A rally to protest the demolition of Ambedkar Bhavan brought traffic in south and central Mumbai to a standstill on Tuesday morning.
Rajya Sabha MP and general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Sitaram Yechury, Mumbai Congress chief Sanjay Nirupam, AIMIM legislator from Byculla Waris Pathan, Shiv Sena legislator Neelam Gorhe, among a phalanx of leaders cutting across party lines demanded action against the demolition of the historical building in Dadar (East). Also present at the rally, which saw about 20,000 protesters, was Kanhaiya Kumar, president of JNU Students’ Union.
While the BJP’s leaders did not participate in the rally from Byculla to Vidhan Bhavan, where the state legislature is in session, the party’s legislators pressed Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis to announce an inquiry into how the building, home to a printing press started by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, was declared dangerous and fit for demolition.
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Incidentally, Fadnavis had conducted a bhoomi pujan for a 17-storey tower to replace the Ambedkar Bhavan on April 14, the birth anniversary of Dr B R Ambedkar. The demolition of the old Ambedkar Bhavan was carried out on June 25.
While Ambedkar’s grandsons Prakash and Anandraj, leaders of the Bharatiya Republican Party (BRP) Bahujan Mahasangh and the Republican Sena respectively, had immediately protested the demolition, an inquiry was ordered only on Tuesday, over three weeks later. Tuesday’s rally was organised mainly by Prakash Ambedkar and his BRP. The massive show of strength and the spontaneous participation of thousands of Dalits was seen as a significant revival for him.
According to the police, there were at least 20,000 protesters at the rally, though organisers said the number was closer to 50,000. Starting from near Byculla zoo around 12.30 pm, the rally marched to CST, where more joined the protest.
Prakash Ambedkar questioned the state’s delay in ordering an inquiry. “The government has woken up today after the rally. The language of the chief minister has changed after seeing the public on the road,” he said, adding that attempts were being made to destroy all opposition parties and their ideologies.
“Hitler came to power in Germany through democracy. Then, he finished the opposition and went on to become a dictator. There seems to be a similar situation in our country,” he said.
Prakash Ambedkar also promised that the Ambedkar Bhavan would be reconstructed through public participation, and urged people to gather at the Dadar site on July 30.
Yechury said he raised the issue in Rajya Sabha. “The Centre promised to give orders to the state about reconstruction of the building. The rally has brought Left and Dalit parties together. Nobody can defeat us,” he said.
Speaking first, Kanhaiya said history should be preserved. “Will the government demolish historical buildings such as CST, the BMC building or Taj Mahal to build multi-storeyed towers there?” asked Kanhaiya, who slammed the BJP and termed the 125th birth anniversary celebrations of Ambedkar as mere lip service by the union government.
“The attempt to demolish the Bhavan has been done so that people do not read Babasaheb’s thoughts. If they read, they will become Rohith Vemula, which won’t allow right wing thoughts to flourish. The Ambedkar Bhavan spread Babasaheb’s ideology across India,” Kanhaiya said, also starting his ‘Azaadi’ chant.
Neelam Gorhe, the only Sena leader present, said the Sena had understood popular emotion regarding the razing of the building. She said she would raise the issue in the Legislative Council and seek removal of Ratnakar Gaikwad, state information commissioner and retired IAS officer, who was on board the People’s Improvement Trust, which is seeking to redevelop the Bhavan into a 17-storey building. “I will raise the issue tomorrow in the Council through a calling attention motion,” Gorhe told The Indian Express.