SITTING on a cot under a tin shade, Narendra Surya Kumar, 28, and a friend are watching intently a YouTube video playing on his mobile, in Sukhdevpur village of Mathura district. A second-year law student, Kumar exclaims, “Of late, our village has captured the attention of many! See what this video says, ‘Dalits in this village are challenging the government’.” The video, uploaded by an online news channel, features two villagers speaking about why they feel the need to guard Bhimrao Ambedkar’s statue in the area and criticising the recent state government order directing that ‘Ramji’ be used as Ambedkar’s middle name in official papers.
There is another reason Narendra and his friend have placed themselves here, on the stretch leading up to Vrindavan. Reports have come from across Uttar Pradesh of Ambedkar’s statues being vandalised. The government is on high alert, especially after Dalit anger erupted during the April 2 Bharat Bandh, and ahead of Ambedkar Jayanti on April 14. In Sukhdevpur, as in other villages of Mathura, the Dalits have taken it upon themselves to guard the Babasaheb statues.
“The village is situated along a highway. Kabhi bhi koi bhi aadmi aa sakta hai, kuchch pata nahin kabhi koi intentionally todne ke liye aa raha ho (Anybody can come any time, you never know if someone is coming with an intention to vandalise the statue),” says Dharm Singh, in his 50s, sitting outside his grocery shop next to the highway.
Sukhdevpur village has around 250 families belonging to the Jatav and Valmiki communities. It falls under the Baldev (reserved) Assembly constituency, represented by four-time MLA Pooran Prakash, who left the Rashtriya Lok Dal in 2016 to join the BJP. The Ambedkar statue, 4 feet in height, is placed on a concrete platform, in a quadrangle 20 metres away from the highway. Narendra, who is training under a lawyer at the Mathura court while pursuing his studies, says there used to be an older Ambedkar statue nearby. “When that got old and damaged, it had to be replaced. This one was installed more than 30 years ago.”
The villagers pooled together money to put up the new statue. “The sculptor was a local, and it cost us only Rs 600,” says Kamal Singh, 62, another advocate from the area. He hasn’t given much thought to why Ambedkar is not dressed in his usual blue suit in the statue, he admits. “The design and colour were chosen by the sculptor to recreate Babasaheb’s figure as he thought best.”
A retired government employee, Dharm Singh says it isn’t the first time they are afraid of something happening to the statue. “Rumours had gone around about a possible threat three-four years ago too. Youths would hold patrols at night… It’s not that someone is threatening us now, it is just to be cautious.”
Rinku says they have been keeping a vigil since April 1. “We roam around the area of the statue at daytime, sometimes even at night,” he says. “Mahaul bigadta ja raha hai moortiyan todne se (There is tension due to the destruction of the statues). There are two-three areas in the vicinity with a mixed population. Other castes, including Jats and Thakurs, live there…,” adds Narendra. A BA graduate, Rinku says he is looking for any job he can find. Rahul, a Class 9 student, says he works as a tailor part-time to support his family. Almost all of them do such odd jobs or work in the fields to make ends meet, says Narendra.
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There are four colleges within a 6-km radius of Sukhdevpur, and with the highway nearby, travelling is easy. According to Bhanu Pratap, an advocate in his 30s, more than half of the village youth are graduates. But finding jobs is another matter. “The source of income for most households is agriculture and daily wage work,” he says. Asked about taking official help for the statue, Narendra says police are “not doing enough”, and so the Dalits have to be on their toes.
Sheila Devi, in her 50s, notes that just that morning though, police had come to take a photo of the statue. S P Singh, SHO, Jamunapar police station, under whose jurisdiction Sukhdevpur village falls, says, “This was part of our job… We are taking every step to avoid any incident.”
Mathura (Rural) SP Aditya Kumar Shukla stresses that this is not part of any special instructions. “Police are alert and taking all security measures ahead of Ambedkar’s birth anniversary, like every year. No untoward incident has been reported here in the past. It (Ambedkar’s birth anniversary) passes off peacefully every year in Mathura.”
Bhoop Singh, 66, who arrives at Dharm’s shop, is agitated about the saffron-colour Ambedkar statue installed in Badaun to replace a recently vandalised one. After a controversy, it was painted blue. “See what they are doing!” Bhoop Singh exclaims.
Chandrapal (64) adds, “They are doing things to divide society, when it needs to be integrated. What is the point of raising issues like reservation, the SC/ST Act, when social equality has not been achieved yet?” Dharm replies, “Whoever is attacking statues would know the motive better. We only see politics in this, to make castes fight each other.”
Banwari Das, 63, in saffron robes, describes the targeting of statues as “vidhwans (destruction)”. “It is such a wrong thing. Ye jo Baba raj kar rahe hain, unko samajhna chaahiye (The sadhu who is in power, he should understand this),” Das says, as the others nod. Satyaprakash, who is in his 50s and a labourer, has just returned from the funeral of a cousin, who died after prolonged illness. “There are only two government hospitals in Mathura. Had there been enough facilities, she would have been cured. But public attention is being diverted from these real issues (by such acts as destruction of statues),” he says.
Lokesh Kumar Rahi, the president of the ‘Akhil Bhartiya Samta Foundation’, an Ambedkarite organisation that says it works towards raising awareness and social harmony, says they too have been guarding statues and have given a list of 121 structures in the district to the administration for security.
Unlike Sukhdevpur villagers, he is hopeful though that the state government and police will act. “It is so strange that Babasaheb staunchly opposed hero worship and his own people are turning into icon worshippers. He asked us to educate, organise and agitate, but look at what the community members are doing. It should not be about protecting statues alone…,” he says.