AFTER a day of protests, road and rail rokos, and sporadic violence, the massive shutdown across Maharashtra called by Ambedkarite groups and parties was finally called off around 4.30 pm.
But Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar’s grandson, Prakash Ambedkar, who was leading the agitation, made a bold political statement minutes before calling it off. “It wasn’t a protest of the Dalit groups alone. The bandh’s success shows that people from all oppressed sections participated in the stir. I would say 50 per cent of Maharashtra took part in the bandh,” said Ambedkar.
Just as he maintained that the protest was spontaneous, senior political observers said that bringing all oppressed sections falling in the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes and the Other Backward Castes under one umbrella formed the larger political subtext behind the agitation.
The gamble comes at a time when the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been trying to appropriate the legacy of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar by pushing the long-pending project of building his grand memorial on the defunct Indu mill land in central Mumbai. As part of its social engineering in Maharashtra, the BJP has been trying to consolidate itself among the dominant Maratha vote bank and the Dalit vote bank, which was traditionally loyal to the Congress but had swung decisively in the BJP’s favour in the 2014 assembly polls.
While the Maratha community accounts for nearly 30 per cent of Maharashtra’s voter base, the Dalits constitute another 10 per cent.
In what is being perceived as a shrewd attempt by Ambedkar for uniting Ambedkarites from various castes, he has singularly blamed right-wing hardline leaders, Sambhaji Bhide and Milind Ekbote (who is also a former BJP corporator), for the violence at Bhima Koregaon on January 1, which had triggered the agitation. “The Ambedkarite movement has its origins in anti-right wing politics,” explained a senior leader, who was a part of the protesting group.
Sensing an opportunity to corner the BJP on the issue, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which is looking to rebuild in Maharashtra, lent active support to Wednesday’s bandh. “There is a need to mobilise all sections against the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. What you saw on Wednesday was a people’s struggle, the next step is to do the same mobilisation on a political platform,” said CPI(M) leader Dr Ashok Dhawale. “We will now lead a statewide campaign over the issue,” he said.
The Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party, on the other hand, see this as an opportunity to corner the BJP. Leaders from both the parties projected the agitation as a “handiwork of divisive communal forces” while blaming the Devendra Fadnavis government for failing to prevent the violence.
“The government has to be alert and apprehend mischievous elements. What was it doing? Someone (in the government) must own accountability for the lapse,” said former chief minister Prithviraj Chavan. “The BJP design of caste polarisation with the help of its sleeper cells (read fringe groups) has been exposed,” said Sachin Sawant, Congress spokesman.
Isolated politically, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis blamed “outside elements” for triggering the unrest. Senior BJP and RSS leaders tried to put the blame for the violence on Gujarat MLA and Dalit activist Jignesh Mevani and Jawaharlal Nehru University scholar Umar Khalid, but even party insiders conceded that the messaging had not evoked the desired response. BJP’s ally Shiv Sena was also seen distancing itself from the BJP over the issue.
Ambedkar, meanwhile, also used the bandh politics to project himself as a pan-Maharashtra leader. While he has been a prominent Republican leader, Ambedkar’s clout so far has been limited to the Vidarbha region. While he had also tried to grab the spotlight following the row over the demolition of Dadar’s Ambedkar Bhavan, the chief minister had come up on top that time.
It could also mean trouble for Union Minister Ramdas Athavale, the most popular Republican leader in Maharashtra, who had aligned himself with the BJP in the run up to the 2014 polls. Anticipating Ambedkar’s rise, Athavale has been pitting the violence as a Dalit versus Maratha fight.