Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis told the legislature on Wednesday that the Ambedkar Bhavan that also housed a press owned by Dr B R Ambedkar, will be restored by month end. The announcement came a day after Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar and his Bharatiya Republican Party Bahujan Mahasangh, carried out a rally and brought south Mumbai to a standstill. Over 20,000 protesters jammed arterial roads.
Hours after parts of the building were demolished in the wee hours of June 25, Prakash and his brother Anandraj Ambedkar led protests. Two separate police complaints were filed against members of the People’s Improvement Trust (PIT) behind the plan to build a 17-storey tower at the site. The Shiv Sena also threw its weight behind the protesters.
Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of Babasaheb and president of the Bharatiya Republican Party, said the issue is not only about history and heritage but also of freedom of speech. “Babasaheb wanted this space to be open for activists and we are maintaining that. The trust wants to destroy it, which we will never allow,” Prakash told The Indian Express. The Trust was started by Ambedkar.
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The Trust’s records show that on March 19, 1938, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar set up a “building fund” to develop a public hall for the community. On July 29, 1944, he named this initiative the Bombay Scheduled Caste Improvement Trust (changed to PIT in 2004) and started collecting funds. Babasaheb, in an appeal for funds in 1944, stated that he planned to build a “social centre” at an estimated cost of Rs 3.25 lakh.
According to records with the PIT, Babasaheb collected Rs 45,095. A 2332 sq yard plot was purchased at Gokuldas Pasta Road, Naigaon in Dadar (E), in 1944 for Rs 36,535. Ambedkar set up a temporary office on the plot, which later became the centre of most of his activities.
A printing press he operated had been burnt down during riots between 1935 and 1937. In 1944, having set up the office on Gokuldas Pasta Road, he shifted his press here and began to pay a monthly rent of Rs 50 to the Trust for using the premises.
From here, he brought out magazines such as Prabuddha Bharat, Janata and a few editions of Bahishkrit Bharat. Prabuddha Bharat was printed regularly till 1960 and then intermittently till as recently as 1995.
Retired IAS officer and current State Information Commissioner Ratnakar Gaikwad, a former trustee and now advisor to PIT, told The Indian Express that they wanted to fulfill Babasaheb’s dream of constructing a global centre for Dalit activities.
The PIT’s plan for a 17-storey building has an auditorium, a multi-purpose hall, skill development center, women’s empowerment centre, Dhamma and monks’ training centre, conference halls, etc. Family members of Ambedkar and several Ambedkarite groups termed the demolition a “deliberate attack” on the Ambedkarite movement and a ploy to commercially exploit the land.
Anandraj Ambedkar, Babasaheb’s grandson who lodged one of the FIRs against the Trust, said the printing machinery used by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar was damaged in the demolition. “That should have been preserved…,” he said. Anandraj’s FIR with Bhoiwada police is against eight persons, including Gaikwad.
PIT says Ambedkar grandsons have no locus standi in the matter.
According to Gaikwad, the Ambedkar family has no role to play in the PIT. “Babasaheb, in one of his letters to his son, Yashwant, wrote that press is public property. He did not want any family member on the trust. So, he paid Rs 50 as rent to the Trust for using the premises. These people have been using the area as marriage hall and for meetings, as well as for political offices. This was contrary to the vision of Babasaheb,” Gaikwad claimed.
Prakash rubbished the allegations saying Gaikwad and others have been trying to capture the PIT since 2000 by removing the original trustees. In fact, the trustees were changed between May 2015 and May 2016. According to Prakash, “Though the change report (on the trustees’ names) was submitted to the Charity Commissioner, the original trustees filed a case against it. The case is pending before the charity commissioner who is yet to give his decision. We have no problem with the original trustees.”
Gaikwad, a trustee for two months, said the charity commissioner had not rejected the change report. “This means we can legally hold the office of the Trustees and carry out our duties,” he said.
Prakash continued that the civic body’s granting of permissions to the building plan was also illegal. “The names of original trustees are on the property cards. How can BMC give permission to them? It is a big racket being run by the civic body and all involved should be given harsh punishment,” Prakash said.
In October last, the BMC sought a structural audit for the building. In April 2016, it sought a fresh structural audit report and issued a notice to “vacate and pull down” the structure on June 1. This move by the BMC will also be investigated following the chief minister’s assurance on Wednesday.
The Shiv Sena, sensing popular discontent with the government’s inaction despite days of protest by Ambedkarites, reached out to Dalit leaders. MLC Neelam Gorhe also visited the site.
Ramdas Athawale: Union Minster of State said since the building has been demolished, attempts should be made to come out with an amicable solution.
“The Ambedkar family should also be compensated by allotting adequate spaces. We are not concerned about who the trustees are. Ambedkar Bhavan should be constructed. I will ask Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to call both groups for a meeting to resolve the issue,” said Athawale.