Most of the hundreds of people gathered around Parliament Street in New Delhi to celebrate B R Ambedkar’s ignored Madan Lal Valmiki’s speech. Valmiki, a karyakarta of the Samajik Samrasta Manch (SSM), was exhorting his sparse audience to realise that “Babasaheb sabke hai” (Babasaheb belongs to everyone) and that the RSS, contrary to the false propaganda spread about it, had worked for decades for Dalit interests.
His speech was interrupted by four men, insisting angrily that Ambedkar “sabka nahi, apna hai” (he does not belong to all, but to us). This anxiety and conflict over Ambedkar’s legacy loomed in the background of an otherwise festive occasion.
Like every year, the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment facilitated the celebration, where a variety of groups — from the SC/ST unions of government departments and PSUs to Ambedkarite political organisations — put up stalls to distribute and sell literature and refreshments. The atmosphere outside Parliament is more like a fair than a political gathering.
For Pushpa Devi, a domestic worker who has come from Noida, the annual event is on her religious calendar. “There are stalls, food and we get to show our respect for Babasaheb and Lord Buddha. It’s also a reason to dress up and celebrate, like going for a Ram Leela or Shivratri pandals.”
Ramesh Kumar, 21, a student at a private engineering college in Moradabad, sees Ambedkar Jayanti as one of the few times he can be proudly, and openly, Dalit. To him and his friends, even the Sangh parivar and PM Narendra Modi’s reverence for Ambedkar has more to do with political expediency than genuine admiration. “Why do they speak of Ambedkar only now? It is only to win elections.”
Vinod Diwakar, co-convenor, Samajik Samrasta Manch disagrees. “Our organisation has been working for social equality since 1975. We organise events for Ravidas Jayanti and Valmiki Diwas and work for social equality year round.” The SSM, however, has only been coming to this event since last year.
The idea of RSS and RSS-backed organisations having a history of Ambedkarite sympathies, however, had far from universal appeal. P C Matru of the All India Backward (SC, ST, OBC) And Minority Communities Employees’ Federation (BAMCEF) feels that “the right wing has no national-level leaders from the Dalit community. Their Dalit faces — Ram Vilas Paswan, Jitan Ram Manjhi and Udit Raj — are either allies or imported into the party.” And Ambedkar, according to Kamlesh Kumar of the Bharat Mukti Morcha, is being shorn of his political ideology so that he can “be made appealing to their vote base while adding the Dalit vote”.
It is this same idea that was expressed by those who interrupted the SMM speech. “They say ‘Babasaheb sabke hai’, but they will disrespect the Constitution and its values. Although this is an open forum, these organisations have only started coming here recently. Why now? And they have the stall closest to Parliament and a generator, while those waiting to pay tribute Babasaheb don’t even have water. They want to take away our only icon, while they go against his principles,” said a central government employee.
Pushpa Devi, however, is not too bothered by the politics. After finishing her lunch she placed flowers on portraits of Ambedkar, Buddha and Bharat Mata at the SMM stall. “Is this a political organisation? No one told me.”