the city for over six hours demanding the arrest of Ratnakar Gaikwad, retired chief secretary of Maharashtra and current chief information commissioner.

According to reports, in the wee hours of June 25, hundreds of people masquerading as Ambedkarites came with two backhoes and demolished the Ambedkar Bhavan and Ambedkar’s press in Dadar on behalf of the Peoples’ Improvement Trust. It was a daredevilish act, inconceivable, unless it was backed by the state. The structures were directly connected with Babasaheb, who had bought the land on which they stood in the 1940s. While Ambedkar Bhavan, an inverted U-shaped single-storey structure, was constructed in the 1990s by the trust he had founded, the Buddha Bhushan Printing Press was owned by him and stood there as the tenant of the trust. He had paid a rent of Rs 50 per month for the land it occupied, which was continued by his son until it was stopped sometime in the 1970s through a legal process. The press was of historical importance, having served not only as the press wherefrom Janata and Prabuddha Bharat, two of Ambedkar’s important papers, were printed and published, but also as a centre of the Ambedkarite movement from the 1940s. It continued so even after Ambedkar’s death.

While the masses of Dalits have protested against this demolition all over the country, the classes, comprising well-off Dalits, among them senior bureaucrats, politicians, businessmen and so on, and their counterparts in the Dalit diaspora, overtly or covertly supported Gaikwad for his grandiose plan to construct a 17-storey Ambedkar Bhavan with provisions for a five-storeyed car park, a vipassana centre and various offices there.

The existing Ambedkar Bhavan was a hub of Dalit and progressive activists and masses. The classes were repelled by its spartan look and aspired to rebuild the area with club-like spaces, where they could park their cars and network with other “civilised” people. Ambedkar for them is just an abstract identity marker, which, bedecked with all superlatives, lent them pride. They would not like to remember any other Ambedkar, particularly the one who publicly declared that the educated people had cheated him, or who, at the fag end of his life, wept over the realisation that whatever he had done benefitted only a small section of educated Dalits in cities and that he could not do anything for the rural Dalits.

This class divide had surfaced immediately after the death of Ambedkar and manifested in the Republican Party of India, which split in the aftermath of the constitutionalism versus mass struggle debate. The former was described as the Ambedkarite method while the latter was considered the communist path. The clash between B.C. Kamble and B.D. Gaikwad, as practitioners of these methods, respectively, reflected this incipient class division. This division went on expanding with the accrual of gains through reservations to an increasingly small section of beneficiaries over the years. As the thin layer of better-off urban Dalits at the time of the beginning of the Dalit movement expanded in the later years, the divide between the haves and have-nots among the Dalits widened. 

This class of haves, still insecure in the larger society, used its caste identity as protective cover. It not only distanced itself from the Dalit masses, but wantonly acted against their interests so as to be acceptable to its larger class. Still the masses largely followed them as their role models. Being visible and vocal, their interests became the political focal point to the detriment of ordinary Dalits. This class, however, has been oblivious of the woes of the masses. It would never speak about increasing atrocities on Dalits, never relate with their increasing deprivation and never empathise with their struggles. They would promote individualistic vipasana but not the radical social activism of Buddhism that Ambedkar envisaged. It exhibits an Ambedkar emptied of radical content.

The protest march of July 19, hopefully, seeds this class consciousness among the Dalit masses.

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