It’s 6.30 pm. On a stretch of the Eastern Express Highway in Ghatkopar, women from the nearby Ramabai Colony are sitting on the road forming a human blockade. A few feet away, where the Ghatkopar Jijabai flyover ends, traffic is backed up. Cars are parked as far as one can see and most owners, drivers sit on the side of the road. They have been there since noon, when the Dalit protest at Ramabai Colony started.
The blockade extends from New Ramabai Colony to the old colony gate a kilometre away. This is a neighbourhood that has seen violence against Dalits — in 1974, in clashes with the Shiv Sena and in 1997, when 10 Dalits were killed in police firing while they were protesting against the desecration of a statue of B R Ambedkar.
Thousands line the street this evening. Young Dalit men — and children — patrol the area to ensure no outsider clicks pictures or shoots videos. Police patrols along the stretch keep a watch. Although the protest is peaceful and they are letting pedestrians pass, the anger is palpable.
“The violence against us Dalits is on the rise. We cannot continue to let this happen,” says a young man.
The men insist on being called Ambedkarites and refuse to divulge their names. “Dalit men, women and children were mercilessly beaten up, cars torched at Bhima Koregaon yesterday. What was their fault? They were mere pilgrims at the annual celebration,” says another.
Many among the protesters say that today’s agitation is also a protest against what they call mainstream apathy towards recent incidents of violence against Dalits across India. Yesterday’s incident, they say, is a tipping point. Part of their anger is also at sections of the media “for their silence on the Bhima Koregaon violence”.
A young man with his head bandaged and injuries on his elbows and arms is pushed to the front. “He is one of the victims from yesterday’s violence. There are women too.” A request for an interview or his identity is declined.
“We want people to know that this isn’t about one individual or those who were injured alone but about atrocities against Dalits and Ambedkarites,” says one of the protesters.
Many claim the agitation isn’t politically driven but an organic one. “We don’t intend to end it unless there is an acknowledgement from the government about what happened at Bhima Koregaon was carried out by saffron groups,” says another.
While men are playing their part, raising slogans and flags, in this day-long protest and blockade, women, both young and old, are at the vanguard too.
A woman in her 20s, a nurse at a Ghatkopar clinic, took the day off from work to join other women in forming the human blockade. Her mother and other women from the neighbourhood, take turns to sit on the road while her little sister runs around with the blue flag, a symbol of the Ambedkarite movement.
Many other young girls, most of whom are college students, sit on the pavement nearby, discussing the protests. They talk of two women being killed although there are no such reports. They pull out their phones to show a video where a group of people are throwing stones and the police are looking the other way.
“This is from yesterday’s incident where the Dalits were beaten up by upper caste people in Bhima Koregaon,” one of the girls claims. “But we are sure that the media and the government will project it as violence initiated by our people. In the end, only we will be penalised.”
At around 8 pm, the blockade towards the Old Ramabai Colony gate is showing signs of letting up.
There is a buzz that one of the commuters stuck in traffic for the last eight hours is a woman with a six-month-old baby. The blockade is eased to let her pass through.
Slowly, traffic begins to move on both sides of the road. However, after a few vehicles pass through, they are stopped at the next blockade, a few metres ahead.
At this point, the mood begins to change. Stacks of hay are set on fire in the middle of the highway. Tiles and glass bottles are shattered on the road to ensure no vehicle ventures ahead. A threat of violence looms in the air and the police are on alert.